Walk Like A Man
by Windsinger

TITLE: Walk Like a Man
AUTHOR: Windsinger (aka Sue Esty)
E-MAIL ADDRESS: Windsinger@aol.com
DISTRIBUTION: IMTP for the first two weeks, then Ephemeral, and Gossamer. All others, please contact the author. SPOILER WARNING: Fire, Fearful Symmetry, The End, CC season 7, previous VS8 and VS9 universe.

SUMMARY: A side trip to report on a fire in the FBI field office brings Scully face to face with an old 'boyfriend' and Mulder makes a couple of new friends of his own. Mulder and Scully are soon hip deep in arson, riverboat gambling, prostitution, dog hair, revenge, and death.


September 12, 1am

George Tienne, stared briefly into the small room. There was not much to it but a bed. A single, red bulb burned. The old Korean woman had been there and for the amount they paid her had done as adequate a job of cleaning up after the night's excesses as one could expect. In any case they were as clean as they needed to be. This wasn't the Hyatt after all, the man thought with a sardonic smile. He headed for the narrow stairs.

Leaving the stairwell, he first locked the flimsy door behind him and then turned to face the vast, shadowy cavern that was the warehouse floor. As usual, he felt a twinge of primitive apprehension. All that dark. Not 'as usual', he heard a growl. Confused, Tienne stared in the direction of the sound and spied three points of light, all roughly knee high, glowing from one of the deeper shadows. Pulling a small flashlight from the pocket of his silk suit, he pointed its wavering, feeble beam towards the three sparks. He need not have bothered. The spots moved forward until the figure was full in the dim light of the cavernous space.

With a sigh, Tienne flicked off the beam and slipped the light back into his pocket even as his heart rate slowly dropped back to normal. "What a bad boy you are," he said with nearly his normal voice. "And what's that you got there? A cigarette? A lit cigarette? Who would 'ave believed it." For there was a lit cigarette butt contrasting with the dark head and white teeth. There were also no more growls, just an almost comical grin, until the head lowered over a pool of what looked like water on the floor. The slightest puff and the tip of the butt reddened and a flicker fell to the floor. By the whoosh of flame the fluid had been anything but water.

With an oath that was more alarm than fear, Tienne spun on the toes of his expensive Italian shoes to run, to find a fire extinguisher, to call the fire department. No, not the fire department. But before he could decide what to do something heavy and black streaked forward to latch onto the sleeve of his suit coat.

"What do you think yer doin'! You crazy?"

Even as he cried out the flames found fresh tinder in the piles of dust-dry packing material stacked everywhere about the warehouse. The flames were man-size now and racing hungrily across the floor,

In the man's terror, he stripped off his coat, but the demon's teeth only took a new hold, this time into the flesh of the man's arm. There it hung, a dead weight that would not be dispelled. Human screams were drowned in the fire's roar as the flames joyously swirled higher and higher around them both.


September 13, 3pm

She should have parked farther away, Dana Scully thought as she completed the distance between the Mississippi Visitor's Center and where she had parked their rental car. Easing back behind the wheel, she was pleased to see that her companion in the passenger's seat slept on. She didn't see how. Even with the seat pushed back as far as it would go, he looked uncomfortable with his arms and legs all in a jumble. She took a moment to examine his face. At least in sleep the lines of strain were less. He didn't seem to be dreaming either, another reason to give thanks.

As quietly as possible, she turned the key in the ignition. The motor chugged to life, not as smoothly as she would have wished. In response Mulder turned, stretched, or tried to, and reversed the drooping slouch so he was sitting more or less upright. Groggily, he blinked the sleep from his eyes.

"Sorry to wake you, but since you're up anyway do you need to make a pit stop?"

With an effort he squinted against the glare, towards the cluster of rest stop buildings that looked exactly like so many others all over the country. He probably didn't even remember what state they were in. Not enough sleep, not nearly enough.

"Where are we? We must be close if you're doing the bladder thing."

She jabbed him lightly in the shoulder.

"Ow!" He clutched at the affected area as if he were actually injured. The broad smile took ten years off that face.

"So I don't like to appear on the scene and immediately start looking for a bathroom. Do you need to go or not?"

He waved her on. "I'm fine. I'm not the one who had two cups of coffee at lunch."

"You're not the one who has to be able to function once we get there."

The grin faded. She shouldn't have said that.

"Trying to tell me that the Energizer bunny is not what he used to be? That I know."

Sulking, he slid back down onto his backbone, knees almost to his chin. Scully found her exit and headed towards town. She would have liked to cheer him up but had learned long ago that she might as well save her breath. Her talking about his moodiness only made him moodier. He'd come out of it. His mind was too active, too starved for input, to run in circles for long. If you want a sensitive man in your life, it was the price you paid. For this particular sensitive man, she'd sell her soul.

"Where's Skinner again?" he asked.

She had told him before, but he must not have been paying attention or he would have remembered. "Paris. Some Marine unit reunion."

"Paris? His unit served in Vietnam."

"You'd hold a reunion in a malaria-invested swamp?"

"Why not? Can't beat it for atmosphere. I just hope he gets back soon. Having Kersh hand out the homework assignments makes me nervous."

"Skinner will be back Monday. I know that you don't see eye to eye with Kersh --"

"Aim lower. The man hates my guts. He looks at me like I was something the dog just rolled in."

Scully resisted giving her partner a sisterly pat on the head. In his present mood he wouldn't find the gesture either comforting or humorous. She settled for, "He just doesn't know the real you."

"That's fortunate."

"Skinner would probably have assigned us here anyway. We were in Arkansas."

A "hrump" from the passenger seat indicated that Mulder clearly believed it unlikely.

He had a point. Skinner always had had an amazing ability to read between the lines of their well-laundered case reports. He was also a pro at reading body language or, in this case, of reading voices over the phone.

Returning to his subject, Mulder grumbled, "Kersh must have gone into my records." Hazel eyes stared morosely out the window. "I'll bet that he made notes on everything I hated and when something came up that fit the bill -- bingo!" His palms came together in a loud smack that made her jump.

"You don't have to go near the fire. It's really my case. You're - -"

"I know, just along for the ride. Useless...again."

Ouch, Scully thought. Lookin' bad.

"Mulder, I know that it's primarily my assignment, but I'm still grateful to have you along. And you know that I'll be as quick as I can. It shouldn't take long. They called me in because I know what should be stocked in district level laboratories. I set up two during my internship. And look on the bright side...if the fire was anything like what was described in the report they sent us, then there won't be much to salvage. It'll be a total loss. One night, maybe two and we'll be home."

