Shred of Doubt by Jo-Ann L & Vickie Moseley

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Shred of Doubt

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Date: 1 Feb 2007 23:45:11 -0000

Subject: NEW: Shred of Doubt by Jo-Ann Lassiter and Vickie Moseley

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Title: Shred of Doubt

Authors: Jo-Ann Lassiter and Vickie Moseley

Summary: Post all things and Brand X. Scully gets called out to San Diego to help on a case and Mulder, though still recovering, tags along. Detective John Kresge wasn’t expecting the extra baggage.

Category: MSR (really, we promise), UST (yeah, that too), MT, SA and hopefully H

Rating: E for Everyone

Disclaimer: Our apologies to Shakespeare, we created a romantic comedy of errors. But we did not intend any copyright infringement to 1013 Productions or 20th Century Fox.

Archives: yes

Thanks to Chuck (Mandy64) for beta and advice! You’re the greatest. Watch out for those penguins on the beach!

Vickie’s Authors Notes: I want to thank Jo-Ann for agreeing to team up with me. We started out thinking this was going to be just a little ‘Mulder blind’ fic and it grew and grew and grew! But it was so much fun (until the editing and pasting part) and I would gladly do it again in a heartbeat!

Jo-Ann’s Author’s Notes: Hey, don’t believe all you’ve heard about how grueling it is to write with Vickie. We never got into fistfights or anything! Well, there was that one time… Erm, never mind. (kidding!) Actually, for someone who’s never teamed up on a story (me), this was a pretty good first experience. I might even go so far as to say, it was fun. Oh, all right, it was lots of fun! I, too, would do it again in a heartbeat, if I thought Vickie’s nerves could take it. <g> Blame the length of the story on Mulder’s propensity to hurt himself and look so darned cute (use your imagination) in the process! It wasn’t my fault. Mostly.

FEEDBACK (we’re both residents of the Old Fan Fic Veterans Home and sometimes they forget to feed us):

Jo-Ann Lassiter —

Vickie Moseley —

We will be posting one part a night for nine nights. The complete story will be available soon at Vickie’s website – vickiemoseley.mimicsmusings.com – for everyone who can’t wait a week and a half 🙂

Shred of Doubt (1/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

FBI Headquarters Washington, DC April 30, 2000 8:05 am

“Good to be back?” Scully leaned against the doorjamb, looking and sounding even more delectable to Mulder’s tired eyes than she had when she’d called to tell him goodnight the night before — and checked to make sure he’d taken all his meds.

“Beats the alternative,” he rasped. He hated how his voice sounded to his ears and could tell Scully didn’t much care for it either; by the grimaces she kept throwing his way. He sat back in the computer chair and tried to convey how much better he felt with just a look. It must have worked because she smiled at him.

“Well, you’ll be interested to know that Morley Tobacco has subpoenaed all of our files on the case. They seem extremely interested in your recovery.”

“What about Darryl Weaver?” Mulder croaked out.

“He’s well enough to be moved to the hospital ward at Raleigh Correctional.”

“It was the nicotine itself that was keeping him alive?” His voice wasn’t going to keep up its end of the conversation for very long. He really hated it when he had to resort to passing her notes to get his thoughts across.

“Well, his fingertips were stained yellow with it. He was a four-pack-a-day smoker — far heavier than any of the focus group members who died. You know, nicotine is extremely poisonous. It’s one of the oldest known insecticides.”

“Good for killing tobacco beetles,” he grinned.

“Well, once we loaded your system up with enough of it, it acted as a sort of chemotherapy — except it almost stopped your breathing at the same time.” Her eyes still had that haunted edge to them when she spoke of his time in the hospital.

He sat there for a moment. He’d been told that confession was good for the soul — but whose soul? Still, looking into her concerned face, he couldn’t hide his dirty little secret any longer. “That’s not all it did.”

He felt her eyes on his back as he walked over to his desk and pulled open the top drawer. Reaching in, he pulled out his ‘prize’ — the little time bomb he’d purchased just an hour before. He held the cigarettes up for her to see clearly. “I bought these on the way to work.”

Her reaction was immediate. “You’re not going to start smoking.”

He almost corrected her — take up smoking again — but thought better of bringing up a part of his life best dead and buried. “They say the addiction is stronger than that of heroin.” He sniffed the pack to make his point.

“Mulder — ” He could see the anguish in her eyes. He could almost see the little devil on his left shoulder preparing to do battle with the little angel on his right. No contest. The little angel had red hair and carried a Bureau issued Smith and Wesson. He unceremoniously dropped the pack into the trashcan at his feet.

Scully nodded, hiding well her triumphant smirk. “Good. Well, Skinner’s waiting for us up in his office.”

“I’ll be right up,” he assured her. As he heard her heels tap their way to the elevator, he leaned over and stared at the red and white Pandora’s box at the bottom of the trash. Giving his head a shake, he reached behind him to gather his jacket from the back of his desk chair and walked slowly to the elevator and his salvation.

Alone in the elevator car, he thought back on all that had transpired in the last three weeks. When he’d left DC for England that Friday just three weeks before, he was certain they were headed for the ‘big goodbye’. Scully had finally had enough of his bullshit; he was sure that she would use the three days to write up her transfer papers. He’d heard there was an opening in Forensics and the higher ups had all but begged her to apply. Yes, finally, Dana Scully had come to her senses and was going to leave him in the dust.

So when he did find her at the hospital after his crop circles had turned to so much scattered wild oats, he was shocked at the change in her disposition. She came to his apartment, told him of her journey during his absence. At any moment he was expecting her to tell him how much she’d enjoyed working with him, how she wanted them to remain friends. How he could always call on her if he ever needed her. But that moment never came, those words never passed her lips. He was confused when he awoke in the middle of the night to find her at the foot of his bed. He was certain she was going to tell him good night, that she was leaving to go back to her apartment. When she pulled off her shirt and pants and climbed in beside him, he’d still been confused, but ecstatic.

That night was still more a dream than anything else to him. He pictured it in flashes. Her nails on his chest. His fingers caressing her thigh. Her hands gripping his shoulders. His mouth connecting with hers.

He got breathless just thinking about it.

Had it been a dream? One case, a prolonged hospital stay and two weeks home confinement later he could almost convince himself it had been one of his late night fantasies brought on by watching too many of ‘those’ videos. But no, he still had concrete proof. When he awoke that precious morning only to find her gone, he’d jumped out of bed in a blind panic. On hitting the floor his foot had landed square on one of her tiny stud earrings — sticking straight up in the nap of the carpet. Extracting the needle like object from the ball of his foot, he poked it through the lampshade next to his bed. It was there still, an unnoticed souvenir when she brought him home from Asheville to recuperate. He sure wasn’t going to give it back any time soon. It was the only proof he had that they’d had one night together.

He shook his head as the elevator doors opened and he found the car had stopped on Skinner’s floor. He knew they were waiting so he put on a little speed. Halfway to Skinner’s office, which was only a few yards down the hall, he found himself seeing spots and gasping for breath. A young agent looked at him with alarm and reached out a hand to him, but he batted it away, choosing to lean against the wall for a moment. Damn it! When was he going to feel right again? He patted down his pockets until he came up with one of the hated inhalers Scully had foisted on him. He took a quick puff and closed his eyes, waiting for the medicine to take effect. By the time he was pushing off the wall to start on his way again, a warm hand was on his arm. He looked down into his partner’s eyes.

“I was starting to get worried. Guess I was right,” she said in a low whisper.

He closed his eyes again — god, how he didn’t want to see that look on her face — the terrified, worried-she-was-going-to-lose-him look. Finally, he knew he had to face her so he blinked his eyes open. “I’m OK, Scully. Just tried to go too fast.”

“You have more than two speeds, Mulder. Try going a little slower than either ‘too fast’ and ‘dead run’.” Her scolding was softened by the wink she added.

“Skinner ready to eat us for lunch?” he asked, trying to deflect her concerned look.

“Nah, he’s been on a call since I got here. I’ve been talking to Kim the whole time. I just noticed you hadn’t arrived yet and thought I’d go hunt you down.”

“I wasn’t that late,” he groused, heading to Skinner’s outer office door. Now that he wasn’t puffing for air, he was alternately embarrassed and grumpy. He’d been good the whole two weeks he’d been a prisoner in his apartment; not once had he gone out for a run or a pick up basketball game or anything. He gave his body plenty of time to recover — why was it betraying him this way?

Just as they reached the door, Skinner stuck his head out and motioned them to follow him. They took their customary seats in front of his desk and waited for him to sit down.

“Sorry to make you wait, Agents,” he said regretfully. “That was the Director and it concerned the case I have for you.”

Immediately, Scully leaned forward in her chair. “Sir, Agent Mulder has not been cleared for work in the field yet,” she said pointedly.

Mulder cringed and had to hold his back ramrod straight to keep from slouching in his chair. He’d been in similar positions before in his life — when he just wanted to disappear. He shouldn’t have worried; neither Skinner nor Scully seemed to know he was even in the room.

Skinner frowned and looked down at his desk for a second before meeting her gaze. “Technically, Agent Mulder is only in a consulting capacity on this case, Agent Scully. It’s you they want.” He picked up a folder and handed it over to Scully before leaning back in his chair. “Three murders, all occurring in locked rooms, no possible point of entry.”

“Suicides?” Scully offered before opening the file and glancing through the pages.

“I don’t think anyone could commit suicide in this manner,” Skinner said, his face clearly showing his skepticism.

Scully found the crime scene photos and winced, causing Mulder to lean over to look at the pictures.

“Gives the word ‘overkill’ a new meaning,” he quipped before taking the file from his partner’s hand.

“The victims were garroted to the point their heads were barely attached to the bodies. Rose petals were stuffed in their mouths — one victim had almost 40 petals crammed down his throat — what was left of his throat.”

“Roses?” Scully asked. “In each case?”

“A specific type of rose, actually,” Mulder provided as he skimmed the report. “Silk roses, blood red with drops of glue to simulate dew drops. You know, Scully. The ones really cheap boyfriends give their girls on Valentines Day.” His mind was working, taking in each facet of the crime scene pictures. No entry — but he doubted it was anything like Eugene Victor Tooms. He longed to see one of the crime scenes up close —

Skinner’s voice startled him out of his musings. “You’re to meet with the San Diego Police Department and provide them with all necessary expertise.”

“Expertise?” Scully repeated. Mulder knew why she was asking that. It didn’t take a superior pathologist to see the cause of death for each victim.

“Because of the unusual nature of the crime — the locked room, the fact that each victim died a horrendous death during hours when other people were nearby and could have heard any struggle — the San Diego Police Department requested the X Files Division by name.”

Mulder cast Scully a concerned look. “By name, sir? Who asked for us, if I may?”

“A Detective Kresge, Agent Mulder. Seems he’s heard of your work. Do either of you recognize the name?”

Scully licked her lip and exchanged another glance with Mulder. “Uh, yes sir. I met Det. Kresge when I was in San Diego a few years ago at Christmas, visiting my family.” Mulder tried not to reveal too much in his expression. It was hard — wanting nothing more than to comfort his partner, but at the same time, not wanting to give away too much in front of their boss.

“He spoke quite highly of you, Agent Scully,” Skinner said with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not familiar with any case you might have worked while on vacation.”

Scully chewed her lip and was about to speak when Mulder jumped into the conversation. “It wasn’t really a case, sir. More of an entanglement of outside alliances, if you understand my meaning.” He shot a look over to the couch along the far wall of the office.

Skinner nodded in acknowledgement of the man who frequently graced that piece of furniture.

“Sir, I still think Agent Mulder would be better off if he stayed here,” Scully said, not looking over to her partner.

He’d had enough. It was time to step into battle. “Scully, what’s the big deal? I can’t go out to the field, but I can stay in some office helping to compile the data. Do they have a profiler on this case, sir?”

At that Scully turned in her seat to stare at her partner. “You’re volunteering to profile? Are you nuts?”

Why did she always assume that every profile was going to make him spontaneously self-destruct? Now that he’d seen the file, he was itching to get back to work — real work. Not just writing up old expense reports. Why couldn’t she see that he needed this? “It’s an interesting case. And the San Diego PD is a big enough force that I doubt I’ll be chasing down any perps while we’re out there. The doctors in Asheville cleared me to travel — ”

“To travel to Washington from Asheville, not all the way across the country,” Scully shot back. “Mulder, I just don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Well, I think this is just the kind of case we’re good at. And I’m cleared for deskwork, Scully — you know that. Unless you have some other reason you don’t want me out there.” He was tossing the gauntlet at her feet.

She shook her head slowly and he knew he’d won. “OK, I guess we both go. But Mulder, if you don’t obey every single one of your doctor’s orders, so help me — ”

“I can make that grounds for insubordination, if it would help,” Skinner suggested and both agents cast their eyes in his direction, realizing they’d been having their argument with him in the room.

“That won’t be necessary, sir. I’ll be good,” Mulder assured him.

Skinner gave Scully a few seconds to come up with a good counter argument, but she’d obviously run out of ideas. “Well, I suggest you make travel arrangements with Kim on your way out. Kresge requested your assistance as soon as possible.”

Scully’s Apartment

11:46 a.m.

Scully sighed as she fastened the latches on her suitcase. Half an hour before she had to leave for the airport and San Diego. Case notwithstanding, San Diego meant family: Tara, Matthew …

Bill.

Tempted though she was to steer clear of any contact at all with him, she couldn’t in good conscience pass through town without letting them know she was there. Besides, her mom was at Bill’s for a couple of months, catching up on missed time with her grandson. Maggie would be very upset if she found out that Scully had been to San Diego, and hadn’t had the courtesy to even call.

Of course, if she did call, a visit was unavoidable. She should be looking forward to seeing her brother and his family again, yet she wasn’t. Though it’d be wonderful to see Tara and Matthew, seeing her oldest sibling was always such a strain.

Bill was no fan of Mulder’s, and never passed up an opportunity to let her know it. Wouldn’t he be Mr. Congeniality when she showed up at his home with her partner in tow?

Mulder didn’t look to be any picnic, either. He still wasn’t a hundred percent — hell, he wasn’t even fifty percent — but he was too damned stubborn to admit it, to her or to himself. Skinner may have bought that ‘I’ll be good’ line, but Scully knew her partner.

Oh, he’d try, just not hard enough. Something would crop up that only he and he alone could handle — or so he’d believe. It was her job to make him see otherwise. Trouble was, she’d be in the field while he … wouldn’t. It was hard enough to convince Mulder of anything he disagreed with in person; long distance, it would be near impossible.

Then there was Detective Kresge. Asking for them by name. For her.

She knew he’d been somewhat enamored of her during that Christmas two years ago. Hopefully, he’d moved on, and his interest in her was purely professional. The last thing she needed was some guy showing an interest in her at this stage of her relationship with her partner. Although, given that the detective ended up in the ICU because of her involvement in the case, that was probably the furthest thing from his mind. She sincerely hoped that it was.

She and Mulder were still testing the waters, so to speak, and while she was certain of her feelings toward him, he wasn’t. Not that she’d had a chance to do any convincing. Since that one night together, it seemed like it had been one calamity after another, as if the fates themselves were conspiring to keep them apart. She seriously wondered if her brother had an ‘in’ with The Powers That Be.

At least Mulder wasn’t making their room reservations this time; the San Diego PD was picking up the tab for that. She hoped that they would put them up in a better class of motel than the gems Mulder usually found. Which shouldn’t be too hard. With any luck, she could score adjoining rooms for them. She wanted Mulder right under her watchful eye, especially since he’d be profiling.

God, she hoped they’d catch a break this time, for Mulder’s health and her sanity.

She really should have known better.

**

Dulles International Airport Terminal

1:26 p.m.

Mulder sat slumped in his seat, waiting for their flight to begin boarding. Next to him, Scully pretended to be absorbed in her paperback. Mulder had caught more than one worried glance directed his way in the ten minutes they’d been seated at their gate, and the last time it had happened, he’d scowled at her. Her eyes had been glued to her book ever since.

While he realized she was only concerned for his welfare, it felt too much like he was being babysat, and he hadn’t been happy with that scenario. He still wasn’t, but after the scare he’d put her through — put them both through if he was being honest with himself — she had every right to be a little over-protective. If he never saw another beetle for the rest of his life, it would be too many.

“Hey,” he said, nudging her knee with his. When she looked over at him, he was startled at the hurt in her eyes. He swallowed the excuse he had made up, the joke he was going to follow it with, and said simply, “Sorry.” Why, oh why, was he such an ass toward her? Why she even cared about a jerk like him was beyond his comprehension.

He’d been thinking about Kresge, about Kresge and Scully, in particular, and their relationship and whether he should be worried. If he carried on with this attitude, he wouldn’t have to wonder. He’d be handing her over on a silver platter.

Suddenly aware that she’d made no response, Mulder focused his attention upon her. She was studying him, and when he finally met her gaze, she gave him a slight smile, just enough of one to show he was, if not forgiven, at least understood. A corner of his mouth quirked his thanks, and he made sure his eyes conveyed just how much he regretted his behavior.

She kept his gaze for another second before she turned back to her book, and Mulder was upset to see that the hurt still lingered in her eyes. He looked away, at a loss as to how to fix this. It had been so long since he’d been in a relationship — if that was in fact what he and Scully were in — and he couldn’t recall ever causing so much damage with just a look.

He couldn’t say he’d never hurt her before, because he knew damned well that he had. Many times. Yet it had never bothered him the way it did now. Was it because he hadn’t cared before? he wondered, and then told himself that no, that wasn’t it. He’d cared for Scully since the beginning of their partnership, and loved her almost as long.

When the reason hit him, he didn’t know whether to jump for joy or crawl into a hole. It had never bothered him because he hadn’t known. He hadn’t known because she hadn’t wanted him to know. What did it mean that she allowed him to see those feelings now?

Was she letting him in, or had she finally given up on him? Mulder couldn’t get the idea of Scully and Kresge out of his mind. Had she decided to stop hiding her feelings so that when the time came to cut him loose he would know that he was the cause, not her?

He knew he had probably gone off in entirely the wrong direction, but he was always sort of a worst-case-scenario kind of guy when it came to his love life. What if she really was looking forward to seeing the detective again? What if she planned to see him socially?

That one night that he and Scully had spent together meant the world to him, but he couldn’t say what it meant to Scully. At the time, he thought he knew, but it had happened so long ago, and they’d never mentioned it again. He thought she loved him, but was that enough? If he wasn’t able to give her what she wanted, what she needed, would she look elsewhere? Would he, if the situation were reversed?

He already knew the answer to that before he asked it. She hadn’t, and he didn’t. For him, Scully was the only one, no matter how unrequited his love had been. He honestly didn’t know if he could say the same for her.

Yet her love wasn’t unrequited. She knew he loved her. Even if he didn’t show it at times, he knew she knew. He looked over at her. Just as he knew that she loved him. God, he was such a twit. Of course, she loved him.

He reached over and covered her hand with his, startling her. When she looked at him, surprise and confusion in her expression, he gave her a small, sad smile. “I really am sorry, Scully,” he said quietly. “I’m such an asshole sometimes.”

She didn’t laugh, though he’d hoped she would. “Yes, you are,” she said.

He pulled her hand off her book so he could grasp it in his. “I love you,” he said in his raspy voice. “All the time. No matter what. Even when I’m being an asshole to you. Even when you hate me.” His throat was killing him after all that, but it was worth it to tell her how he felt. How much he loved her.

“It’s not hate, Mulder. It’s anger. For the way you treat me sometimes, the way you react to genuine concern for your well-being. I don’t like it, and I don’t deserve it.”

Mulder was a little shocked. He’d been trying for ‘I love you, too,’ and he got ‘why I don’t like you.’ “I …” What could he say? She was right. He didn’t always consider her feelings before he spoke against or reacted to something he didn’t like. More often than not, he thought of no one but himself.

Yet he’d changed a little. Mellowed a lot. And he felt ashamed. For the first time in a long time, his self-righteousness failed to justify his behavior to himself. He was in the wrong, and he knew it.

“No, you don’t,” he said softly, releasing her hand. He had no right to be holding it, no right to expect she’d want him even touching her.

When her hand covered his where he’d laid it in his lap, he looked up in surprise. “I love you, too, Mulder.”

He smiled weakly. He heard the unspoken, ‘I just don’t like you right now.’ Still, she didn’t have to tell him, and he appreciated hearing it. Every time he screwed up, the fear that she no longer loved him, that she was thinking of leaving him, reared its ugly head. He was totally bereft of confidence when it came to how Scully felt about him. No matter how many times she told him she loved him, he felt like it would never be enough.

He wondered if they would ever reach a point in their relationship where he wouldn’t question her feelings toward him. God, he hoped so. This uncertainty was going to kill him.

“Mulder?”

He blinked. Had he been staring off into space? “Yeah?”

About to ask him something — whether he was all right, he’d bet — she changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing.”

He turned his hand over so he could interlace his fingers with hers. “I am sorry, Scully,” he said as sincerely as he could in his scratchy voice. He winked at her. “And I’m fine. Just … reflective.”

Her smile was one of amusement. “I was going to tell you that they were about to call our row to board, but then they announced a delay, so I changed my mind.” She gave him a wink of her own. “But I’m glad you’re fine. And reflective.”

He felt his face growing warm, but he didn’t mind. She was smiling at him. Joking with him. Forgiving him.

For the moment, all was right with his world.

**

United Airlines Flight 209 30,000 feet 5:43 EDS Time

“Excuse me. Ma’am?”

It took Scully a moment to re-orient herself as she was jolted out of the streets of Istanbul and back into the belly of a 757. She looked over to find the meal cart in the aisle beside her, and a flight attendant smiling down at her. “Oh! Yes?”

“Chicken or lasagna?” the woman asked.

Scully thought for a second, then chose what she always chose. “Chicken, please.” Closing her book and laying it to the side of her open tray table, Scully accepted the meal from the airline employee. “Thank you,” she said, meeting the woman’s eyes with a smile.

Nodding her response, the woman’s gaze moved past her to focus on Mulder, his head leaning against her shoulder, his hand on her thigh, and fast asleep. “Would your …”

“Partner,” Scully supplied automatically.

“Would your partner like a meal?” she asked.

Scully turned her attention to the man snoring softly beside her. He should eat, but she didn’t have the heart to wake him. She supposed he could always eat it later, though. “Could he have lasagna, please?” she requested, thinking it’d be easier on his throat. Moving him off her shoulder carefully, she leaned across him to the empty seat by the window, and released the tray table. When she turned back, the flight attendant handed her a meal with the cover still on it.

“That should keep it warm for a little while, anyway,” the woman told her in a kind voice.

“Thank you,” Scully answered, a little surprised by the conscientious gesture. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

With a parting smile, the flight attendant focused her attention on the next row, and Scully took the opportunity to gaze at her partner and what had softened the woman’s profession demeanor.

Mulder’s obscenely-long eyelashes resting against his too-pale face demanded her attention first. How many times had she railed against the unfairness of those lashes on the face of a man? Of course, being gazed upon by the beautiful hazel eyes beneath those lashes, she got to view them on said man quite often. Oh, yeah, they were on the right person, all right.

Next, without a doubt, were those luscious lips. Slightly parted, they looked oh-so-kissable. How long had it been since she’d felt those lips on any part of her body? How long before she did again? A pang of longing hit her just then, and she knew it wouldn’t go away for some time to come.

Damned case. Damn Kresge for requesting them before Mulder was healthy. Damn Skinner for approving it. Damn Mulder for pushing himself before he was ready. And damn her for changing gears in the blink of an eye, no longer able to look at him through the eyes of a woman, but through the eyes of a physician.

Where before she saw only lovely eyelashes, she now saw the bags under his eyes from too many nights with too little sleep. Through those parted lips came the wheeze of a man still walking around with a bronchial condition.

Suddenly angry and fearful and frustrated, Scully turned her attention to her meal. She really hated being a doctor sometimes.

**

United Airlines Flight 209 30,000 feet 6:28 p.m.

When his bladder could be ignored no longer, Mulder opened his eyes and tried to suppress the hideous tickle threatening to throw him into an embarrassing coughing fit. His eyes alit on the small bottle of water on the tray table beside him, and he frantically tore the cap off and took a swig. The sensation eased, but only for a moment. Quickly locating the nearest unoccupied lavatory, at the very back of the plane, Mulder slipped into the aisle, vaguely aware and very grateful that Scully was not in her seat.

Another two sips, and he reached the bathroom door, entering the tiny room and sliding the lock home. He downed the rest of the water, then held his breath, trying to keep the tickle at bay until he had emptied his bladder. He had barely finished when the coughs erupted out of him. He threw his arm up in front of his mouth, trying to muffle his coughing with the crook of his elbow. With his other hand, he patted down his pockets in a frantic search for his inhaler.

Feeling light-headed by the time he managed to grab hold of it, Mulder tried to bring his coughing under control so he could take in the needed medicine. Shaking the inhaler frantically, his lungs feeling like they were trying to climb up his throat, he breathed in as slowly as he could while pushing down on the canister.

When he could take a breath without (literally, he thought) coughing his lungs out, he became aware of the pounding on the door. As if he wasn’t embarrassed enough, Scully was out there gathering the attention of those few passengers who weren’t already aware of his condition. “All right,” he barked. “I’m coming.”

He flipped the lock, yanked open the door, scathing remark poised and ready — and froze. It wasn’t Scully. Irrationally, all he could think was ‘Why the hell wasn’t it her? Where the hell was she while he was coughing up a lung and turning blue from lack of air?’

“Are you all right, sir?” a flight attendant asked. Upon her pleasant face, she wore the worried look he should be seeing upon Scully.

“I’m fine, thank you,” he reassured her in the hated raspy voice, digging out the inhaler and holding it up as if that should explain everything. “Just a tickle …” He pointed to his throat. “Got the better of me, I’m afraid.”

She nodded, and he felt uncomfortable while she ascertained whether or not he was telling the truth. “Can I get you anything?” she finally asked, apparently satisfied.

He held up the empty bottle. “Water? A couple of bottles?”

“Certainly.” She only had to take a couple of steps into the galley to retrieve the requested items. “Here you go. Is there anything else I can get you?”

Mulder accepted the bottles with a smile he didn’t feel. “No, thanks.” He indicated the water. “This will be fine. Thank you very much.” He thought he should apologize for making a scene, but just thinking about it made him cringe, so he nodded a farewell and made his way back to his seat.

His eyes zoomed in on his partner in their row halfway down the plane. The anxiety was plain on her face; when he caught her eye, she tried to hide it. Although it usually annoyed him, he felt a little better to know she was concerned for him.

“Hey,” he said, upon reaching her.

“Hey,” she said, getting up to let him in. “What happened back there? Anything I need to know about?”

Starting to shake his head out of habit, he shrugged instead. “Uh … I had a tickle in my throat. Lost my breath a bit, but a shot from the inhaler, and I’m as good as new.” Another shrug. “Well, as good as can be expected.”

She nodded, biting her lip. There was something she wanted to say, but seemed hesitant to voice. “What is it, Scully?” he asked, tapping her lightly on the arm.

Her eyes looked into his, as if gauging his state of mind before she said what she wanted to say. Once again, he felt shame that she should have to assess his mood so she wouldn’t get her head bitten off. “When I saw it was you back there, I wanted to be the one helping you.” She looked down at her hands in her lap. “But I knew you wouldn’t appreciate that gesture.”

He started to protest, then stopped, sighing. “You’re probably right. Although I — ” He lowered his head, looking up at her through his lashes. Should he admit it? He took a breath. “Although I’d wanted it to be you instead of her.” His face got warm when he thought about what he was going to tell her next. “But I was all set to let you have it when I did think it was you.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “How screwed up is that?”

“Well…”

When she didn’t say any more, he looked up, his question in his eyes.

She smiled shyly. “It is screwed up, but I’d probably feel the same. I’d want it to be you, but if it was you, I’d be angry with you. If it wasn’t, I’d be disappointed.”

“God, Scully, that’s scary,” he said with a laugh. “Are you turning into me, or am I turning into you?”

He was pleased to see a genuine smile in her eyes. “We’ll have to discuss that — at length — when you’re better.”

His eyebrows shot up. Did she mean what he thought she meant?

The slow smile spreading across her face was his answer. Only one thought went through his head at that exact moment:

Eat your heart out, Kresge.

**

San Diego International Airport United Airlines Baggage Claim 5:35 p.m. (PDT)

John Kresge looked at his watch and rubbed his face one-handed. It had been a long day and it looked like it wasn’t going to end anytime in the near future. At least he was looking forward to seeing her again.

Special Agent Dana Scully. ‘Scully, FBI.’ He could still remember her standing in his office that Christmas Eve, telling him his ‘simple suicide’ was more than likely a murder. At first he’d thought she was a nutcase. By the time he was out of the hospital from his mysterious illness, he’d come to think of her as the only sane person in a world gone mad.

He’d put her out of his head not long after that. His caseload got heavy, he started dating the new dispatcher, which turned out to be a bad idea on so many levels, and his life went on. Until another confounding series of deaths, more than just unusual, had brought her name to his mind. He didn’t even remember thinking about it before he found his fingers hitting the numbers for the FBI regional office, damning himself for losing her business card.

He was about to look at his watch again when he caught sight of her. That red hair, impossible to miss, was like a beacon on a stormy night. She looked exactly as he remembered her, much more commanding than her tiny stature would indicate. She was looking around the concourse and he held his hand up to wave to her but she seemed to be looking away before he caught her attention.

She was walking quickly over to a man near the carousel. John drew in a breath. Oh, right. That guy. What was his name? Mullins? Mueller? Whatever. He remembered him, slightly. He’d run into the guy right before John had come down with the mysterious illness that put him in ICU. According to the doctors, the guy saved his life. Called the ambulance, told them what to do for him. John found out later the guy was Agent Scully’s partner at the FBI. Probably just tagged along for a chance to hit the beach.

Something wasn’t right. The guy was standing right next to the carousel, but it was Agent Scully lifting all the luggage onto a cart. What the hell? OK, sure feminism had its place, but this was just taking things a little too far. John squared his shoulders and marched over to give the little woman a hand. At least his mother had taught him some manners.

“Agent Scully, good to see you again,” he said, grabbing the scuffed leather two-suiter out of her hands and placing it on the cart for her.

“Detective Kresge, hi,” Scully said, slightly out of breath. “Thank you — for meeting us.” She looked over at the man next to her. When Kresge got a look at the guy, he was sure the man was chewing on glass.

“John Kresge. I don’t think we were ever properly introduced,” John said, extending his hand.

The male agent looked John in the eye for a moment before accepting the handshake. “Fox Mulder,” he rasped out just above a whisper. His grip was firm, maybe just a little too firm to suit John. “Sorry ‘bout the … ” Mulder motioned to his throat and grimaced.

“S’OK, I know how dry it is on planes. C’mon, we can stop for dinner on the way to the hotel. Unless you’d rather have a chance to freshen up?”

Again, Agent Scully sought out her partner’s eyes. A look was exchanged, he shrugged, she smiled and turned back to John. “Dinner sounds wonderful,” she beamed.

“Great. I know a place near your hotel. Best seafood in the county, Anthony’s on the Harbor. Oh, I booked you into the Embassy Suites, if that’s all right,” he said, pushing the luggage cart toward the exit for short-term parking.

“Embassy Suites, wow,” Scully said with a grin. “I don’t think we’ve ever stayed in one of those before. That’s a little more ‘upscale’ than we’re used to, right Mulder?”

“Well, we have a deal over there. They give a great government rate,” John replied, trying to hide his slight embarrassment.

“We’ll have to remember that, Scully,” her partner croaked out with patently false smile.

**

Anthony’s on the Harbor 7:35 p.m.

“So, the Sergeant goes back behind the desk and pulls out this big shopping bag and says ‘is dis what you’re lookin’ for, Detective?’” Kresge had a hard time finishing his tale because he was laughing at his own joke, but the worst part was Scully was laughing with him.

Mulder wanted the earth to open up and swallow him whole. Did they have earthquakes as far south as San Diego?

“So, who’s up for a sightseeing tour of the harbor?” Kresge asked, as he signaled the waiter for the check. When the young man arrived at the table, Mulder was quicker and had his card out before Kresge’s wallet had cleared his pocket.

“This one’s on our Uncle,” Mulder whispered, the sound grating his vocal chords. He’d tried, probably too often, to keep up his end of the conversation. For one, he was tired of not speaking and for another, he wasn’t going to let Scully forget he was sitting at the table, even though she seemed to have managed it a couple of times during the evening. He just hoped she wouldn’t notice when he handed the waiter his own American Express card rather than the Diner’s Club MasterCard the Bureau issued all agents who traveled. No reason for her to know he wanted to beat the Detective in the old ‘who’s gonna pay’ game.

He had to smile when Kresge slowly put the wallet away. “OK, this time. But remember, you’re here as our guests. The SDPD is really grateful for your help on this one.” All this was said while the Detective looked directly at Mulder’s partner. Mulder saw appreciation, all right. He also saw anticipation.

“Thank you, John, but we really should be getting to the hotel. It’s been a long day and Mulder — ”

It wasn’t a hard kick to her shin, but it was enough to cause her to look at him. Mulder just hoped he hadn’t left a bruise. They exchanged a silent look, Mulder hoping his eyes could convey what his broken voice could not, nor did he really want to speak his concerns. He just didn’t want her pulling out the old ‘my partner is sick’ line as an excuse to avoid the tour.

Truth be told, it wasn’t that much of an excuse — he was dragging. Mulder had managed to grab five hours of sleep on the plane and he still felt like he’d just run a marathon. His throat was killing him, but it was his chest and lungs that felt like they’d been used as punching bags. He really just wanted to get back to his room and pull out his nebulizer.

Scully gave him a sympathetic smile, but thankfully didn’t vocalize her concerns. “I’d just like to get an early start tomorrow,” she told the detective. “Maybe we can take a rain check?”

“Certainly,” Kresge said with a smile, but Mulder could hear the disappointment in his voice. Yeah, buddy. You lost this one, too, he mused silently.

With the bill paid, the three made their way to Kresge’s car and with only a minimum of conversation (because of the short distance), they were dropped off at the entrance to the Embassy Suites.

This time, even though he felt horrible, Mulder made a point to send Scully in to the desk to get their keys while he watched the bellboy load the luggage on a dolly. With a firm handshake to Kresge, he saw the Detective drive off. No way was he going to let the young officer find out their room numbers, not until it was absolutely necessary.

When he caught up with Scully, she did not look happy. “No, that’s just not acceptable. The man has been ill — ” She stopped when she felt his hand on her elbow.

“Something wrong?” he rasped.

She sighed, a sure sign she was a minute away from pulling her weapon. “They don’t have any non-smoking rooms left.”

“I promise, Agent Scully, we’ll move you both into non-smoking rooms first thing in the morning,” the near frantic desk clerk assured. “It’s just we’ve had a meeting of the American Lung Association here this weekend and all of the non-smoking rooms — ”

Mulder held up his hand and tried to put on his best placating smile. “These will be fine,” he ground out. Looking down at the card key envelopes, his smile turned into a frown. “Separate floors?” he croaked.

“That’s the other thing. Apparently they don’t have any adjoining suites available all week. Foster parents group or something,” Scully groused. “So even when we get new rooms, they won’t be adjoining.”

“We do have a suite with two double beds — ” the clerk broke in.

“No, thank you, that’s totally unacceptable,” Scully said sternly.

“Hey, no big deal,” Mulder whispered. “Let’s just get up to our rooms.”

He was beginning to think he should have stayed at home after all.

**

Embassy Suites Hotel

Scully’s Room

8:30 p.m. PDST

Scully was pooped. She knew that the best way to acclimate herself to west coast time was, the first night, to tough it out until her usual bedtime, and then sleep her normal eight hours. She’d wake up at the right time in the right time zone.

Yet she was bone tired. Had she known that by nightfall she’d be 3,000 miles away from home, she wouldn’t have gotten up at the crack of dawn. That, plus traveling all day, hauling suitcases around (she’d have to remember to thank Mulder more for that chore when he was healthy again), and worrying about her partner contributed to her wanting nothing more than to crawl under the covers and close her eyes.

She wanted to check on Mulder, though. She really ought to, she knew. Throat aside, he’d been very quiet all though their dinner with the detective. The only time he’d come to life was when he’d been asserting his place as alpha male by grabbing the check and paying with his own card.

Oh, yes, she’d caught his subterfuge, although she didn’t let on since it had seemed important to him. She never would understand why men considered it a sign of masculinity to beat out another man for the privilege of paying the bill. Hell, she ought to invite other men to dine with them every time they ate out. She’d never have to pay for another meal.

She had to smile at that thought as she tested the softness of the mattress by sitting and then leaning back until she was lying flat. It was quite comfortable. And tempting. And she was in her pajamas already …

Glancing at the door guiltily, she shook herself out of her stupor and plucked her phone from the charger, pressing speed dial one.

“Mulder,” her partner answered on the fifth ring, out of breath.

Scully sat up straighter. “Are you all right?” she asked, one horrifying scenario after another running through her mind.

“I had one foot in the shower.” She heard a husky cough. “I had to run for the phone.”

“Sorry,” she said, feeling guilty for causing him distress.

“Well, I didn’t want you pounding on my door when I didn’t answer.” She couldn’t tell if he was amused or annoyed, and he never did answer her question.

“I just wanted to say good night,” she said, biting her lip as she listened to him gasping and wheezing. Finally, she couldn’t take it any more. “Mulder, are you okay? Do you need me to come up there?”

“No! I’m — ” He broke off, coughing, and she ran to grab her sneakers, thrusting her feet into them without taking the time to tie them. “Gimme a minute,” he choked out. She snatched up her coat and slid one arm in while holding onto the phone with the other. Though he’d apparently moved away from the phone, she could still hear him hacking away.

Rushing down the hallway, coat hanging off one shoulder, PJ’s on display for anyone who cared to look, and tripping over dangling shoelaces, she heard Mulder’s voice, calm as you please, say to her, “Sorry about that. I probably shouldn’t have run.”

“Are you okay?” She was almost to the elevators now.

“I’m fine,” he said, sounding like he was, too. “Look, I’m gonna take a shower. You get some sleep, okay?”

Her hand outstretched and ready to stab the button, she slowly brought it back to her side. “Yeah.” She felt like she’d run ten miles. Her knees were shaking, and she thought she might crumple to the floor if she didn’t sit down.

“Okay. ‘Night, Scully.”

“Good night,” she said, a little stunned and hurt by his brush-off.

He disconnected, and she looked up at the elevator doors, then turned and walked back to her room.

**

Embassy Suites Hotel Mulder’s Room

8:37 p.m.

Mulder jabbed the “end” button, and the phone fell from his trembling fingers. God, that had been close. After his insistence that the ‘smoking’ room would be fine, he didn’t want her to find out that he’d been coughing almost since the second he’d set foot in the room.

The last thing he wanted was Scully rushing to the aid of her sickly partner. He was so tired of needing her as his caretaker. How long until she grew tired as well?

Never, if he could help it. After watching Scully enjoying the attentions of another man — a healthy one — he couldn’t afford to appear weak in her eyes.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew she wasn’t that shallow, yet insecurity had overruled reason, and fear had triumphed over logic. So he’d resolved to address his health issues by himself from that point on, and if that meant a little deception was in order, so be it. He had taken an extra hit of the Proventil, and now he was about to pay for it.

It had been worth it, though. Instead of having to wait a minute or longer for the medicine to take effect, the results had been instantaneous. For one brief minute, he had been in complete control, long enough to convince Scully that he was just hunky-dory. True, he’d been brusque with her, but it had been necessary in order to ward off a visit. He congratulated himself as he collapsed onto the bed, chest pounding to beat the band, and not just aching, but hurting. A lot.

He could feel himself panicking, and knew he had to calm down, breathe slowly and evenly, and relax his tense muscles. Get it together, get it together, he told himself, over and over. Gradually, he felt the tightness dissipate enough that he could sit up. Glancing at the clock, he was shocked to discover that nearly an hour had passed since he’d spoken with his partner. Right then and there, he vowed NEVER to do that again.

Christ, was he the sorriest son of a bitch on the planet, or what? Grimacing when he recalled that a visit to the man who’d bestowed that title upon him was in his future, he rubbed a hand over his sore chest. Maybe being sick did have some advantages after all, if it would get him out of having to see Billy Boy.

He took in as much of a breath as he could — man, being unable to breathe deeply really sucked — and frowned. No matter how he looked at it, he couldn’t win. Strong-man Mulder had to put up with Bill; sick Mulder was a namby-pamby wussy weakling. There was no question as to which he’d choose to be.

Grunting with the effort it took him to gain his feet, Mulder shuffled over to the file he’d tossed onto the desk earlier. He really ought to get some shut-eye, but he wanted to do a little work before he showed up at the police station tomorrow. He wasn’t too thrilled at being considered extra baggage on this trip, and he was determined to prove his worth, both to the agency and to his partner.

Besides, he was a little afraid to go to sleep with his heart racing the way it was. Falling into the chair (there was no other way to describe it), he flipped the folder cover open and stared at the contents. Try as he might, he couldn’t concentrate, though. Throwing a glance at his phone, he was very tempted to call Scully, machismo and ‘I told you so’s’ be damned.

Propping an elbow on the desk, he lowered his head, which was beating in time with his heart, to his hand. He’d give himself fifteen minutes, then he’d call.

After his allotted time had elapsed and he still felt like crap, he was still reluctant to call her, especially after he’d gone to all that trouble to alienate her with his curt behavior. Sighing, he forced himself to focus on the case in front of him; maybe all he needed was something to take his mind off his health (or lack thereof).

Half an hour later, he resigned himself to the fact that the pitiful amount of work he’d put into the profile was all he was going to accomplish this evening. Opening the sliding door to the ‘patio’ had freshened the room somewhat, but enough of the smell remained to make him miserable. At least his heart had slowed down enough that he didn’t feel like he was going to have a stroke at any second.

He wondered if Scully had left a wake-up call for him. As he settled into the bed, fresh air wafting over him, he decided that he didn’t really care.

He wanted it to be morning, and he wanted to be out of this room, but right now all he really wanted to do was sleep.

**end of part 1**

Shred of Doubt (2/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

San Diego Police Department

May 1, 2000

10:15 am

They’d met briefly for breakfast, a lavish affair compared to what they were used to in their usual accommodations. Mulder knew Scully was watching him like a hawk as he picked at his omelet (plain cheese, nothing that would bother his throat going down). He would have killed everyone in the lobby for a piece of bacon, but he knew that between the crisp texture and the salt it would kill him before he got a chance to enjoy it.

Kresge was at the front doors, waiting for them at eight o’clock sharp. Mulder sighed as he saw the detective jump out of the driver’s seat so he could open the door for Scully. Did this guy have springs in his ass? Was he a hurdles star in college? It was depressing to see anyone that ‘perky’ so early in the morning when Mulder just wanted to crawl back into the nice comfy bed. Maybe a different room, but the bed was definitely worth taking along with him. The fact that he was pining for the comforts of bed — alone — depressed him even more than Kresge’s ‘at your service’ attitude. It was going to be a long day.

Two hours later, Mulder was convinced the day was actually much longer than any he’d lived through on the East Coast. It was only the middle of the morning. Scully was off somewhere, slicing and dicing on the latest victim. At least Mulder was pretty sure Kresge wouldn’t be following her into the autopsy. At the mention of the morgue Mulder had noticed the detective turn a particular shade of pale green, and had smiled with that knowledge. But that just meant Scully was relatively safe. Now he knew that he was the one in danger — they had put him in a gas chamber. Not really gas — mold. It was a mold chamber.

Kresge had seemed mildly apologetic as he showed Mulder to the spare office next to the restrooms. “It’s the only one vacant at the moment, but it does have a phone line and a computer for you to use,” the detective had explained. What he hadn’t mentioned, not one word was that the wall to the room was covered in mold. From the ceiling to the carpet, in a swath about a foot and a half across, some sort of mold was causing the plaster of the old building to bubble and ooze. In some places it seemed to undulate, but Mulder was pretty sure that was just a trick of the light coming through the dirty panes of the window behind his back. Up near the ceiling tiles, the mold had a feather-like crust that was more pink than green, in contrast to the beige paint on the rest of the wall. Mulder’s eyes couldn’t help being drawn to it. It looked like something he and Scully would find on a case. It was everything he could do not to run his finger across it, he realized much to his horror.

He tried to concentrate on the photos of the crime scenes. It seemed pretty open and shut, when you didn’t figure in the lack of point of entry. The victims’ throats were cut and their mouths were stuffed with rose petals. Scorned lover? Stalker with murderous impulses? Red rose petals, fake silk flowers found in any dollar store or thrift shop. Some message was being sent.

Mulder looked again in the files to find the information on the victims. All the victims were young women, ages 22 to 25. Two of the three were college students; the third was a full-time barista at a coffee shop at Horton Plaza. None of them seemed to know each other, at least according to family members. One of the girls had just broken up with a long-time live-in boyfriend, but the guy had moved to Florida and had an airtight alibi the night of the murder. Aside from being young and pretty, the victims didn’t have a lot in common.

He pulled out his yellow tablet and looked over his notes. He’d started his profile, but it was generic and uninspiring. Young male, aged 25 to 35, above average intelligence, strong, body builder or day laborer. Likes red roses.

He flipped the pencil and forcefully erased the last sentence. He wanted to concentrate but his head was splitting, his throat was killing him even though he hadn’t spoken a word to anyone in nearly two hours and his chest was burning every time he took a breath. He glared accusingly at the mold on the wall. He had to get out of there. He needed to find out if Scully had picked up anything in the autopsy that the previous M.E.s might have missed.

Getting up, slowly, because he refused to use the inhaler in the Police Station, he pulled on his jacket and went to look for Kresge. The agents hadn’t managed to rent a car yet, and technically he wasn’t allowed to drive while taking his meds. His only mode of transportation was the detective. It annoyed Mulder to no end that he knew if he mentioned he needed to go see Scully, Kresge would drop everything to give him a lift, but he didn’t think he had any other choice.

**

San Diego Police Department

10:26 a.m.

“Excuse me. Detective?”

John Kresge looked up to find Agent Scully’s partner standing in front of his desk.

Without even waiting for his reply, the man said, “I need a ride to the morgue. Can you give me a lift?”

What was he … a taxi? And what was with the voice? Shouldn’t it have cleared up by now? John was right in the middle of writing up another case report; just because the FBI could only work one case at a time didn’t mean your average police detective was afforded that luxury. This serial thing was just one of many cases he had on his plate. “Can it wait, Agent? I have to get this report finished.”

The agent bit his lip and scanned the room. “Can anyone else give me a ride? We don’t have a rental yet, and I need to see Agent Scully.”

Wait a minute! Where was his mind, that it hadn’t made the connection between Agent Scully and the morgue? If Mulder had mentioned the lovely Agent Scully earlier in the conversation, John wouldn’t have to backtrack and find some plausible reason to take the agent himself. “Ah … Well … I guess I could drive you, if it has to do with the case?” John looked at the agent hopefully.

“It does,” Mulder confirmed.

“Well then, I can finish this up later.” Tossing aside the now-uninteresting murder-suicide, Kresge got up. “Give me a minute,” he told the agent, walking past the man to the captain’s office. He rapped on the door before opening it and leaning in. “Hey, Cap. I’m gonna run the fed over to the morgue. Be back in a few.”

“Okay, John. But don’t forget you have other cases, too. Get back here as soon as you can.”

He nodded. “Right.” He closed the door and headed back to his desk. When he reached the agent, he clapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Okay. Let’s go.”

The agent nodded, and John heard him fall in step behind him. This Mulder was a funny guy, John thought. When John had graciously given the agent a whole office to do God only knew what, the guy had not looked very grateful. Granted, there was a slight leak in the ceiling, but what did the guy expect? John had requested Agent Scully’s assistance on this case; how was he to know she and her partner came as a set? That Mulder was darned lucky they had the spare office, or John didn’t know what he would have done with the guy.

And what was up with that “Scully/Mulder” name thing? These two had been working together at least two years. Were all feds so formal with their partners? John perked up as a thought occurred to him. Maybe they just didn’t get along, personality-wise. He could certainly see it. Agent Scully was friendly, outgoing, fun and mega intelligent. Her partner was kind of a wet blanket, if last night’s dinner had been any indication. And he hadn’t exactly been a ray of sunshine this morning, either.

From the moment John had picked them up, Mulder had been sullen and surly. At times, it appeared that he didn’t even like Agent Scully (or John). Go figure. Hey, all the better for him. If this Mulder guy wanted to keep to himself, John had no problem with it. John didn’t have any great desire to become the man’s friend, even if the guy did save his life.

Suddenly feeling like an ungrateful lout, John vowed to make more of an effort toward the man. He waited for the agent to fall in step alongside him. “So … is the office working out okay?” John asked, more for something to say than out of any yearning to know.

Mulder opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it, nodding. “It’s fine, Detective. Thank you,” came the hoarse response.

Kresge smiled. “Hey, no problem. We’re lucky we had the extra space.”

The agent smiled, but John knew enough of human behavior to see that it was forced. He wondered what the guy had expected. Agent Scully had said her partner was a profiler. Kresge had to wonder how an FBI profiler and a doctor of pathology wound up working in a division that investigated … well, weird things. John could hardly believe the FBI had a department for that kind of stuff. He couldn’t imagine how Agent Scully had come to work there — and why she still was.

John pointed out his car to the agent as he unlocked the door with the remote. “So … you said you needed to see Agent Scully. Do you have something new on the case?”

“Not yet,” Mulder said, getting into the car and buckling his seat belt. “I need to see if she found anything the coroners didn’t.”

John nodded. “Oh.” Huh. Couldn’t he have asked her this over the phone? Oh, well. It didn’t matter. John wouldn’t get to see Agent Scully if he had. He was willing to humor the guy on this aspect alone.

As soon as John had started the car and fastened his own seat belt, he rummaged in his jacket pocket for his breath mints. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the fed tense up. When John grasped the container and pulled it out, the agent relaxed. John’s eyebrows rose. What was that all about? Couldn’t a man freshen his breath before greeting a lady? “Mint?” John offered, holding out the tin. That guy could probably do with a shot as well.

Mulder shook his head, smiling slightly. “No, thanks.”

John shrugged, and repocketed the container. He checked for traffic, then pulled out of his space and the police parking lot. After a few minutes in the quiet car, he threw a glance at the fed. “Hey, you all right?” The guy was wheezing like he had a pack-a-day habit, but John could tell from the lack of cigarette odor on the guy’s clothes that he wasn’t a smoker.

Mulder nodded, not saying anything.

John had been around the block a few times, and he knew an avoidance tactic when he saw one. He chanced another peek at the man beside him. Christ. The guy was holding himself as stiff as a board, and had turned about three shades paler than the last time he looked. “Hey, you don’t look so good. Want me to drop you by the emergency room? The hospital’s not that far from the morgue.”

Mulder shook his head.

John shrugged. Well, the guy ought to know if he needs to see a doctor or not. John couldn’t force him.

Leaning forward, he clicked the radio on and cranked it up. If Mulder said he was okay, then he was okay. But John didn’t care to listen to the guy’s misery any more than he had to.

**

Detective Kresge’s Car

10:38 a.m.

Mulder was inordinately grateful when the strains of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasted through the car speakers. He didn’t enjoy listening to his noisy breathing any more than the detective did. He couldn’t wait to ditch the guy so he could take a hit from the inhaler. Detective Kresge was going to be mighty disappointed when Mulder took his leave of Kresge at the morgue entrance.

It couldn’t be helped, though. Mulder was dangerously close to a full-blown attack the likes of which he hadn’t had since he’d first gotten out of the hospital, and he refused to have it in front of Detective Kresge. In front of anyone, if he was honest with himself.

They were about two blocks away from the medical examiners’ building, so Mulder concentrated on calming his breathing enough so he could talk, albeit briefly. When Kresge put on the brakes and came to a stop behind a line of cars at a red light, Mulder unlocked the door and flipped the handle. “I’ll get out here. Thanks, Detective,” he said, getting out and swiftly walking away.

Kresge’s indignant, “Hey!” reached his ears half a block later. Although Mulder felt bad for ignoring the detective, there was no way he was stopping. There’d probably be hell to pay later, especially if he ever needed another ride, but for now it was his only recourse. He only hoped word of his rude behavior never made it back to Scully.

When he reached the County Operations Center, San Diego’s morgue, he headed straight to the security desk and presented his credentials.

“What’s your business here, Agent Mulder?” the bored-looking guard asked.

Barely able to breathe now, and unwilling to make a scene — which he was certain he would if he attempted to speak — Mulder pointed to his throat while he took his notebook and pen out of his jacket pocket. “I’m here to see my partner, Agent Scully,” he wrote, dismayed to see how shaky his handwriting was.

The guard took the notebook, heading toward the phone, and Mulder had a moment of panic until the man reached for a clipboard, checking for his partner’s name. “Okay, Agent Mulder. She’s in bay 4G.” He handed the pad back to Mulder. “Take the elevator to the fourth floor and go left. It’s all the way at the end of the corridor, on the right.”

Mulder nodded his thanks and hurried away. He saw a men’s room near the elevators, but it was too close to the guard’s location so he reluctantly passed it by. He got on the elevator and took it to the second floor, then went in search of a secluded men’s room.

God, he felt awful. He was sure that he wasn’t doing himself any favors by denying himself the inhaler’s benefits, but he’d be damned if he was going to look like some asthmatic, puffing on his inhaler every ten minutes. It was totally un-PC of him, and he knew he didn’t think that anyone who used an inhaler was frail or sickly …

Oh, fuck it. Even though he was ‘enlightened’ and shouldn’t think like that, deep down inside, he did. And he couldn’t bear to be thought of in that light, especially by his peers in law enforcement. He was sure Detective Kresge was a little baffled by his presence, even though Mulder was certain that Scully had informed him that Mulder was a profiler. But Kresge and the rest of the police department didn’t seem to be particularly impressed by that fact. They had a low enough opinion of him already; he didn’t want to give them more ammunition by looking weak and unhealthy.

He almost cried when he found a men’s room located smack in the middle of four unoccupied autopsy bays. Pushing the door, he fumbled with the deadbolt until he heard it click home, then took out his inhaler and shook it the way he had been shown by his partner. The canister broke loose from his trembling fingers and clattered to the floor. Mulder followed it down, losing his balance and landing hard on his rear, hitting his head against the wall. “Fuck,” he swore automatically, then mightily regretted when he started coughing and couldn’t stop.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, he thought, his chest burning more and more the longer he couldn’t get his breath. In desperation, he grabbed the inhaler with both hands and depressed the plunger, letting the medicine into his clogged airway. He held his breath the way he’d been instructed, but all he could manage was two seconds before it exploded out of him. So much for exhaling slowly. His breathing improved the tiniest bit, but not near enough to make him feel better.

Not wanting a repeat of his experience in the hotel room, Mulder forced himself to wait a full minute before taking another dose. He leaned back against the wall, wincing when the back of his head came into contact with the tile. Vaguely, he wondered if he’d have a bump, but that was the least of his worries at the moment. He was gasping for air and afraid he was going to pass out before he could take another hit.

The instant ‘Mississippi sixty’ passed, he shoved the inhaler in his mouth and let her rip. This time he felt the effects almost immediately, and he savored the feeling of just being able to breathe. He leaned forward and folded his arms over his knees, then rested his aching head on his arms. When he felt well enough to stand, he climbed slowly to his feet, holding onto the wall for support.

He made his way to one of the sinks, horrified by his reflection in the mirror. A hundred-year-old man probably looked better than he did at that moment. His eyes were red-rimmed and wet — he didn’t remember any crying, for chrissakes — his nose was running, and he was so white he was almost transparent. He couldn’t prevent a hysterical giggle at the thought that he resembled one of his x-files.

Christ, he couldn’t face Scully looking like that. She’d pack him off to the hotel so fast, he’d be even dizzier than he was now. After another giggle escaped, he told himself to buckle down and knock it off; he had to make himself presentable. A trip to a stall procured toilet paper with which to clean his nose, and then he splashed warm water onto his face, washing away any trace of those inexplicable tears.

Still kind of shaky and feeling not so hot, he slid down the wall and back onto the floor, grateful that the morgue’s bathroom floor was as clean and sparkling as any hospital john he’d ever been in. Of course, in the shape he was in, he’d have sat down regardless of how clean it was — or wasn’t.

Imitating his posture of a few minutes ago, arms on knees, head on arms, Mulder rested until he started to feel like a human being and not just like he was impersonating one. When he looked at his watch and realized how much time had gone by, he was glad he hadn’t called to let Scully know he was on his way; she’d grill him no end as to why it had taken him so long to get there.

Hauling himself upright once again, he took a breath, then checked himself out in the mirror. He was a little pale, but nowhere near as bad as the last time he looked. He made a half-hearted effort to neaten his hair, then he squared his shoulders and went to find his partner.

**

San Diego Morgue

10:55 am

The latest victim, July Renee Carter, was laid out on the table between Scully and a disgruntled looking older man. The stare-down they were holding would have put most reasonable people in a cold sweat. Scully was taking another calming breath before picking up where she had left off.

“Dr. Hawkins, I understand that you have been a medical examiner more years than I’ve been driving, but the point is sometimes there are clues left that might not make sense, that might be ignored — ” She held up her hand to ward off a further enraged attack on her parentage. ” — not that you missed something intentionally, just that you might have felt the evidence had nothing to do with the crime. That’s where I come in. I’m used to dealing with unusual cases — ”

“Little lady, I’ve seen more crap and shenanigans in my 30 years on the county’s payroll than you’ve seen in every horror or sci fi movie you’ve ever sat through at the Bijou! And I’m telling you, I didn’t miss a damned thing! Now, I understand that you’re with the Bureau and that means I have to extend you every courtesy — ”

Scully tuned out the rest of the tirade as she leaned over the body. On the right hand, something caught her eye. Spinning on her heel, she reached the nearby desk and a folder with copies of the photos from the previous two victims. Squinting at the pictures, she licked her lips.

“Dr. Hawkins, here, can you identify this mark?” she asked, handing the older man a magnifying glass and one of the photos. “It’s on the victim’s right arm, near the back of the hand.”

Hawkins frowned, but took the glass and photo. He looked, then looked again before handing both back to Scully. “It’s a stamp from a nightclub,” he said dismissively. “You’ll find that a lot around town.”

“I can’t find it on the first victim,” Scully remarked, searching through the photos.

“Well, those things wash off pretty easily. Look, I see where you’re going with this, Dr. Scully, but it’s a long shot. These women were young, pretty, they probably went out a lot. And finding the bar that used that stamp is going to take some work. They change stamps every night so someone can’t get in on last night’s stamp and avoid paying the cover, as you would know if you partied on the weekend,” he added with a smirk.

She glared back at him, but decided against taking up battle over his thinly veiled insult. “I know just the person to look into that, actually,” she said with a sweet, but definitely fake, smile.

The door behind them opened and Scully turned quickly, half expecting Mulder to appear, ready to hunt down the bar stamp. She was more than a little disappointed when it was Detective Kresge in the doorway.

“Well, you have fun with that,” Hawkins snapped, pulling off his latex gloves and walking past Kresge. “Real sweetheart you found there, John. Thanks a lot!” he said, his tone dripping with sarcasm.

“Milt?” Kresge returned, half greeting, half inquiry, but the man was already most of the way down the hall. Kresge turned back to Scully. “Is everything all right?”

Blowing a strand of hair out of her eyes, Scully forced a smile. “Just great, Detective. Thank you. I think I might have found something for us,” she said nodding toward the body. “I should probably call Mulder and have him take a look.”

“Oh, he’s here, somewhere. I thought he’d beat me, but apparently he got lost,” Kresge said with a perplexed expression. “And what did we say last night? The name is John. C’mon, say it with me — Joohhnn,” he drawled out as if teaching her a new language.

She bit her lip to hold back her smile. “Sorry, John,” she corrected. “But you said Mulder is here? Where would he go? The hallway is well marked and the information desk knew what exam room I’ve been using.”

“Don’t know. Isn’t it the Bureau that does ‘missing persons’?” Kresge shrugged.

Once again the door to the exam room opened and this time, Mulder walked in. “Hey, Scully,” he rasped, smiling.

“Mulder, where have you been?” she asked, fists on her hips.

“Answering the call of a higher power,” he said with his patented ‘aren’t I adorable’ look.

She gave him the once over. His clothes were hanging off him; she knew he’d lost weight, but it was getting noticeable. She vowed to make sure he actually ate lunch and dinner, even if it meant something healthy disguised with a far amount of grease. Next to her, Kresge cleared his throat and she realized she’d been staring at her partner.

“Oh, well, you’re here now. I want to show you something,” she said, trying hard not to blush at being found ‘gazing’ at Mulder. “Look at this.” She leaned over and pointed to the mark on the victim’s hand. Mulder stood next to her, very close to her, as she pointed out the mark.

“There?” he asked, motioning to the ink stamp. That’s when she smelled it. On his breath, that faint floral smell that came from the medication he was supposed to use twice a day, morning and night — more often only if necessary.

“Mulder, did you just use your inhaler?” she asked pointedly.

“It looks like a stamp, like for entrance to a nightclub or bar,” he said, either not hearing or choosing to ignore her question. She wasn’t about to let him slide this time.

“Mulder, I just asked you a question. Did you just have to use your inhaler?” she repeated, this time placing her hand on his upper arm.

He stood up straight, shooting her an annoyed look. “Yeah, I did. Now, can we get back to this?” He turned to Kresge. “Does the Department keep a list of all the bars and nightclubs around or do I have to resort to the yellow pages?” he asked abruptly.

“Yeah, we have a list,” Kresge huffed indignantly. “You gonna call all of them?”

“No, I’m going to ‘fax’ all of them,” Mulder said in a rough whisper, before turning to his partner. “Can we get a good picture of this stamp, one we can blow up?”

“It’s on the disk,” she said, pointing to the camera on the desk. “I can have all the photos sent to your email as soon as I find someone to download them.”

“That chore, I can handle,” Kresge said, picking up the camera. “Agent Mulder, should I meet you back here or at the car? Oh, wait. You don’t know where the car is, since you didn’t wait for me to park it. I’ll just come back here to meet you, is that all right?” he sneered. “Let me know if you need any help, Dana,” he said, putting emphasis on her name.

Both agents regarded the detective with matched curious looks. After he was gone, Scully turned on her partner.

“Mulder, if you’re having trouble breathing, I want to know right now,” she hissed as she led him over to the middle of the room where the exam light over the gurney gave the best illumination.

He pulled out of her grasp and backed up, away from the body. “Not here, Scully! And it’s nothing, really. I just had a little trouble. They stuck me in Mold Central. There’s a leak in the roof or something, mold all over the wall and the carpet — I had to get out of there. But I’m glad I came over, this stamp thing might be the break we’re hoping for,” he rasped cheerfully.

She wasn’t about to change the subject. “Mold! The last place you need to be is anywhere near mold, Mulder. Tell them you have to have a different office. My God, your lungs are still recovering; if you introduce mold into that environment — you could end up in the hospital with bacterial pneumonia before we could do a darned thing about it!”

“Scully,” Mulder tried to interrupt.

“What the hell is wrong with this town? First the hotel has only smoking rooms — great idea for a man recuperating not only from seriously injured lungs but also from nicotine overdose — then this moldy room — ”

“Scully,” he attempted again.

“Which reminds me, I was going to call the hotel and make sure they got our rooms changed. I will not tolerate — ”

This time he grabbed both her arms and leaned down so that their foreheads touched. “Scully,” he whispered imploringly.

“What?” she asked, looking up into his hazel eyes. She had to blink twice just to keep from grabbing his tie and kissing him right there in the morgue. “What?” she repeated softly.

“I can’t ask them to change the office. It’s the only one available. They already told me that,” he murmured low in her ear.

She bit her lip. God, that raspy, hoarse voice was doing things to her that hadn’t been done since … well, since the last time they’d — no, she couldn’t allow her thoughts to drift back there. He wasn’t ready for that yet and she knew it would be a long time until he was ready. “Can you work at the hotel?” she asked in the same soft voice she’d used before. Anyone overhearing them would think they were making arrangements for a ‘nooner’ at the nearest motel with hourly rates.

“I need a fax machine. With the number of faxes I’m likely to have, it would put the SDPD back a couple of union raises to pay for them all at the hotel’s business center. I’ll be fine at the station,” he assured her. “Look, I’ll only breathe through my handkerchief.” He pulled out the scrap of cotton and waved it near her cheek.

She reached up and cupped his cheek. “I really want you to get some rest this afternoon,” she said tenderly. At his rolled eyes, she let her thumb brush his lips. “I know you think I’m being a nag, but Mulder, I just can’t stand to see you sick again. I don’t think you understand how scared I was in Asheville.”

He pressed a quick kiss onto her thumb. “I’ll see if Kresge can get some support staff to help with the faxes. And I promise, I’ll go back to the hotel, make sure they changed our rooms, and lay down for an hour or so. Deal?”

She was about to object to the ‘hour or so’, but one more look in those hazel eyes and all protests flew out the window.

“Deal.”

**

San Diego Morgue

11:31 a.m.

John was pleasantly surprised when he looked up and saw Agent Scully — Dana, he corrected himself — coming toward him; he was not so pleasantly surprised to find her partner right beside her. God, she was a looker, he thought, all leg in those four-inch heels. How she managed to keep pace with that partner of hers —

“Earth to John. Hellooooo, John.” The tech’s amused hail snapped him back to her presence.

He tried furiously not to blush, but he could feel the heat spreading over his face like sunrise over the desert. “Oh. Sorry, Frannie. You about done?” he asked the pretty young lab technician as if he hadn’t just been ogling a colleague.

“Yup,” she answered. “I just need the address.”

“Huh? What address?” He thought she was going to email the pictures. Why did she need an address?

“The email address?”

Oh. How stupid could he be?

“To email the photos?” she continued when he didn’t answer her.

“Right, right,” he answered quickly. “Just send them to me at the station. You have that address, right?”

“Yup.” A few clicks of the mouse later, she pronounced, “Done.” She nudged him with her elbow, looking pointedly at Dana Scully on the outside of the glass-enclosed lab. “Go get her, Tiger.”

Again, he felt heat on his face. “Geesh, Frannie. Do you have to?” he grumbled, only partly in jest. Getting to his feet, he threw a quick, “Thanks,” over his shoulder before he opened the door and smiled at Dana. He was delighted that she’d come to find him rather than the other way around, studiously ignoring the fact that her partner was there, too.

“Were you able to email the pictures?” she asked him.

John nodded. “I sent them to my email address. I figured they’d be easier to print if they were on my computer.” He looked up at Dana’s partner. “Is that okay, Agent Mulder?” The challenge carried over into his tone, and Mulder looked a little taken aback. God, that felt good, and Mulder’s anticipated reaction didn’t disappoint.

What he didn’t anticipate was the abashed expression that caused the male agent to look down at his shoes. “Uh, yeah. Good thinking, Detective. Thanks.”

A little confused by the about-face of Mulder’s attitude, John decided to give the guy a break. Although the agent looked better than he had in the car, there was a weariness about the man that spoke to his not being quite up to par. “No problem, Agent Mulder. Glad I could help.” He chanced a smile and was rewarded when Dana returned it. He saw Mulder’s eyes slide over to his partner before the agent looked back at John and gave him a much weaker version. John cleared his throat. “Uh, should we head back?”

Dana shook her head. “I only came up to get July Carter’s tox results from the lab. Dr. Hawkins ‘forgot’ to give them to me.” She glanced at the two men, her eyes holding on her partner. Suddenly, she turned to John. “It’s going to take them a few minutes to pull up the report. I’ll walk you out while they get them together.”

Happy with this turn of events, John nodded, and the three of them started walking, John beside Dana with Mulder trailing behind slightly. When they reached the elevator bank, Dana scanned her partner up and down so intently that John wanted to squirm for the guy. But the agent took it all in stride, only a sigh betraying the fact that he was even aware of her scrutiny.

The elevator door opened, and John felt a pang of jealousy when Mulder ushered Dana into the car with a hand to her back. Huh. Maybe they got along all right, after all. John might do well to remember that and not bad-mouth the guy to his partner. She obviously liked him, despite the numerous faults John had picked up on.

“Detective, once we get that list of clubs and bars, I’ll need a couple of people to help with the faxing and follow-up calls to any that don’t respond,” Mulder said. “Oh, and how many fax machines do you have available for our use?”

John bristled at Mulder’s presumption that John could just pull officers off cases to do Mulder’s bidding, then forced himself to relax. It wouldn’t do to irritate the guy in front of Dana. “I’ll ask the captain if we can spare anyone, and I’ll find out how many fax machines we can tie up for this.” He looked Mulder in the eye. “That good enough?”

The agent shrugged. “It’ll have to be.”

No matter how hard John tried, Mulder just rubbed him the wrong way. “Look, Agent Mulder, I’ll do what I can, but we do have other cases, you know.”

Mulder’s calm nod annoyed John no end. “I realize that, Detective.” The guy’s voice was getting harsher and grating on John’s nerves. “But it was you who requested us. If you can’t provide what we need to work this case, then we might as well go home.”

‘I didn’t request you,’ John wanted to say to Mulder, but held his tongue.

“Mulder, Detective Kresge said he’d try. He’s doing all he can,” Dana said, and the euphoric feeling that bubbled up from her faith in him crashed and burned when he took in the intimate pat she gave her partner’s arm.

Mulder met her eyes briefly, then nodded. “Yeah, okay.” He glanced at John, but didn’t say anything, and John found himself balling his fists at his side, trying to keep his temper in check. The jerk didn’t even consider apologizing, he thought. How the hell Dana put up with such an arrogant prick was beyond him. The woman was a saint.

Or an angel, he sighed to himself, letting his gaze settle on her. Well, at least Mulder wouldn’t be joining them on any interviews, Dana had told him earlier. She didn’t say why, and he didn’t care; this was John’s chance to shine. Show her that he wasn’t afraid to put himself in the line of fire with her while her partner twiddled his thumbs ‘profiling.’

Again John wondered just what possible use Mulder could be on this case besides tying up half the precinct with his faxing hobby. Oh, well. If it kept him busy and out of John’s — and Dana’s — way, then he was all for it.

**

San Diego Police Station

4:40 p.m.

The replies had stared flowing in around half an hour ago, before they had even finished faxing out. Captain Milward had graciously allotted two whole fax machines to Mulder, and they were now down to using one machine to fax out, leaving the other free for returning faxes.

Instead of assigning an officer to assist him, Milward had let Mulder borrow his administrative assistant, and Mulder wanted to kiss him for that. Wendy Rogers was an older woman who’d been with the department for 34 years and, boy, did she know her stuff. He was sure they wouldn’t be nearly as far as they were had he been assigned a cop as his ‘helper.’

He also appreciated the fact that, although she’d been ‘briefed’ by Milward and Kresge, once Mulder had explained what they were doing and why, she’d looked quizzically at Milward’s office and shaken her head. Then she’d looked back at Mulder, smiled and said, “Good idea.”

She’d taken the copies of the stamp and cleaned them up into faxable images, then printed several copies for them to fax. She took Mulder’s idea for a cover/reply sheet and produced exactly what he’d envisioned. Then she’d mail-merged the names and fax numbers of all the clubs onto the cover sheets; those hours of hand writing 63 cover sheets that he’d been dreading was merely a distant memory, thanks to Wendy. God, she was great. He wondered if he could keep her.

Wendy had ‘suggested’ that he take a break from fax hell — his back was killing him, he had about a million paper cuts, and he was dead tired — and when he returned she called to him excitedly. “Mulder!” (He’d asked her to drop the ‘Agent’ almost the second he’d met her, and she’d happily complied.)

He hurried to where she was waving a piece of paper. “Did we get a hit?” he asked, tiredness dropping away.

In response, she smiled and presented him with the sheet of paper. “Looks like it.”

Quickly scanning it, he looked up at her. “The Palace? You know it?”

She nodded. “It’s more a dinner theater than a club, but they market it that way so they’ll draw in the younger crowd. It’s named for the old ‘Palace’ theater in New York City back in the vaudeville days.” She stole a look at the reply. “They have a few contemporary acts, but mainly they keep to the vaudeville theme.”

He looked blankly at her. Vaudeville? In Southern California? Was she serious?

Apparently taking his astonishment as confusion, she clarified, “You know … song and dance, jugglers, magicians, acrobats … that type of act.”

He still found it hard to believe. “People go to this club? Young people like our victims?”

“Oh, yeah. Some of those acts have quite a following.”

That was it. She was pulling his leg. “Ha. Good one. You got me.”

Her delighted laugh made him smile uncertainly. “It’s hard to swallow, I know. But it’s true.” She glanced around the squad room. “It’s in our district. Ask anyone. They’ve been there several times when a fan got a little too … er … enamored and had to be taken in for indecent exposure.”

Mulder’s mouth fell open. “For a juggler?”

She chuckled. “Well, for the singers and dancers, mostly, but every once in a while …” She shrugged. “A juggler. Or an acrobat or magician.” She shook her head. “You never can tell what’s going to float someone’s boat.”

Mulder raised his brows. Man, she wasn’t kidding. This was so absurd it had to be true. “But a juggler?”

She winked at him. “Well … I’ve heard juggling is only a part of the act.”

He had a feeling where this was leading. “I’m afraid to ask.”

She chuckled. “Let’s just say that all the performers are physically fit, which is pretty obvious by the end of their performances.”

Now Mulder was sure she was putting him on. “Strip juggling?”

“And strip magicians, acrobats, animal acts — ”

“Okay, stop. That’s going a little too far, even for me.” His mind was going places he’d rather it didn’t.

She laughed. “Well, now you can see why it’s so popular. Even with young woman.” She grinned slyly. “Especially with young women.”

“Er … yeah.” Something about what she told him just clicked it all into place. That club was the connection. He knew it. If he could only think more clearly —

“Mulder? You okay?”

Looking up at the familiar words to find someone other than his partner was … something of a relief, actually. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. I was just thinking.” He blinked. “I need to get over there. Where’s it located?”

“Where’s what located?”

Scully’s voice directly behind him made him jump, partly from surprise, but mostly out of guilt. Trying to remove the culpable expression from his face, he turned around, only to find his partner with her arms crossed, foot tapping, and a pissed look in her eyes. There was no need to wonder how much she’d heard — the murderous look on her face gave him all the answer he needed.

“We found it,” he said, partially as an effort to distract her, partially because he wanted her to know.

She blinked. “The club?”

He nodded, taking her arm and leading her a few feet away, only just taking note of Kresge who’d been standing next to her. “What’s he doing here?”

“He works here.”

Mulder pursed his lips into a scowl. “Why is he here? With you?” Was the guy going to be up her ass the entire case? Even as he thought it, Mulder gritted his teeth at his choice of phrase. That loser had better not be. Ever.

“He gave me a ride from the morgue. Why?”

Deciding it was not in his best interests to act the jealous boyfriend at this phase in their relationship, Mulder shook his head. “Just wondering why he’s always Johnny-on-the-spot with you.” Damn it. Hadn’t he just told himself not to do that?

Scully frowned. “Is this why you pulled me aside?”

Properly chastised, Mulder put Kresge and his intentions toward Scully out of his head. “We found it.”

“Yes. You said that,” she said dryly.

“No, Scully. That’s it. That’s where he takes them from.”

He could see the second that all thoughts of Kresge and Mulder’s jealousy left her mind. “How can you be sure?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“Mulder, we can’t just focus all our attention on this club without a good reason.”

“Why not?” he argued. “It’s not like they’ve gotten anywhere on this case.” He took hold of her shoulders. “You know me, Scully. You know how these ‘feelings’ usually turn out to be right.”

She stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll check it out.”

He smiled. “Great. Let me get my jacket.”

“Not you, Mulder. Kresge and I will check it out. You’re going back to the hotel to get some rest.”

Her words brought all the resentment he’d been feeling about the detective to the fore. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not, and you know it.” Her harsh whisper hit him like a slap in the face.

“Everything all right, Dana?”

Kresge’s interruption didn’t irritate only him; he was pleased to see Scully roll her eyes in annoyance before she turned to face the detective. “Fine, John.” Looking back at Mulder with her ‘you-know-I’m-right-so-just-suck-it-up-and-do-what-I-say” face, she said, “Mulder’s come up with something. I was wondering if you’d accompany me to the location?”

Mulder thought if Kresge had a tail it would be wagging at light speed. The agent turned away in disgust; he was embarrassed to find Wendy Rogers gazing at him sympathetically. He gave her a half-hearted smile. “Thanks for all your help, Wendy. I think I’d still be writing out cover sheets if it weren’t for you.”

Her smile was a little more sincere. “I have a feeling you would have done all right.” She threw a glance at Scully and Kresge, who were going over how they’d handle the interviewing, and who Mulder was trying his best to ignore. “I wouldn’t worry. She does like him, but she loves you.”

Mulder was too discouraged to be surprised that she had picked up on their relationship. He sighed. “I wish I could be so sure.”

The woman laid a hand on his arm. “I think you are, but every now and then you doubt her and you doubt yourself.” She looked at Scully and Kresge once again before giving her attention back to Mulder. “John’s a great guy. One of the nicest cops I’ve ever met. But your partner’s not interested. Not like you think.”

Mulder’s gaze was drawn to the two of them, Scully laughing at something Kresge said, and Kresge beaming at her adoringly. The agent looked back at Wendy, wondering if he looked as lost as he felt. “I hope you’re right.”

Although she smiled encouragingly at him, he couldn’t muster up the energy or the will to return it. Oh, God, did he hope she was right.

**

Embassy Suites

10:45 pm

Kresge pulled the car under the awning and was about to park when Scully put her hand on his arm. “Thanks for the ride, John. Hopefully by tomorrow we can come up with our own transportation. I hate making you play chauffer all the time.”

“Nonsense, Dana. I don’t mind at all,” Kresge was quick to reply. “If you’re not too tired, maybe we could go over our notes — ”

No sooner had he started talking than a giant yawn overpowered her. It felt like it had started somewhere in her toes. “Gee, John, that would be great but I’m a little bushed tonight. Jet lag, you know,” she smiled back at him. “If you don’t mind taking a rain check, maybe we could go over those notes early tomorrow, before the briefing at 9?”

Kresge’s face fell slightly, but he forced a smile. “Sure. How about I come get you about 7:30. I’ll bring bagels and coffee, we can have a bite to eat while we work.”

Scully smiled brightly. “That sounds wonderful. Oh, and Mulder takes decaf, if it’s not too much trouble. Good night, John.” She completely missed the look of total despair at the mention of her partner because she was busy getting out of the car. She turned and waved to the detective before entering the hotel.

The Palace had been quite the place, she mused as she walked through the double glass doors to the hotel. Sniffing at her sleeve, she grimaced at her reflection in the mirror as she made her way over to the desk. She needed a shower desperately. She smelled like the bottom of an ashtray. But she had to find out what rooms they’d been moved to and she wanted to check in on him before bed. She could call him, but Mulder would probably tell her he was fine even if he was on death’s door. Why were men so stubborn about their health?

The desk clerk looked up at her with a brilliant smile. “May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m Dana Scully. Fox Mulder and I are here on business and we had smoking rooms. We requested non-smoking rooms. There was supposed to be a room change sometime earlier today.”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Scully. You’re now in 1011 and Mr. Mulder is in room 713.” She handed Scully her new room key and a smile. “Your room is a king bed, no smoking. Per your request we moved your bags. Just go on up.”

“Thank you,” Scully said with a tired smile. She headed directly to the elevators and rolled her shoulders on the ride to the seventh floor.