The buildings of Vicksburg's small downtown area appeared on their right. Where the land dipped they'd find the river, the mighty Mississippi that they'd already crossed earlier in the day on their trip from Arkansas. Where the smoke curled high and black and oily, they would find the fire. Almost at the same time that the smoke came into view, Scully could smell it. Troubled, she shot a look in Mulder's direction. He hadn't moved. He still stared unblinking out the window though his jaw had tightened. He had to have smelled it, too, and she thought that she saw him swallow, not once but multiple times.

After that, she was forced to pay attention to the road. Somehow even this place with its mild winters had managed to accumulate its share of car-mangling potholes and they were not entering the best part of town. Maybe not the worst either, but certainly the oldest. Within blocks of leaving the interstate she was navigating down a narrow street. On her left, tall warehouses which must have stored cotton for decades even before the Civil War, blocked her view of Old Muddy. On her right were mills just as old. Huge, dirty, many-paneled windows looked out on the street. The warehouses and mills were mostly empty now, decaying and stocked with pallets of goods no one needed anymore. Oh, a lucky few of the ancient behemoths were close enough to the good part of town to make it worth someone's time to renovate them into trendy outlets, boutiques, sports clubs or apartments, but she saw none of those here. One, however, had been leased and cheaply renovated by a certain budget-poor and space-hungry government agency.

Scully took a shallow turn where both road and river curved as one, and all at once there it was. Squatting on an entire block, black with soot and charred timber, it smoked under a low sky of the same color. She was almost relieved to see that it was nearly as dead as a building can get. Maybe what she had told Mulder about seeing home soon would actually turn out to be true. She would know soon, for at the far end of the dead mass she could make out the distinct flashing lights in blue and red, white and yellow. There must be two dozen emergency vehicles, though even their brilliant colors found it hard going to cut through the smoke-polluted air.

She drove slowly past the south end of the building. They built well a hundred or so years ago. Even as damaged as it was, even with its roof and most of its upper floors burned through, much of the outer brick walls still stood. Ash-covered pools were everywhere, however, evidence that the fire department had been here and moved on, following or trying to get ahead of, the inferno's hungry advance. They hadn't kept very far ahead, but then buildings of seasoned wood and decades of accumulated dust burn fast and hot. At the north end of the block, the fire department was still cleaning up the last bits of orange flame. From what Scully could see as she pulled up behind the yellow police tape, there was a good deal less damage here than at the southern end.

"Local relations must not be too bad," Mulder's voice announced, the sudden break in his silence startling his partner. "The Bureau's offices may not be a total loss." His head was inclined towards a sign on an intact section of the old brick wall above where two fire fighters conferred. A blue and white four-by-three foot rectangle was miraculously untouched except for the streams of dirty water running down its face -- Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Mississippi Field Office.

"Sorry. Guess we won't be going home as soon as we had hoped."

"When have we ever gotten so lucky?"

Not that often.

For the next few minutes they watched the elaborate choreography of fire fighters, trucks, ladders, and hoses dramatically framed within the high arcs of water. All the while, the lights of the emergency vehicles cut like colorful light sabers through the murky haze.

And always there was the smell. It wasn't the worst Scully had ever run into, not by a long shot. Then again maybe that sense had dulled in her over the years. It wouldn't surprise her considering the hours she spent among much more noxious odors. Or did the smell bother her so little because she saw it as another player in the drama that she found so immensely satisfying? The thrill racing through her body at this moment reminded her of why she had gotten into this. Law enforcement, fire and rescue, emergency medicine. Helping when help was needed. This excitement was why she had considered a nice, safe family practice for only about a minute and a half during all her years of medical school. She found that she longed to plunge in among all those lights and hoses. She wouldn't even mind the soot or getting her hair wet from the spray.

But there was Mulder. She looked over her shoulder. He hadn't moved a step from his place beside the passenger door, which kept the car's body between him and the ruin of the building. Just then the wind shifted and a cloud of oily smoke rolled down the street towards them, temporarily obscuring the scene to an opaque gray. Scully felt as if she were watching the last gasps of a fallen monster whose bones, already blackened in death, stretched from one end of the block to the other.

Shifting her attention, she noted with satisfaction that her partner was equally fascinated, but then he also found flesh- eating mutants that would just as readily eat him fascinating. She was struck again at how tired he looked. Even the complex emotions he must be feeling couldn't mask his obvious fatigue.

"There's nothing much to be done here now," she said. "It will be at least tomorrow before we can get near this end. Why don't you go find us someplace to stay. Call me with the specifics."

His gaze shifted warily, as if she had asked him to make a coffee run.

"Mulder, admit it, you're beat. Get some sleep. Find something a little upscale this time. Something with ESPN and room service. Just make sure that it's upwind from here."

When his expression failed to change, she dropped her voice and looked up at him through her eyelashes. "While you're at it, get one of those rooms with a king-size bed." They would get two rooms so that everything would look kosher for the bean counters, and because they each liked to have their own space, but no one said anything about where they actually slept. "It's been a long time," she added just in case in his suspicion and weariness he missed her point. It HAD been a long time since they had done more than just sleep together.

His response this time was a slight widening of his eyes, a straightening of his spine. There was still no alteration in his features, but his whole form seemed to have taken on a little glow. It was enough. It would do very well. Before the sudden intimacy became too uncomfortable she turned away, her body humming in pleasurable anticipation.

Before either had time to say more Scully's attention was caught by a tall, solid male figure, striding energetically in their direction.

For a long moment she just stared. "Shit," she breathed. Hastily, she turned back in Mulder's direction as if her only intention was to reach for something in the back seat of the car.

"You thought Kersh was after you?" she stage-whispered just barely loud enough to be carried over the sound of idling engines and swimming pools of water being forced under pressure through hoses. "You were wrong. He's after me, or both of us."

She lingered only long enough to catch the change in Mulder's expression. Eyebrows raised, face subtly changing with curiosity, he looked beyond her at their visitor. Reluctantly, she turned back, busying herself unnecessarily with adjusting the strap on her shoulder case.

The newcomer's voice boomed. "Agent Scully! Scully! They could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard they were sendin' you!" Ignoring her stiffly outstretched hand, the man grasped her in a rough, enveloping bear hug that lasted several tenths of a second too long for old friends. A single tenth of a second, however, was enough time for Scully to feel her partner bristling at her side, though how he had moved from the opposite side of the car as quickly as he did she had no idea.