As she walked down the hallway to his room, she planned her visit. If she knocked on the door and immediately asked about his health, Mulder would close down completely and be surly and obstinate. If she couched her visit in terms of bringing him up to speed on the case, he would be more open to her asking about his health. No, more than likely, he’d be more distracted thinking about the case to notice that she was asking about his health. Yeah, that always worked, she reminded herself stoically. Always like never. Still she had to try.

She found his door and gave it a few rapid taps, in deference to others who might be trying to sleep. He opened the door and smiled at her, before erupting into a coughing fit.

“Hi, Scully. You found me,” he rasped around a few more choked coughs. “What did you find at the Palace?” He waved her in and closed the door.

“Mulder … ” She stopped before she started questioning his health. Get him on the case, she reminded her ‘overactive mother instinct’ — as Mulder referred to her normal concern. “It was interesting, to say the least. We talked to the manager, showed him pictures of the victims. He remembered two of them. Said they were regulars.”

“I knew we’d hit pay dirt,” Mulder replied with an enthusiastic nod of his head. He reached out and grabbed a chair suddenly, as if to steady himself.

“Mulder, are you dizzy?” she asked. In a move that would have made a stunt man proud, he flipped the chair around and was sitting on it before she’d finished her question.

“Me?” he asked innocently. When she folded her arms across her chest he gave her a half-shrug. “A little, yeah. I was lying down, I probably just got up too quickly when you knocked.”

“You were coughing, too, just now. Do you need your inhaler?”

He ran his hand through his hair. “So we have a commonality, finally. We need to check out the employees, maybe even the acts, especially on the nights the women went missing — ”

He was ignoring her. He knew she hated that. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she considered calling him on it, but suddenly she stopped and visibly sniffed the air. “Mulder, they didn’t give you a non-smoking room?”

“If they had, I wouldn’t be in this one,” he reasoned.

“No wonder you’re dizzy and coughing,” she said with a sigh. “This is ridiculous!” She reached for the phone on the desk, but his hand shot out and grabbed her wrist.

“No use, Scully. I already complained. They are completely out of no-smoking rooms. But they did offer me an additional night’s stay — no smoking, if available.”

She shook her head, trying to calm her anger. She didn’t want to direct it at Mulder because he was the victim. “Look, this is completely unacceptable. Mulder — ”

“I know, Scully, I know. I even thought about sleeping in the bathroom with the fan on all night,” he suggested. “But the tub isn’t that comfortable.”

“No, I bet it isn’t,” she said, giving him a smile and rubbing his arm. “Look, I’m going to get you packed — ”

“I really don’t want to change hotels in the middle of the — ”

“You’re coming to my room.”

**end of part 2**

Shred of Doubt (3/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

They both stopped talking and looked at each other. Scully recovered from the shock first. “Mulder, it’s the only reasonable solution. The clerk said my room is no-smoking, all the rooms have sleeper sofas — ”

“A sleeper sofa,” he said dully, and the light that had been in his eyes extinguished.

“Well, actually, she did say the bed is a king, so I don’t see why we’d even need to pull out the sleeper sofa,” she corrected. His enthusiasm for sharing a room shot up several levels. “But Mulder, we’re on a case, and you really aren’t up to — ”

“Your honor is perfectly safe, Scully,” he said with a sad smile. “But that does sound like a better solution than sleeping in the tub.”

It didn’t take long to gather up his clothes and toiletries because he’d never unpacked from the move earlier. They made it up to the tenth floor and Mulder felt totally done in for the night.

“I want to type up some notes,” Scully said. “Why don’t you go ahead and hit the sack. I won’t be long and I can close the door to the bedroom so the light doesn’t disturb you.”

“Do you want me to go over the notes with you?” he asked. He wanted so much to help her on the case. He hated being sick or injured, but it felt like more than that to him. He couldn’t stop comparing himself to Kresge and finding out that he came up short. He wanted to show her that she wasn’t making a mistake staying with him. He had to look better in her eyes. This time, though, he just wasn’t able to get around the limitations his body was placing on him.

“As much as I would like that, Mulder, you really need to get some sleep.” She walked over to him and reached her hand up to cup his cheek. “I’ll tuck you in,” she offered with a coy smile. He couldn’t believe his body failed him again when he felt himself blush.

“With an offer like that — how can I refuse?” he replied and allowed her to take his hand and lead him into the bedroom. She gave him a light push in the direction of the bathroom, where he closed the door and came out in just his boxers and tee shirt. “You know, this could be habit forming,” he told her and she held back the covers so that he could slide under them.

“You mean you actually doing something when I tell you to do it?” she asked with a tilt of her chin.

“No, us getting ready for bed together,” he shot back and caught her hand to pull her down for a kiss. “I like this.”

After a second kiss, she touched his cheek. “I like this too. But right now — ”

“I know, I know. You have work to do.” He sighed heavily and rolled on his side, trying to find a comfortable position. “Scully — ”

Without him saying a word, she walked over to the closet and pulled out the extra pillow. He accepted it gratefully and propped himself up so that he wasn’t lying flat on the bed. “Thanks.”

“I won’t be long,” she promised.

The next thing Mulder knew, light was creeping around the edges of the drapes and Scully was draped over his chest, tickling him with her hair. It felt wonderful. Unfortunately, it was also hard to breathe. He took a moment to brush the hair from her face and just look at the woman in his arms. She was beautiful. She was his best friend, his most loyal confidante and he was willing to admit she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. If he died of asphyxiation right then, at least he would be a happy man. However, he was pretty sure Scully would not be so pleased.

“Scully,” he croaked and shifted, trying to lower her weight to the mattress and not just dump her on the floor in his haste to get a breath. “Scully,” he tried again. He was getting desperate; he needed air, and fast.

Slowly she raised her head and looked into his face. A split second of drowsy smile was quickly followed by full-blown look of anxiety when she saw the panicked look in his eyes. “Mulder, what — ”

“Move?” he pleaded and she jumped back, landing completely off the bed but on her feet. He lunged forward in an attempt to escape the inevitable, but wasn’t fast enough. A coughing fit overtook him and he struggled to pull air into his lungs while his body was expelling that same air forcefully. When he thought he was going to pass out, the inhaler magically appeared at his lips and he sucked on it like a lamprey eel. In a few moments the crisis had passed and he slumped down to the pillows. “G’ mornin’,” he gasped.

He was afraid she was going to reach for the phone and call for an ambulance, but she surprised him when she reached instead for his wayward hair and brushed her fingers lightly across his forehead. “Good morning,” she said with a gentle smile. “Are you OK now?”

“Was OK. Just needed air,” he rasped, hesitantly drawing more of the life-giving substance into his lungs. It burned as it always did after a shot of the inhaler, but at least he wasn’t seeing little black spots before his eyes.

“Well, aside from the coughing, that was a nice way to wake up,” she assured him. “What time is it?” He knew she didn’t expect him to answer; she was already squinting at the clock on the nightstand. “Good grief, it’s 5 till 7! John will be downstairs in a few minutes.”

He tried not to let his disappointment show. Now she was calling the little prick ‘John’? When the hell had that happened? But if he was going to pick them up Mulder was going to be ready. He started to toss the covers off and get out of bed, but Scully stopped him with a hand on his chest.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she asked loudly. He wanted to reply in kind, but another cough was lurking around his ribcage and he wasn’t going to let it out. He gave her his best ‘where do you think’ look and moved her hand. “Mulder, look, I think you really need to rest up this morning. I’ll shower now, you rest.”

It was hard not talking, but they’d been doing it for two weeks and he felt they were getting good at it. He let his eyes flick over to the bathroom and tilted his head in his most impatient expression. She backed off immediately. He shot her a wink as he made his way into the bathroom.

“I mean it, Mulder. I really want you to get some more rest. Just this morning. I’ll make sure someone picks you up by about 10, how does that sound?”

He made a point to ignore her as much as he could. He had finished up in the bathroom, washed his hands, double-checked the position of the toilet lid to ensure it was properly lowered and returned to the bedroom. She was standing there in the middle of the room, biting her lip with a hopeful expression.

He just wanted to scoop her up and carry her to the bed. They could both stay there until 10, maybe 10 that evening. But that rancid little cough was tickling his rib again and he carefully drew in a sigh. With a resigned look at his partner, he climbed back into bed, plumped the pillows to a comfortable height, and lay back on them. For good measure, he smoothed the covers over his chest and smiled.

What she did next surprised the crap out of him. Coming forward with a sultry look in her eyes, she placed one knee on the bed and kissed him fully and hard. He felt her tongue caress his bottom lip and just when he was going to open his mouth to allow her in — she stood up and sauntered into the bathroom, closing the door. He slumped down on the pillows, totally spent. How had she done that?

He didn’t think he was sleepy, but he closed his eyes and basked in a fantasy where they were both in the shower, water sluicing off her naked body and splashing onto his. He was warm, he could breathe, oh man could he breathe, and Scully was doing things with her hands —

The ringing phone startled him and he rolled over to grab for the receiver. “Mulder,” he wheezed.

There was silence on the other end. He thought he heard someone breathing and became annoyed. “Who is this?” he huffed.

More silence, followed by a sigh. “This is John Kresge. I was looking for Agent Scully.”

“Oh. She’s in the shower,” Mulder said, clearing his throat. Bad idea, but it resulted in only a little cough. The medication from the inhaler was still working. “Can I give her a message when she gets out?”

More silence. Finally, in a voice that could only be described as sullen, Kresge responded. “Would you mind telling her that I’ll be a little late? There’s an accident on the interstate and I’ll be there closer to 7:45.”

“Sure,” Mulder replied. He was going to say something else, but the detective had already hung up.

He stared at the receiver in his hand for a full minute. That was weird. Then it dawned on Mulder that Kresge saw the conversation much differently than a simple call to tell someone their ride was late. He thought of Kresge, with his smarmy smiles and drooling all over Scully. That same little prick was currently caught in traffic, imagining all kinds of things about the two FBI agents from Washington — who had apparently spent the night together. If it wouldn’t have resulted in another coughing fit, Mulder would have jumped up on the bed and done a happy dance right then and there.

But as he heard the shower turn off and the hair dryer start up in the bathroom, Mulder was hit with another scenario. Scully had to work with this guy. This guy was a member of a large city police department. Water cooler gossip was almost as intrinsic in police work as handcuffs and Kevlar. And it would all come down on Scully’s head because that was how it always worked. Mulder would look like the lucky stud and Scully would be labeled — He let out a heavy sigh and knew that he had to at least warn her.

She entered the bedroom in the hotel-supplied bathrobe and he couldn’t help but smile.

“What are you so happy about this morning?” she asked as she dug through the closet to pull out yet another black pantsuit.

“Oh, um, nothing, just feeling a little better,” he rasped. “Kresge called. He said he was stuck in traffic and would be late — about 15 minutes.”

“That was considerate of him,” she said absently. “Hey, that gives us enough time for me to run downstairs and get you some breakfast. You shouldn’t take your medicine on an empty stomach.”

He started to object and then he realized what was happening. Scully was bringing him breakfast in bed. Sure, it didn’t have all the promise it normally would have had to his libido — they had only held each other during the night and his body wasn’t ready for much more — but it was the thought that counted. “Sure, yeah, that would be nice,” he stumbled.

She flashed him another smile. “Promise you won’t jump out of bed on me,” she warned him playfully.

Parts of him were almost willing to do just that, but when he was just about ready to return the entendre his chest tightened painfully, reminding him of his condition. “I promise,” he said, hoping his disappointment wasn’t too apparent.

“Poor Mulder,” she cooed, coming back and giving him a sweet, chaste kiss. “I’ll just throw on my clothes and get you something. Omelet? Cereal? I know better than to ask if you want some fruit, that would ruin your day,” she teased.

“Omelet. With cheese, if it’s not too much bother?” he replied. “And coffee?” She was already in the bathroom again and he hoped she’d be distracted enough not to take too much notice of his last request.

“Decaf. No caffeine while you’re on the meds,” she reminded him. She stepped back out of the bath looking like a million dollars. “But I’ll bring you back fresh squeezed orange juice, how’s that?”

She was being so nice to him he almost wanted to cry. A sudden thought froze his heart. He couldn’t let her go out without one last warning. “Scully, when Kresge called — ummm, I answered the phone.”

“Yeah, what about it?” she asked as she gathered up her purse and checked to make sure she had her room key.

“It was early in the morning,” Mulder prodded.

She gave him a funny look until he raised an eyebrow and nodded down to the bed. “Oh,” she said, finally catching on to what he was trying to say. “Oh, Mulder, I don’t think — ”

“Scully, you know what kind of rumors have been going around the Hoover for seven years,” he reminded her in a hoarse whisper.

“You’re right. I better set him straight. Darn it all, I wish people would just — oh well,” she huffed. “Hey, I better run downstairs or there’ll be a line for omelets. Can your throat handle a blueberry muffin?”

His heart melted. He loved her so much! She was always thinking of him. He wanted more than the muffin. But when he swallowed and felt the acid in his throat he knew it wasn’t meant to be. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said and sighed forlornly.

“It will get better, Mulder. But you can’t push yourself,” she cautioned. She tempered her statement with another quick kiss. “I have my key, so you don’t have to let me in. Be right back.”

He flopped back on the pillows and let his body fall into a doze, dreaming of another day in the near future when they’d share breakfast in bed.

**

Embassy Suites

Scully’s Room

May 2, 2000

7:44 a.m.

Scully balanced the coffee cup and the orange juice carton on top of the take-out container held in her left hand as she slid the key card into the door lock with her right. As soon as she gained entry, her eyes sought out the display on the digital clock beside the bed.

Damn. She’d been right about the long line, wrong about her timing. There’d been four people ahead of her by the time she’d arrived at the omelet station, and when she’d heard the elaborate order the man in front of her placed, she’d nearly groaned out loud in frustration. Luckily, once he’d finally completed his request and Scully had moved up, she was relieved to find more than one chef handling the ‘special orders’ section of the breakfast buffet.

Having made previous arrangements with the hostess to charge the breakfast to her room, once Scully had received her order — ahead of the fifty-ingredient man, she was pleased to note — she’d been able to head right back to her room.

After she placed Mulder’s breakfast on the table in the dining area of the suite, she turned to him, mouth open to shout out a quick ‘Breakfast!’ before high-tailing it out the door to meet the detective. When she got a look at her partner, however, she stopped dead in her tracks, mouth still open but for another reason entirely. Oh. My. God, she thought. How adorable is he?

Her face melted into a smile as she took in her sleeping partner. He was lying on his side, knees bent, pillow lovingly cradled to his chest with one hand while the other was tucked inward, curled beneath his chin. He looked like a kitten, all cuddly and innocent, and she decided that it wouldn’t kill Kresge to wait a few minutes while she drank in the sight of Mulder in repose.

The quiet ‘snick’ of the digital clock advancing another numeral caught her attention, and she cursed when she noted the time. How could she have spent five whole minutes staring at her sleeping partner, totally unaware of the passage of time? Right, Dana, she told herself. Like you’ve never done that before.

Almost getting sucked in again, Scully shook her head and grabbed her briefcase. On impulse, she took out her digital camera and snapped off two quick shots of him. That picture was much too precious to entrust to just her memory.

Tucking her camera back in her bag, she touched Mulder’s shoulder, shaking it gently. “Mulder …” He moaned sleepily, and she smiled. “Your breakfast is on the table. I’ve got to go.”

“Mmmokay …” he mumbled, and she leaned over and gave him a slightly lingering kiss on his cheek.

“That the best you can do?” he asked in that sexy rasp of a voice.

“For now.”

His eyes still weren’t open, but his lips thinned in a smile.

“I’m late to meet Detective Kresge.”

“What a shame.” He didn’t sound at all sincere.

“Do you want me to send someone for you at ten, or do you want to make your own way in when you’re ready?”

He looked like he’d fallen asleep again, but she knew he was just thinking it over. “I’ll grab a cab later,” he finally said. “Where will you be?”

“Probably going over notes with John.”

“John,” he said so quietly she just barely heard it. A frown creased her brow. She wondered just what it was that Mulder had against Detective Kresge. He’d been nothing but friendly and cooperative since he’d picked them up, and Mulder had been barely civil to the man.

Well, she didn’t have time to figure it out now. She’d kept the poor man waiting long enough. “Mulder, I have to go,” she said, heading for the door. “I’ll see you later this morning, okay?”

“Sure, Scully,” he croaked. “Later.”

He sounded so down in the dumps that she was sorely tempted to call Kresge and tell him she’d be along later, but she couldn’t do that to him. After all, he was kind enough to pick her up, and he’d probably been waiting patiently for about fifteen minutes. “Don’t forget to eat your breakfast,” she offered as consolation.

“I won’t,” he said. “See you later?” he said, uncertainty clear in his voice.

“Later, Mulder,” she said firmly, and with all the conviction she could muster. She gave him one last look before she dashed out the door.

God, now she knew why it was a bad idea for her to share a room with her partner while on a case. Leaving him in bed, rumpled, drowsy and unshaven (just the way she liked him) while she went to work was just too damned hard.

**

Embassy Suites Parking Garage

7:58 a.m.

John looked at his watch — again, he noted — and sighed. He’d gotten there a few minutes ahead of his promised time, so he’d settled in to wait, expecting to see Dana appear promptly at 7:45. Now it was thirteen minutes past that time, and she still hadn’t made an appearance.

John was torn. If she didn’t show in, say, fifteen minutes, should he call her or assume she was ‘occupied’ and leave? He was shocked when he’d called her room about an hour earlier, and her partner answered. He didn’t want to think about what could be making her late.

When he saw her emerge from the garage elevator, he breathed a sigh of relief. No way did he want to call that room again. He opened the car door and stepped out, waving to her. “Dana!”

Her eyes immediately found his, and she waved back, smiling. “Hi,” she said, approaching the passenger side. “Sorry I’m late.”

He held the door for her, then ran back to the driver’s seat. As they both buckled up, John said, “That’s okay.” Hell, what the heck else could he say? ‘Sorry to have interrupted …’ What? Damn, just what did he interrupt?

“I was getting Mulder’s breakfast, and got hung up in the restaurant.”

He couldn’t prevent the astonishment that had to be showing on his face.

Her laughter surprised him. “Don’t worry. I don’t make a habit of it. Mulder’s recovering from a lung infection, and his medication requires that it be taken with food. If I didn’t bring him something, I know he’d just do without.”

The guy had been sick? Well, after yesterday’s experience in the car, John could believe it. “Uh … what happened?”

Dana looked out the window. “On our last case, Mulder came into contact with something that seriously compromised his lungs. It was pretty touch and go for awhile.”

Her partner almost died? No wonder she was so protective of him. John could certainly understand that. “He’s all right now, though?”

She met his eyes, then looked away again. “He’s better. Still not much of a voice, and his throat’s still tender, but he’s better.”

John nodded. “That’s good.” He didn’t know what else to say. That still didn’t explain why he’d spent the night in her room, but John wouldn’t ask.

Feeling a warm hand on his arm, he looked up to find Dana gazing at him uncertainly. “John, when you called this morning and Mulder answered … the hotel put him in a smoking room, and he was having trouble breathing.” She took a breath. “My room is non-smoking, so he stayed in there.”

So … did that mean she didn’t stay there? She hadn’t actually come out and said she did. Or that she didn’t. John just nodded.

“Well,” she said brightly. “Shall we head on in?”

John blinked. End of discussion, he guessed. At least as far as she was concerned. Yet, he found himself returning her smile, accepting her explanation — sort of. He figured if she was screwing the guy, she’d look a hell of a lot more guilty than she did. John prided himself on being able to ‘read’ people, and Dana did not have the appearance of a woman who had spent the night having her brains fucked out. “You bet,” he said, pulling out of the space.

Dana was quiet on the drive to the station, and when John had sneaked a peek — or three or four — at her, she’d looked calm, composed, and utterly guileless. Either there was nothing going on between her and her partner, or she was the world’s greatest actress. John was more than happy to opt for the former.

A deciding factor in her favor were the two times she’d caught him peeking; the smiles she’d given him were not the smiles of a woman who was trying to hide something from him.

Once more secure in his freedom to pursue Dana Scully’s affections, John was a much happier man as he parked in his designated spot at headquarters. Mulder may have spent the night in Dana’s room — whether she was there or not — but her motives had been purely maternal. Her partner was ill, and she just did what any good partner would do. Man, John wished that he was her partner. There’d be more than sleeping and breakfast going on, that’s for sure.

Turning off the ignition, John quickly exited the car and hustled around to open the door for Dana. She looked surprised, and John couldn’t help but think that was yet another reason he should be her partner instead of the ungentlemanly one she was currently saddled with. Not only did Mulder make her carry heavy luggage, he must never open car doors (or any other doors, for that matter!) for her — and Dana deserved that courteousness. Well, as long as she was in his company, John would see to that.

At the station door, Dana reached for it, but John reached around her to grab the handle first. When Dana started at the unexpected courtesy, John was convinced that her partner was an uncouth lout. The strained smile she gave him was his proof: she was embarrassed. Whether for herself or for her partner, though, he wasn’t certain.

John couldn’t help feeling anger at the way she was being treated, and by the fact that she’d apparently accepted this behavior as normal. “Is Mulder your first partner?” he asked, sure he knew the answer.

Her look of bewilderment gave him cause to chuckle. God, she was cute. “Why?” she asked.

“Oh, just wondering.”

She eyed him a few seconds before answering. “Yes, he is”

Ha! He knew she hadn’t had anything to compare him to. That must be the reason she put up with him — she’d never known it could be any different. Any better. He’d just have to show her that all men weren’t swine, that some were actually very considerate. Then maybe she wouldn’t gravitate to that partner of hers so readily. Maybe she’d look at Mulder with new eyes, and she wouldn’t like what she’d see.

Oh, yeah. She was so going to be John’s.

**

3450 Delavan Drive

Apt 503

11:17 am

Mulder swept aside the crime scene tape on the doorway and entered the room. He was immediately accosted by a uniformed officer, who just as quickly let him stay after seeing his Bureau identification. “Where’s the body?” Mulder rasped, punctuating his inquiry with a strangled cough.

“Bedroom. First door on the left,” the uniform said, pointing to a hallway leading back into the apartment.

Mulder nodded his thanks, not trusting his vocal chords to answer. He’d felt 100 percent better upon waking for the second time that morning. That, however, was before he’d gotten out of bed, taken a shower, dressed, caught a taxi to the Police Department, and subsequently spent an hour in the ‘squad room from the Black Lagoon’ as he had affectionately nicknamed his temporary office. Then came the call from Scully and the ride out to the scene with a chain smoking junior detective. Now, he was seriously dragging, but he fought the urge to lie down on the floor and whimper. Scully had called him to the crime scene. He had to look like he was well enough to stay.

He heard Kresge say something as he was walking down the hall and heard Scully’s soft alto in response. Something the jerk had said had amused her. That was enough to raise his hackles. Mulder had a hard enough time playing nice with the locals when the locals weren’t busy trying to steal his woman. He stopped short, shaking his head. That was a statement best left to his private thoughts. If Scully ever heard him talking like that, speaking in a higher register would become a permanent condition.

When he entered the room, they were standing by the window, examining something in the light shining in. Her head was bent down, studying the object the detective held up to the glass. Her hair was shining in the sunlight; it looked copper and burnished and Mulder thought of all the poems he’d been forced to memorize during literature classes in college. Maybe it was so that someday he could look at a woman and compare her to those poems … He shook his head to clear his thoughts again. How sick was it to be comparing his partner to poetry in the middle of a murder scene? Sick enough, he assured himself. He ordered his libido to get a grip.

“Mulder, you found the place,” Scully said suddenly, noticing him in the doorway. “Here, we need your opinion on this.” She stepped forward and waved her hand toward the floor next to the blood soaked bed. He stepped around the foot of the bed and was assaulted by the sight of the deceased.

The body was a male this time, and just to make sure the difference was noted, the mouth was stuffed with something white. Mulder snapped on a pair of gloves Scully offered him and crouched closer to the body. He looked up at his partner with a question in his eyes.

“It’s all been documented, Mulder. Knock yourself out,” she said with a wink.

Without further hesitation, he grasped the jaws of the corpse and opened the mouth. White flower petals tumbled to the floor, some catching on the blood that covered the body and tainting the edges with crimson.

“White? White roses this time?” Mulder croaked. “White,” he repeated, softer this time, to himself.

“Still seem to be the cheap discount store type silk flowers,” Kresge offered. “We bagged several for analysis, but that got us nowhere last time.”

Mulder frowned and reached for the victim’s hands. He checked the backs of both hands before pointing to the left one. “Stamp,” he said in an explosive breath and coughed once.

“Yeah. We’ll have to check but I would suspect the Palace again. So we know where, but we still don’t know whom,” Scully said, crossing her arms. Just at that moment, her cell phone chirped in her pocket. “Excuse me.”

While Scully walked away to answer her phone, Mulder stood and started taking in the crime scene. “His apartment?” he squawked, then made the mistake of trying to clear his throat. It only caused him to cough.

“Yeah,” Kresge said, visibly ill at ease around Mulder’s condition. “Victim’s name is George Townsend, 29. He’s an auto mechanic, or he was. Didn’t show up at the Lexus Dealership and the boss got worried, sent someone over. They found him about 8:15 this morning.”

“Tough boss,” Mulder jeered.

“He’d been dead about 6 hours, according to the ME. Who would really like to get the body over to the morgue soon,” Kresge said, closing his notebook.

Mulder waved his hand, indicating he had no objections. Scully closed her phone and walked over beside him. He gave her a look and she nodded to a corner of the room.

“That was Mom. She’s invited us to dinner.” At his sigh, she held up her hand. “I tried to beg off, but we’re in San Diego — Mulder, I didn’t have the heart to say no. Besides, she pointed out we both need to eat. You, especially.” At that comment he screwed up his face in a sour expression. “Two hours, tops. We’ll tell them we have to leave to go over notes for tomorrow. OK?”

He shrugged a non-comment with one shoulder.

“Great,” she said with a nod of her head. “Bill said he’d come by the hotel to pick us up at 6.” And with that she whisked off to oversee the removal of the body and arrange for her place at the autopsy. Mulder was left to stand in the corner, contemplating his luck in life, or lack thereof.

Bill Scully hated him, of that he was absolutely certain. Honestly, Mulder suspected that Billy boy had been overjoyed at Mulder’s recent illness, hoping for a final resolution to the ‘Mulder Problem’ in his sister’s life. Sitting across the table from Bill Scully was not something he relished even when he was in top form; how much less enjoyable would it be when Mulder couldn’t adequately defend himself?

Kresge broke into his thoughts, coming up beside him. “I just called the station. We have the list of employees, and one seems a likely candidate. Bartender, former Army Ranger, drummed out after getting into one too many brawls. Killed a guy at Fort Leonard Wood, did 6 years in Leavenworth. He worked every night the murders took place, including last night.”

“Are you bringing him in?” Mulder rasped.

“We have an APB on him but he wasn’t at his trailer home just now. Don’t worry, we’ll have check points down on the border in fifteen minutes. The airport and train and bus station are covered. We’ll find him.”

Mulder nodded, but frowned. That was so simple. Could it be the bartender? Almost as bad as having the butler do it in the old movies. But at least it would make Kresge happy. Or would it? Mulder looked over at the detective. For all the world, he didn’t look like a guy who was hot on the heels of probably one of the biggest collars of his life.

“So, we get this sewn up, you’ll be heading back to Washington,” Kresge said irritably.

It’s where we live, asshole, Mulder wanted to say. But it wouldn’t sound nearly as well spoken in a broken voice as it sounded in his head. So he merely nodded in agreement.

“Of course we’ll have a couple of days, clearing up the paperwork,” Kresge continued, his dark expression lightening. Mulder could almost hear the little hamster run in his wheel inside the detective’s beady little brain.

Mulder gave a half shoulder shrug. Wasn’t there always paperwork?

“But it really wouldn’t be necessary for you to stick around, Agent Mulder. I mean, if you’re still under the weather after your — ah, illness.”

The light shone brightly over Mulder’s head. Aha! The guy was just trying to figure out a way to get him back to DC so that the path to Scully was free and clear! Not so fast, hotshot, Mulder thought angrily.

“Help with report,” he ground out, and patted Kresge amiably on the shoulder. “Glad to,” he added with a wink and a plastic grin.

San Diego Police Department

5:35 pm

Mulder sat on the wobbly chair, chewing on the end of a pencil already pocked with impressions of his back molars and stared at the mass of fungi growing on the wall. He wasn’t really looking at the mold, just using it as a focal point for his internal processing.

The Department had issued an All Points Bulletin on Darren Edward Dodds, DOB 04/15/74, last known address 1453 Waller Court, Lot 6, San Diego early that morning and had yet to get a handle on the man’s whereabouts. That seemed to bother the hell out of Detective John Kresge, who made a point of storming up and down the hallway whenever one more report of a false lead came through. It even seemed to disturb Scully, but she had her hands full with the lunch hour autopsy of George Townsend.

He had seen her briefly after the slice and dice session. She’d cajoled him into joining her ‘and John’ in grabbing a bite to eat at the burrito stand on the corner. Mulder hoped Kresge was regretting that action as much as he was. But after eating and ensuring that Mulder was encamped in the office with its own ecosystem, she’d vanished for the rest of the afternoon.

“Mulder, you ready to head back to the hotel?” Her voice came to him out of the blue and he almost bit the pencil in half.

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” he rasped out and gave her a timid smile.

She gave him her patented ‘Mulder-it-won’t-be-that-bad’ roll of the eyes, guaranteed to ensure his continued reluctance. Usually when she wore that look, the ass-chewing they got from Skinner went a few feet up Mulder’s spine.

She ignored his sigh and gathered the papers he’d carelessly strewn on the desktop. “Do you want to take these back to the hotel?” she asked, holding the now-straightened pile in her hand. At his affirmative nod she tucked them in his briefcase and clipped it shut. “What were you looking at, Mulder? It sounds like we know who this guy is now.”

Mulder screwed up his face and swallowed around a particularly sore spot in his throat. “Too easy,” he replied in a hoarse whisper.

“Easy? He’s running. We can’t find him. How is that easy?”

Mulder shrugged. “Doesn’t feel right, Scully,” he ground out painfully. The combination s and hard c seemed to cause him a lot of trouble. It didn’t stop him from saying her name, however.

“You don’t think it’s someone from the Palace now?” she asked, holding the door to the hallway for him.

“Don’t think it’s the bartender,” he tried to explain.

“Well, I think you’re missing a few facts, then,” Kresge’s voice came from behind them in the hall. “Like this.” He handed Scully some faxed papers. She held them out so that Mulder could read over her shoulder.

“He’s a suspect in murders in Los Angeles, too,” Scully noted, skimming the report. “And Denver?”

“We have stumbled on a serial after all,” Kresge said with a proud voice.

“MO?” Mulder asked, taking the papers from Scully and reading quickly. He started shaking his head before he even finished the second page. “He shot them.” He handed the papers back to Kresge. “Not our guy,” he added.

“Look, Agent Mulder, we have a known murderer in contact with each of the victims immediately preceding their murders,” Kresge argued loudly.

Mulder rolled his eyes and shook his head again. He started to walk down the hall, but Kresge grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. “What the hell more do you need to convince you this is our guy?”

Mulder snorted out a breath and looked the detective in the eye. “Motive. Evidence. Rose petals,” he ticked off his fingers. “Not the guy,” he repeated and this time when he walked away, Kresge didn’t try to stop him.

“Your partner is crazy,” Mulder heard him say to Scully. He didn’t wait around to hear what response she had to that statement.

**

En Route to Embassy Suites Hotel

5:46 p.m.

As much as it pained her, Scully asked John Kresge to ferry her and Mulder back to their hotel. She’d just let Kresge have it for that crack about her partner’s sanity when the realization hit her that with less than twenty minutes to get back to the hotel and be ready by 6, they were at the detective’s mercy. There were no cabs to be found in this area, and they didn’t have the time to call and wait for one. So she swallowed her pride and watched Mulder close his eyes and sigh in defeat as they both accepted the inevitable.

Apparently, the detective had an affinity for redheads with tempers because her tirade hadn’t had the least effect on him. He was his genial, polite self as he agreed to be their chauffer, and he graciously offered her the front seat. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, this pissed her off.

Mulder seemed content to crawl into the cramped back seat, and when Kresge held the door for her yet again, she resisted the urge to emulate her partner’s action of less than a minute ago. Instead she glared at Mulder — simply because he’d felt free to display his emotions, and she couldn’t — and smiled at Kresge, insincere though it was. While the detective was scampering back to his own side of the car, she took the opportunity to finally give in and heave a ‘give me strength’ sigh.

Mulder’s attempt at a chuckle turned into a gurgling cough, and she turned around to, first, make sure he was okay, and, second, chide him for laughing at her. But when she saw him, all she could do was stare at him in awe, reflecting that until that point in time she’d never seen his body in quite that position. “Oh, Mulder …”

She searched under the seat until she found the lever, then moved her seat forward as much as she could. “Better?” she asked, as her partner removed his knees from his armpits.

He nodded. “Thanks,” he said, more as an exhalation of breath than as a spoken word.

She smiled at him, then her attention was stolen by Kresge as he got in.

“Sorry about the lack of leg room, Agent Mulder,” the detective said. “The back seat’s not exactly designed for someone of your height.”

Scully gave the man a hard look. Then why the hell did he have Mulder sit in back while she should have been the obvious choice to sit there? She shook her head. When would men ever start thinking with their brains?

“It’s fine,” Mulder grated out. “Now.”

Kresge swiveled his head to take in her more comfortable-looking partner, then to the position of Scully’s seat, then back to Mulder, and finally back to her. “Oh. Right. Good.”

Scully looked at Mulder and exchanged a glance with him, seeing her amusement mirrored in his eyes. She carried that image with her as she settled into her seat once again.

The two of them spent the rest of the short ride in silence as John recounted all the efforts the SDPD was expending to locate their perp. When Kresge reinforced his view that Darren Edward Dodds was their man, and Mulder didn’t utter a peep, she knew he’d tuned the detective out. God, she wished she could do the same, but one of them had to be polite, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be her partner.

At last the hotel was in sight, and Scully sat up straighter in her seat. Out the corner of her eye, she saw Mulder doing the same. He looked ready to leap out at the first opportunity.

She knew how he felt. Sure, John Kresge was nice, and sure it was sweet of him to be so attentive to her, but he was starting to get on her nerves. She could take only so much chivalry from one man, and she’d just about reached her limit.

“Well, here we are,” John announced unnecessarily.

She waited for some remark from Mulder, but he merely said, “Thanks, Detective. We appreciate the lift.”

Relieved that he hadn’t seen fit to belittle the detective, Scully smiled. “Yes, thanks, John. We should have a car tomorrow, so we won’t have to bother you anymore.”

John’s smile almost hurt her eyes. “It’s no trouble, Dana. I don’t mind at all. In fact, if your partner needs to use the car, I’ll be glad to give you a ride. Any time.”

Seeing no need to mention that that wasn’t likely to happen (thank God) since Mulder wasn’t allowed to drive yet, she said, “Thanks, John. I’ll keep that in mind.” She gave him one last parting smile as she got out of the car and stood next to Mulder. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Kresge returned. “Have a good evening.”

As the detective drove away, she gazed up at her partner. He gave her a weak smile as they made their way into the hotel. “You don’t suppose they got you a non-smoking room, do you?” she asked him.

Mulder shrugged. “Probably not, but we may as well ask.”

Too tired to be frustrated by the negative answer, they trudged to the elevators. They boarded the car, and Scully pressed the button for Mulder’s floor. At his questioning look, she said, “Let’s get you packed and moved into my room. Bill can wait a few minutes.”

Mulder hesitated a moment, then said quietly, “Will you be staying there, too?”

She nodded. “I don’t want to sleep in an ashtray, either.”

He looked down at the floor. “I’m sorry — ”

“Don’t, Mulder. None of this is your fault.”

He nodded. “I don’t like being needy, Scully,” he said softly.

All set to let loose a barrage of encouraging words, she took one look at the defeat on his face and said, “I know.”

They rode the rest of the way in silence, but Mulder took hold of her hand and didn’t let it go.

**end of part 3**

Shred of Doubt (4/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

Bill & Tara Scully’s Residence

7:12 p.m.

Mulder closed the door to the bathroom and sank down onto the closed toilet lid. As expected, after an hour in the presence of Scully’s older brother, he had a splitting headache. Too bad it didn’t take his mind off the roiling in his stomach and the fire in his throat.

Tonight had been ‘taco night’ at the Scully household — apparently a tradition begun by Maggie Scully twenty or so years ago — and though Mulder had been just as alarmed and dismayed as his partner at the thought of what that spicy, crunchy food would do to his tender constitution, he’d flat-out refused to allow Scully to utter one word in his defense. He absolutely would not show any weakness in front of Scully’s evil sibling.

The look of disappointment on Billy Boy’s face as Mulder attacked the filled tortilla with gusto was worth the torture of swallowing the damned thing. The hard corn shell had done a number on his throat while the hot sauce and tomatoes wreaked havoc with his digestive system. That burrito he’d eaten earlier came back to haunt him as well.

Glad that all the water he’d downed gave him an excuse to leave the table, Mulder resolved to spend the rest of the evening right where he was. After a few minutes of trying to calm his somersaulting stomach (with not much luck), Mulder made full use of the facilities, washed his hands, then plonked back down on the lid. He was beyond caring what the family thought. He felt crappy, and he just wanted to be left alone.

“Mulder?” Scully’s soft rap forced him to gather his reserve strength, what little he had left.

“I’ll be right out,” he called as loudly as he could, igniting the fire in his throat once more.

“Are you all right?” Her concern made him embarrassed. Here he was, a grown man, hiding in a bathroom. How wimpy was that?

“I’m fine,” he answered. Pushing to his feet, he checked his appearance in the mirror. Christ, what did he do to his hair? He looked like Alfalfa on a bad hair day. Opening the door, he smiled tiredly. “Hey, Scully.”

She returned his smile, but hers was tinged with sympathy. “Are you sure you’re okay? Everyone’s been worried about you.”

He cringed at the thought that his absence had been a matter of discussion amongst Scully’s family.

Her eyes softened in concern. “Sorry. But you’ve been up here for twenty minutes.” She shrugged. “They noticed.”

Twenty minutes? Was that all? He’d hoped it had been more like an hour, and they could leave. “I, uh …” He laid a hand over his mid-section. ” … had a little stomach trouble.” Oh, God, he couldn’t believe he’d admitted that to her.

“Is that all?” She laid a comforting hand on his arm, and he wanted to curl up in a ball at her feet and tell her how rotten he felt.

That, of course, was out of the question. He was Man. He was strong. He did not whine. Usually.

“Yeah,” he finally croaked out, unable to prevent a wince when he swallowed.

“Throat hurting?”

What, could she see right through him? (Well, duh, Mulder; he knew right well that she could.) “Nah,” he bluffed. “I can still taste that burrito from lunch.” He made an appropriately disgusted face.

She laughed. “You sure? Because if you’re not feeling well, we can leave.”

Whoa. Really? That changed everything. “I … uh … Yeah, that’d be good. But not right away! I mean … I don’t want them to think …” Oh, crap. Like they didn’t already guess.

She nodded. Thank God she understood without his having to actually voice it. “We’ll give it about fifteen minutes, then I’ll make up some excuse about the case,” she said, and God, did he love her for it.

Recalling the bird’s nest that was his hair, he motioned to the mirror. “I just need a minute to …” He tilted his head to indicate his unruly locks.

She blushed and looked down at the floor. “Oh. Okay,” she said, pulling the door closed.

Certain that she’d misunderstood that he only needed to neaten his hair, he stared at the door a moment, then took out his comb and smoothed the recalcitrant strands into place. Much better. Quickly pulling the door open, hoping to catch her on the stairs, he took a step — and froze.

His Scully had been replaced by the least desirable one.

“Are you finally through?” Bill demanded.

“Sorry,” Mulder mumbled. “We got a little caught up in the case.” That was all the information he was about to volunteer to this ignoramus.

Bill gazed at him with disdain. “And what ‘case’ did you dream up this time, Mr. Mulder?”

Huh. Like he’d tell this prick. “I’m sorry. I can’t discuss it.” He attempted to walk past Bill, but the man’s hand on the doorframe blocked his path. Mulder let out a sigh; he so did not need this right now.

“Can’t, or won’t?” Bill sneered. “So what is it? Are you chasing after aliens? Are aliens on the loose in San Diego?” He chuffed a laugh at his own ‘joke.’

Mulder sighed. “No.”

“Well, come on. What is it then? Some kind of monster?”

Mulder thought about it. “Yes. It’s a monster.”

Bill shook his head. “You’re a piece of work, Mister. You know that? Chasing your monsters and little green aliens all over the world, and dragging my sister along with you. Does it give you some sort of feeling of power over her that my very scientific sister would follow you all the way across the country to chase after a monster?”

Mulder studied Scully’s brother for a moment before he said, “You know, Bill, some monsters are men.”

Bill snorted. “Yeah, right. Is that what you tell her to get her to follow you?”

Mulder sighed. Right over his head. He supposed that innuendo wasn’t Scully’s pig-headed brother’s strong suit. “Actually, no. I followed her.”

Bill looked taken aback, but only for a second. “She came here on a legitimate case, and you tagged along?”

Mulder felt his hackles rise. “All our cases are legitimate.”

Another snort. “Right. Our government authorizes you to chase after monsters and your little aliens.”

Mulder gritted his teeth. “Yes.”

Bill’s gaze was pure malice. “Then they’re just as nuts as you.”

Mulder stared at Bill for a second. “Apparently so,” he said, pushing Bill’s arm out of his way, noting with satisfaction that it caused the other man to scramble for his footing.

Not bothering to wait for Scully’s dim-witted bully of a brother, Mulder made his way back to the dining room.

“Oh, Fox, there you are.” Maggie Scully gave him a worried look.

He met her eyes very briefly, then sank down into his seat, too embarrassed to look at anyone.

“Dessert!”

His head snapped up at the joyful announcement. Tara Scully entered bearing a tray upon which were six individual silver-plated bowls. She handed one to her son, and with a tilt of her head, granted him permission to eat it in the living room in front of the TV. Matthew took off like a shot.

Mulder wondered what culinary torment awaited him now. At his anxious look, Scully whispered, “Ice cream. We always had ice cream on taco night.”

He was feeling somewhat relieved until he got a look at what was actually in the bowls. It was ice cream, all right but there were chunks of chocolate and other unidentifiable but equally deadly-looking confections. God help him.

His throat was crying out for the soothing cool that ice cream would afford him, but it balked at the obstacles he’d have to overcome. He forced a smile when Tara placed his bowl in front of him, mumbling a soft, “Thank you.”

Tara smiled back. “I hope everyone likes Heath Bar Crunch.” She glanced at her husband, who’d just taken his seat. “Bill insisted on it.”

“What a surprise,” Scully muttered, shooting a dark look at her brother.

“What do you mean, Dana?” Maggie Scully asked her daughter. “Is this a flavor you don’t like?”

Scully shook her head. “Nothing. Forget it, Mom.”

That would have been the end of it if Bill hadn’t snickered, then looked at his sister with a smarmy smile on his face.

She stared hard at her brother, then turned to her mother. “All right, Mom. Do you want to know what’s going on?”

Mulder was horrified. She was going to tell them everything. While he was sitting right there. “Scully, don’t,” he rasped harshly.

“I’m sorry, Mulder, but enough is enough.” She gave him a sympathetic smile, then looked at her sister-in-law. “Tara, is tonight your normal taco night?”

Tara seemed puzzled by the question. “Um … yes. It is. Why?”

Scully looked as surprised as Mulder felt. After Bill’s self-satisfied smirk on his choice of ice cream, Mulder would have made book that Bill Scully had moved ‘taco night’ so Mulder could ‘enjoy’ having his throat torn out by both dinner and dessert.

“Oh, I just … It’s just …” His partner glanced at him then, and he could see her switching gears, changing her mind on the fly.

When she sent him a silent apology, he knew that whatever she’d thought up was going to be at his expense; he prayed an alien ship would pass by and beam him aboard. “Scully, please …” he pleaded.

To no avail. She ploughed on ahead. “It’s just that Mulder is still recovering from that lung infection, and his throat and stomach are still a little delicate — ”

“Oh, God, Dana,” Tara cried. “I didn’t even think — ”

Delicate. She called him ‘delicate.’ Told them about his stomach trouble. Mulder felt hot enough to melt the ice cream in his bowl by mere proximity. He glued his eyes to the table, unable to look at any of the faces he was sure were staring at him.

“Dana, I’m so sorry,” Tara apologized. “I forgot all about Mulder’s condition. Mulder, I’m so sorry.”

His condition? Christ, now he knew what Uncle Bertram felt like while the family discussed his ‘condition’ right in front of him. At least Uncle Bert had been deaf; Mulder wasn’t that lucky.

“Did anything happen? Is that why …” Tara trailed off, thankfully tactful enough not to actually voice her suspicions.

Maggie Scully had no such inhibitions. “Fox, honey, is your stomach bothering you? Were you sick earlier?”

Mulder could feel the sweat running down his back, and he seriously felt like he was going to pass out from the heat if he didn’t get out of there, and right now. There was nothing he enjoyed more than Scully’s mom making inquiries into his digestive problems. Oh, God, please. Just one bolt of lightening, that’s all he was asking for.

“Fox?” Maggie pressed when he didn’t answer.

“I’m fine, Mrs. Scully,” he mumbled to the table.

“You look a little pale, dear. Dana, doesn’t he look pale to you?”

Scully didn’t answer, and Mulder prayed that she wouldn’t. He wasn’t pale, dammit, and he wasn’t delicate.

“A little,” his partner finally said. “You do look a little flushed, Mulder.”

Although she was addressing him, he couldn’t look up. Was it possible to die of mortification? He felt sure that it was, and that he would if this continued any longer.

“Maybe we ought to go,” Scully said. “After all, you were — ”

His hand whipped out to grasp her wrist. “Don’t …” he grated out. The silence in the room was almost as unbearable as the conversation had been. He wished someone would say something, anything — except about his health.

His redemption, when it came, was from the last person on earth Mulder would have expected to come to his rescue. That it was unintentional made no difference whatsoever. At that moment, he loved Bill Scully.

“Godammit!”

All eyes (even Mulder’s) focused on Scully’s brother.

“Bill!” Maggie and Tara both admonished.

“What?” Looking up from his ice-cream-stained shirt, Bill’s expression of anger and confusion almost made Mulder smile. It did make him sigh in relief now that the attention was away from him and on Scully’s brother.

Still holding onto his partner’s wrist, Mulder tugged her closer to him. “Let’s go.”

He waited not so patiently while she appraised him, then she nodded. “Okay.”

By this time, both mother and wife were discussing how to best remove ice cream stains while Bill grumbled to himself, dabbing at his shirt over the sink.

“Um … We’re going to get going,” Scully said in the direction of Maggie and Tara.

As if struggling to remember what was being discussed before Bill’s ‘incident,’ the two women stared at Scully, then Maggie’s eyes shot to Mulder. “Fox, are you — ”

“Fine,” Mulder rasped out before she could say any more.

“He’s okay, Mom,” Scully said, and Mulder sighed when she didn’t offer any more information.

“Well … if you say so,” Maggie said.

She opened her mouth to say more, but Mulder beat her to it. “It was great seeing you, Mrs. Scully, Bill, Tara.” He nodded to each in turn.

“We’ll say good night to Matty on our way out,” Scully said, standing.

Mulder followed suit; he couldn’t get out of that kitchen fast enough.

Once they were safely in the car, Mulder turned to his partner, still angry and upset at what she’d put him through.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she said it so heart-wrenchingly remorseful, that he just couldn’t find it within himself to give her the tongue-lashing he’d wanted to not a second earlier.

He swallowed hard and nodded. Yelling at her would only have made his throat hurt anyway.

**

May 3, 2000

6:30 a.m.

Awareness came slowly partly because she was so darned comfortable. She was warm, in a soft bed, a strong arm encircled her waist and a gentle snore whiffed breath right near her ear. Was that a wheeze she heard underneath that snore?

Scully shifted her hips so that she was lying on her back. In that position, she could see her partner’s face more clearly. Two nights in a row, waking up in his arms, it was definitely becoming a habit. Just the kind of habit she wouldn’t mind — provided they weren’t on a case and staying in a room that was being paid for by a local police department.

‘Same old same old’ had greeted them when Tara had dropped them off at the hotel the night before. No, there wasn’t another room available for Agent Mulder, the desk clerk had politely informed them. Mulder, a bit peevishly, had told the clerk to cancel his room. Scully hadn’t thought much about it, other than the fact that they would save the SDPD a few bucks. But as she got out of bed, letting her partner continue to sleep, she had second thoughts.

Mulder just didn’t get it. He’d made that abundantly clear when she’d tried to broach the subject last night. Scully thought maybe they should try to find another motel — maybe a nice Micro-Tel, which was supposedly ALL no smoking. But Mulder had waved off her concerns, telling her that finding a new motel, without the use of a car, was going to be more hassle than it was worth. And, as usual, she’d acquiesced. Well, maybe not that meekly, but finally, she’d agreed with him, especially when she noted the time as nearing 11 o’clock and both of them were dead on their feet.

When they got to the room, he’d taken a quick shower and dressed in his yellow pajama bottoms and the grey tee shirt that never failed to turn her insides to jell-o. She’d spent more time than she normally did on her turn in the bathroom, hoping he would be asleep when she came out. He was, so she was spared the embarrassment of him seeing (and commenting on) the flush of red cheeks as she made sure the A/C was set at a decent temperature. (No, 60 degrees was not going to make her feel any less ‘warm’ under the circumstances, she’d finally convinced herself.) When she couldn’t hold off any longer, she crawled into bed — her side of the bed. She drifted off to sleep wondering if there was a store nearby that sold bundling boards and if they would fit a king size bed.

So here they were, sharing a room, no, sharing a BED, on a case, and not even the pretense of having two rooms to cover their tracks. She groaned as the images hit her — some accounting clerk here in San Diego contacting the Bureau’s accounting department, then that clerk alerting the OPR. Next thing would be Skinner, reaming them both new orifices and an OPR hearing where they would try and explain, but no one would believe them because somewhere along the line a hotel maid would testify that even though there were two beds in Scully’s room, only one ever had to be made in the morning. And as a direct result of all this, if they weren’t fired outright, she would be transferred to Minot, North Dakota while Mulder would inevitably be promoted to Bureau Chief. All that and they hadn’t even had sex while in San Diego!

She fumed about it all through her shower. Minot would be too easy, she’d probably find herself packed off to Nome, Alaska. If they didn’t already have a Regional Office in Nome, she was certain they would start one — just for her. And Mulder wouldn’t just get to be a Bureau Chief, he would get an office, with a view of the Capitol Mall. He would call her, once, just to see if she got settled in, and then he would promptly forget she ever existed. By the time she’d worked her fingers to the bone to get the higher ups to forget her indiscretion, Mulder would be Assistant Director, taking Skinner’s office, and have an administrative assistant named, yes, Bambi White!

By this time, Scully was scrubbing her teeth so hard, her top gum started to bleed. She spit, rinsed and went out to give her partner what for.

Only to find him coughing up a lung. Mulder was sitting on the bed, leaning over his knees, coughing and hacking painfully. Scully ran to his side and started thumping his back, something she hadn’t done in at least a week. It helped break up some of the phlegm that accumulated in his lungs when he was first released from the hospital.

“Mulder, are you all right?” she asked, more as a defense mechanism than because she didn’t already know the answer.

He glared at her as the coughing bout slowed to a few chuffs. “Just peachy,” he rasped, swallowed and coughed once again. “Excuse me,” he added and got up to enter the bathroom.

“Stand in the shower with the water running hot for a while, it should help,” she yelled through the closed door. He didn’t reply, but she hadn’t expected him to anyway.

So much for being mad at him. Another scenario tripped through her mind as she pulled on her suit for the day. Mulder would continue getting weaker until finally a strain of antibiotic resistant pneumonia took hold in his lungs, incapacitating him for months, leaving him with asthma so severe that he would not be allowed out in the field, forcing him into early retirement. She would go through a string of partners, culminating with a former NYPD detective who would prove to be so utterly obnoxious she would be forced to resign from the FBI. She and Mulder would move to Arizona (the only place he could breathe) and there she would end up becoming the county coroner in a town so small the local funeral parlor would serve as the morgue. Mulder, in between hospital stays for breathing treatments, would write articles for the Fortean Times to pay the medical co-payments and deductibles.

She startled when a hand landed on her shoulder. “Could you hand me my suit, please,” he asked, standing in his tee shirt, boxers and socks.

“Sure, which one?” she replied, burying her flights of fancy — or more likely bad dreams, and looking into the closet to avoid looking too closely at her partner.

“The charcoal one,” he said. She plucked the appropriate hanger from the rod and handed it to him.

“How are you feeling, Mulder? And please, I’m just concerned after the way you woke up.”

He turned halfway to the bathroom and smiled sadly at her. “Yeah, I knew you would be,” he said in a whisper. “The shower helped a lot. Thanks for reminding me. I’d used the inhaler and must have done something wrong — I started coughing and couldn’t stop. Better now,” he rasped out before he ran out of voice — and air.

She looked at him critically as he left to put on his dress shirt and tie and then pulled on his pants. He did look a little better than when she found him red-faced and choking. But ‘better’ was a relative term with Mulder especially in the last few weeks. When he reappeared, dressed to the nines, she bit her lip and chose her words carefully.

“You know, maybe you could consider staying here a while this morning. We’re still interviewing witnesses, you’d be stuck in that room — ”

He turned and she saw a flash of heat in his eyes before he walked over and put his hands on her shoulders. “Scully, I’m fine. I’ll sit in the chair and I’ll only breathe when I go into the hallway. I’m still not convinced this Dodds guy is the killer.”

God, if he didn’t get better soon, she would be forced to just lock him in a cheap hotel for a long weekend and screw him senseless! That voice, every time he spoke to her, it sounded like he was inviting her to bed — not to sleep, either. She swallowed, reminding herself of her earlier musings. Minot, North Dakota, Minot, North Dakota she repeated in a mental mantra.

“Mulder, I really don’t think there is another possible suspect. The man has a history of violence, he had opportunity — it would be irresponsible of us to ignore him completely and continue to look for an UNSUB at this point.”

“I know. You look for Dodds — while I look for the UNSUB,” he offered, smiling at her with a pleased as punch expression before moving off to find his shoes.

“OK, you continue to look, but in the office,” she countered. Not a second after the words left her mouth did she realize what he’d done. She had wanted him to stay in the room. He had efficiently changed the subject of the conversation and then managed to get HER to tell HIM that he had to pursue his investigation AT the station. She groaned. He did it all the time, why did she expect him to act any differently now?

“Scully, you ready? We can grab breakfast before Kresge gets here if you hurry.”

**

The Streets of San Diego 8:10 am

This time, Kresge didn’t go into the hotel, he waited patiently under the valet awning. At precisely 8:00, both agents came out of the double sliding glass doors. Agent Scully, Dana, looked absolutely beautiful in a dark blue pantsuit that seemed to set her hair on fire. Agent Mulder, Kresge noted with a hint of glee, looked a little under the weather. Maybe they could finally ditch the loser and get this investigation under way.

Kresge had already put in a call to the station, finding out that there was finally a solid lead on the whereabouts of Darren Dodds. John had breathed a sigh of relief; at least the guy hadn’t slipped over the border. Although the Mexican Police were usually cooperative when it came to murder investigations, the red tape involved in actually going over to Tijuana to interview anyone, much less apprehend him, was mind-boggling. If the guy was still in the US, and better yet, last seen in the San Diego area, all the better.

He glanced into the rearview mirror to see Dana Scully, looking like an angel in the back seat of his car. It still irked him that her partner had grabbed the front seat, after opening the back door for her. John kicked himself mentally; he should have gotten out of the car to open the car door for her. Then she would be seated next to him, instead of behind him. The detective had also noted the smug look on Mulder’s face as the agent settled in and buckled his seatbelt. Bastard knew what he was doing. John would have to wake up and start paying attention if he was going to sway Dana to his side.

“So, do we have any places to start looking this morning, Detective Kresge?” Her melodious voice came to him from right behind his ear and he had to stifle a shudder.

“Ah, yeah, actually. A data search came up with a girlfriend. She works at a store in Horton Plaza. I thought you and I could go over there and question her, see if she can come up with any other places he might go to ground.”

“Mulder, what are you planning to do this morning?” Dana asked, but for some reason, John thought it sounded more like a command than a request. Good, the old boy was in the doghouse already and it wasn’t yet 8:30 in the morning.

“Oh, you know. Drink coffee, eat donuts. Make myself at home,” Mulder said in that smoky-husky-sounded-like-he-spent-his-off-time-in-a-bar voice.

“Mulder, I don’t need to remind you that you really need to stay at the office while you look into your theory.”

“Yes, mother,” came the smart-assed response.

Kresge’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Didn’t this asshole know the meaning of the word ‘respect’?

That was all right, though. That was just fine. Let him disrespect her, let him belittle her concern for him, however misplaced it was. It was going to be very different when he, Detective First Class John Kresge, solved this little serial murder case, with Special Agent Dana Scully there in a ring side seat to watch it all go down. Oh, yeah, the old boy would have a very different look on his face when Kresge and Dana brought Dodds in for interrogation. It wouldn’t be smug, that was for certain! It would be crestfallen. And the look on Dana Scully’s face would be pure adoration. Oh, yeah!

“… store open, where the girlfriend works?” Kresge almost ran a light when he realized Dana had been speaking to him while he was fantasizing.

“Um, ah, 10, I think. Yeah, 10 o’clock,” he answered, forcing more confidence into his voice with each word. “Yeah, 10 am. The store is the Iron Butterfly, they sell, uh, women’s clothing and stuff.”

“Your kind of place, Scully,” Mulder rasped with a smirk. “Maybe you’ll find the shoe department.”

“Keep it up, Mulder. You’re gonna be wearing my shoes — sticking out of your eardrum,” Scully replied.

Good for her, Kresge thought, but when he looked over at the man seated next to him, all he saw was the guy’s shit-eating grin. What a moron! Kresge couldn’t wait till it was time to go to the interview with Dana, leaving Fox Mulder all alone.

**

San Diego Police Station

1:27 p.m.

The slamming of the door against the wall of his ‘office’ startled Mulder, and his sharp intake of breath set him to coughing once again. Kresge’s shouted, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” barely registered as he fought to get air into his lungs. It had been so bad earlier that he’d taken a hit from the dreaded inhaler, but because of the less-than-ideal atmosphere in the room, the beneficial effects had started wearing off after about only forty-five minutes; he’d been trying desperately to refrain from taking another hit so soon.

But as the day wore on he was feeling worse, not better as he’d hoped. If he took a shot every time he needed it, he’d have to request a refill, and then Scully was sure to know about it. He’d never get to work on his profile if she knew how truly awful he really felt.

And now that damned Kresge caused him to lose control. There was no way Scully wouldn’t find out now.

As if his thinking it had been her cue, his partner appeared at the door, pushing her way past Kresge. “Dammit, Mulder. Where’s your inhaler?”

His vision graying from lack of air, Mulder no longer cared that he had an audience. He slipped his hand into his jacket pocket and grasped the canister, presenting it to his partner. He heard her say something to the detective, and figured she’d asked him to leave when he heard the door slam once again.

When he felt her thumping on his back, he grabbed his handkerchief from his other pocket, holding it over his mouth. He didn’t know how much longer it was before he felt something loosen and he coughed it out. As disgusting as this always was, at least he could breathe now.

His senses returning to normal, it was still several minutes before he no longer felt the panic not being able to breathe always instilled in him. Scully handed him the inhaler, and he gratefully held it to his mouth, depressing the plunger. A few seconds later, his airways opened, and he took in a much-needed drought of air.

“Okay now?” Scully asked, a lot more gently than he’d anticipated.

He nodded. “Kresge just caught me off-guard.” What the detective had said to him finally penetrated. “What was he yelling about?”

Scully huffed out a sigh. “You had Wendy contact the victims’ friends and family again?”

“Yeah. They were questioned before we knew about the connection to the club. We need to talk to them to see what they had in common with our UNSUB.”

Scully pressed her lips together in what Mulder knew was a precursor to unpleasant news. “Mulder, as far as Kresge is concerned, Dodds is our UNSUB. He’s what the victims had in common.”

“And you? What do you think?” She’d spent the entire day with a not-bad-looking detective who was obviously smitten with her. Mulder was afraid he knew what she thought.

“I’m not as convinced as Detective Kresge thinks I am,” she said, surprising him. “But Dodds is a killer, and I can’t discount the fact that he may have had something to do with these murders.”

Mulder nodded slowly. “So you’re going to continue working with Kresge to find this guy?” The very thought turned his stomach, and he couldn’t look at her any longer.

Out the corner of his eyes, he saw her shake her head. “I’m going to help you with the interviews.”

He looked up at her unexpected response, but didn’t get to express his pleasure as the door opened, and Kresge’s head poked through before the rest of him followed. The detective eyed Mulder warily before apparently deciding that it was safe to resume the rant he’d begun earlier. “Agent Mulder, I understand you’ve scheduled several interviews with people we’ve already talked to.”

“Yes, I did,” Mulder confirmed.

“We already have a suspect. Why the hell do you have to bother these people again?”

Mulder opened his mouth to reply, but Scully placed a hand on his chest to stop him. “I know you believe Dodds is our killer — and I’m not discounting that he very well may be,” she added quickly when it looked like the detective was about to interject his rebuttal. “But Agent Mulder is a trained profiler with the F.B.I., and if he believes someone else is responsible for these murders, then it’s our duty as law officers to investigate that possibility.”

Kresge scowled, and Mulder was very tempted to smack the sour look off the detective’s face. “I still think it’s a waste of time.”

“I think you’ll find it’s not.” Scully’s quietly-delivered pronouncement filled Mulder with a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time.

He allowed that warmth to show in the gaze he directed her way and the smile he couldn’t have stopped even if he’d wanted to.

“Yeah, well, that remains to be seen.” Although in response to Scully’s statement, Kresge’s growl was directed at Mulder.

Mulder had just about had it with Kresge’s attitude toward him. “Look, Detective,” he rasped out, “why did you ask us on this case if you had no intention of listening to us?”

When Kresge laughed, Mulder looked at Scully with a ‘what gives?’ question in his eyes. Had Mulder driven the man over the edge? Scully’s answering look told him that she had no clue as to the detective’s strange behavior, either.

“I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Agent Mulder, but I didn’t ask for you.”

Mulder became very still; he knew where this was going.

“Well, who the hell did then?” Scully said hotly.

“I requested you, Agent Scully,” Kresge said with a sideways glance at Mulder.

“The San Diego Police Department requested the X-Files team. Agent Mulder and I are the X-Files team.”

Kresge coughed nervously. “I, uh, didn’t realize that. I only requested your assistance.”

“Well, you got both of us, and you’re damned lucky that Mulder’s here. You won’t find a better profiler in the F.B.I.”

Kresge looked Mulder with an appraising eye. “I didn’t realize that,” he said, mockery evident in his voice.

Scully’s gaze shot over to Kresge. “Look, John, if you feel you’ve got this case in hand, we’ll be happy to leave on the next available flight. You’ve identified your killer, you’re satisfied with that … fine. We won’t waste your time any longer.”

Mulder would have protested this plan of action if he’d thought it was necessary. As it was, he just settled back to watch.

“Now wait a minute, Dana. I never said I didn’t need your help — ”

“You sure as hell did,” Scully cut him off. In his mind, Mulder applauded the look of fear she’d brought to his adversary’s face.

“Okay. Wait a minute. I may have been a little hasty. I didn’t mean to imply that Agent Mulder’s contributions weren’t welcome …”

Scully gave him the eyebrow at that statement.

“Well, I guess I did,” he back-pedaled, “but …” Mulder was so enjoying the detective’s introduction to the firebrand that was his partner. Kresge gazed balefully at Scully, then forced himself to look at Mulder. “Agent Mulder, please continue with your line of investigation. Even though your interviews will only confirm Dodds as our killer, further evidence could only help our case.”

What. A. Jerk. “Well, gee. Thanks for allowing me to further your case, Detective. You’ll forgive me if I don’t buy that particular crock of shit.” His eyes met Kresge’s squarely. “We both know the real reason for the about-face.”

Kresge looked like he wanted to throttle Mulder to within an inch of his life, and Mulder reveled in it. Yeah, that’s right, Kresge, he thought. She chose her crazy, voiceless partner over some over-eager boy scout.

When Mulder removed his gaze from the red-faced detective and looked at Scully, he had to fight the urge to hug her when he saw the confusion in her eyes. She really had no idea that Kresge had swallowed his words just to keep her in his clutches. “Mulder?”

Mulder shook his head; no way was he about to clue her in on the detective’s amorous intentions. “It’s nothing, Scully.”

Although he could tell she was less than thrilled by his brush-off, she didn’t pursue the matter, instead addressing herself to Kresge. “I’m going to further your case as well, John, since I’ll be working with Agent Mulder on the interviews.”

Kresge shot a death glare at Mulder before the detective schooled his face into an expression more befitting the pleading Mulder knew he was about to engage in with Scully. “We still have those leads to follow up on, Dana. Don’t you think — ”

“We had the girlfriend, and that went nowhere,” Scully cut him off. “Besides, you don’t really need me right now, and Mulder does. He can’t very well conduct an interview with no voice.”

The black look was once again focused on Mulder, and the agent tried, admittedly not very hard, to keep the victory he was feeling from showing on his face.

Finally, Kresge sighed. “I guess,” he said without conviction. “If I get another lead, will you go with me, or should I go alone?”

Oh, please. If Kresge thought he could sway her with the ‘poor me’ routine, he was barking up the wrong tree — which was confirmed a second later when Scully gave the detective her fake smile. “Why don’t we wait and see what develops? If it looks like you’ll need my help, and I can get away, I’ll go with you.”

Kresge didn’t answer, looking undecided.

Take it, buddy, Mulder thought. Because that’s as good as you’re going to get.

“Yeah. Sure. That sounds okay. I’ll keep you updated on the search.”

“Fine,” Scully said. “That’d be great.”

Mulder badly wanted to add, “Good doggie,” to the end of her sentence. He swore Kresge’s tail was wagging again.

“Thanks, John,” Scully said, and Mulder caught the dismissal in her voice.

Proving he wasn’t as dense as Mulder thought he was, Kresge nodded and exited the room.

Now that they were alone, Mulder felt a little ashamed by the pissing contest in which he’d just participated. He sneaked a peek at his partner, and found her watching him. “Thanks,” he said softly. “And, um … sorry.”

Her smile for him was the genuine article. “Don’t worry about it, partner. There’s nothing like a little testosterone-fueled scuffle to make a girl feel wanted.”

Mulder’s eyes narrowed. Huh. Maybe she wasn’t as oblivious to Kresge’s advances as he thought.

***

San Diego Police Station

1:38 p.m.

Detective First Class John Kresge was fuming. How could a day that had started out so promising take such a nosedive into the crapper?

After they’d gotten rid of Dana’s crude partner, John had treated her to tales of some of his more colorful cases, most of which she seemed to heartily enjoy. Only when they were approaching the plaza did she suggest that they concentrate on their interrogation strategy.

Since he always enjoyed playing the ‘bad cop’ and because he couldn’t possibly imagine Dana ever playing that role, he allowed her to take the lead in questioning their suspect’s girlfriend. Dana was damned good at it, he had to admit, which only made him wonder why she continued to work with such a no-talent loser like that Mulder character.

Unfortunately, no matter how much she excelled at her job, she couldn’t obtain information that wasn’t there. Roberta Dellarusso had only gone out with Dodds twice, and had never spent any time at his place, nor he at hers. After their first date — drinks and shooting pool at a local pub — she’d accepted his invitation to dinner in the hopes that the evening would turn out a little differently, and that she would feel a little less uncomfortable in his presence.

It didn’t, and though they’d left any notions of a third date up in the air, she’d come to the decision that she really didn’t want to spend any more time with him. However, that had been over a week ago, and he hadn’t contacted her, something for which she was grateful. He and Dana hadn’t even had to press the matter of what about him made her uncomfortable — she was more than willing to tell them on her own.

“I felt like he was watching me — all the time,” she’d told them. “Not just watching. More like studying. Yeah, that’s it. It was like he was studying me.” She looked up at Dana, fear on her face. “What are you looking for him for? Does he … do things to women?”

Dana and he had exchanged a glance at that point, and Dana had very tactfully advised the young women that it would be in her best interests to contact them if Dodds should get in touch with her — and that under no circumstances should she agree to meet with him. Dellarusso had gotten the point.

They had been able to warn her about Dodds, but the interview had gotten them nowhere. Dana seemed to take it in stride, while John had been utterly frustrated that their best lead so far hadn’t brought them one iota closer to their suspect’s whereabouts.

So with his best lead so far shot to hell, he’d gone from hero to bum in the space of a few short hours. As if he wasn’t feeling low enough, Dana had to add insult to injury by wasting her time helping her useless partner with his cockamamie ideas.

God, what a smug bastard! John had been sorely tempted to belt the guy more than once during their brief confrontation. Where did he get off trying to tell John how to catch bad guys? John had been at this job for over 15 years. Mr. ‘One Case at a Time’ couldn’t have anywhere near that much experience.

The only reason Dana was working with Mulder on the interviews, John knew, was because the guy had no voice. How convenient. How very fucking convenient. Well, no matter. Dana would soon find out how much she was wasting her time on that venue.

Very soon, John would find another lead — one that would pan out this time — and she’d forget she ever had a partner.

**

The Palace

4:55 p.m.

Poor Mulder, she thought as she watched him getting out of the car. She didn’t like the pallor to his skin or the dark circles under his eyes. She really didn’t like the way he held himself, hunched over as if every cough ripped at his chest. He should be in bed. Hell, he should be in a hospital, she corrected herself and immediately kicked herself mentally. If there was one thing she’d learned in seven long years, Fox Mulder hated to be seen as weak — even to himself but especially to her.

He pushed and pushed until he collapsed. Then he would struggle against his body’s attempts to heal until his mind and body came to a Mexican standoff, usually resulting in his coming back to work too early. The current situation was a perfect example. He should have stayed back in DC; for that matter, he should have still been at home, in bed. But instead, he was here in San Diego, having more frequent asthma attacks, opening himself up for a secondary infection in his lungs. Didn’t he know that he was putting himself at risk for permanent respiratory problems? That he could lose his field status just as easily from a chronic cough as from his imaginary peg leg? There were times when she just wanted to throttle him!

Kresge certainly wasn’t helping matters. If they’d been working the case alone, she could have kept a better eye on Mulder, made him rest when he looked about to keel over. But Kresge seemed to resent Mulder’s presence, which just made Mulder want to be around the guy more. She felt like a chew toy between two terriers. Mulder was being territorial and Kresge was being a schmuck! All those Sylvia Plath novels she was forced to read in high school were beginning to make a lot more sense.

“Who’s next on the list?” Mulder rasped out. His voice was worse than it had been when they arrived. It now sounded more like gravel and broken china tossed in a blender.

“Um, Douglas Kocin AKA ‘the Great Kocini’. He’s a part-time performer. The only address we have on him is the Palace,” she said.

They walked into the building and back behind the stage. There were a couple of dressing rooms, one with a rather wilted star thumb-tacked to the wood reading ‘Enter at your own Risk’. Scully chanced a quick glance over at Mulder and shrugged. He smiled and winked at her as he knocked loudly on the door. “Mr. Kocin, FBI. We called earlier,” Scully called out.

The door opened suddenly and a man of medium height and slight build looked at them with a grim expression. “May I see some identification?” he requested formally.

Mulder pulled out his ID wallet and Scully pulled out hers, both agents holding them up so that the man could view them. After reading even the fine print, Kocin stepped aside, allowing them to enter the room.

There was a large make up mirror on the wall with lights around it, but aside from that fact, the room looked more like a storage closet — or the janitor’s closet. Brooms and mops along with mop buckets were tucked next to the door and rolls of bathroom tissue sat on shelves along the wall. The furniture consisted of wooden warehouse crates. Kocin directed the two agents to sit and Scully wondered idly if she’d end up with splinters in her dress slacks.

Mulder whipped out his notebook and pen before giving Scully a nod. She rolled her eyes, but smiled at the man standing impatiently before them. “We just have a few questions to ask, Mr. Kocin.”

“Is this about those murders? The ‘flower murders’, I think the newspaper called them?” Kocin asked, turning from them to sit at the make up mirror. “I hope you don’t mind, I have a show in two hours and I really need to get ready.”

“No, that’s quite all right. We’ll just stay out of your way here. Yes, it’s about the recent deaths. Were you acquainted with any of the victims?” Scully continued, not at all ruffled by his attempt to brush them off. She handed him photos of the victims — snapshots, not crime scene.

“Acquainted might be too strong a word. I remember seeing them, at least the last one. George was the nighttime janitor here. Used to come in and rifle through my pockets for spare change,” he said dourly, handing the photos back. “Sorry, I didn’t know much about him — or any of them for that matter.”

“How about this one?” Mulder rasped out, showing him a recent photo — a mug shot from LA, of Darren Edward Dodds.

“Eddie? He’s a bartender here. Is he dead too?”

“No, sir. We’re just trying to locate Mr. Dodds to ask him a few questions.”

“You know,” Kocin said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Eddie has always been a mean sonavabitch. You might ask him if he knew all those people.”

Mulder smiled his patent ‘no comment’ smile at Kocin and closed his notebook. “Thank you, Mr. Kocin. That’s all the questions we have.” The magician escorted them out of his room and into the backstage area.

Mulder watched as Kocin closed his door. A loud snick was heard, indicating that the same door had been locked. “Real Emily Post,” he whispered hoarsely.

“He was just anxious to get ready for his performance, Mulder,” Scully said with a sigh. “Well, there are two more performers to question — a juggler and a belly dancer.”

Mulder’s eyes lit up. “Let’s divide the list, go faster,” he suggested in his best gravel and sawdust murmur.

“Oh, I bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Scully shot back, holding the notebook with the two names out of his reach. “No, I think we better stick together on both of these.”

She had just spoken the words when her cell phone started ringing. She flipped it out and answered it. “Scully.”

Mulder watched her closely, noting the obvious excitement that came to her eyes. “That’s great! Yes, I want to be there. OK, I can be at the station in — ” She glanced down at her watch. ” — twenty minutes. Yeah, we can go directly from there. Good work, John!” She disconnected the call and looked up at Mulder.

“That was Kresge. They got a call from another of Dodds’ ex-girlfriends. He has a friend who lets him stay at an old farmhouse just a few miles out of town. We have the Sheriff’s department at the scene — they’re waiting for us. I’m heading over right now.” She started for the door, with Mulder hot on her heels. Seeing him out of the corner of her eye, she stopped. “Mulder, where do you think you’re going?”

He looked at her with one eyebrow cocked to show his exasperation. “With you,” he croaked unevenly.

She put her hand on his chest. “Oh no, you’re not. You’re going back to the hotel. I’ll call you as soon as we know something.”

He took her hand and frowned down at her. “Who’s gonna watch your back?” he ground out.

She reached up and cupped his cheek. “Mulder, you know what Skinner said. You aren’t up to this. You couldn’t back me up out there; it would be too dangerous — for both of us.”

He bristled at that and she had to hold fast to his shoulder to keep him from turning away from her. “Mulder, listen to me.” She waited until the thunderclouds in his eyes abated a bit and he was looking back at her. “I know how much this hurts you to be unable to go with me. I would hate to be in your shoes. But please, understand. If you go with me, I’m going to spend my time worrying about you and that’s not safe for either of us.”

Grudgingly, he nodded his head. He took her hand and placed a kiss on her palm. “Call me,” he whispered. “Please.”

“I will,” she promised. She turned to go, but then remembered. “Mulder, you’re going to have to call a cab — I need to get out there quickly and I don’t have time — ”

“Go,” he ordered gruffly, but smiled to soften his tone. “I’ll be fine.”

She pulled on his shoulder so that she could whisper in his ear. “I love you.”

He let a smile break his saddened expression. “You too,” he answered, before turning her around and giving her a light push from behind.

He thought about calling her back, to get the names of the two other performers, but she was out of the range of his vocal chords and he wasn’t up to running after her. He turned on his heel and decided he’d just take potluck with whoever might be backstage.

He was heading toward the sound of a piano playing on stage when he saw Kocin leave his room. From near the stage curtain, Mulder could see the magician look both ways and then hurry out the backstage door.

Mulder flashed back for a moment on Kocin’s insistence that he was preparing for his act. Curiosity overcame reason and Mulder headed out the door, staying in shadows as he trailed Kocin to his car — a beat-up Cutlass. As Kocin pulled out of the parking space and headed down the street, Mulder noticed a cab sitting at the curb. He ran to it and pointed at the faded blue Cutlass.

“Follow him,” he croaked out, pointing to Kocin’s rapidly moving vehicle.

“You’re kiddin’, right?” the cabbie sneered.

Mulder held up his badge and then a twenty he’d extracted from his wallet.

“Anything to help the Feds,” the cabbie said gleefully and pulled out into traffic. “Hey, does this mean if I get pulled over for speeding — you’re taking the points?”

Mulder rolled his eyes and shook his head.

**end of part 4**

Shred of Doubt (5/9)

Jo-Ann Lassiter and Vickie Moseley

A fifteen-dollar cab ride later (made thirty-five because of the bribe), Mulder cautioned the cabbie to drop back so they wouldn’t be noticed. He watched as Kocin’s Cutlass pulled into an old abandoned industrial area. “I’ll get out here,” Mulder rasped.

“By yourself?” the cabbie inquired as he took Mulder’s cash. “You ain’t gonna call for backup?”

Mulder did a double-take and frowned. “You’ve been watching too much NYPD Blue,” he assured the man. The cabbie shrugged, waited patiently as Mulder got out of the cab and then drove away.

Running was out of the question. Mulder just prayed he’d find the Cutlass parked near to the main road because the industrial park seemed to stretch far into the horizon. He almost hooted with joy when he saw the car sitting, deserted, about a half a block away in front of an old warehouse. It was still going to take him a while to get there.

I should call Scully, his mind kept repeating as he walked cautiously to a door set into the building. But Scully was out capturing Darren Dodds with that asshole San Diego detective. Mulder wasn’t at all surprised that just when they finally found each other, someone would try and rip them apart. That was par for the course. What did take him back was the fact that it was Scully being played for. Not that Scully wasn’t beautiful, desirable, hell, he admitted to himself, she was way out of HIS league. But she just didn’t fall for guys on cases. Well, except when she had a brain tumor … but he refused to go there!

What had happened the first time she met Kresge? By the time Mulder had flown out, everything was about Emily. He couldn’t remember her mentioning Kresge’s name once until the man had been placed in ICU for exposure to the green blood. She certainly had never mentioned him after they got back home.

He thought back to that time — the time surrounding her discovery of Emily. It hadn’t been a lot of laughs — that was certain. She had just learned she was in remission not that long before, and he had been over the moon. He thought they might finally start taking some steps forward. As much as he hated to think about it, the time she was in the hospital, that last time, they had been so close! But as always with them it was one step forward, two steps back and before he knew it, they were hip deep in cases and their relationship had slipped back to the usual walls and defenses. But had she ever got a dreamy look in her eyes, thinking about San Diego?

In a few moments, he was at the door. Since the warehouse windows were all along the top of the two-story building, he couldn’t see in. That did give a bit of an advantage, however. It meant that Kocin hadn’t seen him come up to the door, either.