"You must be Agent Mulder," said the deep voice with its affected Southern drawl. "Heard about you." He gave no hint of what he had heard, however, though the tales had most likely been neither good nor true. Neither did he extend his hand or look at Mulder very closely. His hands were still occupied in gripping Scully's upper arms, an affectation he must have picked up from the movies. "Let me look at you," which he did with an intensity that made Scully wish that she was wearing about three more layers of clothes.

"Special Agent Fox Mulder," she introduced, awkwardly, inclining her head in her partner's direction, "this boa constrictor is Horace Samson. He was the mentor assigned to me during my field internship."

"That's Special Agent in Charge Horace Samson to you, Scully, and what's this talk about 'mentors'? We were partners." Eyes never leaving her face, he added, "She ever tell you stories about us, Fox?"

"Mulder," the current partners said together, to which Scully added, "And that's 'Agent Scully', Agent Samson."

"Sure, sure, though don't be none too surprised if I forget. We're a lot less formal down here in the swampy South. She ever tell you, Mulder, that she had a kind of a thing for me back then? Older agent, hero worship, all that stuff. All under the blanket though, fraternization bein' frowned on, but where there's smoke, there's fire, they say. Ha! Ha! Get it? Smoke? Fire?"

All this time he still had her at arm's length as if she were a picture he was thinking of buying. "My, but you're looking good, Scully. Classy, real classy. Maybe you can show the female agents in my neck of the woods how to dress while you're here."

Scully extricated herself with difficulty on the pretense of digging into her shoulder bag for the file folder that held what little information they'd been given on this inter-bureau assignment.

"Speaking of 'here', tell us about 'here'. We weren't sent many details."

Horace Samson shrugged with obvious false modestly. "I've been squattin' here for two years, ever since my promotion --"

"I mean about the building and the fire."

"Oh, that. Bureau got a ten-year lease on this monstrosity about five years ago. It was temporary, they said, while they argued over funding for a permanent structure. Argue is all they've done. Conditions of the lease required that we take the whole thing. Now you could house a battalion in there, but, unfortunately we couldn't move into most of it because the budget won't support the renovations and OSHA would have a field day if we tried to use it without, so we only use about a third. Fire started up before midnight, up the street in the end unit that a J.A. Lazarus Corp sublets from us. That's just used for storage as far as I know. As for me, I won't miss this particular black hole, I'll tell you that. It's been a maintenance nightmare."

"And where were you last night in the hours before midnight, Agent Samson?" Mulder asked in his driest tones.

Samson's face darkened for a moment to a swarthy purple and then just as quickly it pinked as he started to laugh. "Good one! Yes, that was a good one!"

Mulder took a step away to avoid a manly slap on the back which, from the thickness of Samson's arm, looked capable of bruising ribs.

"Thought for a second you were serious, but then you don't know about the other fires."

"Other fires?" Scully inquired with interest. "There have been others?"

"Two others, also old mills, all within six blocks. Someone is starting their own urban renewal project, but that's a whole area of investigation that you don't need to worry your over-paid heads about. Our arson guys are already working with the local arson guys. Three is no accident."

"What shape are the labs in?" Scully asked, praying that the rooms had been reduced to ash. It would be good to be able to drag their tired bones home.

"Amazingly good. Water and smoke damage mostly, and heat, of course. They're housed in an annex, a series of those modular units in an inner courtyard. The old building's electrical and plumbing just couldn't be brought up to code. We should be able to save a fair amount of the supplies and equipment, but not without a lot of work." A big grin aimed in Scully's direction broadened even further the wide, beefy face. "Which is where you come in."

Scully hoped that the SAC didn't notice her shoulders sag in disappointment. She hadn't even needed to look to know that Mulder's had as well. "Can we get in there yet?"

"To a limited extent. I have staff moving things out now. We've taken over an empty grocery store some blocks from here where we'll actually be separating the wheat from the chaff. That's primarily where you'll be working, but not until tomorrow. If you want to see anything today, you'll want to change." He eyed her in a way that indicated that he was not simply estimating her size. "I think we do have coveralls, boots and a hard hat that will fit you. They'll be a little big, but I'm sure that a woman of your experience can manage." The sliver of a grin that followed the oh- so-innocent comment was enough to heat a certain red-head's temper to a near boil. Before she could muster an attack, however, Samson's attention had turned to Mulder. "Nothing left your size though, I'm sorry to say," though from the tone of his voice he wasn't sorry at all.

Scully stepped in before the two actually began snarling at each other. "That's no problem. Mulder has a critical report to finish from our last case, don't you, Mulder? As we discussed, why don't you go find us a couple of rooms."

Mulder's eyes narrowed as his shoulders bunched again but after a moment, she saw the wrinkles in the suit jacket smooth out. He had given up quickly, too quickly. He must be even more tired than she thought.

"Here, now," announced Samson, "you needn't bother about scouring the city for accommodations." With that his big right hand went to his coat pocket from where he pulled two keys. With a sudden snap he tossed these to Mulder who, rising to the challenge, deftly caught them despite the intentionally bad throw. These were not the modern programmable pass cards most hotels now use, but real keys, the kind with large and, in this case, well-worn plastic tags. "I took the liberty of getting you some rooms. A real bargain and right across the street from the command center and our temporary office digs. Sorry, no Ritz this time; got to save our mutual boss a few bucks. Course, it's going to smell gawd- awful being so close to the scene, but after a few minutes bathed in the stuff, who's to notice?" Having clearly noted Mulder's well-tailored suit -- one of her partner's few vanities -- the SAC asked, "You don't mind roughing it, I hope? Good for public relations considering that the businesses around here are going to suffer." Almost happily, Samson glanced over his shoulder at the devastation. "Well, come on Dear -- excuse me, 'Agent' Scully -- let me show you what's left."

Scully made a mental note of the section of the building his hand pointed towards. "Why don't you go on, Agent Samson. I'll follow in just a moment."

With a wink in Mulder's direction that could have implied anything, Samson headed back to what remained of his field office. Good thing, too, Scully thought, as her partner's right hand had unconsciously clenched into a fist at his side.

"Never thought that jocks were your type," he quipped with a brittle smile. "He's got former fullback written over every sagging muscle."

"Horace may have said there was smoke but that was just the dust from my back-pedaling," she replied, stiffly. "At its height our 'relationship' was about as warm as day old coffee. Coming out of medical school, my first assignment was forensics, as you might imagine, but I wanted field agent status. You know that rookies are always teamed with a mentor."

"And Samson was someone's idea of bad joke."

"The ol' boy neckwork strikes again. Stick it to the little woman," she replied glumly, squaring her shoulders as if preparing for battle. First, however, she took a step closer and allowed her hand to come up stealthily between them so that she could just touch his sleeve. "You going to be all right?" She meant the fire, of course, not Samson. She had no serious problems with the big lug as she knew Mulder didn't. Even now Mulder's eyes had left the broad back of the ASAC. His attention had returned to the blackened brick and timbers of what remained of the warehouse.

"Problems? Me? Seriously, I can manage. I just don't have to like it in the same way that I don't have to like disemboweled bodies, formaldehyde, old urine, or Brussel sprouts. How about you and that man's sticky hands? I thought you were going to slug the guy."

"And I thought _you_ were. No, don't worry about me. I can deal with Samson. We do have a 'history' of sorts though not the fairy tale he remembers. I've let him have his fun. If he didn't get the hint, however, he'll end up with my fist in his teeth next time he tries to feel me up."

"That's my girl. Subtlety incarnate."

She laughed on cue though something in her tingled with an unexpected brightness. 'My girl.' It was the sort of thing that should have rankled but didn't. Had he been trying to get a rise out of her or had he meant the remark as an endearment?

But he didn't seem to have meant either. Distractedly, he was studying the building. More significantly, he was idling flipping the keys Samson had given him so, somewhere in that brilliant mind, thoughts were grounded in the here and now, even if subconsciously.

"I guess that you'd better give me one of those keys," she said.

"No," he replied, drawing out the word thoughtfully, "I don't think so. I have a bad feeling that the dives I normally pick are going to look like the Taj Mahal compared to Jim Bo Bob's selection. And then there's the room numbers." He held them up for her to see.

"In addition to broadcasting to the world where we're staying, they're a floor apart and likely to be on opposite ends of the building."

"The creep," Scully snarled.

"I'll see what I can do," he said pocketing both keys.

She wanted to give him a kiss. Much as it was against their code of no overt intimacy when anyone could see, she wanted this more than anything. Nothing passionate, just a peck on the cheek but he was gone, physically as well as mentally. Pausing first to slide the driver's seat back as far as it would go, he had folded his lean form into the car. Within seconds he had backed up and, with a wave and the travesty of a smile plastered on his face, was heading down the empty road parallel to the long block of what was left of the warehouse. She watched until he reached the end of the block and turned right, lost from view. Without enthusiasm, she set off in search of Samson.

Once around the corner and out of sight from Scully and everyone involved in cleaning up the last of the fire, Mulder stopped the car and turned off the engine. For a moment he sat as if making a decision. Finally, he unwound slowly from behind the wheel.

Blackened beams towered above him. In many places, crumbling walls of brick remained upright but precariously so. Occasionally, there was a glitter from broken glass or pool of standing water.

Samson had confirmed their suspicions. This was the first area where the fire had been controlled, also where it had started. Occupied with saving what they could of the offices of the building's most illustrious tenant, the fire department had moved on from here rather quickly. Mulder looked for remaining hot spots and found only a few places where smoke rose lazily into the leaden sky. His body tensed when, to his right, a beam shifted, charred wallboard slipped and a stream of water flowed down to spit and sizzle momentarily on a warm area below. Nothing more than that. Slowly, tense muscles relaxed.

He knew why he was here. True, the Lively case so many years before had broken his near phobia about fire -- it no longer paralyzed him -- but, as he told Scully, that didn't mean that he enjoyed being around it. Just to be sure that the demon stayed in its cage, therefore, he took readings from time to time when he found a place like this. He was glad to be able to report that his reaction was no worse than it had been over the last few years. No better either, but no worse. He could manage. True, he was a little light-headed from the smell -- even the long months trying to recover what he could from the charred remnants of his beloved X-files hadn't cured him of that.

As if the strain on one sense heightened others, he thought he could hear the gentle plop of a single drop of sooty water. His lips actually curled in a grim smile. He was thankful for the hyper-awareness that came with the adrenaline rush. Their lives had depended on such awareness before and would again. It was reassuring to know that he would still have that, whether fire was in the vicinity or not.

Their lives... Scully's life was what he meant. Scully of course, had always been important, but these last months her place in his life and his future, as heart of his heart and bone of his bone, had taken on a new and deeper significance. That made their mutual survival even more critical if that was possible. And so, this need to be sure. Even his agreeing without protest to get some sleep had been for her, for her safety. Theirs was a dangerous life and he felt more acutely than ever with every twinge in the morning, with every second off his running time, his own mortality, and hers. So again, the need to be prepared... always.

'After all, just look at me!' he thought. Over 40. Middle-aged. Still in pretty good shape, but it took longer all the time to stay that way, took longer to recover from even the little injuries, not to mention the big ones. Was his own biological clock telling him that it was time to settle? And what did that mean to a person with his kind of history?

Undiscovered country, that was for sure, and something he was going to have to work on, which meant taking the time. Meanwhile, there was still the job, and his safety and Scully's, fire or no fire.

With irritation he rubbed the back of his neck to dispel a little numbness there. And where had these serious thoughts come from? Maybe he really did need to get some sleep.

Not eager to crawl back into the car immediately, he stood a while longer, leaning against the bumper, thinking of nothing in particular, when a change in the wind brought a cloud of ash down on his head. Coughing, he reached through the open window for the remains of a soda and accidentally leaned on the car horn. Leaping back from the sharp blaring, he stared guiltily around. He need not have worried. There wasn't anyone close enough to hear. The nearest team of firefighters was far, far down the block. They could possibly hear a bomb go off, but nothing less than that.

He was taking a drag on the soda straw when he heard the first cry. Instantly, he stopping drinking, stopped breathing. Couldn't be. But within five seconds the sound came again, very like a child's cry -- and it seemed to be coming from deep within the burned out hulk of the building, maybe forty feet to his left. It was so weak that if he had been any farther away it would never have registered. The cry couldn't be what it sounded like, of course. No child could have lived through such an inferno but Mulder, more than anyone, knew that stranger things had happened.