Mulder reached to his hip and unsnapped his holster. When he pulled the gun out he felt the old familiar rush. It had been a while. Technically, they could have made him recertify before allowing him to carry his weapon, but he’d only been out a little over three weeks. Compared to his alien-affected-hyper-brain incident of the fall, the tobacco beetles had been kind — relatively speaking.

He drew in a deep breath to steady himself and then had to fight the tickle in his throat and the twinge in his chest. Damn, when was he going to feel ‘right’ again? Counting silently, he gripped his weapon in his right hand and sought out the door handle with his left.

To his surprise, the doorknob turned and he slid the door open. Harsh sunlight cut through the dust motes floating in the stale air of the warehouse. Mulder frowned and looked cautiously left and then right. On the ground, he could see patterns of footsteps, all the same size. Kocin obviously used the place often, but never quite got around to tidying up.

The room was as big as it was vacant. There were a couple of crates of various sizes scattered along the floor, but no indication of any activity. Mulder frowned, but sought out the footprints on the dust-covered floor. They led to the far side of the room, where a long wall held two sets of double doors. Just from what he’d seen from the outside, the wall divided the building in half. Looking around again to ensure he still hadn’t been discovered, he walked as quietly as he could toward one set of the double doors.

He could feel sweat trickling down his back. Even though the Southern California temperatures were just barely breaking 70 for early May, it was hot and stuffy in the closed up warehouse. The grip on his weapon tightened to compensate for the sweat on his palm.

He held his breath this time when he took hold of the door knob. He twisted his wrist. Nothing happened. The door was locked. He tried the other half of the double set. It was locked as well. He hurried over to the other set of doors, ignoring the clacking of his dress shoes on the cement floor. Both locked.

Confusion marred his features as he looked around. Then he spotted the footprints again. They were at the first set of doors. He cursed himself for not bringing his lock pick. Unfortunately, that one-time Christmas present from the Gunmen was secure in the top drawer of his desk back in Arlington. Blowing out a quick breath he considered his options. Going back to the hotel was not on the list.

He heard a scraping beyond the door and started. It was then he noticed something at the far corner where the wall met the exterior wall of the building. It was a set of stairs, leading to a catwalk. It appeared that the catwalk breached the wall and ended on the other side. Mulder moved quickly over to the stairs and took them two at a time.

It had been a while since he moved so fast up any kind of grade. His puffing was loud in his ears as he went through the opening into the other room.

From above, it looked like a magician’s workshop. A giant box stood in the middle of the room painted black with brightly colored pictures of the planets adorning the sides. He saw a table covered with a shawl, a top hat resting upside down on it. But what drew his immediate attention was a long box, about the size of a small coffin, with a head sticking out one end and a pair of shoed feet sticking out the other. Kocin was standing with his back to Mulder, sawing with a large hand-saw, right through the middle of the box. It might have looked like a vaudeville act, were it not for the puddle of blood on the floor beneath the saw cut.

“Freeze, FBI!” Mulder croaked as loud as he could over the sound of metal teeth hitting wood.

Kocin continued his grisly endeavor.

Mulder hurried down the steps, coming within a few feet of the man and repeated his demand. “Freeze! Mr. Kocin, you’re under arrest!”

Kocin stopped and turned. He looked directly at Mulder, his eyes flashing in recognition. As Mulder stepped forward, reaching for his cuffs with his left hand while his gun was still trained on the subject, Kocin brought his hand up to mere inches from Mulder’s face.

The brilliant white light that blossomed from Kocin’s fingertips was followed by a dull thud, soundwaves chasing lightwaves across the inches of distance. Suddenly, Mulder’s eyes began to burn furiously. He dropped his gun, bringing both hands up to his eyes. He blinked, but it got worse; the burning only grew in intensity. The agent dropped to his knees, clawing at his eyes. Frantically, he felt in his pocket for his cell phone, using only touch to find the right buttons. In agony, he waited until the line was connected.

“Scully,” came the terse reply. “Mulder, I’m so pissed right now — ”

“Scully,” he rasped, pain and lack of breath stealing his words. “Scully … help me.”

“Mulder! Mulder, what’s wrong?”

“Follow … Kocin. He’s … the killer. God, Scully, my eyes! He did something to my eyes!”

“Mulder, oh, god, hold on! Can you tell me where you are?”

“Warehouse district, Lot 93. Scully, I can’t see!”

“Stay on the line with me, Mulder!” He overheard her talking, no, screaming for someone to call emergency services and rattled off the address.

“There’s a body, Scully. I don’t know if she’s dead — there’s blood — ”

“Shhh, Mulder, calm down, I can hear your wheezing over the phone. Just relax. Is Kocin still there?”

“He … took off,” Mulder gasped, curling into a ball. Whatever was in his eyes was burning holes in his skull. He let out an agonized howl.

“Mulder, shit, did you say he threw something in your eyes?”

“Yeah — bright white flash,” he croaked. “Oh, God, it hurts!”

“White, really bright? Shit, it was probably magnesium. Mulder, the ambulance says they’ll be there in ten minutes. Don’t rub your eyes! Keep your hands away from your eyes! Magnesium is an alkaline — that’s very dangerous and can cause permanent damage. Do you hear me, Mulder — don’t rub your eyes! Please!”

“I’ll try, Scully,” he whispered. “Please, hurry.”

**

5:51 p.m.

When Kresge told her where they were headed, she found that she’d driven right past the access road on her way to meet the detective at the station.

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me it was on my way? We could have met there and saved fifteen minutes!”

Kresge didn’t look the least repentant. He looked, in fact, rather smug. “But, Dana … then we couldn’t drive there together.”

She couldn’t believe what she’d just heard. “What?” she asked, incredulous.

“You know … you, me, in the car, talking about …” He finally seemed to get an inkling that this wasn’t something about which she was pleased. ” … the case,” he finished lamely. He looked totally befuddled. “Dana, is something wrong?”

She took a deep breath to calm herself. Maybe he simply hadn’t considered that she could get her own self to the scene, that all her cases were in unfamiliar territory, and that she had been known, on occasion, to find an address all by herself without a big, strong manly man to drive her there. It was at times like these that she appreciated just how much Mulder left her to her own devices. Even though at times she resented him for it, he never doubted her competence, and he never treated her like ‘the little woman.’ Detective John Kresge could take a lesson.

Still, maybe it was his way of showing consideration for a colleague (he wouldn’t show the same ‘consideration’ to her partner, a small voice niggled at her). Uneasily pushing that thought aside, Scully focused on the man awaiting her response. “No,” she said, unable to prevent an accompanying sigh. “I just wish you’d told me where we were going before I came all the way back here.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Since he truly did appear remorseful, Scully decided to overlook the incident. “Let’s forget it, John. Shall we get over to the farm?”

A spark of excitement lit up the detective’s eyes. “You bet. Let’s go catch us a serial killer,” he said, grinning.

Scully gave him a tight smile. Dodds was a killer, all right, but not the serial killer. Mulder was right, she knew. No matter that the evidence was pointing more and more toward his theory — if Mulder said Dodds wasn’t their killer, he wasn’t. Of that she had no doubt. Convincing Kresge, on the other hand, was going to prove to be a challenge, if only for the fact that the detective would not want to be proven wrong, and especially by Mulder.

During the drive, Scully was still ticked off enough with Kresge to thwart all his attempts at smalltalk with short, terse replies. It took a few minutes, but the detective eventually gave up and fell silent.

Only when they were approaching the road that led to the farm — which she’d passed twenty minutes ago — did he let her in on what would be going down. “I’ll take the front door with two deputies. The sheriff and the other two deputies will go around back. One of the deputies has been watching the house from cover for about an hour. No one’s come in or gone out, and no one’s in the barn. So we should have all exits covered.”

Scully stared at him. “What about me?”

He smiled down at her. “You’ll be my back-up. If anything goes wrong, you call in the troops on my radio.” He pointed to the squawk box mounted under the dash.

Once again, she found herself dumbfounded. “You’re kidding. Right?”

Kresge blinked. “Huh?”

Scully felt a flash of anger. “You’re relegating me to backup?”

“Well …” For a second, the detective looked unsure of himself, but it quickly passed. ” …Yeah.”

“Detective Kresge, I am a fully-trained federal agent. I am quite probably better able than the local sheriff’s department to go up against Dodds.”

Kresge laughed — actually laughed — before he tried to cover it with a cough. “Uh … I’m, uh, sure that would, uh, normally be the case, uh, Dana, but, Dodds isn’t a boy scout. He’s bound to come out shooting.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you implying that I’m not capable of doing my job?”

“No, no. Not at all. But you could get hurt.”

“So could you,” she snapped. “So could any of us. That’s our job.”

“Right, right,” Kresge said in what she was sure was supposed to be a placating voice. All it did was irk her. “But I can handle it alone. Well, with the sheriff’s department.”

“Just why did you ask me to be here, then, John, if it wasn’t to participate in Dodds’s capture?”

“But you are!” Kresge protested.

“As backup. Sitting safe in a car while you do all the work.”

Kresge beamed. “While I catch our serial killer!”

About to rip his head off and feed it to him through his overly-large asshole, Scully was denied the pleasure when they pulled up to the ring of sheriff’s department cars, and John jumped out. Later, she promised herself. This discussion was not over. Not by a long shot.

Getting out of the car and joining the men, Scully listened to Kresge detailing how he wanted to proceed. With something akin to shock, she watched as he reached into the back seat and pulled out a Kevlar vest — one Kevlar vest — and donned it. It was then that she noticed that the entire group was wearing vests. Scully felt heat on her face, unable to distinguish whether it was more from anger or embarrassment.

When Kresge described her role in the plan of attack, the sheriff had the good grace to look surprised that the fed on the case had not been included in the approach to the house. Throwing her a look of apology, he opened the trunk of his sheriff’s department car and wordlessly handed her a vest. Scully accepted it with a nod of thanks.

Despite John’s wishes, Scully did not wait in the car. As the men stealthily advanced on the rambling farmhouse, she watched from the cover of the woods.

Ten minutes later, Kresge came back empty-handed. Dodds, and apparently anyone else who’d lived there, was long gone.

Upon seeing her, Kresge scowled. “I thought we agreed that you were going to wait in the car?”

You agreed that I would wait in the car. I couldn’t provide backup from the car.”

“What if he’d been there? What if he’d put up a fight?”

“Then I’d be in a position to back you up — from here.”

“Dammit, Dana, you deliberately — ”

“Listen, John, I don’t have — ” She cut off as her phone rang. Seeing that it was Mulder, she turned her back on Kresge and pressed the button to speak. “Scully.” She needed to vent, and Mulder could only appreciate how mad she was at the detective. “Mulder, I’m so pissed right now — ”

“Scully …” The tone of his voice made her hair stand up on end. “Scully … help me.”

Oh, Christ, while she’d been playing cops and robbers with the local boys … “Mulder! Mulder, what’s wrong?”

“Follow … Kocin. He’s … the killer.” Her ire that he’d gone out on his own evaporated at his next words. “God, Scully, my eyes! He did something to my eyes!”

Scully felt all the breath leave her. He was hurt. Mulder found the real killer, and because she wasn’t there to provide real backup, he’d been hurt. “Mulder, oh, god, hold on! Can you tell me where you are?”

“Warehouse district, Lot 93,” he rattled off without hesitation in his raspy voice. His next words were choked. “Scully, I can’t see!”

Oh my god, oh my god, she thought. “Stay on the line with me, Mulder.” Turning back around seeking out Kresge, she found him nowhere in sight. “Sheriff Ramirez,” she called to the man already on his radio, “I need you to call the paramedics. My partner’s been injured by a suspect.”

“Already standing by, Agent Scully. Just tell me where.”

She thanked God that at least someone didn’t have his head up his ass. She repeated the address Mulder gave her and told him there was something wrong with her partner’s eyes.

“There’s a body, Scully,” Mulder said in her ear. “I don’t know if she’s dead — there’s blood —” She could hear him starting to hyperventilate, a pain-filled grating of a sound.

“Shhh, Mulder, calm down. I can hear your wheezing over the phone. Just relax.” Suddenly, she felt herself go cold. “Is Kocin still there?”

“He … took off.”

Her relief was short-lived as an anguished wail came over the line. Oh, God, he had to be in terrible pain to let her hear that. What could be hurting his eyes so much that — “Mulder, shit, did you say he threw something in your eyes?”

“Yeah — bright white flash. Oh, God, it hurts!” His voice was almost gone, yet he managed to convey his torment perfectly clearly; the thought of him alone and suffering brought tears to her eyes.

She forced herself to find out as much information as she could from him now in case he wasn’t in any condition later to help. “White, really bright? Shit, it was probably magnesium.”

“Agent Scully!” The sheriff’s hail — just barely — pulled her attention away from Mulder. “An ambulance will be there in ten minutes or less. Lucky the building he’s in is close to the hospital.”

“Mulder, the ambulance says they’ll be there in ten minutes. Don’t rub your eyes! Keep your hands away from your eyes! Magnesium is an alkaline — that’s very dangerous and can cause permanent damage. Do you hear me, Mulder — don’t rub your eyes! Please!”

“I’ll try, Scully,” he whispered. “Please hurry.”

She turned beseeching eyes upon the sheriff. “Where’s — ”

“Come on. I’ll take you.”

Not really caring that she was blowing off Kresge, Scully followed the sheriff. “Mulder, you’re very close to a hospital. I’ll meet you there. Okay?”

She heard him sniff, then, “Okay.”

“I’m coming, Mulder. You just hold on for me, okay? I’m coming.”

“I am,” he said, his voice choked.

Not giving a damn that she had an audience, she said what she felt, and what she needed to say. “I love you, Mulder.”

She continued to talk to and comfort him until the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics took the phone away from him, and took him away from her.

**

Warehouse District

Lot 93

5:52 p.m.

“… Scully,” he rasped weakly. He felt the phone in his hands, but he couldn’t hold it up to his ear. The urge to rub his eyes, tear them out, actually, was so great he had to keep both hands away from his face. He could hear her voice at a distance, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. Had he heard her right? ‘I love you’ … ?

He moaned in pain and willed himself to calm down. The pain was causing him to panic, which was causing his chest to tighten and all breath was leaving his body. Somewhere in his fall he’d lost the inhaler, not that he could fumble it to his mouth without seeing what he was doing.

Sirens approached and soon he heard doors slamming and footsteps on the concrete.

“In here,” he gasped, as loud as he could. “I’m in here.”

As luck would have it, the EMTs managed to find him in a very short time.

“OK, sir, we’re here to help you,” said a light soprano voice. Mulder could almost picture it coming from a winsome blonde.

“The woman … in the … box,” Mulder choked out, waving his hand in a direction he hoped indicted the body he’d seen earlier.

“Andy, check on her,” came the voice again. “What’s your name, sir? Can you tell me your name?”

“Mulder. Agent Fox Mulder. FBI,” he said through gritted teeth as he was jostled and placed first on a backboard and then a gurney.

“OK, Agent Mulder, my name is Nancy and I’m going to take a look at your eyes. Tell me if I hurt you, I’m going to try to be gentle.”

He felt her hands on his cheeks but when she brushed her fingertips across his eyelids, he almost shot off the floor in agony. “Stop! Please, stop,” he begged.

“We need to flush these,” Nancy said to someone else. “Agent Mulder, do you know what the substance was?”

“Bright white light … um … partner said magnesium,” he panted, trying to get more air into this struggling lungs.

“His respiratory reading isn’t too hot, Nan. We better start him on some O2,” came a deep voice, one Mulder would place with a line backer or a heavyweight wrestler.

“Go for it, James, and get me that pack of Ringers. We’ll flush with that. Call base, tell them we need ophthalmology on arrival.”

Mulder suffered in silence, only listening to his own heartbeat as the two medical technicians worked on him. There was a stick on the back of his left hand — he knew the all too familiar IV was being inserted. He felt Nan’s hands on his face again.

“Agent Mulder, I need to flush your eyes with a saline solution. It’s probably going to hurt, but it will stop the burn, I promise.”

He nodded weakly. Now that James had the oxygen mask in place, he was breathing easier, but pain and fear kept his heart pounding in his ears.

“OW!” he yelped when he felt the liquid trickle down the side of his face. It felt soothing to his cheeks, but it felt like it was burning his eyes right out of their sockets. “Please,” he begged. “Please stop!”

“Just a little more and then we have to do the other side,” Nan said apologetically. “James, what’s his b/p?”

“150 over 110,” James said tersely.

“Call in and tell them he’s in a lot of pain. Maybe they’ll let us give him something for the ride.”

Nan tried to keep him occupied by supplying her with his list of medications. Scully had compiled a list on the computer, including dosages, and had him carry a copy in his wallet. After another quick call to the hospital, Nan touched his shoulder.

“Good news, they’re going to let us give you a shot for the ride. Now, I want you to just relax, we’ll get you to the hospital in a jiffy. Is there anyone you need us to call once we get you there?”

” … my partner … she’s meeting me … at hospital,” he said in a hoarse whisper. He could feel something cold running through the IV James had started and welcomed the feeling. Soon the pain would leave him alone.

“OK, well, we’re going to get you out of here. Just hang on. If you start to feel sick or anything just call out, OK?”

“OK,” he said weakly. He could feel the medication starting to work. Since he still couldn’t see anything, his hearing was affected. Sounds came to him from a great distance. As the pain eased, and the oxygen aided his breathing, he drifted off into a doze.

**

Warehouse District

Lot 93

6:38 p.m.

As he neared the address relayed to him by Sheriff Ramirez’s deputy, John couldn’t believe how irritated he still felt about Dana’s running off to her partner’s side — and leaving a potential crime scene, to boot. What the hell was wrong with her?

The sheriff’s taking off with her didn’t exactly leave an agreeable taste in his mouth, either. Now here John was, finishing up what that ass, Mulder, had started. Humph. Ramirez never did say what happened to the guy and why Dana had to rush off, only that he’d been injured at the scene, and that he’d mentioned something about a body.

One lone policeman waved at him as he pulled up to the broken-down building in the sprawling complex. Odd, he thought sarcastically, you’d think there’d be more than one emergency vehicle at the scene of a murder. Could it be that J. Edgar was wrong?

As John parked, the two sheriff’s department cars that had accompanied him screeched to a halt behind him. “What’ve we got, Jimmy?” he asked, getting out and walking toward the tall African-American sergeant.

The veteran officer looked perplexed. “There’s no body here, John. Just a storefront dummy.” He looked up at the detective. “Some nut stuck it in a coffin and cut it in half. Coffin and all.”

“No body, you say? Now there’s a shocker.” Paying no heed to the deputies standing around exchanging looks of indecision, John swept by the whole pack and into the dark warehouse. He approached the officer standing beside the body.

Great. Jenelle Withers. Where the hell was Jimmy’s regular partner? He shuddered. Whatever was he thinking when he’d gone out with Jenelle last year? Though he’d considered their break-up amicable, she sure as hell didn’t share those feelings.

“So. Kresge.” She looked him up and down, malicious amusement dancing in her eyes. “You call in the D.B.?”

John scowled. “No,” he said, curtly. “That would be the F.B.I.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, that smug tone to her voice that he despised. “Well, it’s all yours.” She gestured to the oblong box — and its occupant — behind her. “I’ll consider myself relieved at the scene.” She started to walk away, then called over her shoulder. “Watch out you don’t step in that blood.”

Looking down at his feet, John leaped away form the coffin when he spotted the red stain beneath him. Jenelle’s malevolent chuckle reached his burning ears as he realized that the ‘blood’ was nothing more than some old paint stains. “Damn it,” he muttered. He kicked the table upon which the box sat. “Stupid fed.”

He was shocked to find that he’d applied that to both Mulder and Dana. After all, she was the one who deserted him and sent him on this snipe hunt. She was the one who went running off because her partner had a hangnail. Or something.

And who took the abuse? Who would become the butt of all the department jokes for the next decade? Not Mulder. Ohhh, no. In a week, tops, that joker’d be on his way east, the case and all its ramifications — such as John’s humiliation — out of his mind.

Damn it. John really did not like that guy.

“Excuse me. Detective?” Deputy Ralph Greenburg, whom John hadn’t even heard enter the building, was regarding him with trepidation. Three deputies stood around him in various states of anxiety.

“Yeah, Ralph. What can I do for you?” John was careful not to take his ire out on the young deputy.

“We’re going to check out the rest of the building, then head on back. That okay with you?”

John grimaced as the deputy pointed out something he should have initiated himself. “Yeah, Ralph. Thanks. I’ll … secure this area.”

Sighing, John put in a call for a forensics team. Even though the body turned out to be a sham, a crime had been committed in this warehouse. A law officer had been attacked, and John had a duty to garner as much evidence as he could.

“Detective!”

“Yeah?” John answered the hail from Greenburg.

“There’s some powdery stuff on the floor here. Looks like someone stepped in it and ran off that way.” He pointed to the rear of the building.

“Okay,” John said, walking over to take a look. “Can you guys hang out here until Forensics shows up? I need to be somewhere else.”

“Sure,” the deputy said agreeably. “We’ll set up a perimeter so the evidence isn’t disturbed.” The young man sounded so excited by the prospect that John would have smiled if he wasn’t so aggravated.

“Yeah. Great. Go ahead.” As he started to move off, he felt a pang of guilt for his abrupt treatment of Greenburg. “Good work,” he said, forcing a smile.

Throwing a quick look to his co-workers, Greenburg beamed. “Thanks, Detective.”

“Sure,” John told him before heading out. “At least someone’s getting something good out of this,” he grumbled under his breath.

Relieved to find no trace of his former lover, but losing any semblance of good humor his encounter with the deputy may have brought about, John hopped in his car and headed over to the hospital so he could give Mulder a piece of his mind.

**

University of San Diego Medical Center

6:45 pm

Dana Scully paced and fumed. Upon arrival, she discovered that her partner hadn’t arrived, but the admissions department was already looking for her. She thanked her lucky stars that she’d insisted Mulder get two insurance cards each year at ‘benefits choice period’ — one for his wallet and one for hers. Even then it took the better part of half an hour to ensure the medical center that the Federal Employees Group Health insurance would pay in full, since the injury was work related, even though the medical center was an ‘out of network’ provider. She might have found it all humorous if she hadn’t gone through the same drill in Raleigh just two weeks before.

When she managed to untangle herself from the yards of red tape, she’d been informed that her partner had arrived. However, due to the critical nature of his injury, the doctors had instructed that all family members remain in the waiting area during initial treatment. She flashed her badge, her District of Columbia medical card and was about to pull her gun, but to no avail. She was still pacing when the doctor came out to speak with her.

“Are you with Agent Mulder?” a bright eyed woman no older than 35 asked.

“Yes, I’m Dana Scully. Doctor Dana Scully,” she emphasized her title. “I’m Agent Mulder’s partner.”

“Doctor Scully,” the woman replied, also emphasizing the title. “I’m Julia Pearson, head resident in ophthalmology. If you’ll follow me, I’d like to speak to you about your partner’s condition.”

Dr. Pearson led Scully back through the double doors of the Emergency Department and into a hall of small offices. She entered one and took a seat, gesturing to Scully to sit down. She picked up a chart from a small table and handed it to Scully. “I don’t usually let family read the charts, but since you’re a doctor …”

“My specialty is pathology,” Scully said guiltily. “But I do keep my certification up in emergency medicine — it comes in handy in the field.”

“I can imagine,” Pearson said amiably. “Well, as you can see, Agent Mulder sustained injury to both eyes — chemical burns which we were able to determine were caused by magnesium powder. Since Agent Mulder was alert enough to tell the EMTs that it was probably magnesium, they were able to flush his eyes at the scene, which saved his sight, more than likely.”

Scully swallowed hard and nodded. “Then he will recover his sight?”

Pearson smiled. “We have every reason to believe that will be the case. Of course, we’re treating for infection and complications can arise — ”

“I understand, thank you,” Scully said, breathing easier. “Are you admitting him?”

“Yes. It’s necessary in a case such as this. Alkaline substances are highly corrosive to the ocular tissue and organs and we need to ensure that all traces of the chemical are gone. We’ll be administering Homatropine in a 5 percent solution for the next twenty-four hours to flush the eyes and Tobramycin to stop any possible infection. Plus, your partner will still need medication for pain. We’ll keep patches on until we feel the eyes are healing properly — those will have to stay on even after he’s released, at least for a few days. Now, I noticed that he’s on a bronchodilator. Is his asthma chronic?”

“He’s recovering from a severe infestation in his bronchial tissues. I’ll have the records from his most recent hospital stay faxed to you,” Scully promised.

“Most recent?” Pearson asked quizzically.

Scully smiled serenely. “Two weeks past. Yes.”

The young doctor raised her eyebrows but didn’t comment. “Well, I’m sure you’d like to see your partner and he’s been asking to see you. When I left I promised him that you’d be allowed to see him once he was settled into his room.”

**

Room 563

half an hour later

Mulder rolled his head from side to side. He could feel the crisp cotton pillowcase, and the smell of bleach and plastic overwhelmed his delicate stomach. He tried opening his eyes, but was met with some resistance. Confused, he brought his hand up to his face, only to have it caught in mid air in a firm grip.

“No, Mulder. Leave the patches alone.”

“Scully,” he rasped. His throat wasn’t on fire, but that didn’t make his voice any stronger. After a brief self-evaluation, he decided nothing really hurt, but he felt foggy — unsure of himself. Maybe he was dreaming this?

“I’m right here, Mulder.” She sounded tired and worried and just a little exasperated. Par for the course. So it was possible that it was all a dream.

“Here, have some of this.” A straw suddenly touched his bottom lip and he sucked on it greedily. Water. Not ice chips. Well, if it wasn’t a dream at least he wasn’t in horrible shape. Slowly, the events of the warehouse filtered back to him. His eyes!

“Scully, my eyes?” His chest grew tight, waiting for her answer. She laid a hand on his shoulder and he flinched.

“Sorry, should have warned you,” she said calmly. “Mulder, your eyes will be fine. You were very lucky — the paramedics got to you quickly and were able to rinse most of the chemical out of your eyes before it could cause permanent damage. The doctor left orders for your eyes to be treated with a solution for the next day and they’re giving you antibiotics and pain meds. You can go home tomorrow afternoon, if everything looks good.”

That calmed his nerves considerably, but left the way open for other concerns. “How about the body in the warehouse? I saw Kocin — he was killing her!”

“Mulder, calm down,” Scully ordered. “I came directly here, but John, er, Detective Kresge sent a team over to the warehouse. I’m sure we’ll hear from them soon.”

“I’m sure you’ll hear from him,” Mulder grumbled just under his breath.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing. So how long do I look like a really bad pirate?” he deflected.

He could almost hear the grin in her voice. “The patches have to stay on for a few days, minimum, possibly a week. Your eyes weren’t permanently damaged, but they did sustain some injury from the burn. We have to keep them covered to protect them from infection and simply because they’ll be sensitive to light for awhile. After a few days, sunglasses will suffice. And rest. Much more rest than you’ve been getting,” she said, her tone growing serious.

“So when can I read, Scully? I need to be able to read to work on my profile.”

“Mulder, the only reason you aren’t on a plane headed back to DC this minute is because you couldn’t negotiate the airport back home by yourself,” she growled. “As for this case, you are officially off it — per direct order of Assistant Director Skinner, who is threatening to suspend you without pay if you try to ignore said order.”

“Guess you’ve been busy,” he sneered.

“Oh, I’ve been very busy,” she shot back. “See, while I was at a stakeout of a possible murder suspect I got a call that my partner, who was supposedly safely at the hotel, had been attacked and was possibly blinded by another possible murder suspect. After filling out enough paperwork to have you admitted to the United Nations as a fledgling third world country, I had to report to our superior what the hell you’ve been doing and how you managed to end up, yet again, in the hospital — for the second time in less than thirty days, he reminded me. Yes, I’ve had a stellar day, Mulder!”

Oops! Open mouth, insert nearest appendage. It was time to regroup and start over. “Scully, I’m sorry,” he croaked out. He grabbed wildly at thin air until she finally took his hand. Quickly, he brought her hand to his lips and placed a kiss on her knuckles. “I really am sorry,” he repeated.

“Mulder — ” He could hear the utter frustration in her voice. There was something else there — defeat? Maybe resignation? God, he hoped not! He listened hard and heard a soft snuffling sound. Oh shit. She was crying! He’d really done it this time.

“Scully,” he tried again, tugging her hand and reaching out, finally finding her shoulders. He pulled her gently down to embrace her as best he could. “I know, I know. I really am sorry,” he said once again, hoping this time it would appease her.

She let him hold her for a few moments and he relished the feel of her against his shoulder, became almost light-headed as he inhaled her perfume. Then, suddenly, she was pushing herself up and out of his arms.

“Mulder, I just … I just don’t know how much more of this I can take,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Every time I see you in another hospital bed — ”

It wasn’t just the words, they were bad enough, but her tone of voice sent a chuck of dread straight to his stomach. What was she saying? She couldn’t take this anymore? Couldn’t take what? Him?

“Scully, please — ” he begged.

“You need to get some rest. The nurse will be coming soon for another eye treatment and you should try to get some sleep till then.”

“Will you be here?” he asked. He was afraid, yes. Afraid of the treatment, a little. But more than that, he was afraid he was losing her.

He felt her hand cup his cheek. “Of course. I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere. Go to sleep, Mulder. I’m here.”

Her words sounded reassuring, so why wasn’t he reassured? Was it her tone? Or was it that he couldn’t look in her eyes and know that what she was saying was what she meant — that she wasn’t giving up on him? He wanted to ask her more questions, try and catch the clues in her voice, but the pain meds were dragging him back into the darkness. It was a puzzle he didn’t have all the pieces to and it would have to wait for a while.

**

University of San Diego Medical Center

7:33 p.m.

Room 563

“Dana!” John’s hail caused her head to snap up from where it had been leaning on her hand. Upon seeing him, she rose quickly and headed toward where he was standing in the doorway. As she got closer, he noticed the trails of wet streaks she was hastily trying to remove. What the hell …?

She led him to a lounge area a couple of doors down from Mulder’s room and took a seat on the couch; John sat beside her. He couldn’t help but stare at traces of mascara she hadn’t completely wiped away from her eyes. What the heck was going on?

John had checked with the nurses’ station before heading to the dickhead’s room; they reported that Agent Mulder was resting comfortably and was out of danger. So why was Dana crying?

Sudden fury surged through John. That son of a bitch! It wasn’t enough he had to screw with the case and get himself tossed in the hospital. Now he’d gone and said or done something to poor Dana.

Huh. Poor Dana, he reflected. Poor Dana who’d run off at the first sign that her precious partner was in a jam. Still, he admitted grudgingly. He couldn’t fault her for her loyalty, misplaced though it was. He supposed it was one of the things that attracted him to her.

“Hey,” he said, immediately softening. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “Nothing, John,” she said, trying to force a smile.

“Come on,” he said gently. “You’re not sitting here … like this … for nothing.” He’d caught himself at the last second; even if she was a woman, prone to crying, he was man enough not to rub her face in it.

“Really, John, I’m fine. It’s nothing. Okay?”

Her denial only made him more suspicious. “Is it him?”

“Him?” Her pretension that she didn’t know what he was talking about incensed John. She was hiding something. About that bastard Mulder.

“Him!” John indicated Mulder’s room with his chin. “Your partner! The guy who called in a false police report on a nonexistent body! The one you’re protecting for God knows what reason!”

“There was no body?” Dana asked, completely brushing aside the real subject — what that son of a bitch had done to make her cry.

Fine. She didn’t want to deal with it yet … he could play the avoidance game. For the moment. “No, there was no goddamned body! There was a dummy in a box and some red paint. Your stupid partner caught some schmuck hacking away at a sawdust dummy, and got himself hurt because he was harassing a guy engaging in some kind of weird fetish. What the hell happened to him anyway that you had to leave the scene of a crime? And leave without letting me know where the hell you were going?”

The look of astonishment on her face was oh, so satisfying to his wounded pride. Yeah, that’s right, Dana, he berated her silently. You went too far and made me lose my temper. Ain’t payback a bitch?

“Crime scene?” she finally said, her tone somewhat subdued. Well! At least she realized the error of her ways, he thought with a smirk; maybe he’d let her off easy since she was being so cooperative. “You call that run-down excuse for a farm a crime scene?” Whoa. What was this? What happened to meek, submissive Dana? “Dodds was a no-show! How does that qualify as a crime scene? And I don’t answer to you, Detective, so I can leave whenever the hell I want!” When she stood up, he actually moved back a step, until he caught himself and stood his ground. “As for Mulder, he is my partner. He was hurt, and he needed my help. You, on the other hand, made it abundantly clear that you did not.”

What the hell was she nattering on about? For Christ’s sake, he let her in on the Dodds capture, didn’t he? It wasn’t his fault their bird had already flown the coop. “What do you mean by that?”

“Putting me on backup! I had every right to be in on his capture, yet you did everything you could to push me to the background.”

He was flabbergasted. Is that what she thought? “No, Dana,” he said in his most soothing voice, guiding her back down onto the couch and reseating himself next to her. “I was only trying to keep you out of harm’s way. You — ”

“I’m a federal officer,” she said, and he swore he could hear her hissing. It was NOT a sound that normally attracted him to a woman, but in her case he was strangely fascinated. “I am a duly sworn agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and I will NOT be protected by you or anyone else.”

John was appalled. “Your partner doesn’t protect you?” My God, she needed John more than he’d thought!

“No, goddammit, he lets me do my job!”

“God, Dana, I’m sorry.”

That single sentiment seemed to take the wind out of her sails. “Well — ”

“I knew there was something about that guy that rubbed me the wrong way.”

Dana looked totally confused — God! What a cute expression on her!

John nodded, warming to a subject (Mulder) that didn’t normally warm him. “What kind of man puts his own safety above that of his partner? You. A woman.”

John could see anger creeping onto Dana’s face yet again. Finally, she was seeing the light. It’s about goddammned good time!

“And just what does that mean?” she said, a dangerous trill to her voice that gave him the chills. In a good way.

John shrugged. “It’s perfectly obvious, only you’re too blinded by loyalty to see it.”

“See what?”

“Your partner’s not doing all he can to shield you from harm. Your partner’s not doing anything to keep you safe. He’s endangering your life by putting you in the line of fire, and he’s going off on his own and harassing honest citizens, then getting himself hurt and putting you through hell because of his carelessness. You don’t need that, Dana. You don’t need to be worrying that your partner might be off doing something stupid that might get you hurt — or killed.”

“My partner,” Scully said in a low, sexy voice that would have given him a hard-on were it not for the subject matter, “doesn’t feel the need to protect me in that way. To him, I’m as capable as he is in the performance of our job. I’m his equal — in every way that counts.”

Huh. Who was she trying to convince: herself or him? A man doesn’t belittle a woman he considers his equal. All those derisive comments and snide looks weren’t the actions of a man who considered his partner ‘capable.’ Rather, they spoke of a man who had little respect for women in general, and for Dana in particular. “How can you say that?” Kresge finally replied. “How can you say that after the way he treats you?”

Dana crossed her arms over her chest in the classic defense mode. “And just how does he treat me?”

Ah, now here was a topic on which John could expound! “Well, he’s always making some inappropriate comment, and the way he talks to you! I don’t know how you put up with all those snide remarks and that disrespectful tone of voice he uses with you.”

“Anything else?” He was surprised, and a little irritated, by the amusement with which she asked her question.

“Yeah. How about the way he’s ‘helping’ with this case? He’s not giving us any cooperation with Dodds, and he’s going off and conducting his own investigation.”

“That’s not affecting me, John; that’s affecting you.”

“It’s — ” John stopped abruptly and stared at her. She wasn’t reacting at all like she should. She didn’t seem in the least disturbed by the facts as he’d presented them to her. She’d been with that guy so long that she honestly didn’t see what he’d done to her. John had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could continue. “Dana …” Taking her hand in his, he squeezed it lightly, encouragingly. “You’re not thinking clearly.”

“You got that right,” she muttered.

Happy that she’d been able to admit that much, John continued to present this case. “You don’t notice how badly he treats you, how little respect he gives you, because you haven’t had anyone to compare him to. He’s your first partner — your only partner.” John shook his head. “He’s not a very good role model.”

Dana nodded solemnly. “No, he certainly isn’t. He never has been.” When she gazed up at him, he noted that she looked almost proud of that fact.

Certain that he was reading her wrong, he pushed on. “I’m glad you can see that,” he said sincerely. “You deserve better. You deserve someone who’ll respect you, who’ll treat you the way a woman ought to be treated, who’ll never forget you’re a woman — not one single moment.”

“John …” Her hands in his began to fidget until she pulled them loose. He felt a little sad to have caused the expression of discomfort she wore now.

“Dana — ” About to ask her to cut her losses with the jerk, she stopped him by pressing her fingers to his lips.

“Don’t,” she said. “I’m not leaving him.” She turned around and looked in the direction of her partner’s room. “I can’t.”

John understood. Her partner was hurt, and like any good partner, she was standing by him. Once again, he admired her dedication to a man who was not worthy of it. “Okay,” he said quietly. John could wait. John could wait until she was ready.

Beside him, Dana lapsed into her own thoughts. John just sat beside her, determined to be there for her even if she thought she didn’t want him to be.

**end of part 5**

Shred of Doubt (6/9)

Jo-Ann Lassiter and Vickie Moseley

University of San Diego Medical Center

7:47 p.m.

Hospital Lounge

She loved Mulder. She did. But, God, he made it so difficult sometimes. Huh. Lots of times. This latest stunt, much too soon after the scare with the tobacco beetles, had brought her that much closer to calling it all off with him. Making a clean break before he broke her heart. Not the usual way — oh, no, not her Mulder. He’d do it by getting himself killed, making her a widow without benefit of being married.

If she left him now, she had a good chance of retaining what little sanity she had left. When the inevitable happened, it wouldn’t hurt as much if he was no longer a part of her life, if she didn’t care about him anymore.

Oh, who was she kidding? If she never saw him again, news of his death would leave her just as devastated as if she’d just spent the night making love to him. What she told Kresge was the truth: she couldn’t leave Mulder. But not for the reason Kresge assumed. Kresge believed Mulder thought only of himself and never of her. What would the detective think if she told him that the exact opposite was true?

A cough startled her, and she looked toward the source. God, was he still here? She’d never met a man less able to take a hint. Did she have to spell it out for him?

“John …”

Immediately straightening up, he regarded her eagerly. “Yes, Dana?”

“Shouldn’t you be getting back to the station?”

He checked his watch, then shook his head. “As of forty-seven minutes ago, I’m officially off-duty.” His smile made her cringe. “I can stay for as long as you need me.”

She sighed. “I appreciate that …” His smile grew wider, and she wanted more than anything for him to leave on his own. But she knew that that wasn’t likely to happen. ” … but I’d really like to be alone.”

He deflated like Mulder’s manhood at the mention of Bill’s name. “Oh. All right.” A hopeful look came into his eyes. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“I — ” She stopped herself from answering in the negative just because it was what she wanted. “Maybe.” She ran a hand through her hair, too tired to worry about what she was doing to her appearance. “I have to see what time Mulder is released and get him settled in at my brother’s. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get free.”

The detective gazed at her critically. “You need to rest,” he scolded.

She nodded. “I will.”

He stood up and held out his hand to her. “Come on. I’ll drive you to your hotel.”

Ignoring his hand, she stared up at him. “I’m not going back to the hotel.”

He blinked. “Are you going to stay at your brother’s?”

She considered lying to him, but couldn’t be bothered. “I’m staying here.”

His eyes flitted around the inside of the lounge. “Here?”

She tilted her head in the direction of the corridor. “With Mulder.”

Kresge looked at like she’d lost her marbles. “You’re gonna spend the night on a chair in his room?”

“That’s right.”

“After what we just talked about.” It was not a question.

In no mood to set him straight, she said, “Even after that.”

Scowling, he shook his head. “I’m afraid I just don’t understand you, Dana.”

She chuckled. That was the first thing he said that made any sense. Taking his still-outstretched hand, she rose to her feet. Giving him a gentle shove to the door, she waited until he was gone before she made her way into Mulder’s room.