Again the cry, the whimper, weaker this time, like a child and yet not like a child. A child with smoke-damaged lungs and scorched throat might sound that way and there was a particularly impressive pile of unburned debris in the very direction from where the fading whimper seemed to originate.

Mulder raised his voice to call out to anyone from the emergency team who might be able to hear but as they could never have heard the car's horn, they wouldn't be able to hear him either. He thought of the time lost if he were to run or drive from help. Calling Scully would take as long, as his cell phone was locked in the trunk deep in his bags. His instincts told him to just go. But then there was the building -- dirty, still hot, unstable, unsafe. Scully would kill him.

So when had that ever stopped him?

He dove in. Actually, dove was not the right word. He had to watch every step, had to be careful that each irregular surface would hold his weight before going on. Still, he hurried as fast as he could. Remembering that the cry began as a response to the car's horn, he called as he picked his way through the rubble, "Is anyone here?" After waiting a moment, and despite the fear that the charred remains of plaster and wood beams and floor boards would come raining down, he shouted again, more loudly this time.

The choking half-whine, half-cry came again and more clearly than before. There was no doubt in his mind now that there was someone here. The sound was only fifteen feet away, but each foot gained took at least twenty seconds and that didn't count the detours. By repeatedly calling and receiving answers of a sort, Mulder located the place, if not the victim. Under a metal staircase that had survived, twisted from the heat though nearly intact, he made out what appeared to be the remains of a cluster of desks and file cabinets. One of the desks was of the huge World War II executive kind made of solid hardwood that would burn slow. It was badly scorched but in amazingly good shape thanks to the metal staircase above that had protected it from the worst of the falling debris. The crying originated from somewhere near there.

He crawled over one burned timber after another, heat still rising from some, only to step into one filthy puddle after another. Wiping his sweating face with a grimy hand, Mulder began to seriously question his trying to do this alone. What if he twisted an ankle here? And it was so hot, both from the humid heat coming up from below and from either side of him, as well as from the sun, which was blazing down from somewhere above the low ceiling of smoke. His throat, raw both from coughing and from the ash and dust, was making it increasingly painful to breathe. Still he had no choice but to push on for the responses to his anxious calls were becoming weaker.

The short distance seemed to take an interminable time to cross, but at last he could begin hurling debris from in front of the big desk even while he coughed and called out. Some bits were heavier than others. A chunk of what may once have been part of a floor strut was hot and burned his hand. Everything he touched was filthy. Sweat dripped filth into his eyes. At least he was receiving constant encouragement for his labors from the victim in the form of an irregular and odd-sounding cough. So weak was it that he could only picture a child or a thin and terribly old person. Employing every bit of muscle he'd maintained from the years of pounding the streets and working out in gym and pool, Mulder levered away a final huge piece of sheet rock thus clearing the way to the dark cavity under the desk.

The sound of the strangled coughing was instantly clearer. It came from the kneehole, of course. As good a place to seek shelter as any if a couple hundred pounds of wall hadn't come slamming down. Cautiously, Mulder bent over and reached his hand into the blackness. "It's all right," he coughed in a voice so rough that he barely recognized it as his own. "Don't be afraid, help's here." There came a rustling and to Mulder's utter surprise something soft and dry and unseen crossed his palm. For a moment he stood transfixed, puzzled, and then a broad grin transformed his streaked and blackened face. "You," he wheezed, "have just ruined my suit."

September 13, 11pm

Dirty, sweaty and exhausted, Scully trudged up the steps to the motel's second floor. The work had been unpleasant to say the least. Most of the salvage was dripping and filthy. Cardboard crumbled under her hands. The other workers interrupted her constantly asking what this or that object was and if it was valuable enough to be worth saving. Worse had been the task of keeping Samson at arms' length. She'd almost decked him twice. Good thing Mulder hadn't been around or there would be one good 'ol boy who would be looking for an oral surgeon.

Scully looked down at the key in her hand. Mulder never had phoned but he had registered a room in her name, which was next to his and connecting, though this place had never heard of a king-size bed. He'd been correct about the original room assignments. Samson had originally placed her next to him and signed Mulder up for one on the far side of forever. Mulder had taken care of the problem, however, and so could be forgiven for neglecting to call.

It was not surprising then that Scully was now looking forward to receiving a little TLC. For starters, a bubble bath and then a foot massage -- at the latter of which she had found her partner to have extraordinarily skill. The former? Having Mulder in her bath was fun but not what one would call relaxing, and most of the water somehow ended up outside of the tub. Mulder also had had hours to sleep so he had better be willingly to go out for some decent food. This fifties fleatrap did not have a restaurant and the only carryout the front desk recommended catered exclusively to the pizza crowd. And, Scully mused as she fumbled with her key, if he was actually able to find something green and crisp and low fat, then she would be very, VERY grateful.

As the door opened, her nostrils were assailed by a renewed scent of the fire. At the same instant her eyes registered the wrongness of the room. Automatically, she took a deep breath, holding it even as she reached for and brought up her weapon.

"FBI!" she announced..

No answer. For the first time she was able to consciously absorb what she was seeing. What possible trouble could have found them so quickly? An old enemy always came first to mind. In this case what came second was a flashback to nightmare charcoal drawings of gargoyle demons. She could still see them, pinned to the walls, littering the coffee table, burning in the fireplace.

No, not again.

With relief, closer inspection revealed that this was not the problem here though there certainly was some kind of a problem. The room, which must have been dingy enough to start with, looked like an entire kindergarten of hyperactive, fingerpainting children had gone at its walls and furnishings but the only color they had been given was black. Tiny blurred black footprints textured the utilitarian rust-colored carpet. Equally marred were the much-rumpled bedspread and walls. The depressing little room's one lamp had been knocked over, it's shade marred with a large smeary handprint. It appeared as if all of the towels from the bathroom had been run through a coal bin and then strewn about the room. Scully called again, louder. Still no answer. A touch test revealed that it was not paint but something very much like coal dust. Clearly soot from the fire.

Almost afraid to look but with her weapon still at the ready, Scully peered into the bathroom. Involuntarily, her eyes widened.

This was worse. In addition to black 'fingerprints' on floor and walls and even some spots on the ceiling, there was an inky ring around the wet but empty tub. There was also a different smell to add to the fire smell, something herbal and hauntingly familiar. That was when she spied the empty bottle that had once been full of her favorite and very expensive shampoo.


Running a finger through tub ring showed that there were chunks of black hair mixed in with the black and oily muck. The hairs weren't terribly long, but too long and too dark to have come from her partner.

Dazed, Scully walked back into the main room. There was more hair mixed with the dark stain on the bedspread, which was also very damp. And there on the nightstand -- Sacrilege ! -- was her hairbrush, clogged with the same black hair.

Double damn!

The connecting door to the next room was ajar. On her way she passed the room's one chair. A bundle of rags were tossed over the back and they were clearly the source of the fire stench. No, wait, those weren't rags -- well, at least they hadn't been that morning. It was Mulder's suit and the lumps of ruin on the floor were what remained of his best work shoes. Sweet Mary, what had the man been doing?

She had reached the gap in the open door. Without opening it further she could see into the bathroom of the next room. It was nearly as bad as her own, bathrub ring from hell and all. It was with a mixture of relief and irritation that she identified the soft sound that drifted on the smoked-tinged air. Snoring. And she knew whose.

Lowering, but not replacing her weapon Scully entered. Somehow she was not surprised to find that whoever or whatever had trashed her room had done an equal job on Mulder's. The state of the decoration, however, was less of a concern to her than finding its occupant, and find him she did.

There was Mulder, every glorious inch of him, spread-eagled across the sagging mattress wearing nothing but his black silk boxers -- her favorites -- and a good deal of the ever-present black soot. He was totally out as only Mulder can be when he finally gets to sleep after days of near abstinence. The shocking part was that he wasn't alone. Along his side lay a large, black lump. Scully didn't even have time to tense before it moved. An elegant head raised itself from Mulder's not-so-clean shoulder and looked calmly in her direction. A dog, a large slender dog, half Mulder's length. Mostly black, with brown accents and white stockings that started below the knees, the animal was beautiful but of no breed that Scully could immediately name.

Curious, Scully bent over the suspiciously shiny head and took a deep sniff. She wasn't surprised to detect the scent of her frightfully expensive shampoo. With growing understanding, she noted that the pads of the animal's feet as well as its drooping ears were wrapped in inexpertly applied white gauze which suspiciously matched the bandage on Mulder's right palm. On the nightstand, in addition to the remains of first aid salve, rolled gauze bandage and tape, was a vet's bill. Scully whistled at the charge. Maybe she should have gone into veterinarian medicine after all. Mulder's fluffy friend meanwhile had rolled lazily over to a half-sitting position and had begun flopping a feathery tail up and down on the mattress with remarkable energy. Scully noted that 'he' made no attempt to surrender his position.

"Very well, you can have him for tonight, but, I have to warn you, Mulder doesn't swing that way." With a smile Scully left the room quietly closing the connecting door behind her. Her expression turned to renewed exasperation as she beheld the condition of her room. Wearily, she found an almost clean place on her bed to sit and phoned housekeeping.

End of Act I


September 14, 8am

It was with hesitation that Scully cautiously opened the connecting door the next morning. She hadn't knocked just in case either Mulder or his new friend was still sleeping. Both were awake, but so intent were they with each other that neither noticed the movement of the door. Mulder was polishing his second best, and much-scuffed, work shoes. When you chased after X-Files the way they did, you never went anywhere without backup -- a rule even Mulder didn't universally ignore.

"Now you listen up," her partner was saying. Clearly, he had picked up the slang from their time in the South. The enraptured canine sat before him, ears perked, and enchanted by his every word. "If you want to hang out with us there are just a few things you have to get straight. One, not a sound until Scully's had her coffee; two, no chewing on her shoes; and, three, no making messes on the floor." The animal whined in reply. "Yes, I know that you were good and patient and waited for me this morning. I'm just warning you to keep up the good work. Four, if pizza is what we've got, pizza is what you'll eat, and, five, if I have company, you sleep on the floor."

A very dainty 'yip!' for such a good-sized animal came in answer.

"Yes, and you have my permission to gnaw on any bad guy you can find and, I promise, finding them will be like shooting pigs in a barrel."

"I think that's 'fish in a barrel'," Scully corrected. "Pep talks to the troops?" Her partner spun around with a broad grin.

"I take it that you two have met?"

"Last night, not that you noticed."

"Then you haven't met formally. Satan, say hello to Scully."

With a step as light and springy as a dancer's, the dog trotted over to where she stood, sat down, and held out one white foreleg. The gauze on its paw was no longer as pristine as it had been the night before.

Scully liked dogs and bent down and shook the proffered appendage with the solemnity with which it was offered. "Nice to meet you... Satan?"

"I had to call him something."

"Only you, Mulder. Sleep well by the way?"

"Like a rock. Want breakfast?" And there was indeed breakfast -- bagels and fruit, juice, and coffee. If this was Mulder on a good night's sleep, she'd have it more often. "Satan and I went shopping," he announced, clearly pleased with himself.

"And how did you meet your new buddy?" Scully inquired, reaching for a cup of coffee.

He proceeded to give her the whole story and it all made sense in a Mulder sort of way. Her eyes drifted around the wreckage of the room. He winced.

"It wasn't that he didn't want to take a bath. Once he got his wind back, some food and water, and a little painkiller for the burns, he was pretty frisky and just thought it was a great game to keep slipping away from me." Playfully, he batted at the animal who, as playfully, crouched and snarled back. "Quick aren't you, boy?"

Scully sighed. "Well, that explains the mess and my missing shampoo. But my hairbrush, Mulder..."

She had never seen those bedroom eyes look more penitent. "I wanted him to look nice for you. I was going to go out last night and get you a new one, I really was, but after the last few days, and carrying him out of that building, and then the trip to the vet and the bath, I guess I just..."

"You passed out on the bed."

He reached into a plastic grocery bag on the floor and handed her what he found. "But I did get you one when I was at the store this morning."

It had a red plastic handle and plastic bristles and probably cost five ninty-nine, but she reminded herself as she counted to ten that it was the thought that counted. What caught her attention was what else he had bought on his trip to the store -- two kinds of dog biscuits and at least half a dozen brands of dog food. Mulder had the softest heart in the universe and as easily wounded. An uneasy feeling began to mix unpleasantly with the coffee in her empty stomach.

"Mulder, how long do you think you're going to be able to keep... Satan. A well-trained dog like this must have an owner, a family that loves him. People who are worried sick about him right now."

A shadow crossed Mulder's face. Not a big one, just a little one. "Of course I know that, but they did let him out to practically burn to death in the fire."

"Dogs get out. That can happen to anyone."