Watching the rise and fall of her partner’s chest, she marveled that she could be so angry and so in love with him at the same time. Mulder had his faults — plenty of them, to be sure — but where it mattered most, he’d never let her down. To Mulder, she wasn’t merely a woman — she was a person. Something Detective Kresge didn’t seem to be able to grasp.

“You may make my hair turn gray before its time, Mulder,” she told him softly, “but you’re never patronizing, you’re never boring, and you understand me.” She grinned. “Well … sometimes.” She leaned down and dropped a light kiss on his lips.

“You ought to thank Detective Kresge for reminding me just why it is I love you in spite of all the stupid things you do.” She settled into the chair beside his bed. “I’m still gonna kick your ass when you’re better, though.”

**

University of San Diego Medical Center

Room 563

9:45 pm

Mulder had been drifting in and out of sleep, but had no idea for how long. It was frustrating beyond belief — and just a little frightening — to be without sight. He was used to pain, he was even used to the foggy way drugs made him feel, but not being able to see was not only driving him up the wall, it was scaring the hell out of him.

What if he never got his sight back?

Oh, sure, Scully had reassured him repeatedly that his blindness was only temporary. And he fully understood, as much as his groggy mind could fathom, that the patches on his eyes were a precaution more than anything else. But there was always the chance that something could go wrong, that he might fall victim to some complication listed in small print in some medical textbook and then the absolute worst would happen — he would never see Scully again.

He would hear her voice, smell her perfume, maybe, oh God, please, maybe taste her lips and run his hands over her body again and again — but he would never look into her eyes and know in the depth of his soul that she really did love him.

He wondered if crying would hurt his eyes. He tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the tears, but apparently his eyes weren’t listening to his commands.

Then he heard the door snick open and was grateful for the gauze pads that were soaking up the better part of his tears. A quick run of his arm under his nose and he was back to normal — at least he hoped he looked that way.

“Scully,” he rasped. He was more than tired of his voice, which seemed to be out more than in lately. Was there any part of him not in open rebellion? Best not to consider that too closely.

“Mulder, we need to talk,” Scully said and he felt the bed rail lower and the mattress dip where she sat next to his leg.

Oh God, this was it. She was going to tell him they’d just discovered something they hadn’t noticed before and he was going to be permanently blind. Or maybe she was just finally going to let him have it for ‘running off on her’ again and going after Kocin. To make matters worse, once again she had to save his ass. Yeah, it was time for the big goodbye — ‘I’m going to stay in San Diego with Kresge but I’ll always remember you fondly’ speech …

” … Tara and Bill’s. I know you and Bill aren’t the best of friends — ”

He swallowed and shook his head. He’d zoned out thinking the impossible and had missed what she was saying. “Scully, sorry, I’m a little slow on the uptake right now. What are you saying?”

She chuckled a little, but it wasn’t her happy chuckle. It was her ‘what am I going to do with you — and can I get away with using my handcuffs’ chuckle. “No doubt because you don’t like what I’m saying,” she replied. “Mulder, the doctor is concerned about you traveling back home, not just because you’d be stumbling around without your eyes at the airport but because of the cabin pressure and how that might affect you. He thinks you need to stay here, at least until the bandages come off. I can’t take you home myself because I can’t leave the case with the suspect still at large, so that puts us in a bind. Now, I’ve talked it over with Mom and she suggested that you stay at Bill and Tara’s.”

His immediate thought was ‘no friggin’ way!’ He must have shown it on his face — at least the exposed parts, because he felt her hand on his chest.

“Mulder, I want you to listen and I want you to listen good: I know you think you can just spring out of this hospital bed like Superman and use your Spidey Senses to get you around — ”

“You’re mixing Super Heroes, Scully,” he interjected hoarsely.

“And I really don’t care,” she shot back. “Now, the alternatives are to find you a rehabilitation facility here in California — ”

“A nursing home?” he croaked in disgust.

“Or attempt a medical evac to DC — which the Bureau insurance would surely balk at — ”

“Insurance, hell! I’d balk at that, Scully,” he retorted.

“So that leaves us with only one option — for you to graciously accept Mom’s and Tara’s hospitality and stay at their home until we can both go back to DC when this case is finished. Since you’re on medical leave — complete, total, no-wiggle-room-allowed, medical leave now, you can just consider it a vacation.” She was using that voice — that ‘Sister Mary Dana’ voice that he really hated.

“What does Bill say about all this?” Mulder asked quietly, hoping she didn’t see how pissed he was. Yes, it was the only decision possible but that didn’t make him like it.

“Mom and Tara have to handle Bill. All I have to worry about is you,” she said with just a touch of defiance in her voice that made him wonder just what happened when they were discussing the new living arrangements.

“Will you be there, too?” he asked and was shocked at the whine in his own voice. Damned tobacco beetles — they made him sound like a four-year old.

“Of course,” she said, her voice taking on that tender sound that he loved so much when it was directed his way. To prove her point, she untucked a strand of his hair from the bandage that encircled his head and stroked his temple for a minute. “Look, try to sleep now. The nurses won’t be in to bother you as much now that you’re getting the eye meds only twice a day. Use this time to rest because you’re going to a house with a very active toddler in residence.”

He was asleep in minutes.

**

Enroute to Tara and Bill Scully’s Residence

May 4, 2000

3:30 pm

Once he’d fallen asleep, he’d slept straight through the night, waking only when the nurse dropped his breakfast tray on his side table. Scully was there, as he’d come to rely on, to help him fumble his way through his watery oatmeal, rubbery cold toast and lukewarm coffee. Since television was less amusing without vision, he slept the rest of the morning, ate his lunch and then grumbled through the afternoon until his release. But finally, they were on their way.

Scully had been mostly quiet during the afternoon. Part of that was undoubtedly because Mulder had been rather brusque with the nurse who had come in to change his bandages. Scully usually got after him when he was ‘mean’ to medical personnel and it surprised him when she hadn’t said a word. But after a few minutes he realized what was happening — the silent treatment. Since he couldn’t see her seething at him from across the room that meant he was completely cut off from any form of communication. He’d suffered in silence until the nurse came back with a wheelchair. He hated that Scully was angry, but he was too grumpy to make amends.

He felt the car slow down, make a right and slowly pull into a driveway. When it stopped, he heard Scully sigh before she turned off the ignition.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a near whisper.

“Excuse me?” She sounded confused. Maybe she hadn’t heard him.

“I said I’m sorry I was mean to that nurse. I know she was just doing what the doctor told her to do, but she caught my ear and — ”

“Mulder, I’m not mad at you,” Scully said in clipped tones. “Well, I’m not real happy with you,” she amended. “I wish you had called me about Kocin and the warehouse, but you didn’t and I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“You never told me — did they ID the body?” he asked, feeling that another ‘I’m sorry’ probably wouldn’t get him in any better favor with her at that moment.

“There wasn’t a body, Mulder. It was a mannequin, a store dummy.” He could hear the disappointment — at him — in her voice as plain as day.

“But the blood,” he objected.

“Paint. Copious amounts of red paint. Dried. The last I heard this morning the sheriff was thinking about a type match, if only because it looked like the place had once been used as a chop shop — stolen cars, repainted. But it was not, and apparently never had been, a murder scene.”

“So why did Kocin toss magnesium in my face?” Mulder mused.

“Well, we are trying to contact Mr. Kocin. Although not as high on their priority list right now, he did attack a federal officer — you did identify yourself, didn’t you, Mulder?”

Oh crap. It was that Sister Mary Dana voice. Trouble was, he had to think back and much of his memory was in a chemical blur. He did identify himself as a federal agent, didn’t he?

“Mulder, I asked you a question — ”

“Scully, I swear, I … I thought … I’m pretty sure …”

“Oh shit,” she sighed. “Well, if you didn’t, that lets Mr. Kocin off the hook.”

He wanted to say something, anything, that would make it better, but he was stumped. There wasn’t a body? He was positive — but then the lighting had been horrible through the grimy windows and Kocin was standing in front of the box and the body … Oh, hell.

But Kocin was the killer! Mulder was positive about that. Just as he’d been suspicious of Darryl Weaver and look where that got him.

“Are you coming in or not?” He hadn’t even heard or felt the door open right next to him. Scully took his elbow and helped him to his feet. “About ten feet to the stairs, two steps up and then the door,” she told him as they walked slowly up to the house.

“You’re sure they’re OK with this,” Mulder repeated.

“Mom and Tara are definitely OK with this,” Scully said, as if that was sufficient an answer.

It wasn’t, at least as far as Mulder was concerned. “And your brother?”

“There’s always the Officer’s Quarters on base,” she said casually, ringing the doorbell.

**

Bill and Tara’s House

4:00

Tara was in the kitchen trying to get Bill to see reason when Maggie heard the doorbell. Drawing a deep breath, she plastered a smile on her face and hurried to answer the door before it woke Matty, still down for his nap.

The sight of her daughter always brought a smile to her lips, but the image of Fox Mulder, his face wrapped in gauze and looking like a strong breeze would topple him caused her concern. “Dana, oh my God, Fox!” she exclaimed, reaching up to touch his cheek with motherly distress.

“Hi Mom, is the den set up?” Dana asked and Maggie had to shake herself to answer.

“Yes, yes. Tara pulled the sofa out into a sleeper; we thought Fox might need to lie down. And I made Bill move all the furniture out of the way to the door that leads to the half bathroom.”

Fox muttered something that sounded like ‘bet he loved that’, but Maggie wisely chose to ignore the comment. She was used to having two bickering boys in the house, but back in those days, she could always get after both of them with a good long handled wooden spoon!

“Does he need to take any medication now?” Maggie asked.

“I’m right here, Mrs. Scully,” Fox rasped with impatience.

“Oh, dear, and his voice isn’t any better, is it?”

“No, Mom, it’s not. But at least his lungs checked out. If he’d stop using his voice, maybe it would have a chance to rest up.”

“Is that a hint, Scully?” Fox shot back and Maggie had to suppress a grin. At least he seemed to be feeling better than he looked.

” … goddamned hospital where he belongs! Or the looney bin!”

Maggie sighed and cast a quick glance over to Fox. He’d heard every word, probably more than she’d just heard. Wasn’t it said that if you lost one sense, the other senses became enhanced to make up the loss? It was going to be a long few days.

“The den is right through there, Dana; you know the way. I’ll go see if we have some juice or something. Fox, I know you must be thirsty.” She didn’t give him a chance to object — she needed some reason to bust into the kitchen and turn her oldest son over her knee.

Bill had his hands on his hips and was the perfect mirror image of his father on a rant. Tara was beet red in the face and looked as if one more word would invoke a murderous rage. Time for some mother-intervention.

“Tara, Fox and Dana are here. I had Dana take Fox to the den — ” She watched in horror as Tara started laughing. It began as a giggle but quickly turned into a full belly laugh.

“Mom — we put Fox in the den,” Tara chortled.

“Oh Geez, now you’ve lost it,” Bill said, rolling his eyes.

“Bill, I want you to lower your voice,” Maggie directed. “Tara, honey, uh, maybe you better see about some extra blankets — didn’t you say there were in the pantry?”

“Sure, Mom,” Tara said, still giggling. “Fox in the den — why didn’t I realize that before,” she muttered as she left.

“Now Bill — ” Maggie intoned, as soon as Tara was out of range.

“Mom, I know what you’re gonna say. We have a duty as good Christians to take care of the sick. I know that. But you’re asking me to aide and abet the enemy and that goes against everything — ”

“Fox is NOT the enemy, William and you had better figure that out!” Maggie interrupted, raising her voice. Immediately regretting her loss of control, she forced herself to calm down. “Fox is Dana’s partner, but I think there is more going on now.”

“Oh Christ, she’s fucking him!” Bill howled.

“William Scully Jr, this may be your house, but I am STILL your mother and you will not use such language around me!”

“Sorry, Mom, but good grief, you aren’t going to tell me they’re shacking up, are you? I thought Dana was smarter than that!”

“Dana can shack up with whomever she wishes!” Maggie shot back, just as she noticed her daughter standing in the doorway to the kitchen with a shocked expression on her face.

“I just came to get that juice, it seemed to be taking a long time,” Dana said evenly.

Maggie dropped her head in embarrassment. “Sure, sweetheart. I’m sorry. Bill was just showing me where the, uh, can opener — ”

By this time, Bill had opened the refrigerator and pulled out a small bottle of apple juice. “Here. For your boyfriend.”

Maggie could see Dana pulling herself up to her full height and squaring her shoulders for an extended round of fisticuffs. “Bill, I’ve had just about enough — ”

A tinkling bell sounded. Maggie put her hand on Dana’s arm. “That must be Fox. He must need you. I put that bell next to the sofa because I didn’t think his voice could travel very far.”

Dana looked over at her mother and then glared briefly at her brother. “I know, I saw it and instructed him where it was.” As she turned to leave, she shot one more dagger-filled glance at her brother. “This isn’t over, not by a long shot.”

The bell sounded again and Dana hurried toward the den. Bill stormed out the back door. Maggie slumped down in a kitchen chair and sighed. “End of round one.”

**

Bill and Tara’s House

4:09 p.m.

Mulder shook the bell a second time, almost frantically. Even though two rooms away, he couldn’t help but overhear the argument taking place in the kitchen. About him. Oh, yeah, great idea, Scully, he thought. A stress-free environment, the doctor had said. Yup, Bill’s house sure fit the bill.

He snorted at the double-Bill he’d just used, then snorted again at yet another one. He thought it was too bad that Bill’s name wasn’t Dick — he could think of a lot more appropriate uses for that name.

The slamming of a door brought him back to his current predicament: he would be left alone in Bill’s house without Scully to protect him. Would she, though? he wondered. He couldn’t help but reflect on what she’d said to him in the hospital. “Mulder, I just … I just don’t know how much more of this I can take.”

Was this it? Had she reached her limit? Was making him stay at Bill’s the first step in her master plan to drive him out of her life? It was, he had to admit, a damned good start. Never did he feel so unwanted, so … unloved … as when he was at Bill’s. No amount of love, not even Scully’s, could counteract the overwhelming hostility that emanated from Scully’s eldest sibling.

When the voices in the kitchen rose several octaves, and her brother began in on Mulder’s and Scully’s personal relationship, Mulder couldn’t take it any longer. The last thing he wanted, besides being an unwelcome guest, was for Maggie and Bill to engage in battle over his and Scully’s love life. Christ! If the first five minutes was this bad, how was he going to endure days of living in Bill’s house?

“What is it, Mulder? What do you need?” Scully’s exasperated voice startled him, and he gasped, practically leaping up off the bed.

Heart pounding, he tried to ward off the coughing spell by patting down his pockets in a frenetic search for his inhaler.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Here.” In one swift move, she injected a shot of the inhaler into his mouth. “You’ll be okay in a minute.” Though she’d tried for soothing, it came across more as frustrated than sympathetic. Swell. She wasn’t already pissed off enough at him for getting himself blinded; now he wasn’t even able to take care of administering his own meds. No wonder she was annoyed.

Holding his breath as long as he could, he tried not to cough when he let it all back out. Although his eyes were tearing — as though the patches weren’t already nasty enough — and his throat was burning, he refused to show any more weakness. He didn’t want to just hand her over to Kresge without at least trying to put up a fight.

After what, an hour, a few minutes — he had no idea — the horrid sensation eased up enough for him to take awareness of his surroundings. Expecting Scully’s comforting hand to be rubbing his back, he was relieved — and upset — to feel no sense of her presence. Triumphant that he’d come across as perfectly fine even though he wasn’t, he was a little saddened that she didn’t see through his ruse.

What was he supposed to do now? He was too terrified to get up from where she’d sat him down on the sofa bed. Who knew what traps Bill had set for him, now that he was, basically, easy prey.

A loud ‘whump!’ behind him scared him out of his wits. Again. Where the hell had his super-hearing (Superman has super-hearing, not spidey sense, he silently told Scully) gone?

“That’s my stuff,” he heard Scully say. “I’ll be right back with yours.”

Mulder’s ears perked up. Her stuff? In here? With him? Hm. Maybe having her family aware that they were ‘shacking up’ wouldn’t be as bad as he’d thought. He felt along the bed until he encountered something solid. Using both hands, he pulled it closer and clutched it to his chest, feeling the contours of the suitcase. Yup, it was hers all right.

“You don’t have to hold my suitcase hostage, Mulder. It’s not going anywhere, and neither am I.” Even though surprised by her sudden appearance (damn rugs) for the umpteenth time, her words only warmed him.

“You’re staying in here?” Just to be clear about this.

“Yup.”

“With me?” Just to be crystal clear.

He heard her chuckle. “Yup.”

Although thrilled, he was a tad apprehensive. “What about … well, everyone? But especially Bill.” Just asking the question felt like he’d shot himself in the foot, but he wanted it on record that it wasn’t his idea. At least not one he’d realistically ever expected to come to fruition.

“You let me worry about everyone. And Bill.”

He frowned. That was all well and good while she was there, but what about when she went back to work? He wasn’t sure that the crap he’d have to put with from her brother was worth the price of sleeping next to his partner.

A mental whap bonked his brain. Was he nuts? He knew he must be when he still questioned the intelligence of sleeping with a man’s sister in that man’s own house.

Then there was her mother. Devout Catholic. Offended by swearing, drinking and pre-marital sex. His caretaker in Scully’s absence. He probably wouldn’t endear himself to her by sleeping with her daughter right under her nose, so to speak.

“Uh, Scully … don’t take this the wrong way, but … I don’t think you should sleep here.”

There was such a dearth of sound that he began to question whether she was still in the room. “Scully?”

“When did you come to that decision?” she asked in a voice that was so cold it made him shiver.

“It’s one I really would rather not have made,” he answered truthfully. “Scully …” God, he wished he could see her! “Your brother dislikes me enough as it is. Your sleeping with me — in blatant disregard to his wishes, I’ll wager — will only add fuel to the fire. And …” He ducked his head, embarrassed by what he was about to say next. “And I don’t want to ‘shack up’ with you in front of your mother.”

Not knowing what to expect, he was disheartened to hear her defeated sigh instead of a chuckle. Damn. She wasn’t taking it as well as he’d hoped.

“Fine, Mulder.” She pulled her suitcase out of his grasp. “Bill assigned a room to me upstairs. I guess I’ll make use of it.”

“You don’t have to leave right now,” he nearly begged.

“I want to unpack. I’ll see you later.”

“Scully …” His hail fell on deaf ears as her footsteps faded away. He took in a breath and let it out slowly. Great. He’d alienated the only friend he had.

“Well, you have more brains than I gave you credit for.” Bill’s tone, although as acerbic as ever, held a hint of approval.

Having heard the creak that warned him someone had entered the room, Mulder merely nodded. “Every so often I make a decision that’s both right and wrong,” he said in his hoarse voice.

“Believe me, Mr. Mulder. It was the right one.” After a beat, Bill said, “It was the only one.”

“Yeah,” Mulder said, sighing. He wondered if Scully would ever see it that way. He wondered if she could forgive him for pushing her away when she’d only wanted to be close to him. He wondered if he’d pushed her away for good.

**

Dinner was a quiet affair, polite only because Tara and Maggie made a point of keeping the conversation going. Matty made a complete mess of his chicken casserole, some of it managing to fall on Mulder’s arm. But then, Mulder managed to get some of his food on his lap while trying to figure out how to eat with his eyes closed. He discovered, much to his dismay, that it WAS possible to miss your mouth, even one as big as his.

Scully hadn’t said two words to him since she’d left the family room in a huff. But, on the bright side, Bill had seen fit not to say anything to Mulder, either — the proverbial silver lining in an otherwise very dark cloud. He’d hoped he and Scully could talk after dinner, but she had claimed exhaustion, pointing out that while he had slept the last couple of days away, she had been wide awake and conferring with his doctors. Without so much as a squeeze of his shoulder, she left for the bedroom upstairs.

Which meant he was going to have to get to the family room himself, or so he thought. He started to get up and felt a hand at his elbow.

“I’ve got you, Fox. Let me help you get settled.” It was Maggie, and he was so happy to hear her voice he almost cried.

They made their way to the den and she helped him find the bathroom. “Dana tells me you can’t shower yet, but would you like me to help you wash up?” she asked.

He was instantly mortified. “Um, no, I’m fine. They, uh, the nurse, uh … ”

“Ah, yes. The ever popular ‘sponge bath’,” Maggie said with a chuckle. “Well, then how about if I get out your pajamas. That is, if you wear pajamas to bed,” she added too hastily for his comfort.

“Yes, I have pajamas. Well, pajama bottoms. They’re yellow. I usually just wear a tee shirt with them,” he hastened to explain. God, to think that she thought that he slept in the — NO, he was absolutely not going to go there!

He felt soft cotton being pushed in his hands. “I’ll just wait out here. Unless you think you’ll need help. I could call Bill — ”

“NO!” he said, a little too forcefully. “Sorry, um, no, I’ll be fine. Thanks.” He felt his way to the bathroom, closing the door behind him. It took him a minute or two of fumbling, but wasn’t that much different from his college days when he had to dress in Phoebe’s bedroom closet to avoid her maid. In minutes, he opened the door. He heard Maggie’s crystal clear laughter and the sounds of someone else’s voice in the background.

“Fox, here, I’ve made up the bed, come get settled in. Are you tired?” she asked, helping him into bed.

“Not really,” he answered truthfully. “What are you watching?”

“Oh, I just love this comic on Comedy Central. Her name is Kathleen Madigan. I can change the channel if you like, see if there’s a game or something.”

“No, this is fine. You, uh, you want to stay and watch this?” he asked. Damn, could he sound any more needy? “I mean, if you want to, or if you don’t have something else — ”

“I’d love to stay and listen with you,” she said, and he heard rustling and the squeak of a reclining chair leaning back. They listened together for several minutes, Mulder finding himself drawn into the humor of the comic. He was surprised when his own laughter joined Maggie’s. The time passed quickly and before long, he let out a jaw-cracking yawn.

“Dana put your prescriptions in the kitchen. I’ll get them and a glass of water. Would you like anything else, some milk or some juice?” Maggie asked.

“No, water is fine.” He had to admit not talking at dinner had helped his throat. He almost sounded normal.

“Here’s the water,” Maggie said when she returned. “Hold out your hand and I’ll give you your pills.” He felt the pills drop into the palm of his hand. He tossed them in his mouth and sipped the water, washing them down. Maggie took the glass from his hands.

“I know it sounds a little childish, but this really works. I put one of Matty’s sippy cup lids on the glass of water and I’m putting it on the table here next to the bed. If you get thirsty in the night, you can get a drink without being worried you might spill all over yourself.”

“That’s good thinking, Mrs. Scully. You sound like you’ve done this before.”

When he didn’t hear her immediate response, he was afraid he’d said something to offend her.

“Well, actually, my Grandmother lost her sight as a young girl. I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm in the summers. She taught me many things, including how to make pie crust.”

“She cooked?” Mulder asked, then realized how condescending that sounded.

“Oh, yes. She was a fabulous cook. But her pies — Grandma’s pies were prizewinners! She made a raisin pie that won ribbons at the county fair. I have the recipe; I’ll make it for you sometime. Of course, it won’t be as good as Grandma’s.”

“I’m sure it will be delicious,” Mulder said with a smile.

He almost flinched when he felt her hand on his cheek. “Are you all right, Fox? You seemed a little quiet at dinner.”

How could he answer that? How could he tell Maggie that he pissed off her daughter by NOT sleeping with her under her brother’s roof, when Maggie was just upstairs? “I’m fine. It’s the blindness. Just takes some getting used to,” he lied, but maybe it wasn’t much of a lie.

“Well, from what Dana tells me, you shouldn’t get too used to it. It won’t be long before the bandages will be off and things will be back to normal.”

“I hope so,” he let slip out, realizing he meant more than just seeing again.

“It will. I promise. Now, you get some sleep. I’m up pretty early in the morning, so I’ll try to keep the noise down when I’m in the kitchen. But if you need anything — ”

He fumbled for and finally picked up the little bell, ringing it.

“Good,” she said. He was settling down into the pillow when he felt a kiss on his cheek. “Good night, Fox. Sweet dreams.”

“Good night,” he whispered, because he was trying to hold back his tears.

**

Bill’s and Tara’s House

May 5, 2000

8:03 a.m.

Mulder’s dream of he and Scully making love in his bed escalated to nightmare proportions when he discovered that, not only weren’t they not alone, but Bill Scully and Detective John Kresge were doing a play-by-play. As soon as that realization hit him, he awakened with a gasp. At least he thought he was awake — until Bill’s and Kresge’s voices continued talking.

Momentarily panicked when he could hear but not see, it took the absorption of their words to bring him up to speed as to his whereabouts, his situation — and the status of his and Scully’s relationship.

“A detective, huh? Are you working on a case with my sister?” Ah, there was the wary tone Bill had used upon his first meeting with Mulder. Nice to know it hadn’t been reserved specifically for him.

“I sure am, Captain Scully.” Mulder almost groaned. Bill was sure to be impressed that Kresge knew his rank and had addressed him by it.

“Why don’t you come in, Detective?” Yup. Impressed. And pleased.

“Thanks, Captain. It is a little moist out here.” Mulder heard the chuckle in Kresge’s voice, then the sound of the door closing. He marveled at how clearly he could hear everything, even though there was at least one door and a good-sized living room between him and the conversationalists. He wondered whether it was because of the early hour and a quiet house, or if that adage about one sense compensating for another was in play. Whichever it was, he prayed for noise or a return of his eyesight so his hearing would diminish. He didn’t think he could take much more of listening to the male bonding taking place in the hallway.

“Damn,” he heard Bill say. “It wasn’t supposed to rain today. Was it?”

Kresge’s muffled yawn reached Mulder’s ears. “Sorry. Uh, I didn’t hear the weather for today. I was up most of the night.”

“Is that why you need Dana? Something happen with the case?” Bill never sounded that eager when it was something he and Scully were working on, Mulder thought sourly. Only when what Bill was saying, not how he was saying it caught Mulder’s attention did he realize how much Scully’s silent treatment was affecting him. They were discussing the case, and he hadn’t even realized it.

“Yeah. I probably should have called her when they found the …” Kresge hesitated. “Well, I probably should have called her last night, but when I saw her at the hospital the other night she looked so tired, and I know she’s been taking care of her partner — ”

“Yeah.” Bill sounded like he’d just stepped in something disgusting, a tone Mulder believed Bill reserved solely for him. “It’s probably better that you didn’t call. She needed sleep.”

“That’s exactly what I thought!” Kresge seemed excited that someone finally agreed with him. “She works so hard, and it’s important for a woman to get her beauty sleep.” Oh, brother, Mulder thought.

“Really? Well, it’s good to meet someone in law enforcement who actually notices that my sister is a woman. And who is concerned for her health.”

Mulder could picture Kresge’s head bobbing up and down. “Well, sure, why wouldn’t I be? I don’t expect her to work every minute, even if she thinks she has to.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” Bill agreed. “I mean, it’d be different if she was using her medical degree the way it’s supposed to be used instead of wasting it at the F.B.I. And what the hell kind of woman becomes a medical examiner? I always thought she should be a pediatrician — now there’s a good field for a woman. After being around kids all day, maybe she’d want to have some of her own instead of chasing all over the country like some gypsy.”

“Well, I have to admit that I kind of wondered about that, too. She’s so … petite. I’m always afraid she’s going to get hurt, and I do my best to keep her out of harm’s way, but she still tries to play with the big boys.” Mulder had been taking a sip of water and nearly sprayed it all over his blankets. He couldn’t believe Kresge had just said that! “Maybe I can talk some sense into her, though. Put in a good word or two about that kid doctor thing.”

Bill snorted. “You’d have more luck talking to a tree stump. The only one she listens to is that partner of hers.”

There was a long silence, then Kresge said in a low voice so Mulder had to strain to hear, “How well do you know him?”

“Me?” Bill sounded taken aback that the detective had asked such a question. “I don’t know him at all. Which suits me just fine.” Me, too, jerkface, Mulder rebutted silently.

“Oh.” Kresge’s voice sounded like he wanted to say more.

“What?” Bill pressed. “Do you know something about my sister and that nut?” Mulder stiffened at that. Though no stranger to name-calling, hearing it often didn’t lessen the hurt any.

“Well … not really. No.” Kresge sounded uncomfortable, and Mulder thanked him for that, at least.

“What then?”

“I noticed it, too. That she does whatever he wants her to.” Mulder almost choked on the spit in his mouth. What planet was Kresge on? Scully did whatever Scully wanted to do. “I just don’t understand why. He makes remarks that bother her all the time; when she tells him something he doesn’t like, he either ignores her or makes some flip remark. And God help her if she asks him how he’s feeling! He just about bites her head off. Or pretends she doesn’t exist. I just don’t get why she sticks with the guy.”

Bill snorted. “You and me, both, pal. Hey, you want a cup of coffee while I get my sister?”

“That’d be great. Thanks. I’ve been drinking jet fuel all night. A real cup of coffee’d be heaven.”

“Go on into the kitchen. Coffee’s all made. Cups are in the cupboard near the fridge. I’ll get Dana.”

Mulder lay frozen in bed. Was what Kresge said true? Was he really that awful to Scully? He knew he was kind of rude to her about the health thing, but he also thought that she understood that he was aggravated with himself, not her. But did she? Why did she stay with him?

Voices coming from the kitchen broke into his thoughts. Kresge. And Scully’s mother. In direct contrast to Bill, Maggie was speaking softly, and Kresge had toned it down as well. Mulder yearned to hear what they were talking about, wanted to know if Maggie and Kresge were hitting it off as well as Bill and Kresge had. He dearly hoped not. At the moment, Maggie was his only ally. He didn’t think he could take it if she and Kresge became fast friends.

About half a minute later, Bill came clomping down the stairs and into the kitchen. Maggie shushed him, but he didn’t pay her any mind. It was one of the few times Mulder was glad Bill was such a loudmouth. “She’s coming. She’s not happy, but she’s coming.”

Kresge sounded repentant. “I guess it is a little early …”

“Nah,” Bill said. “She went to bed early. She’s probably just grumpy because her boyfr —”

“Bill!” Maggie’s cry was not hushed. “You mind your own business.”

Mulder felt the heat on his face, both from what Bill had been about to say and for Maggie’s having to defend him. Or, more likely, defend her daughter. Whatever. Mulder didn’t care so long as Kresge never got to hear it.

There were several minutes of silence before he heard Scully’s tread on the stairs, then quiet, then her heels on the kitchen tiles. “Hi, Mom … Detective.” She greeted Kresge coolly and formally, to Mulder’s relief. “Mulder?” He paid closer attention at the mention of his name.

“Asleep,” he heard Maggie say.

“Good. Tell him … I’ll call when I can get free.”

“Dana, don’t you think — ”

“I’ve gotta go, Mom. Take care of Mulder for me, okay?”

Her words would have made him feel all warm and fuzzy, were it not for the utterly emotionless way she delivered them. For all the caring they reflected, he could have been her pet turtle.

He told himself it was because Kresge was there, and she didn’t want to give anything away to him. But as her “Ready, John?” reached his ears, and she left without even looking in on him, Mulder felt it.

Scully was distancing herself from him. What he’d feared the entire time he’d known Scully had finally begun.

She was leaving him.

**end of part 6**

Shred of Doubt (7/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

8: 17 a.m.

Detective Kresge’s car

“My brother said something happened last night? Something that you didn’t call me about?”

Scully had waited until they were in Kresge’s car before she asked the question, and she regretted every second she’d delayed. The detective had interpreted her polite-only-because-my-mother-is-present smile as I’m-thrilled-to-see-you, and had behaved as though they were a couple instead of merely colleagues.

Although initially surprised by Bill’s apparent approval of Detective Kresge as a work (and God only knew what else) partner, the more she thought about it, the more it made sense. They were two peas in a pod. Both were chauvinistic males who believed a woman required the protection of a man in order to survive. Both kept things from her that they thought might upset her because she was of ‘the weaker sex.’

Then Bill had informed her that something had happened last night with the case, but that Kresge had allowed her to sleep because she’d looked tired. The nerve of him to make that decision for her! And her brother had concurred. Naturally.

A good night’s sleep had done nothing to improve her disposition. In fact, Kresge’s insult had only succeeded in increasing her foul mood. Still smarting from Mulder’s rejection of her, waking up to this latest affront was the icing on the cake. She’d hoped a cup of coffee and some of her mother’s pancakes would put her in a more understanding frame of mind, but Kresge’s presence had pre-empted that plan.

She did feel a little apprehensive about not checking on Mulder before she left, but with Detective Goody Two-Shoes breathing down her neck, she’d had to forego that indulgence. Besides, she needed to find out just what had happened last night that brought the detective to her doorstep. Didn’t the man know how to use a phone? And now she had to ride with him instead of taking the rental gathering dust in her brother’s driveway.

She glared at Kresge, making only a meager attempt at hiding the resentment she felt. “Well?” she ground out when he wasn’t immediately forthcoming with the answer to her question.

A few storm clouds passed over Detective Ray of Sunshine’s face. “We found another body last night.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “You should have called me,” she said, so angry she wanted to beat some sense into him, if that was even possible. She sighed, resigned to the fact that that action wouldn’t be feasible. Kresge would lose control of the car, and then she’d be injured, too. Still, it was a nice thought. And probably the only thing keeping her from following through on it.

God! She couldn’t wait until Mulder was back in fighting form. Even at the very beginning of their partnership, he never once excluded her because of her gender. Because he was a sneaky, underhanded bastard, yes, but there was never any hint of discrimination. Mulder was an equal opportunity jackass: he offended everyone.

Again she was stuck with a twinge of uneasiness at having left without so much as a glance at her partner. It wasn’t so much his physical health she worried about — she had no qualms about the level of care he would receive from her mother. It was more his state of mind that bothered her.

The man had been through a traumatic event — the loss of his eyesight, however temporary, was a drastic blow for her very private and self-sufficient partner. Though she’d browbeaten him into staying at Bill’s as the only feasible alternative to a nursing facility, she knew she’d basically delivered him into the lions’ den and then abandoned him because he didn’t want to anger the head lion.

She knew that Bill’s bark was worse than his bite, but Mulder didn’t. While she’d had years to inure herself to Bill’s bullying nature, Mulder had experienced it only a couple of times, and always under adverse conditions. He’d yet to see her brother as anything but loud, rude, and insulting. Bill had a softer side — Tara and Matty were proof of that — that she’d seen many times.

For some reason, though, Bill despised Mulder. Before he’d even met Mulder, Bill had felt nothing but contempt for him. She had to admit that Mulder’s quest for alien life and his tendency to follow any lead, without regard for his or her safety, hadn’t done anything to endear him to her brother.

Yet it had been years since he’d gone off half-cocked and, if anything, his actions had saved her more than they’d endangered her. Bill, though, couldn’t see past his earlier impression of her partner, and he resented the hell out of her having forced Mulder into his and his family’s lives — and their house.

God, what had she done? She’d brought Mulder into a hostile environment, sick and helpless, then left him there to fend for himself. He’d tried to do the right thing, and she’d punished him for it. What must he be thinking?

She was afraid she knew. By now, he’d convinced himself that she’d all but washed her hands of him, brought about in no small way by her behavior at the dinner table. When he’d given up trying to eat rather than make a spectacle of himself any more than he already had, she never once offered to help him. Even her brother had thrown one or two looks her way.

Mulder had spent the remainder of the meal with his head bowed, for all intents and purposes hiding from a situation into which she’d thrust him. To top it off, once she’d finished her dinner, she’d left him to find his own way alone and in the dark, in a strange house.

Screw Kresge. Screw the body. She needed to see Mulder. Now.

“Detective Kresge.” “Dana.” Both spoke at the same time. She looked up at him.

“We’re here,” he said.

“Here? Where?” All she saw was a parking lot.

“The morgue. They’re holding the body for you.”

She sighed. Duty called. Her personal life would have to be put on hold yet again. She worried, though, that what would be a slight delay for her might seem an eternity to Mulder.

***

Maggie had been sitting in the dining room, drinking her coffee and reading the morning paper when the detective arrived. She’d heard Bill answer the door and knew she’d taught him enough manners that he would invite the man in. She just hoped they would keep their voices down. Bill’s new house was definitely a step or two up from base housing, but Maggie had noticed that the walls were paper-thin and the only thing standing between the kitchen and the den was one thin wall.

After she’d read through the front section and the weather, she got up to freshen her cup. As she approached the kitchen door, she heard them, Bill and that detective — Woolworth? No, that wasn’t it. It was a department store. Ward? No, Kresge! That was it. She’d met him the year Matty was born when Dana found Emily. Maggie shook her head. Kresge. Maybe she should start taking that gingko supplement her neighbor was always raving about.

But snatches of the men’s conversation, which was hardly lowered, started coming out to her in the dining room. Bill was spouting his usual rant about Dana wasting her time at the FBI. If he brought up the pediatrician thing again — sure enough, he did. At least he’d learned after the last dust up at Thanksgiving to not mention that one around Dana. Maggie still wasn’t sure the broken wine bottle was entirely accidental that day, and apparently, neither did Bill.

But Maggie found herself far more interested in what the young detective was saying. ‘Afraid she’ll get hurt’, ‘keep her out of harm’s way’ — ‘play with the big boys’? Oh brother, if Dana heard him talk that way — they might never find the body! Maggie chuckled to herself for a moment.

Bill was coming out of the kitchen door, headed for the stairs. “Bill, could you two please keep your voices down,” Maggie admonished. “Fox is still sleeping.”

“Oh, Mom, he’s in the den! For cripes sake, I’m not going to tiptoe around my own house just because lover boy — ”

“William Scully Jr, what have I told you?” Maggie growled, using a voice she hadn’t used on her children in at least a decade. She didn’t think she would have to use it when they were out of the teenage years.

“Look, go make nice to Detective Kresge, Mom. He’s our guest, too and the guy’s been at work all night. I gotta go wake Dana.”

Maggie sighed and pushed the swinging door open into the kitchen. Detective Kresge was a nice enough man, but he was a little chauvinistic for Maggie’s taste. He was sipping coffee and staring out the window. Maggie cleared her throat. “Good morning,” she whispered.

“Oh, good morning, Mrs. Scully,” Kresge said. Maggie noticed that he’d lowered his tone. “I’m sorry, I should have thought — is the baby sleeping?”

Maggie’s eyebrow shot up. “Probably,” she said with a nod. “At least I hope so,” she added.

Bill came back down. “She’s coming. She’s not happy but she’s coming,” he bellowed, in contrast to the tone she’d taken.

“I guess it is a little early,” Detective Kresge said contritely.

“Nah,” Bill replied, loudly again. “She went to bed early. She’s probably just grumpy because her boyfr — ”

Maggie almost dropped her cup of coffee. “Bill! You mind your own business!”

Bill gave a shrug, and Maggie wanted nothing more than to reach into the kitchen drawer and find a long handled wooden spoon, police detective witness or not. But everyone heard Dana’s footsteps as she came stomping down the stairs, collected the detective and left the kitchen. Maggie caught Bill’s sleeve and pulled him down a little to her height. “We will talk about this more, later, young man,” she seethed.

“Yeah, Mom, but right now I have to go shower and shave so I can run off and defend the country,” Bill shot back, a little too haughty for Maggie’s tastes.

Maggie sighed heavily and poured the now cooled cup of coffee into the sink, rinsing the cup. Well, if Fox hadn’t been awake already, she was sure he was after that last donnybrook. She toasted some bread, quickly fried up an egg — hadn’t Dana told her once that he liked his eggs runny, something Maggie could never understand. She thought about tossing in a few pieces of microwave sausage, but decided against it. She substituted the sausage for some of the cantaloupe that she and Tara had purchased at the outdoor market. When she had the food ready and on the table, she went to the den.