He looked down at his new friend who stared up adoringly into the agent's solemn face.

"I wanted a dog for the longest time when I was a kid -- Sam, too -- but Dad always said 'no'. And I mean a real dog not like - ah, you know - Queequeg. As he began spending more and more time away from home, however, Mom began to see a point to it and for one of the few times in my life stood up with us against him. He finally agreed that when I was thirteen --" Mulder's voice caught.

Scully knew what had happened when he was twelve.

"Of course, it never came to be. For a long time I was barely capable of even taking care of myself. Then after Dad and Mom split, I could have done anything and she wouldn't have noticed, but by then it was unthinkable. Sam had wanted one as much as I. But if we had had one, I would have wanted one just like Satan." He looked her way with a sort of wavering smile. "I just wanted to pretend, I guess. Just for a few hours. Guess you never quite take the boy out of the man."

No, you never do, Scully agreed to herself, and if the boy's life is full of pain, the man carries that burden with him as well.

With an inaudible sigh, she began struggling with the nearly indestructible bubble packaging on the new hairbrush. It would do for the time being.

"Satan's nice, Mulder, he really is and I'm glad you saved him. Thanks also for breakfast, but I've got to get to work. You can make yourself useful, by the way. Lots of manual labor to go around. They probably won't even mind if Satan hangs around; they're a nice group of people. Samson's the exception."

"Aye, aye, Captain." With a grin, he gave her a snappy salute as she rose from her perch on a clean edge of his bed to head back to her own room. "And, Scully --" She paused without looking back. "- - I did call. The animal shelter opens at ten. I'll call back then and see if anyone's reported him missing."

Curtly, she nodded before hastily escaping back into her room. A little cold water, a little more make up than usual on the eyes, and maybe he'd never know how close she had come to tearing up right then.

Dogs and kids... and Mulder, the biggest kid of them all. No, that was unfair. He was a man -- the best she knew.

September 14, 9am

As Samson had said, the fleatrap motel -- which had more fleas than Satan, Scully was willing to bet -- was indeed convenient. It was only a block from the former supermarket, now temporary district office. For nearly two hours they worked with the rest of the displaced employees among the acrid smell of smoke and wet cardboard, unpacking who-knew-what-unimaginable stuff that only Scully could identify. Samson had still not deigned to make an appearance when, just after ten, Mulder excused himself without enthusiasm to call the animal shelter. He thus missed the SAC's breezy and sparkling clean appearance. Scully had just given her report -- that there was very little salvageable and that she saw no reason why they couldn't leave the next morning -- when Mulder and his sidekick returned. His face was a mixture of emotions. The way he looked at Satan, however, and the way he looked at Samson made it pretty clear to Scully that there had been no report of a lost dog answering Satan's description -- and that he was not overjoyed to encounter Horace Samson again.

If the ASAC noticed the hard set to Mulder's jaw, he gave no sign. He did, however, greet Satan with lavish affection. The dog wriggled in delight and seemed to enjoy the game of leaping feet into the air after an imaginary treat. Mulder just frowned, a little hurt crease deepening between his eyes.

"Satan just likes everyone," Scully told him in a low voice.

"And here, I thought he had some taste," Mulder murmured.

"So where'd you meet up with this fellow?" Samson asked after a few more games.

"Found him trapped in the area of your warehouse where you said the fire started. It looked like he'd been there from the beginning."

"Honest? Then you've done the community an invaluable service, Agent Mulder. Stud's the goodwill ambassador to this entire neighborhood."

"Stud?" Mulder croaked.

"He answers to just about everything but that's what I call him. You're a randy man, aren't you, Stud. Half the bitches in this quarter of the city have carried his DNA at one time or another... and who's to blame them, fine fellow like this."

"But who owns him?" Scully asked.

"There's no report at the animal shelter," Mulder confirmed.

"Oh, someone does. He's always clean. Like Tramp, there are plenty who will feed a friendly stray, but not many who will wash one."

Scully's eyebrows lifted in Mulder's direction. His response was to show no reaction.

"I'll ask around," Samson said. "Someone will know. Now more important is a little complication that came up this morning. You didn't see anything or 'smell' anything unusual when you were moving around in that part of the building yesterday, did you, Agent Mulder?"

Scully felt a definite 'uh oh' radiate silently from Mulder's direction.

"I thought I had a survivor. A child. My mind was on other things."

"Absolutely. I just hope that you're moving around won't confuse the arson and homicide teams too much."


"Arson team found a body this morning in that general area. Of course, old building like that, it could have been a vagrant. His steno burner may even have started the fire. He could have been smoking in 'bed'."

"Then why investigate it as if it were a homicide?"

"Three burned buildings, three bodies. Forgot to mention the other two victims yesterday, didn't I. Two might be a coincidence but not three, and since my people are all busy chasing their tails trying to reconstruct their current casework, I've asked your boss and mine to lend me you two. More in your old line as I understand it, am I right, Agent Mulder? We do have a lease on the building so one could legitimately say that this last one occurred on federal land."

Dreams of home fading into the uncertain future, Mulder checked out Samson's version of their new orders and found that the SAC was correct. He had contacted Kersh who had even paged Skinner at his conference in Paris for his approval. They were stuck here and Samson seemed suspiciously cozy in his communications with Kersh. What if the man currently sitting in Skinner's chair was trying to catch them together? It would be something to embarrass Skinner about not to mention what the Bureau would say about partners 'doing it'. He may even have hoped to catch them during their previous case, but Mulder's personnel file must not mention that sleep was a rare commodity when he profiled. Hell, Kersh might even have convinced Samson to find an excuse to run the equivalent of a bed check. A fire alarm in the middle of the night and a convenient camera would do it if their rooms were separated as originally intended.

The mournful glance that passed between the partners moments after Samson's announcement showed that the same thoughts had run through both their heads and that they had come to the same conclusion. Their nights were going to be very lonely.

After that Scully went off to wrap up her part of the salvage operation and Mulder to get a start on their new case. They met for lunch at a little barbecue place around the corner from the burned hulk.

As they settled at a small table on the edge of the restaurant's tiny outdoor patio, Scully looked around at the sparse crowd. "Now I know why we were treated like royalty."

The corners of Mulder's mouth twitched. "I don't think that the red carpet treatment was for us -- though my understanding is that this place's yearly expenses are practically paid for by the FBI lunch bunch who are now laying down their VISA cards who- know's-where. No, we have our present company to thank for our warm welcome."