He wasn’t asleep, she could tell by his breathing. He was stewing. At least that’s how she always thought of the moody, worried posturing that her own Bill had fallen prey to so many times in their marriage. She wondered if she could ever reveal to Dana how much alike they really were — Bill Scully Sr. and Fox Mulder. Carrying the world on their shoulders was not just a job; they had both raised it to the level of art form. There were so many parts to her father than Dana never knew. Part of the reason she had such good memories was that only Maggie had ever been allowed to see the tortured man she’d married. But the man before her had a breakfast growing cold on the kitchen table.

“Fox, Fox, are you awake, dear? Breakfast is ready.”

She heard him sniff, and wanted nothing more than to leave and give him a little more privacy. But he needed to eat before he could take his medicine.

“I’m not really that hungry, Mrs. Scully,” he said after a moment of thought. “I’m really tired.”

“I know dear, but come eat a little something. I made eggs and toast. And I know you want coffee,” she teased. She’d seen for herself how Fox was as much a coffeehound as her daughter. “It’s fresh. And it’s regular — not decaf. I won’t tell Dana. It can be our secret.”

He chuckled at that. “You know how to get to a guy, Mrs. Scully.” He slowly pulled himself to a sitting position and Maggie was beside him in an instant.

“Here, let me help you to the table. I don’t want you to fall.”

“I really hate this,” he admitted, and Maggie could see his male ego was being battered and bruised. He must have heard Bill and that detective. But he couldn’t have taken it to heart — could he? Surely he knew how much that sort of talk would infuriate her daughter.

“I made the eggs sunnyside, I hope that’s all right.”

“That’s perfect,” Fox said, settling down in his seat.

“OK, let’s do it the way Grandma taught me,” Maggie said, putting the fork in Fox’s right hand. “The plate is a clock face. At twelve o’clock is your toast, I buttered it but you taste it to see if it’s enough. At six o’clock are your eggs and over at about nine o’clock are some chunks of cantaloupe that is just wonderful. You do like cantaloupe, don’t you, Fox?”

“Well, I don’t usually eat it for breakfast, but yeah, it’s OK,” he said hesitantly.

“Oh, and your coffee is at two o’clock, just above your knife,” Maggie concluded the tour. “I remember you like your coffee black, correct? Let me know if you need some help with anything.”

“Pepper?” Fox asked timidly.

“Do you want me to put it on for you?” Maggie asked.

“I guess you’ll have to. I like just a little. Enough to see that it’s there but not covering the eggs completely.”

Maggie shook the condiment as directed. “Give those a try and let me know if it’s enough,” she advised.

He used his toast to help guide some of the eggs onto his fork, scooping them quickly into his mouth. He smiled at her. “Perfect. Thanks.” Without any assistance, he managed to clean his plate. “That cantaloupe was good,” he assured her. “I guess being in California does have some advantages. The stuff we have at the stores in DC just tastes flat.”

“I know what you mean. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I love seeing my grandson, but the real reason I love coming to San Diego is the fresh produce,” she said conspiratorially to him as she picked up his finished plate. “Would you like water for your pills?”

“Yes, please,” he responded.

“Your voice is sounding better today, Fox,” Maggie commented as she filled a glass with tap water and counted out his medication. “We were so worried about you when you came home from North Carolina.”

“I know, um, I’m sorry about that,” he said quietly.

“Sorry? What on earth do you have to be sorry about? You didn’t ‘invite’ the beetles into your lungs, did you?”

“Well, no, not exactly. But I’m sorry you were worried about me. You have enough to worry about without adding me to the burden.”

“Fox, worry is sometimes the only thing a mother can do,” she said casually. “Well, and pray. And I find myself pretty good at handling both.”

Fox silently accepted his pills and washed them back. “I’d really like to go back to bed now, if that’s OK,” he asked.

Maggie sighed. “Of course, dear.” She helped him back to the den and settled him on the sleeper sofa. “The bell is right here. Maybe when you wake up the rain will have stopped and we can sit out in the backyard for a bit.”

“Mrs. Scully, you don’t have to entertain me. I’ll be fine,” Fox assured her.

“Oh, Fox, I’m not entertaining you,” she said with a smile. “I just thought you’d like to get some sun, that’s all.”

“I’ll see how I feel when I wake up,” he said thoughtfully.

As Maggie watched him turn over and pull up the covers to nearly bury himself in them, she shook her head. Something was wrong between her daughter and her partner, and Maggie was at a loss as to how to fix it.

**

San Diego Police Department

12:47 p.m.

The autopsy had yielded nothing they hadn’t learned before — except that the victim’s hand bore the Palace’s stamp, dark and clear. She had been there that night.

Once Scully saw the marking, she had lit into Kresge but good. Apparently, he hadn’t made the connection that their victim, 22-year-old Andrea Warren, had been at the club just hours before her death.

“Dodds,” the detective breathed, excitedly, not even acknowledging that he’d screwed up. “He’s hiding in the club.”

Scully scowled. “And, what, she took him to her apartment so he could kill her there?”

“Why not?” he said, grinning inanely.

“Detective, you said yourself that Dodds was no looker. Do you seriously believe this woman …” She threw a photo of the very pretty raven-haired woman down on his desk so he could see it. ” … would take a person of Dodds’s looks, not to mention his less than personable character, back to her apartment?”

“Well …” He studied the picture, then shrugged. “But he’s the killer. It has to be him.”

She shook her head. “He’s a killer, all right, but not her killer.”

“What do you — ” Kresge’s look of puzzlement changed to a scowl. “You’re not talking about that guy — ”

“Kocin,” Scully supplied.

“Right. That guy your partner followed. The one who threw that stuff in his face?”

“Yes, I am,” Scully said calmly. “Mulder thinks he’s the serial killer, and I can find no reason to disagree with him.”

“How about the fact that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about? How about the fact that I’ve been in Homicide for over six years while he … he investigates aliens, for God’s sake! How about the fact that he wasn’t even supposed to be on this case?” Kresge ranted.

“That may be,” Scully said, starting to get hot under the collar, “but it doesn’t discount the fact that he’s probably right. And while you may have been in Homicide for six years, your focus wasn’t the serial killer. Mulder’s was. He was an FBI profiler for three years, and he was very good at what he did.”

“Be that as it may, that doesn’t mean he’s right in this instance.”

“I believe it does.”

“Well, I disagree. Dodds is our man.”

Scully was growing weary of beating this particular dead horse. “Fine. You go after Dodds, I’ll concentrate on Kocin.”

The detective looked devastated. “What about my leads on Dodds?”

“Do you have any?”

He frowned. “Not at the moment. But I have feelers out. I’m sure something will turn up soon.”

“If it does, and you want my assistance …” She gave him a hard look. “My assistance, John. Not my standing around watching you. If you want my assistance and I’m free, I’ll accompany you.”

He seemed about to say something, then pursed his lips in distaste. “Fine.”

Not really expecting him to reciprocate should she come up with some solid evidence on Kocin, she had nonetheless half-heartedly hoped he would. She’d need back-up, but she wasn’t sure she could count on Kresge. When it came right down to it, the only one she wanted to back her up was Mulder. But unless they were still out here in a couple of weeks, that wasn’t likely to happen.

All of a sudden, she was missing her partner so much that she turned on her heel and started for the door.

“Where are you going?” Kresge called after her.

“To work on Mulder’s profile,” she threw over her shoulder as she continued on her way.

“Wait!” She heard Kresge trying to catch up to her.

As much as it pained her, good manners took over and she stopped. Letting her annoyance show, she glared at him. “Yes?” she asked with as much patience as she could muster.

“Um, what about lunch?”

“What about it?”

The smile she had admired upon first meeting him only irritated her as he gave it to her now. “I thought we could go to that Italian restaurant you liked.”

She shook her head. “Thanks, but no. My mother made lunch for me. I promised I’d be there.” She made a show of looking at her watch. “I’m already fifteen minutes late.” It wasn’t an outright lie; she had a standing invitation to join her mom for lunch whenever she could. It was only in the timing that she’d been a tad creative.

“Oh.” He looked disappointed, like he wanted an invitation to join her. Huh. Fat chance of that. After all, this was as much about escaping from Kresge as it was a craving to see her partner. More, as the hang-dog expression on the detective’s face deepened. If he was trying for irresistible, he’d missed the mark by more than a mile. It made her want to flee all the more.

“Well …” Another pointed glance at her wrist. “Gotta go.”

Not caring that she wasn’t her usual considerate-to-the-point-of-pain self, she resumed her trek out of the squad room.

Remembering only as she exited onto a rain-swept street that her rental was sitting at Bill’s, she kept walking just the same. Any second now, it would dawn on the detective that she was on foot, and he would come charging to her rescue — something she would not allow to happen.

She quick-stepped two blocks before she felt safe enough to duck into a restaurant doorway and pull out her cell phone. Since for some reason the area surrounding the SDPD seemed to be a cab-free zone, she called her mother for a ride.

Her mom sounded relieved and worried to hear from her, and even more relieved to find that she wanted to come home. Scully didn’t ask, though, too anxious for her mom to get on the road as soon as possible. Maggie didn’t talk and drive, and it sounded as though Mulder needed her even more than she needed him.

She could wait — albeit not patiently — until her mother could tell her in person just what was going on with her partner.

**

Scully was dripping wet when her mother arrived just minutes later. What was the stupid song from the 70s? It never rains in Southern California — but it pours? Well, it was pouring around her ears right at that moment.

Maggie pulled up to the curb and Scully hopped in the car.

“Dana, you’re soaking wet! Why didn’t you wait inside the door, I would have honked,” Maggie chided.

“Sorry, Mom. I know I’m getting Bill’s seat wet — ”

“It’s not that,” Maggie clucked. “I don’t want you getting sick. Having Fox down is enough for the moment.”

“How is he?” Scully asked, anxious to know why her mother had seemed so cryptic on the phone. “Are his eyes bothering him? Is his breathing OK? Mom, what’s going on?”

Maggie licked her lips. “That’s what I want to know,” she said, taking her eyes off the road long enough to pin her daughter with a glare. “Dana, you brought that poor man to Bill’s house and I understand you had work to do today but last night — ”

Scully let her head thud against the passenger side window. “I know, Mom,” she sighed. “I’m … I just …”

“Do you love him or not, Dana?” Maggie asked, cutting to the chase.

“Mom, you know I can’t — ”

“I know no such thing, Dana Katherine. And for the record, I am your mother, not the Federal Bureau of Investigation! I have more than just a passing interest in your life.”

Scully bit her lip. “I know, Mom. I do know,” she agreed. “And for the record, yes, I think I do love him. Are you happy now?”

“Think? You think you love him?” Maggie mimicked with a raised eyebrow. “Well, that certainly clears the air,” she huffed. “No wonder the poor man looks like he’s been cast off on a desert island.”

“Mom! This really isn’t — ”

“You can tell me it’s none of my business, that’s fine, Dana Katherine. But when you desert the man, who happens to be blind, and run off to sulk for the night, you make it my business!”

“I’m sorry about that,” Scully said contritely.

“I’m not the person you need to apologize to, and you know it.”

“I know. But I am sorry for the way I acted,” she added.

“Well, you still have time to make amends. Oh, Bill called a little while ago — he’s coming home in a few minutes to pack. A training mission came up and he jumped at the chance to get out of port — imagine that,” she said with a bitter shake of her head. “But at least he won’t be tormenting Fox any more during your stay.”

That made Scully perk up and take notice. “Bill was tormenting Mulder? When?” she demanded.

“This morning. Bill was getting coffee when that detective, um, what’s his name, showed up.”

“Kresge,” Scully said, her eyes narrowed and her lips in a thin line. “What did Bill do?”

“He didn’t do anything, really. He was just very loud. He brought Detective Kresge — why do I want to call him Woolworth?” Maggie muttered. “Anyway, he brought Detective Kresge into the kitchen and they were going on and on. I could hear almost every word they said where I was sitting in the dining room.”

“And the den is right next to the kitchen,” Scully said with a heavy sigh.

“Anyway, when all of you left, I went in to fix Fox his breakfast. I’m sure he’d heard them, Dana. And then you didn’t even go in and tell him good bye,” Maggie accused.

“I was … I was angry. I was mad Kresge had come to pick me up when we have a rental car that I could have driven myself and then — with Bill … oh, Mom, you know how I always mess these things up!” she exclaimed. “I messed it up with Jack and with Ethan and — ” She clamped her mouth shut. Her mother still didn’t know about Daniel and wasn’t going to find out if Scully had any say in the matter. She calmed down a second, taking a deep breath. “I don’t want to mess this up. It’s too important to me,” she said in a near whisper.

“Then talk to him, Dana. You two share so much! You just need to talk this out — ”

“But Mom, that’s just it, we don’t talk. Not about what’s important. Oh, the fate of the world, the latest government plot to deceive or even injure innocent civilians — we’re all over that! But our lives … no. We — ”

“You talk with your eyes,” Maggie said, as if it had just occurred to her.

Scully nodded. “Yes. And now — ”

“You can’t see what he’s thinking,” her mother concluded her thought.

“Exactly. I don’t know how he’s reacting to what I have to say. And that scares me. It’s never been like that. Oh, sure, sometimes we talk on the phone and I can’t see his face, but not for that long. Never for this long — not when we’re both conscious.”

Maggie took her right hand off the steering wheel and placed it atop her daughter’s. “Give talking a try. You never know, this might be just what you two needed.”

They were silent the rest of the ride. Scully let her eyes wander over the business district turning to apartments and then houses with yards. Soon they were in Bill’s subdivision.

“Dana, don’t drag your feet on this one. If he is that important to you, let him know,” Maggie said as she exited the car.

Scully sighed and licked her lips. She knew her mother’s advice was sound. It wasn’t the theory — it was the practice. How was she supposed to broach the subject? ‘Mulder, let’s change those bandages and now might be a good time to tell you that seeing you in the office is the only reason I can think of to get me out of bed in the morning. There, all better, gotta run off to work again. See you tonight.’ Oh, that would go over real well, she mused bitterly.

**end of part 7**

Shred of Doubt (8/9)

Jo-Ann L and Vickie Moseley

Bill was at the door, carrying his seabag. “Well, Dana, I must say you know how to visit,” he said with a frown.

“Good sailin’, Bill,” Scully replied.

Bill’s frown morphed into a near smile. “You, too, Sis.” As he was climbing into his SUV he called back to her. ” Maybe next time you can come for a visit — by yourself.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Dana muttered as she headed into the house.

Tara was in the kitchen, watching Matty shovel macaroni and cheese into his mouth with moderate success. She looked up and smiled at Scully. “Hey, Dana! Would you like mac and cheese or something a little more ‘adult fare’ for lunch.”

“Whatever you’re having sounds fine to me, Tara. Is Mulder in the den?”

“He was asleep a little earlier, but I thought I heard the toilet flush as I was fixing Matty’s lunch. He’s probably starved. I’m fixing the grown up people chicken salad on croissants, if that’s OK?”

“If you can make Mulder’s on white bread, he’d appreciate it.”

She made her way into the den to find Mulder struggling with a pair of jeans. He had one leg pulled out the wrong way and it was making the task near impossible.

“Mulder, hi,” she said. “Here, can I help?”

“Sure, why not,” he said, flopping back on the mattress of the sofa bed. “I mean, I can’t see anyone so I guess it shouldn’t embarrass me that everyone, including your sister-in-law now knows if I have my boxers on backwards.”

Scully licked her lips. He was in a mood; that was obvious. “Your voice is sounding a little better,” she commented as she pulled the jeans off the one leg, fixed the leg that was inside out and got both legs in the right holes. “There, you can take it from there, I think,” she told him with a squeeze of his shoulder. “And for the record, you have on your grey boxers with the navy blue elastic with the fly in the front.”

“Hardy har har,” he said flatly. “So, home for lunch, or just to mock me?”

“Home for lunch and to pick your brain,” she said, sitting next him as he pulled on a tee shirt. “But first, let’s change those bandages.”

“Oh, yes, let’s,” he said with a tired sigh.

She got the ‘implements of torture’ as he referred to them and set about cutting off the old gauze. “No peeking, remember,” she told him. He dutifully kept his eyes closed and she took a moment to inspect his eyelids. “The swelling has gone down and they definitely aren’t as red. I think they’re coming along nicely, Mulder.” She picked up the bottle of topical antibiotic and opened it, then touched his chin. “Tilt for me.” His head went back and she put two drops in the corner of each eye. “Stay tilted till those go in,” she advised.

“I can’t understand why I have to keep my eyes closed,” he groused.

“Infection, Mulder. And strain. You already have prescription eyewear, if you strain the optic nerve, you could cause more damage. Just do what your doctor tells you.”

He caught her hand and pulled her down on his lap. “You’re my doctor,” he said, nuzzling her neck. It felt so good to have him hold her, her own hands found themselves tangled in his hair. “My sense of smell is compensating for the lack of sight, Scully. You smell — ”

“Lunch is ready,” Tara called from the doorway and Scully shot off Mulder’s lap as if lit from behind.

“We’ll be right there,” Scully replied, tugging on his hand.

“Um, Scully. The bandages?” he asked as he refused to budge from his seat.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Give me a minute here.” Deftly she placed the gauze pads on his eyelids and wrapped more gauze around his head, securing the pads in place. “There. Did I catch your hair?”

“No. Feels fine,” he replied with a sigh. “Let’s go have lunch.”

Tara and Maggie chatted merrily during lunch. Scully smiled and watched Mulder. He ate, he drank, but he seemed more withdrawn than she’d seen him in a long time. Her mother had been right — he looked like a castaway, waiting for a ship to pass by and save him. ‘I’m supposed to be that ship’, she admonished herself.

But it just wouldn’t make sense to get into a discussion of their intimate lives with so many people around — especially people watching their every move. As Mulder finished his sandwich and iced tea, she pulled on his hand.

“It’s stopped raining, and the sun’s out. Let’s go out back and get some fresh air,” she suggested.

He gave her a half shrug and allowed her to lead him out the back door onto the screen-enclosed patio. There was a chaise lounge and several lawn chairs set back against the wall, well out of the rain, and so were dry. Scully helped him into the chaise and adjusted it so he wasn’t lying back so far. Then she sat on the end of it by his feet and took his hands.

“So, you wanted to pick my brain?” he asked.

She licked her lips. It was a safer topic and one she really wanted to pursue. “Yeah, I did.”

“Did the latest victim show any signs of escalation?” he asked.

“No, it was identical to the last victims. Same bad flowers.”

“Did you check for magnesium?” he asked, rubbing his forehead just above the bandages.

She stared at him a moment. “You think — ”

“I think we might find trace amounts on the clothes. I doubt it will be in the wounds. He tossed a handful in my face, Scully. I think it’s part of the ‘act’ he’s putting on. I think he’s … just practicing,” he said with a sour look.

She swallowed hard. “If I do find magnesium, it won’t tie him directly to your attack, but it would give us circumstantial evidence to move the investigation in Kocin’s direction,” she mused aloud.

Mulder snorted. “Scully, Kocin showing up at the San Diego station house with a signed and notarized confession wouldn’t change the course of this investigation. Kresge is convinced Dodds is the guy. He won’t allow anything else to change that, no matter how wrong he is.” Mulder closed his mouth suddenly and Scully noticed.

“Mulder,” she said, taking his hand. “You know I’m not at all attracted to total assholes who treat me like a china doll, don’t you?”

He blanched and drew back his hand, but she grabbed it and held tight. “OK, that probably wasn’t the best way to say that,” she chuckled. “What I’m trying to say is — I … love — ”

“Dana, there’s a phone call for you,” Tara said brightly as she stood in the doorway.

This time, Mulder successfully pulled his hand away and scratched behind his ear. “Better get that. It’s probably Detective Know-It-All, having solved the case while we were wasting away the afternoon,” he said with his usual sarcasm.

“I’ll deal with Kresge. You just think about where Kocin might have gone into hiding,” Scully said as she rose to answer the phone.

“I don’t want you going after this guy alone,” Mulder said loudly.

“I won’t,” she tossed over her shoulder. “I’ve made friends in the Sheriff’s Department,” she muttered.

**

Mulder waited a full ten seconds after Scully’s departure to assure himself that he was alone. Only then did he allow himself to replay their conversation. If he reacted badly — and he knew there was a good chance he might — he wanted no witnesses to his falling apart.

Since Scully was talking to him again, it appeared that the ice age had passed. Mulder wasn’t certain, though, that he didn’t prefer it to the conflicting emotions her words had raised in him. He knew he could be an asshole, and Scully had had no qualms telling him on those occasions. And though he forced himself not to treat her like fine china, he didn’t always succeed.

Yet he got the distinct impression that he wasn’t the one to whom she was referring. Which meant nothing until he knew for sure. Did she find the detective attractive? Maybe physically, but Mulder liked to think that he knew Scully better than that. While she might find Kresge’s looks agreeable, she should see right through to the boorish nature of the man. But did she? It sure didn’t look like it (back when he could see, he thought bitterly) to Mulder.

And what about that near confession of love? Who does she love? He believed it was him, hoped it was him, but he didn’t want to presume such a sentiment in case it turned out he was wrong.

God, this was so hard! Scully never was very good at expressing her feelings through words. But words were all he could get from her now, and the ones she was using were scaring him to death. If he could have looked into her eyes, it wouldn’t have mattered that she hadn’t been able to complete her thought. If it were him she loved, he would have been able to see it.

He couldn’t see it, though, and the uncertainty was killing him. The possibility that Kresge was the man of her dreams, that it had been the detective for whom she had been about to profess her love, made his insides churn.

He didn’t want to think about it, but all he could do was think about it. If she didn’t love him, if she left him, Mulder honestly didn’t know what he would do, if he could survive. He only knew he wouldn’t want to.

He congratulated himself for his ability to toss out the wisecracks while what he really wanted to do was beg her to tell him that she loved him. Being a wiseass was very necessary. If it turned out that she was talking about Kresge (God forbid), his casual acceptance of that horrible fact might keep her at his side, at least as his F.B.I. partner.

If she transferred to San Diego to be nearer to the detective, Mulder could transfer as well. After all, they’d been partners for seven years, and no one could back her up like he could because he knew her so well. Even Kresge shouldn’t have any objections to that. If he did, he wasn’t worthy of Scully’s love.

Oh, fuck it, who was he kidding? If Scully transferred to San Diego, he wouldn’t follow. He wouldn’t be able to bear watching her be happy with another man.

“Well, you were right.” Scully’s voice breaking into his maudlin thoughts caused him to start. “That was Detective Kresge.”

“What …” Mulder had to clear the roughness from his throat. “What did he want?”

“He thinks he’s located Dodds in an apartment building just outside of town.” He heard her sigh. “He’s on his way to get me.”

Was she happy about this development? She didn’t sound it. “Something wrong?”

Scully drew in a breath, but didn’t say anything for a few seconds. “No. Not really. John’s just …”

Mulder couldn’t stop the sour taste hearing the detective’s first name from Scully’s lips brought to his mouth. “Just what?” he forced himself to ask softly.

She barked out a laugh, something Mulder couldn’t recall ever having heard come from her. “He just kind of … makes me crazy sometimes!” she said in what sounded to him like a flustered voice. What he couldn’t figure out, what he needed to see her to figure out, was if it was a good flustered or a bad flustered.

“Oh,” was the safest thing he could think of to say.

“Well, if we’re going out to the scene, I need to change. If the setting’s anything like the last time …” She stopped, and it was frustrating not to be able to see what she was thinking.

“What … what happened the last time?” He couldn’t help it; he needed to know if she was looking forward to this, with Kresge.

“What?” She seemed surprised by the question. “Oh, nothing. My attire wasn’t entirely appropriate for the setting.” Her sigh was definitely on the perturbed side. “I need to dress the part this time.”

What the hell did that mean? Was she going to a crime scene or a ball? “Scully …” He waited, but she didn’t respond. “Scully?” He let out a breath, exasperated. She’d left him. Just left him without so much as a “see you later.”

God damn it, he needed to see her. Before she left he needed to know whom it was that she loved, and if Scully wouldn’t tell him, he’d just have to see for himself. He reached for the bandages and then stopped himself. Granted, he was about to do something stupid by removing the bandages, but he wasn’t idiotic enough to push his luck by taking them off in bright sunlight. Pushing to his feet, Mulder stood up – and felt totally adrift. He had no idea what Tara’s patio looked like. Desperation, however, forced him into action. Using his hands and feet, he carefully made his way toward where he believed the door to be. “Mulder, stop!” The alarm in Scully’s voice froze him to the spot. When he felt her take his arm, he felt a little of his tension ease. “You were headed to the stairs.” She moved him a quarter turn to the left. “The door’s over here.” She guided him into the house, the cool air chilling his sweat-soaked skin. “I shouldn’t have left you like that — sorry.” “It’s okay,” he said, as she seated him on his sofa bed. “Look, I’ve got to go. If you need anything, call Mom.” She pressed something into his hand. “Here’s the bell.” “Scully, wait!” He tried to grab her hand but she was out of his reach. “Can’t, Mulder. Kresge’s only a block away. I’ll call you.” “Scully…” Hating how pathetic he sounded, Mulder reached up and unraveled the bandages Scully had laboriously wrapped around his head. He pulled off the gauze pads and opened his eyes, gasping when the light hit them. Quickly shading his eyes, he was elated that he could see the shapes and shadows of the room. But he had no time to allow for his eyes to adjust to the light. Scully was leaving now, and he had to see for himself whether she was pleased or not to see Detective John Kresge. He jumped to his feet, surprised to find that his balance was off. Yet he didn’t let that or his fuzzy vision stop him as he fumbled his way toward the front door. Just before he reached the door, movement out the window caught his eye. Kresge was already there — at least he assumed it was Kresge (who else would it be?); mostly, what he saw was a man-shaped blur — and was coming around the car. He watched Scully run down the path and practically — hell, there was no ‘practically’ about it! — throw herself into the detective’s arms. Mulder was stunned. It appeared that she was pleased to see the detective. No matter how much he told himself that he’d prepared for this eventuality, he still couldn’t believe it. And he couldn’t watch any longer, as the two smaller blurs became one larger one. He stood there, his back to the window, until he heard the car drive away. Slowly, he made his way back to the den, too shell-shocked to think of doing anything else. As he neared the room, his vision started graying, and the room began to waver even more out of focus than it already was. He found the bed by walking into it and falling face down onto it. He noted, without caring too much, that he was losing his vision, that removing his bandages too soon had strained, possibly damaged, his eyes. His last thought before consciousness fled was that it didn’t matter. He wouldn’t really need his eyes if he didn’t have Scully to look at any more. **

“Are you certain you’re all right?” Kresge asked for the third time as he helped her over to the passenger side door.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Scully assured him through gritted teeth. “I’ll have to speak to my sister-in-law about that crack in the sidewalk. If anyone else were to trip and fall, they could be asking for a lawsuit,” she huffed. Her ankle throbbed a bit, but she knew she could walk it off. If the Detective let her out of the car during the raid, of course.

“You know, John, there is a perfectly good rental car sitting in the driveway here. You could have just called me and I would have met you at the scene,” she said with a plastered-on smile.

“Oh, that’s silly,” Kresge dismissed her. “It’s not that far out of my way and this way you don’t have to worry about finding the place.”

Scully drew in a deep breath and tried not to explode. She wasn’t happy about Kresge calling from his cell phone when he was just a block away from Bill’s house, thus ensuring that she would accompany him instead of driving herself. She further wasn’t happy that the Detective was being very cryptic about where they were going, telling her only it was a definite lead on Dodds whereabouts. And most of all, she wasn’t happy that in her haste to get out to the damned car, she’d tripped on a chunk of sidewalk outside Bill’s house and almost broken her neck, not to mention the heel of her shoe. Even halfway to his ship, her older brother had managed to put a damper on her day. It took the good detective to turn that damper into a full-blown thunderstorm.

“You keep saying we’re following up a lead,” she said, trying to find a subject that didn’t make her want to scream. “How did you come about this lead?”

“Anonymous tip,” Kresge said. “But we had a squad car drive past the place and a car registered to Dodds’ last girlfriend was parked in the parking lot next to the building. She reported it stolen about five days ago.”

Scully chewed on that for a while. She was more and more convinced that Dodds was not the killer. Mulder’s premise about the magnesium made her want to go back to the station and check the evidence locker for the victims’ clothing, in the hopes of finding some of the substance embedded in the fabric and thus giving more credence to the theory that Kocin was the killer. But instead she was out chasing red herrings.

“Did you have a nice lunch?” Kresge was asking. He’d probably been talking for the last several minutes but she’d found that it was fairly easy to ignore him. She really needed to start paying attention.

“Um, yes. And I got a chance to change Mulder’s bandages. His eyes are doing better,” she said, looking out the passenger side window.

“So, um, he’ll be able to travel back home soon, then, huh?” Kresge asked casually.

Scully shrugged. “As soon as the case is over, we’ll both be going home,” she replied.

“What I mean is, well, he probably wants to get home as soon as possible. I mean, surely he has family back east who can take care of him while he’s on medical leave. His parents, a sister or a brother — a companion … ”

“His parents are both deceased as is his only sibling, a sister. There isn’t a companion, whatever that means. So no, there really isn’t anyone back there. He’s fine where he is and my mother has helped us out before. When I’m ready to go, we’ll go back.” She turned to look at Kresge. He was licking his lips and appeared to be mulling over her comments. “Detective, you know that we are only out here for this case and this case alone,” she said firmly.

“Oh, sure, yeah,” he quickly replied. “I mean, as soon as we bring Dodds in and the DA draws up the charges, well, then there is the paperwork, but that shouldn’t take long. You’ll be back for the trial, of course.” He shot her a look. “I’m assuming you want to be out for the trial.”

She shook her head. “If we find Dodds and if we do, in fact, have enough evidence tying him to the murders that the DA can charge him — yes, we will probably come back out for the trial.”

“We?” Kresge asked. “I mean, you’re the only person who really needs to be here to testify. You performed all the autopsies. Agent Mulder really didn’t add anything to the investigation.”

She started to object when Kresge turned the corner and pulled up to the curb. Scully noticed there were squad cars and she assumed more unmarked cars up and down the street. It had all the atmosphere of a law enforcement convention. But what caught her eye immediately was the Medical Examiner’s wagon pulled into the parking lot. “You didn’t say there’d been another murder,” she accused.

“There wasn’t,” he insisted and hurried around to open the door for her but she was already standing on the curb.

As they walked toward the building, a uniformed officer hurried up to them. “Detective Kresge — you’re not gonna believe this! The killer struck again!”

“Another woman? He must have been killing them here and moving the bodies — ”

“No. Not a woman. This was a guy. Funny thing is, the stiff matches the description you gave us of the killer.”

“What?” Kresge blurted out and headed for the door of the building at a dead run.

Scully rolled her eyes and calmly followed behind him. At least in Kresge’s haste he’d forgotten to leave her in the car.

**

Detective Kresge chewed on his lip as he walked through the front door of the rundown apartment building. He wondered why Dodds had changed his M.O. and gone after a man this time. And the guy fit Dodds’ description, too. Is that why Dodds had killed him? Because he reminded Dodds of himself? Kresge knew that serial killers sometimes harbored a self-loathing because of the atrocities they committed. Could Dodds be far enough gone that he’d killed someone that he thought was himself?

Wow, what a freaky — yet, brilliant — hypothesis. For all Dana’s talk of her partner’s talent for catching serial killers, John’d bet Mulder had never come up with anything as inspired. He couldn’t stop himself from giving her a self-satisfied glance.

Not quite ready to let Dana in on the secret, he merely shook his head at the question in her eyes. Oh, he’d let her in on it eventually. Just not yet. He needed to savor the victory alone for a few minutes.

As they approached the third floor landing, Dana asked, “Do you think it’s Dodds?”

He sighed to himself. So much for savoring. “Well, I’ll tell you, Dana …” He lifted the crime scene tape for her, then slipped under himself. “I think — ”

“Sure looks like Dodds,” she said. There was an officer blocking his view, but not hers. John quickly stepped around the man to take a look at the victim.

No! It couldn’t be! He’d had it all worked out, how astounded she would be, how he’d throw Mulder’s ideas back in her face, how Dana would leave the F.B.I. and join John as his partner — both professionally and personally.

And it was worse than he’d thought. For it wasn’t just that Dodds was dead: Dodds was dead by the hand of their serial killer. The killer had gone to extra lengths with Dodds, as if he was throwing it back in Kresge’s face for thinking that Dodds was the killer instead of who it really was.

For a fleeting moment, Kresge’s jealousy flared, and he wondered if Mulder had done this just to prove Kresge wrong. The detective quickly shook off that thought; for all of the man’s many faults, John knew he wasn’t a killer. Besides, Mulder was in no condition to take on someone of Dodds’s height and weight.

“Looks like Dodds really pissed off someone.” Dana’s observation brought his thoughts back to where they should be: on the case.

John nodded absently, letting his gaze take in the full effect of the killer’s fury. Dodds wasn’t simply sliced and stuffed — he was sliced, stuffed and fricasseed.

“Magnesium,” Dana announced, as though that should mean something to him.

“What — ” he started to ask, then he remembered. “That stuff that was thrown into your partner’s eyes?”

She nodded. “After he … arranged the body, he spread it all over Dodds, then ignited it.”

John looked around the decidedly unburnt room. “Why didn’t the whole place go up?”

“Magnesium burns very hot, very bright, for a very short period of time. It’s actually more of a flash than a fire.”

“So that’s why he’s not more burned than he is?” Upon closer inspection, John decided that Dodds was more singed than fricasseed, with most of the damage to the outside of his clothing and almost none to the skin beneath.

“Exactly. Apparently Kocin wanted us to know this was Dodds and not some anonymous male he’d picked at random. He wants us to know he’s the killer, and Dodds isn’t.” She glanced at the body. “Wasn’t.”

“Who says that this Kocin is the killer?” John would be damned if he’d give an inch on her partner’s choice of killer. “We have no evidence connecting him to the murders.”

His triumph was short-lived, as Dana scowled at him. “One,” she ticked off on her finger, “he worked at the club. Two, he’s a magician, and magicians use those cheesy-looking roses …” She beckoned to Dodds’s body. ” …which have been artfully ‘planted’ in various areas of Dodds’s anatomy. Three, magicians use magnesium in their act, and four, we know for a fact that Kocin is in possession of magnesium.”

Was she for real? “What kind of evidence is that?”

“Enough to get a warrant to pick him up for questioning.”

John shook his head, angry at what she was doing. “Oh, no. You’re just out to get this guy because he got back at your partner for harassing him.”

At her look of astonishment, John decided to forgive her. She obviously wasn’t even aware that that’s what she had done. What a great partner she’d make! If she was that loyal to a loser like Mulder, imagine how fiercely she’d protect someone of John’s caliber!

Just as he was about to absolve her for her lapse in judgment, she whirled on her heel and strode over to the group of uniforms standing in the doorway. “Can one of you give me a ride to my car? It’s only about ten minutes from here.”

What the hell was wrong now? John walked up behind her and grabbed her elbow. “That won’t be necessary, boys,” he told the men who he could see had had no intention of ferrying around his woman. “She’s with me.”

Dana yanked her arm out of his grip. “She is not with you, Detective. She can find her own damned way back to her car,” she said with a glance at the unhelpful men. As she stalked away, John gave the officers an ‘I’m so whipped’ grin and trotted after her.

“Dana! Hey, come on, Dana. I’ll give you a ride.”

She spun around to face him, eyes blazing and hair wild, and he couldn’t believe how turned on that made him. “You know,” she said, “I’d never quite grasped the concept of why police officers were called ‘pigs.’ After the last two minutes, I understand perfectly.”

Shocked speechless, he watched as her anger dissolved into resignation, and she sighed. “He was right. I didn’t believe him, but Mulder was right about you. He said no amount of evidence would get you to change your mind about Kocin.” John was confused when her gaze turned to pity — for him. “Mulder may be blind, but he sees a hell of a lot better than you.”

When she walked away, John didn’t follow.

**

Maggie heard the sniffle as she walked past the den. Oh no. Not on her watch. Fox Mulder had just recovered from a life threatening illness. Maggie understood full well what a cold or respiratory infection would do to him at this point. She barged in, expecting to rush him off to the nearest hospital …

Only to stop when she saw the hunched shoulders shaking with grief and loss. Fox had his back to her and was crying.

One thing Maggie had learned after all the years her daughter had been partnered with this man was his strong sense of dignity. She knew she hadn’t been detected, so silently she withdrew and made more noise on her next entrance. She watched as the young man hastily wiped at his face.

“Fox! Where are your bandages?” she demanded, her earlier reluctance to intrude now completely vanished in the face of his folly.

“I took them off,” he admitted, but his eyes were closed, his face defiant. “I … they itched.”

“I’m sure that’s just the skin on your face healing. You had a nasty burn around your eyes. Here, let me look.”

Mulder sat down on the edge of the sofa bed and turned his face upward. Maggie’s heart ached when she saw the dampness on his cheeks, but she went about her inspection, tilting his face toward the light coming from the window behind the sofa. “Well, they do look much better. Did you try to see anything?”

“More than I should have,” he said sadly. She looked at him again and this time he opened his eyes. The whites were still red and irritated, but those eyes were filled with a pain not entirely physical.

“Fox, what are you talking about?” Maggie asked softly. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s … I … I saw … something,” he said and blinked his eyes closed again. “I … it’s her business and if he makes her happy, then I’m happy for her. I just didn’t expect it to be … so soon.” From beneath the closed lids another stray tear trickled down his cheek and he wiped at it angrily.

“Fox, no, you’ll hurt yourself,” Maggie admonished. She pulled out a tissue from a nearby box and dabbed at his cheeks gently. “Not so rough,” she whispered. When she was done, she sat down beside him on the bed. “Now, tell me what you’re talking about. Who makes who happy?”

He was already shaking his head, denying everything. “It’s not important. Dana’s happiness is all that matters.”

“Dana’s happiness — ” Maggie started to ask, but stopped when she realized Fox had seen something she hadn’t. “Fox, I want you to tell me exactly what happened. What did you see?”

He sighed and shook his head as Maggie put her hand over his. “I saw her … she kissed him,” he said in a voice just above a whisper.

“Who? Dana? She kissed — ”

“Kresge,” Fox supplied and sighed again. “I saw her kiss him. Right out there on the sidewalk.”

Maggie frowned and shook her head in denial. “Fox, believe me, I don’t know what you saw but you didn’t see my daughter kissing Detective Kresge! That would never happen, not in a million years!” The very idea made her fight the urge to giggle. Dana, kissing that … chauvinist pig, to use a term from Maggie’s younger days. “Are you certain that’s what you saw?”

Fox nodded his head emphatically. “She was in a hurry and he came around the car and then next thing I knew, she was in his arms — kissing him. Right out on the sidewalk.”

“Impossible,” Maggie intoned. “Simply impossible. It had to be something else.”

Fox snorted and stood up. He paced in front of Maggie for a moment. “Mrs. Scully, I don’t know if Dana has mentioned anything about … us. Her and I. But, well, our relationship seemed to be … changing.”

“‘Bout damned time,” Maggie murmured quietly. Fox obviously didn’t hear her comment, for he was still pacing and talking.

“But now, well, I guess what I thought was a change was actually a different kind of change. One that I will have to accept — ”

“Fox, wait just a minute. And for the record, no, Dana hasn’t mentioned anything about the two of you. She doesn’t have to. I’ve watched you both dance around each other for six years and quite frankly, I’m getting a little too old to sit on the sidelines much longer. I’ve always given my children room to grow, to make their own mistakes, but I’m growing just a little tired of waiting for one or the other of you to make a move! It’s just … ” She looked up and saw the very distinct expression of horror on the face of the man before her and knew she’d stepped over some pretty deep lines in the sand. “Fox, what would it take to make you understand — ”

“Mrs. Scully, I know she cares for me. I get that. She wouldn’t still be my partner if she didn’t care for me. But on a personal level — ”

“Personal level? Fox, are you totally oblivious?” Maggie blurted out and immediately regretted it by the shocked look she received. She sat there a moment, formulating her argument. “OK, here. I have something I want you to see.” Leaving Fox to continue his circuit in the carpet, she hurried out to the living room and snatched up Dana’s camera. She returned to find him pretty much where she left him.

“Fox, sit down. Now, we probably shouldn’t be taxing your eyes, but there is something I want you to see. Something that I think will serve to convince you that my daughter did not kiss that — that man on the sidewalk today.” She powered up the camera and started playing back the pictures a frame at a time. “Dana left me her camera so I could take a few pictures of Matty,” she explained. “I wanted to make sure all the pictures were clear — sometimes my hands shake when I use these new digital cameras. Anyway, I found this.” She handed the camera to Fox.

He sat down on the edge of the sofa bed and squinted at the small frame. Maggie hovered over his shoulder. “That is you, isn’t it? Asleep there?”

He squinted again and a touch of red colored his cheeks. “Um, ah, I — my room was a smoking room and I … uh … ”

“Fox, you are two grown adults — a little too grown, if you ask me. What you do on your own time is your business. But I ask you, why would my daughter take a picture of a man asleep in his bed if she thought of him as only a co-worker?”

Fox opened his mouth, but no words came out. He squinted back at the picture.

“If you ask me, she took that picture for herself. I have a few of Bill around in albums that I don’t get out for the kids. Pictures of when he was home on leave, asleep on the couch or asleep on the patio. Pictures I would look at during the months he was at sea,” she said, taking the camera back and powering it down. “So you see, I don’t think you have anything to be worried about. She loves you, Fox. I know my daughter. She keeps everything so very close to her chest, but I can see it in her eyes every times she looks at you.”

“I haven’t … the last few days, I’ve missed seeing her eyes,” Fox said softly.

Maggie reached down and squeezed his hand. “I know you have, dear. And she’s missed seeing your eyes, too. But love is there, even when you can’t see the proof. It’s right there, in front of you all the time. You just have to know where to look.”

Mulder’s head jerked up suddenly. “Kocin’s dressing room,” he shouted.

“What?” Maggie asked, afraid he didn’t understand what she was saying.

“There were crates in Kocin’s dressing room. It was right in front of us,” he said, standing. “Where’s the phone? I know where Kocin is! I have to call Dana right now!”

**

Scully gave her brother’s address to the cab driver and settled into her seat, glad to be rid of Kresge. God! She couldn’t believe that at one point she’d found him ‘charming’ and had even compared Mulder to him.

She was ashamed to admit that until she’d tired of Kresge’s ‘chivalry’ she’d found Mulder sadly lacking in the common courtesies department. Of course, her fascination with the detective lasted about a day and a half, or as long as it took her to discover that he saw her as a woman first and a colleague second — if that.

Mulder might be overprotective at times, but she knew he did it because he loved her, not because of her gender. God, she’d be glad to get back and see him, especially after the way she’d literally dumped him onto his bed and rushed away.

As if to remind her that she hadn’t been particularly solicitous of her partner since they’d arrived at Bill’s, her ankle started to pulsate in time with her heart. Leaning forward to massage away the pain, her phone suddenly rang; when she saw who it was, the ache miraculously vanished. “Hi, Mulder.”

“Scully! I just remembered something.”

She had to smile. Mulder didn’t even bother asking about Dodds. Her partner knew the bartender wasn’t their suspect and had probably dismissed any memory of the man from his mind. “What?”

“After his run-in with me, Kocin would probably think his apartment was under surveillance …” Scully read between the lines of what Mulder was saying: Kocin’s residence should have been staked out, but wasn’t due to Kresge’s obstinacy. ” … so he’d have to hole up somewhere else.”

“All right. What’s the address?”

“Well … I don’t really know.”

Scully pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it a second before putting it back. “What do you mean ‘you don’t know’? How am I supposed to find it if you don’t know where it is?”

“I know where it is — I just don’t know the address.”

She sighed. “All right. Where is it?”

“On our way to Bill’s that first time, we passed by some old abandoned greenhouses set back from the highway — ”

Scully looked out the window. “With a beat-up sign that said ‘Rose Capital of the World’ pointing to them?”

There was a pause before Mulder said, “You remember it, too?”

Scully chuckled. “No. I passed it about ten seconds ago.”

“Then you’re right there!” Mulder said in an excited voice. “Scully, you need to go back!”

She was about five minutes away from Bill’s house and seeing Mulder, and she didn’t want to go traipsing through some dilapidated buildings. “Mulder, what makes you think he’s there? We didn’t find any indication — ”

“I can feel it, Scully. I don’t know how, but I just know that’s where he’s hiding out.”

She pressed the mute button while she instructed the cabbie to turn around and go back to the greenhouses. After he’d acknowledged her, Scully took Mulder off mute. “Okay, I’m headed back.”

“Just the two of you? Scully, I really think you should call for backup. This guy’s no amateur — at magic or at killing.”

Scully looked down in guilt. There was no way she was calling Detective Archie Bunker — he’d made his position on Kocin very clear and had effectively put the kibosh on her receiving any backup for anything having to do with the magician. Which left Sheriff Ramirez.

“I’ll call for backup as soon as I hang up, okay?”

“Okay.” He sounded like a great weight had been lifted off him, and she felt like two cents for the way she was deceiving him. “Call me after. And Scully? Be careful. This guy didn’t get away with murder for this long without having a few smarts.”

“I will.” Just then, the cab’s squawk box sparked to life. “I gotta go now, Mulder,” she said hastily, then cut him off in mid-“Scully.” God, she didn’t know how he’d done it in those early days — lied through his teeth to her. She only knew that her dishonesty made her feel like the lowest form of life, and she never wanted to feel like that again.

The cab pulled off the highway and onto an unpaved side road. Scully had the driver stop at a bend in the road, about a hundred yards from the buildings. He gave her a dubious look. “You sure you want to get out here?”

Scully was sure she didn’t. The late afternoon sun barely reflected on the cracked and broken windows of the dirt and grime-encrusted buildings. The surrounding area was overgrown with weeds and bushes, interspersed with saplings from the large oak trees that dotted the countryside. Just a quarter mile from the highway, there was no sound, no hint of the traffic such a short distance away.

Giving the driver a baleful look, she nodded. “I’m sure.” She paid the fare and tip, then opened the door.

“You want me to wait?” he asked.

Did she ever. But this was no place for an innocent. “No, thanks,” she told him. “Someone will be coming to pick me up.” She hoped.

He shrugged. “Suit yourself.” Not half a second after she’d closed the door; he made a u-turn and sped off.

Scully watched his taillights with regret. What the hell was she doing here alone? She was beginning to believe that she, not Mulder, was the one with the death wish. Shaking off that thought, she found the sheriff’s card in her pocket and dialed his number.

“I’m out at a scene on the other side of town from your location,” he told her after she’d explained the situation. “But I’ll see if I can get a car dispatched to your location. Can you hold for a minute?”

“Sure. No problem. I appreciate this, Sheriff Ramirez.”

“It’s no trouble, Agent Scully. Hold, please.” After about 30 seconds, he was back on with her. “I’m sending Deputy Colter out there. He’s the closest car, but he’s still a good 20 minutes away.”

She looked at the foreboding buildings. Creepy didn’t even begin to describe them. “Okay. Thanks, Sheriff. If you can spare any other cars, I’d appreciate it.”

“Agent Scully, if you don’t mind my asking … why are you calling the sheriff’s department in on this? Isn’t this an FBI investigation?”

“We’re assisting the local P.D. And the investigator on the case is of the opinion that this suspect is not worth his or his department’s time and trouble. And with my partner unable to assist me …”

“Right. I understand. We’ll get out there as soon as we can.”

“Thanks, Sheriff. I appreciate it.”

Anxious though she was to catch Kocin so she and Mulder could go home, she was not foolish enough to go after him by herself. She’d just perched on a rock to wait for her backup when a woman’s scream from the direction of the greenhouses pierced the silence.

Scully didn’t even give it a thought before racing toward the buildings.

**end of part 8**

Shred of Doubt (9/9)

Jo-Ann Lassiter and Vickie Moseley

“Feeling better, Fox?” Maggie asked from the doorway.

Mulder nodded, rubbing his forehead. “Yeah, I got hold of her. She said she thinks I’m right, that she’ll head over to the greenhouse. I just don’t know why it just clicked in my mind, seeing that old greenhouse, the fake roses, it all just suddenly became clear. The guy was tossing the clue right in my face and I never saw it.” He sat down tiredly on the edge of the sofa bed.

“Maybe we should put the bandages back on, just until Dana has a chance to look at your eyes,” Maggie suggested with a worried frown.

“Actually, she already did look at them, when she was here. She said they were healing. And to be honest, now that the dressings are off, I’m seeing a little better,” he lied. He hated the bandages; there was no way he was going to be trussed up again if he could avoid it.

“Well, why don’t you take a nap? You look exhausted,” Maggie suggested. “Tara and I have to run out to the mall to do a little shopping; we’re taking Matty with us so the house will be quiet. Use this time to rest, Fox. You know you’re going to be needing it soon enough.”

He nodded; it was good advice. Lying down, he could hear Maggie and Tara gathering their purses and taking Matty out to the car. When the engine of Tara’s SUV roared to life and pulled out of the driveway, he felt relieved and sleepy in the now silent house. He turned on his side and curled up on the bed, trying to imagine that Scully was there with him, spooning with him, just sleeping. How much he wanted just to hold her, especially now that he’d seen those pictures.

Maggie was right — that wasn’t the kind of picture you’d take of someone you were ‘kissing goodbye’. It was a bedroom picture — as close to erotic as he was likely to find Scully outwardly displaying. When in private, he knew better — much better.

He was drifting off, thinking of her. He could see her trying to convince Kresge that they needed to go to the new location. Of course, being the ass he was, Kresge would argue. Scully would argue back, but she would know time was of the essence.

Time. Scully would know that they had to get to Kocin quickly. What if she couldn’t get Kresge to see the truth? What if the asshole denied her back up? She’d made friends with the Sheriff, she’d told him, but would she bother with that?

What if she went to the greenhouse alone?

Mulder jerked up from the bed and compelled his eyes to focus. There was a film covering them and it took several blinks to make them clear enough for him to see. He pulled on his boots and searched for the bag that held the clothes he was wearing when he was taken to the hospital. His keys were in the bottom of the bag, along with the spare key to the rental car.

A quick glance out the family room window was all he needed to convince himself to grab his sunglasses out of the bag as well. His gun — he knew Scully would have secured it somewhere. He ran up the stairs to the spare room where she was staying. He found her suitcase in the bedroom closet and in a locked compartment found his service weapon. He also found his wallet and badge. Strapping on the holster and tucking the wallets in his back pockets, he hurried down to the rental car waiting for him in the driveway.

He was halfway down the street when he remembered that Scully had her cell phone. He speed dialed her number at a stop light. It rang four times and then rolled over to her voice mail.

“Scully — I’m coming to the greenhouse. Don’t do anything until I get there. I mean it, Scully. Don’t do anything until I get there. I’m only 10 minutes away.” Traffic started and he moved forward, the phone still plastered between his ear and shoulder. “He’s dangerous, Scully. Don’t do anything stupid. I love you. Bye.”

He tossed the phone down on the seat and turned his attention to the road. He had to blink a lot to get the film from his eyes, but at least he could see reasonably well.

It had clouded up and the sky was a threatening shade of deep blues and grays by the time he pulled up to the old greenhouses. He searched the area and found no squad cars, no unmarked vehicles, nothing. Dread formed in his stomach. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and tried Scully’s number again. This time it went directly to voice mail, indicating that it had either run out of charge — or she’d turned it off.

Something told him it was the latter. She’d gone off and done exactly what he usually did — walked headlong into trouble. He cursed silently and shook his head. Of all the things to rub off on her, it had to be ‘the ditch’. When he got hold of her — he’d kiss her senseless just out of sheer relief. But after that, he’d let her have it.

The complex was huge, made up of some 30 individual greenhouses arranged in rows of four and running back over at least several acres of land. The whole place reminded him just a little too much of the New Spartans’ compound. He could still smell the earthy perfume as he was marched to his would-be execution. Mulder shuddered and tried to wipe the image from his mind. Not today. There would be no more death today, not if he could help it.

As he stepped forward the sky opened up, drenching him to the bone by the time he made it between the first two buildings. Most of the glass roofs had broken panels and he could hear the rain pattering on the cement floors of the derelict structures.

He heard a loud crash several rows ahead. He crouched low and ran as fast as he could. It was the most he’d moved in several days and by the time he reached the source of the sound, he was winded. Rain was streaming into his eyes, forcing him to wipe at them blindly with his free hand, keeping his gun arm extended in front of him. He heard another crash to his left and took off again.

He was sure anyone passing by could hear his heart pounding in his chest and his ragged breathing. Damn it all, he’d been feeling better while he’d been at Bill and Tara’s. Emotionally, he’d been a wreck, but physically, he’d almost convinced himself that he was doing better. Except for that whole pesky blindness thing, his little ‘Scully’ voice reminded him snidely. As if to prove that point, the wind blew something in his left eye and he doubled over from the pain. He tried to keep his fist from scrubbing at the abused orb. Rapid blinking did little to relieve the anguish. Finally, he was able to see, but his left eye was blurry at best.

His eyesight wasn’t the only thing working against him. The glass walls of the greenhouses were covered with years of dirt and grime, making them almost opaque. In one building to his right he could see movement, soft shadows in the dim light provided by the dark clouds. A struggle was taking place.

“Federal Agent, freeze!” he shouted as he shouldered his way into the poorly lit building. He could just make out Scully trying to break free from Kocin. She looked up at his voice, her eyes wide.

“Mulder, look out — the place is rigged!” she cried out, but it was too late. Something large and heavy dropped from one of the cross beams above his head and he dropped to his knees, stunned.

“I’ll take that, if you don’t mind,” Kocin purred as he snatched Mulder’s gun from his nerveless fingers. “Get up,” the killer ordered the dazed agent.

Mulder blinked slowly and complied with much effort. In a moment, he was standing next to Scully. “Your gun?” he asked.

“He’s got it.” She turned her head so she could show her partner the matching bruise she wore. “There are booby traps all over this place,” she said with a bitter scowl.

“Not booby traps, Agent Scully. Prestidigitation. Everything here in this structure is meant to make the audience shiver — maybe even scare one or two to death,” Kocin giggled manically. He moved behind Mulder and tied his hands behind his back, doing the same to Scully. “Now, if you both would be so kind,” he instructed with the pointing of the gun. “I have a little magic trick I’ve just been dying to try.”

Mulder hung back a step, putting himself closer to Kocin. He stumbled, on purpose, as if he’d slipped on the wet cement floor, and went down on one knee. Kocin bent down to grab him and Mulder’s elbow shot out, knocking Kocin off balance. The agent took that opportunity to grab for Scully’s gun that he saw sticking out of the murderer’s waistband.

The struggle was fierce but short-lived. The killer knocked the weapon out of Mulder’s reach and brought the butt of the gun in his hand down on the agent’s head. Mulder saw stars for a moment and then felt the muzzle of Scully’s gun shoved hard against his temple.

“I think the audience is getting a little rowdy. I wouldn’t want to have to call the ushers, Agent Mulder,” Kocin growled through his teeth. “Get up. Any more stunts like that and the first bullet goes through that pretty red hair over there.”

Mulder nodded mutely and allowed Kocin to drag him to his feet. The would-be magician pushed him toward his partner.

“Did you call for backup?” Mulder whispered hoarsely in her ear.

“Twenty minutes ago,” she whispered back.

Mulder glared at her. He’d been on the property for well over 20 minutes and there were no sirens, no squad cars — no back up.

She blinked. “Give or take.”

He rolled his eyes. And then he saw where they were headed.

All the planting tables had been shoved to the walls to make room for the object that was the center of attention. It was a glass box. He was positive he’d seen David Blaine in just such a box on some magic special. Six feet high, two feet wide, three feet deep — and water-tight. There was a stepladder next to it.

“Ladies first — Agent Scully, if you please,” Kocin said congenially. Scully hesitated until Kocin placed the muzzle of the gun at base of Mulder’s skull. “Don’t even think about it,” he warned with a slimy grin.

Without taking her eyes off her partner, Scully moved up the ladder and then jumped down into the box, as well as she could with her hands bound. Mulder soon followed suit, trying hard not to land on her feet as he jumped down into the box. “Cozy,” he whispered in her ear and she shot him a glare, but her eyes twinkled at his gesture.

“This is a really amazing trick, I want you to fully understand how it works. I put the lid on, like so — oh, duck a bit there Agent Mulder, I wouldn’t want to catch your hair in the lid — that’s right,” Kocin chattered as he locked them in the box. “Now, here comes the fun part.” The killer scampered off the ladder and ran over to a corner of the greenhouse. With great ceremony he turned on a faucet. Mulder felt something cold at his feet. They both looked down only to find the box filling with water.

“Now, I know it’s not the ‘sawing the lady in half’ trick that I’ve been perfecting, but I think it’s spontaneous enough to be a show stopper,” Kocin prattled. “But you see, I really must be going now. So sorry I can’t stick around for your big finale.” With a flippant salute, he exited the structure.

“I think I saw this movie, Scully. James Bond managed to turn the box into a yacht and they sailed for Bermuda,” Mulder quipped as he struggled with the ropes tying his hands.

“Mulder, turn around. Maybe I can get you loose,” Scully ordered. They both tried, but the box was too tight. Their shoulders prevented them from changing positions too much.

“Stop, Scully, stop. Besides, the water’s rising,” Mulder pointed out.

She looked up and met his eyes. “Mulder, I — ”

“Shhh,” he chided. “Scully, I want you to know — ”

“I love you!” she blurted out, surprising him. “I love you,” she repeated, softer, and he was amazed by what he read in her eyes. God, how he’d missed seeing her eyes.

He smiled at her. “I must say you have impeccable timing, Agent Scully.” He rested his forehead against hers, never allowing his gaze to leave her eyes. “I love you, too. I can’t remember when I didn’t love you.”

“Oh, Mulder. I’m so sorry. I kept you at arm’s length, and I can’t even tell you why. I’ve loved you for so long, and when we finally got together it was wonderful! But then you got sick and I got scared and we came here and — ”

“Scully, shut up. I’m trying to kiss you,” he told her firmly and pressed his lips against hers, silencing her instantly. He was afraid she might pull back, but she surprised him and pressed closer, opening her lips and deepening the kiss.

They were still kissing when the water reached their chins.

**

Mulder jerked up from their kiss, and Scully panicked as water quickly took his place. “Mu — ” was as far as she got as liquid filled her mouth, and she spluttered the rest of his name.

Standing on tiptoes gave her a temporary reprieve, but she knew it was only a matter of time. The only good thing was that she wouldn’t have to watch Mulder die. At this thought, she locked eyes with him. By the look in his eyes, she knew he’d had the same thought.

“Scully, no!” Without warning, he ducked his head into the water, catching her under the chin. Using the water’s buoyancy, he pushed her body upward, and her face out of the water. He then pinned her to the wall with his body so that their heads were level with each other at the very top of the box. “I’m sorry,” he coughed out, “but I can’t. I can’t watch you die.”

“Mulder …” What could she say? She laid her head on his shoulder and kissed his neck. “I know. Neither can I.”

She didn’t know how he found the strength to keep them both upright. Thanks to his little foray underwater, he was coughing almost continuously now, and his breathing — when he could catch a breath — was noisy and sounded painful. The water was hitting her ear on his shoulder, so she reluctantly removed it. Mulder’s head was turned so he wouldn’t cough on her, but she needed to see him, wanted to be looking at him as she drew her last breath.

“Look at me.”

He shook his head frantically. “Can’t,” he grated out.

“Mulder, we’re going to be dead in about three minutes. I want to spend that time looking into your eyes.”

He barked out what sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “My … eyes … are closed. Won’t … see much.”

“Then I want to see your face. Not the back of your head — your face. Come on, look at me.”

He turned toward her, watering eyes incredulous. “Nice … vision of me … to take … to your … grave … Scully.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” she said, kissing his forehead, then pressing her cheek to his.

After a few more seconds, his coughing spell passed, and she waited while he worked at getting his breathing calmed. She wondered how much damage he’d done to his eyes and lungs by rushing to get to her, even as she realized that at this point it didn’t really matter. “Thank you,” she whispered.

He didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds, then, “For what?”

“Coming after me.”

“I’ll always come after you, Scully. You know that.”

She did. And despite their circumstance, she smiled. “I count on it. I count on you.”

“And I, you. You always come after me, too, Scully.” An expression of realization came over his face, and a smile curled his lips. “I guess that should have told me.”

“Told you what?”

He was silent for a moment. “That you love me. That you aren’t interested in Kresge.”

“God, no!” she said with all the emphasis she felt about that statement. “Whatever made you think that?”

“He… well, he’s interested in you, and you kind of seemed to, well… like it,” he said, lamely, feeling stupid now that he knew the truth.

“I guess I did at first, but I was never interested in him that way.”

“Why not?”

Poor Mulder. Always in need of reassurance. “Beyond the obvious?”

She could see that he was at a loss. Like any other male, he needed to have it spelled out for him. She smiled gently, her eyes conveying that she understood his confusion. “‘The obvious’ is that I love you. ‘Beyond the obvious’ is that he’s irritating, condescending, and a sexist!”

Mulder grinned. “Come on, Scully. Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel.”

How she really felt was like her heart was about to explode. Or was that her lungs, since the water was now up to her nose? Mulder tried to push her higher, but there was no higher. His forlorn gaze bored into hers. ‘I love you,’ she told him with her eyes, and she read the same in his.

She kept her eyes on his until he faded away.

**

Detective Kresge’s car

En route to Rose Capital of the World

Detective John Kresge was pissed. Totally and royally pissed off. Not ten minutes after she had walked out on him, John had received a courtesy call from San Diego county dispatch informing him that they were sending a car in response to a back-up request from Dana.

What the hell was up with her? He’d tried to be everything her partner wasn’t — charming, attentive, thoughtful and protective — but she didn’t seem to appreciate it. She’d called him a pig, for Chrissakes!

And now she was out at the old Rose Capital greenhouses for God knew what reason. The dispatcher didn’t have any details, only the name of the officer requesting back-up and the location. Since county’s records indicated that Dana was a federal officer working with SDPD and him in particular, the call was piped through to his cell phone. Was she crazy, going there alone?

He repressed a shudder as the first building came into view. Even at the best of times, the old deserted buildings were spooky — and twilight was definitely not the best of times.

How on earth did she get out here? he wondered. There wasn’t a car in sight. He felt a little guilty that he’d insisted on driving her and then letting her leave without caring how she was going to get herself back to her brother’s.

Parking beside the first building, he got out, closing the door carefully and quietly. If she was waiting for back-up, then where was she? He didn’t need spidey sense to know something was wrong.

“Dana!” he called in a hushed voice. “Dana! Where are you?” He wasn’t really expecting her to reply, but he thought it wouldn’t hurt to try. “Dana!”

Swallowing hard, he entered the building closest to the road. It was eerily silent, and a cold chill ran up his spine. In that second, he gained a little respect for what Dana and her partner investigated on a regular basis. Danm. They had to be crazy to subject themselves to this all the time.

He’d just come out of the second building when he saw a man emerge a few buildings down. The man saw him at the same time and made a run for another building. Kresge didn’t know who the guy was, but the blood stains on the guy’s shirt made the detective fear for Dana’s life. “Hey!” Kresge called. “Police officer. Stop right there!”

The guy was fast, Kresge’d give him that. He was out of sight before the detective had drawn his weapon. “Damn,” he swore. He’d have to let the guy go so he could search the building the guy had exited.

“Detective Kresge!”

He whirled around towards the voice that had called his name. Doug Colter, his mind automatically supplied. Deputy Doug Colter. “Doug! The perp went into that building!” Kresge yelled, pointing to the greenhouse into which the man had disappeared. The detective scanned the area behind the deputy. “You come alone?”

Colter trotted up to him, nodding. “Yeah. But Jim Greenville should be right behind me.”

Kresge nodded in approval. “Good. Wait till he gets here before you go after this guy. He may have already killed an officer,” he reported with dread. “I’m gonna go check it out.”

Colter’s eyes widened, but he said nothing. Good man, Kresge thought, running to his destination as fast as he could while still keeping an eye out for their suspect. He breathed a sigh of relief when he reached the building and moved around to the doorway out of the line of fire.

Clearing a spot on the dirty glass, he peered in. When he caught sight of the two federal agents drowning in a glass box filled with water, he didn’t hesitate. In the back of his mind, he knew he might be walking into a trap if their perp had an accomplice, but he dismissed it as something he’d deal with if he had to.

In the meantime, though, he had to save Dana.

Seeing Dana being held up by her partner, John aimed his weapon at the area below her feet and fired. But the glass was thick, and all his bullet did was create a very small leak. Taking aim again, John kept firing until finally he’d created a hole so large the force of the water pushed at it until it shattered.

Dana and her partner collapsed to the ground and lay still. Kresge didn’t even have to think about which one to help first. He knelt beside Dana, putting his mouth to her ear. Breathing, but barely.

He pinched her nose closed, then placed his mouth over hers, filling her lungs with air. After a few breaths, she coughed and spit up a small amount of water. “Dana, you okay?”

After a moment of disorientation, she met his eyes and nodded.

Happy that she was all right, John quickly moved over to her partner, who was laying face down a few feet away. The male agent wasn’t breathing, and as much as John disliked the man, he wouldn’t let him die if he could help it.

“Mulder…” Dana choked out. “Is he alive?”

John shook his head. “He’s not breathing.” John flipped the agent until he was lying flat on his back, turning Mulder’s face to one side. Kneeling astride the agent, John positioned his hands on Mulder’s abdomen and thrust upward. Water spewed from the agent’s mouth. John kept up the action until the agent’s airway was clear of water, and the man began coughing. By that time, Dana was beside her partner, encouraging him to keep breathing.

John moved away and took out his cell phone, punching in 911. Giving their location, he requested immediate backup and an ambulance, then turned his attention to Dana. She had her partner’s head on her lap, and was gazing upon him with unabashed love in her eyes. Painfully aware of how disrespectfully her partner treated her, John felt embarrassed for her, to be displaying such an emotion to someone who didn’t give a fig about her.

Right then and there, John vowed never to mention the incident to her, ever. It’d be awkward enough once Mulder was back to his normal behavior; Dana didn’t need to know that John was witness to her momentary lapse, that she’d allowed the hero worship she felt — for whatever reason — for this man to show.

The thing was, though, when John took a look at the object of her affection, at the man John was so used to seeing with a scowl on his face or a biting remark on his lips… The thing was that he was giving her the look right back.

John didn’t understand what she saw in him, and he didn’t understand how Mulder had kept it so well hidden, but he did understand that he’d never had a chance in hell.

**

Scully peeked out of the ER cubicle, looking both ways. She’d been pushed in the room upon her arrival at the hospital, promptly told to disrobe and don a thin gown and left there without any word on her partner. Mulder had been given oxygen at the scene and he’d appeared coherent but he’d been placed in a different ambulance and no amount of questions about his condition had produced any information. She’d been there over two hours and she was determined to find out what was going on.

She spied her clothes in a bag under the gurney. It was just a few seconds to pull them on, slide her feet into her shoes and run her fingers through her hair. She glanced in the mirror. Her clothes were damp from their time in the glass box, and she sniffed at them, noting that they didn’t smell too bad — it had been clean water at least. She was more concerned about Mulder than about her current appearance, so she tiptoed out of the room.

She hadn’t gone two feet from her examination room when a hand landed on her shoulder. Scully spun around so fast she made herself dizzy and two hands gripped her upper arms.

“Whoa there, Scully FBI,” John Kresge said with a grin. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

“I’m trying to find where they took Mulder. I’ve been waiting in that damned room forever and no one will tell me how he is — ”

“Slow down, I just came from seeing him. He’s in room 7, right over there.” Kresge pointed to the opposite corner of the large emergency department. Scully took off in that direction, but Kresge’s hand on her arm brought her up short.

“John, if you value your life, let go of me,” she hissed.

He put his hands up in surrender. “I just thought you might be interested in hearing what happened to Kocin and the last victim,” he said with one eyebrow cocked. “Agent Mulder, if it will put your mind at ease, was taking a breathing treatment when I just saw him and he couldn’t talk to you if he wanted to.”

She looked longingly over to the room where Mulder was housed and then gave Kresge her undivided attention. “You can tell me on the way over to Mulder’s room,” she told him as she started walking. Kresge had to double-time a couple of steps to catch up with her.

“Right after you left in the ambulance, one of the Sheriff’s deputies found Kocin. He was hiding in one of the greenhouses. We have him in custody — solitary — at the county jail awaiting arraignment tomorrow morning on 7 counts of murder — ”

“And two counts of attempted murder and assaulting two Federal Agents, I hope you managed to include,” she interjected. “But what about the woman? I heard a scream when I got to the greenhouses. That’s why I went in to find Kocin.”

Kresge pulled out his notebook and flipped to a page. “Carol Jo Vecchio, hairdresser, does make up for some of the acts at the Palace.” He smiled at Scully. “She’s alive. She was cut up, but apparently before he could finish the job he caught sight of you coming and left her for later. Knocked her out. She lost quite a bit of blood and has a concussion but the docs say she’ll be able to testify against him.”

“So can Mulder and I,” Scully reminded him. “Mulder can go through his profile for the prosecution.”

Kresge rolled his eyes but smiled sweetly. “Of course, it’s all in the DA’s hands at the moment, but suffice it to say, we are throwing the book at him. However, you’ll have to come back to San Diego to testify.”

“John,” she said, placing her hand on his chest. “We’ll come back to testify, but I want you to understand something.”

“You won’t be coming back to see me,” Kresge said, attempting a boyish grin that didn’t reach his eyes. “I saw … well, it doesn’t matter what I saw. But I did see the two of you. I guess that means you and I — ” He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe, under different circumstances?”

“Not for the last seven years, no, John. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry if I led you to believe — ”

“Oh, no, Dana, stop! Any presumptions were mine and mine alone. I just thought of you when this case came up and the last time you were here … and well, you’re just about perfect in my eyes. I have to be honest, I can’t see what you see in him, but I wish you the best.”

Scully tried hard not to blush, but impulsively she reached up on tiptoes and kissed Kresge on the cheek, right next to his mouth. “Thank you, John. And for what it’s worth, I think I might be the only person on the planet to see the real Fox Mulder. I’m just sorry that he hides himself so completely. He’s pretty perfect, too.”

Kresge shrugged again. “Well, I’d better get back to the station. I just wanted to make sure they were treating you right. Oh, and if you’re up to it, we’ll need a statement sometime soon. Just give me a call, I’ll come by.”

“Thanks, John, but I’ll probably just come down and do it. It would be easier on everyone.”

The detective nodded and sighed. “Whatever you think is best. Goodbye, Scully FBI.”

“Bye, John. And thank you for rescuing us.” She took his hand and gave it a squeeze before he proceeded down the hall.

Mulder was sitting up on the gurney, in his mouth was a plastic pipe attached to tubing and a hissing machine. From his less than happy expression, she could see he’d witnessed her conversation with Kresge — and the kiss she’d bestowed on the detective. It was time to set a few things straight, again.

“Hi, partner,” she said, leaning over and taking the pipe out of his mouth just long enough to give him a tender kiss. “How are you feeling?”

He grabbed the pipe out of his mouth to speak. “A little water-logged,” he said before breaking into a chain reaction of coughs.

From where she stood next to him, she could hear the fluid still in his lungs. “I think the less you talk, the more medicine you’ll get in you.”

He poked her in the chest and glared at her.

“Me? I’m fine. I’m so fine they haven’t even come back to take my temperature. Now that I’ve found you I’ll tell the nurse that I’ll move over here to keep you in line.”

He pulled the pipe out of his mouth again. “What did Kresge want?” he asked, his eyes narrowing a touch at the detective’s name.

“Just to tell me that they caught Kocin and that he’s being arraigned in the morning and that his last victim is alive, recovering and should be able to testify at the trial,” she said with a smile. “Kresge neglected to give you credit for finding the bastard, but I’m sure that was just a small oversight.”

He rolled his eyes just about the time the stream of ‘smoke’ sputtered out of the end of the pipe. He sighed in relief as he pulled the mouthpiece out and licked his lips.

“Better?” she asked, taking the pipe from his hand and resting it on the top of the machine.

“A little, yeah,” he rasped. “I saw you, um, you and …”

“You saw me kissing him goodbye?” she asked sweetly. “That is exactly what you saw. I told him in no uncertain terms that there is only room for one egotistical, insensitive, quick to run off, asshole in my life and I guess that would be you.”

“Scully,” he said, stifling a laugh with a pained grin. “I never knew you to be such a romantic!” The mirth ended quickly when he doubled over coughing.

“Well, Mr. Mulder, we’re getting your room all set up on 6th floor, oh, hello?” the nurse said as she bustled in to check on Mulder. “Aren’t you supposed to be across the hall?” she asked Scully with a raised eyebrow.

“Actually, there’s nothing wrong with me,” Scully said crossing her arms. “And I was getting cold sitting for so long in that gown,” she added with a raised eyebrow of her own.

“Scully, I don’t want to stay here tonight,” Mulder rasped, leaning back against the pillows.

Scully looked over at the nurse. “May I speak to Agent Mulder’s attending?”

It took some finagling and three phone calls but finally Scully reentered Mulder’s exam room with a smile on her face. “OK, you’re sprung — but there are a few conditions.”

He nodded happily.

“One, I arranged for another hotel room — this time guaranteeing it is non-smoking.”

He grinned like an idiot.

“Two, you are going straight to bed, no arguments, when we get there.”

His idiotic grin took on a lecherous edge.

“Three, don’t go getting any ideas, Mulder, because any strenuous exercise is liable to put you right back here before you could blink.”

“Define ‘strenuous’?” he asked softly, his eyes pleading.

She held back her smile. “I think bed-sharing, some cuddling and maybe breakfast in bed tomorrow would be non-strenuous enough. But no gymnastics until we get home. Understood?” she said sternly.

“Scully, just hearing you say ‘gymnastics’ turns me on,” he whispered hoarsely and wiggled his eyebrows for effect.

She leaned over and kissed him deeply. When she finally drew back, letting him catch his breath, she smiled. “Just thinking about doing gymnastics with you turns me on.”

**

Doubletree San Diego – Mission Valley

Less than an hour later, the cab pulled up to the new hotel. Mulder tried to whistle but it came out a blowing sound followed by heavy coughing. Scully waited for him to get out of the cab and took his arm. Mulder looked down where her small hand rested on his elbow and wondered if it was a sign of affection or one of doctorly concern. When he looked into her eyes, the love shining back at him gave him all the reassurance he needed.

He was pleased to see that Tara or Maggie had brought their bags from the house. They rushed to change out of their still damp clothes into sweats. After that, Scully pointed to the bed and he happily complied; he was exhausted. He woke up a few hours later to find his partner snuggled up against him, fast asleep. He had to admit, strenuous exercise was out of the question for the next few days. But as he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep again, he smiled as he thought of what awaited them when they got back home.

**

Two Weeks Later

San Diego, CA

“Hey, Mom, look at this.” Bill shoved one of the two weeks’ worth of newspapers he was reading under her nose.

Maggie screwed up her face in annoyance. Right in the middle of the story she was reading in her current newspaper, Bill thought nothing of obscuring her paper with his half-month-old news. “What?”

“That detective.” He pointed out Detective Kresge’s name in the article about the serial killer the media had dubbed ‘The Magician.’ “This says he caught the guy and saved the lives of two FBI agents at the same time.” He looked up at her, his face creased with worry. “Was that Dana?”

Maggie nodded. “And Fox. Yes.” That had been what they called “a bad scene,” she remembered. Although Dana had called her from the hospital to tell her they’d been injured at the scene, she’d neglected to mention that they’d nearly been killed. Would have drowned if Detective Kresge hadn’t shown up in the literal nick of time.

Dana had been upset that the whole story had been printed in the paper, and had been more concerned with who had leaked it than the actual content itself. Maggie had been concerned with the content — and why Dana had kept the tiny detail of her near death from her mother.

It was then, in the heat of argument, that Dana let slip that she and Fox almost died on a regular basis. Maggie had been shaken to her very core. While she’d known that what Dana did for work was dangerous, she hadn’t realized just how dangerous.

Dana’s explaining that that was why she never provided details of their cases was no comfort, and Maggie told her so. It was at that point that Dana went so quiet that Maggie was afraid she’d gone too far.

Her daughter surprised the life out of her when, in a soft, sad voice, she offered an apology that her chosen career had given her mother cause to worry more about her daughter than about her sons. But she would not apologize for her choice of career on any other level.

Maggie accepted her apology and her account of the incident at the greenhouse in which she and Fox had been captured and imprisoned in a tank of water.

“I guess Dana was damned lucky that detective was on the ball, wasn’t she?” Bill asked, bringing her back to the present day.

Maggie didn’t say a word. Instead, she pulled out the next date’s paper and opened it to page two. “Yes, it was lucky that Detective Kresge arrived when he did.” She pointed to an article at the top of the page. “But before you submit his name for sainthood, perhaps you should read this.”

Her son looked at her questioningly before he focused his gaze on the heading, “Detective sets record straight on Magician collar.”

Maggie watched Bill’s face as he read Detective Kresge’s account of what — and who — lead him to the greenhouse in time to catch a killer and save three lives. She had actually been surprised that the man had credited Fox for identifying the killer — and where he could be found. The detective’s assertion that he had arrived in time to save the agents only because of Dana’s phone call had given her chills. And the realization that Fox knowingly placed himself in danger to save her daughter made her angry and grateful at the same time.

“Well.” Bill licked his lips. Maggie met his eyes. “It takes a big man to admit he was wrong.” The admiration in Bill’s voice was unmistakable, and Maggie stared at him in shock. Her son’s face crinkled into a grin. “All right. Dana’s partner did okay. For once,” she heard him mutter under his breath.

Maggie waited. She knew he could never let it end there.

“But by sending her out there, he almost got her killed.” Bill’s eyes were blazing with accusation.

Maggie had already given this some thought, so she was ready for him. “Bill …” She waited until she had his attention once more. “If Fox was here, blind and sick, and Dana was out on a call with Detective Kresge, how did it turn out that Fox was with Dana, and Detective Kresge arrived after the fact?”

“Well — ”

“Let me tell you how. After I pressed her, Dana admitted that she’d had a falling out with Detective Kresge, and was headed back here in a cab. When Fox called her, she let him assume that she was going to that greenhouse with the detective. When Tara and I left to go shopping, Fox was going to lie down. How he ended up at that greenhouse, I’ll never know, but Dana didn’t sound in the least surprised. She joked about how his ‘Scully radar’ must have gone off — except I don’t really think she was joking.”

Bill took a deep breath. “Yeah, well… Maybe it’s not always his fault.”

Maggie smiled. Baby steps. Her six-foot son always learned in baby steps.

But he did learn.

**

Six months later

X-Files Office

When Scully stiffened in her seat, looked at him, then looked back at her computer, Mulder feared the worst. Oh, God, who had died now? “What is it, Scully?” he asked, fearfully.

“My brother.”

Mulder closed his eyes. Oh, Jesus. “Bill?” he asked, uncertain of which one she was speaking.

When she nodded, he noted the shock on her face.

Getting up, he walked over and laid a comforting hand on her back, rubbing soothingly. “What happened?” he asked softly.

“He …” She stopped, staring out into space, and Mulder’s heart filled with sympathy for her.

“What?” he prodded, gently.

She looked up at him and pointed to the screen. Mulder held her gaze a moment before he looked down at the email. He read it, then read it again. Then he read it once more to make certain he hadn’t misinterpreted it. “Does that say …” He couldn’t go on.

She nodded slowly. “I think so.”

Suddenly, he had a horrible thought. “Scully, would Bill have knowledge of an impending disaster?”

She looked quickly at him, and he knew they were on the same page. Something earth shattering was about to occur. The world was going to blow up. The universe was on the verge of imploding.

Something major was definitely in play.

Bill had just invited Scully — and Mulder — for Christmas.

The End

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