Satan gave them a doggy grin and a tail wag from just outside the low row of planters that separated the patio from the public sidewalk. "The word of his rescue has spread like wildfire. He really is a kind of folk hero around here... though along the lines of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Robin Hood."

"Not Johnny Appleseed?"


"And don't sell yourself short," Scully said, her eyes smiling at her partner from over the top of her menu. "You're the hero of the day."

Self-consciously, Mulder rubbed the back of his neck. "I guess so. In every other jurisdiction in this country I would have, at the very least, received a severe reprimand for disturbing a crime scene -- no matter that I didn't exactly know that it was a crime scene at the time."

Scully grinned at her friend fondly. It was unusual for him to be actually thanked for something. "Accept the flowers when they fall, it happens seldom enough. And I am proud of you. I would also have killed you if you had gotten yourself hurt, but I know what the others don't -- what it took for you to wade into that mess. I'll just have to find a way to reward you."

Startled by the heat in his partner's blue eyes, Mulder pretended to bury his face in his menu. "Scully, it's too dangerous," he murmured.

Under the cover of the open menus her hand crept over the table to briefly clasp his. "Then get what sleep you can now because once the heat's off - watch out," she cooed.

Hands were back on their own sides of the table by the time their wait staff appeared. Scully ordered a barbecue beef sandwich. Mulder found her order interesting. Scully ordered red meat like other people ate ice cream; it was comfort food. If she was in need of comfort, he knew where she should be getting it.

"Sorry," he said, gesturing towards her plate when their food arrived.

Again, she had followed his train of thought. "It's not what you think. Not entirely, anyway. I really was thinking that that if there are any leftovers your friend would prefer this to lettuce."

That got a laugh from both of them. One they needed badly.

Over lunch they talked about the South and the news and the doings of Scully's family until after they had eaten. More and more, they tried not to talk about work all the time. It had felt odd at first, not any longer. Over coffee they got down to business.

"I'm going to look at the bodies this afternoon," Scully announced.

"Enjoy. I have half a dozen interviews with the cream of the Old South. The first victim was a sleazy bail bondsman; the second was a sleazy riverboat gambler -- yes, they still have both riverboats and gamblers; and the third was a sleazy real estate developer. Seeing a pattern here? Someone's not just practicing urban renewal but trying to short cut the judicial system. Even more, I don't think anyone's going to mind if we don't solve this one except perhaps the insurance companies. The only connection between these guys -- besides the sleaze factor -- is that all spent a lot of time on the local floating casinos. There are four tied up right now, less than half a mile from here. Do you think that a few games of Twenty-One would be considered a business expense?"

"Depends on how badly you play," she smiled.

He grinned back. "And here I thought you were going to tell me that I'd need to declare my winnings."

"That'll be the day. You don't even play the lottery."

While Mulder paid the check -- in anticipation of his winnings -- Scully reached into her pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. Almost apologetically, she passed it across the table.

"What's this?" he asked.

"They've hired some of the neighborhood crowd -- retirees and college students -- to help with the clean up. They heard about Stud's -- er, Satan's -- rescue and that we were looking for the owner." She gestured to the paper. "Three different people have told me that that's the block generally considered to be his home turf. Maybe before you get tied down to a green felt table you might take a swing by there."

Crestfallen in a way that only Scully could read, Mulder put the paper in the top pocket of his second best suit. He had barely looked at it. "If Satan has a loving family nearby, then why hasn't he left me? It's not like I have him on a leash." Sensing he was being talked about, the dog quivered all over with excitement. Perhaps he thought that Mulder was going to slip him some more barbecue. He'd already eaten a third of Mulder's lunch and half of Scully's.

"Maybe he's just being polite. You did save his life. Much longer in that hot, closed place without water and he would have died. Have you told him that he can go home?" she asked gently.

The lightness of the morning gone, Mulder stretched his body upright. "I'll go. Meanwhile, we both have a lot of work to do."

September 14, 5pm

Three of Mulder's interviews with victim family members were no shows. The other two had little to offer, none of it complimentary. As a result, Mulder found himself in the late afternoon with three hours to kill before the serious casino crowd appeared. With reluctance he pulled the slip of paper from his breast pocket. 'River and Appletree' was all it said. After asking for general directions he found that it was roughly a mile from his present location. It was a pleasant day; he would walk. If he got lost, he could always ask directions again.

It turned out that he didn't need to. As soon as it was clear where they were headed, Satan took the lead, galloping over at least ten times the distance Mulder covered as he chased sticks and stalked pigeons and said hello to human and canine acquaintances that they passed. The closer they got to River and Appletree that was just about everyone, both two-footed and four-footed. In the first half mile Mulder heard the gregarious animal called at least a dozen names: Duke, Prince, Blackie, the Man, Bingo, Happy and just Dog to name a few. As they grew closer, however, one name began to be heard more and more. Thor. "Is that your name?" Mulder asked his companion. "Thor?" If an animal could turn himself inside out, Thor would have.

River and Appletree did not define a very prosperous neighborhood but it was a friendly enough place as long as the visiting 'suit' had Thor as an ambassador. Or was that a bodyguard? As they passed a crumbling row house bedecked with window boxes of dying flowers, two large Dobermans came tearing towards the sidewalk from their hiding place under a sagging willow. They got out just two barks apiece, and Mulder had begun to reach for the pepper spray he always carried, when Thor showed the wrathful god-like side of his nature. The transformation was astonishingly quick but effective. Within seconds the attacks had dissolved and the Dobermans had turned tail. Thor's teeth and growl retreated, his doggy grin returned, and all was right with the world.

Mulder studied his companion with admiration. "You can accompany me into D.C. any time."

They had gone only a few more steps when Thor gave an excited bark and bounded forward, as if his legs were all springs. A door had opened on one of the poorer apartment buildings and a thin old woman emerged with a broom. Skin as wrinkled and brown as old leather, hair as white as spun sugar, she had begun to sweep the porch. She barely had to look up at the barking before Thor was there, his entire body gyrating with happiness. Anyone could see, however, how careful he was not to leap up on the old woman and to keep his head high and thus be on a level where she could more conveniently reach to pat him.

Mulder hesitated a dozen yards from the building. The happy reunion twisted within him leaving a trail of could-have-been's. He should just slip away. It would be easy enough to do though he would detour a block east to evade the Dobermans. Thor had other ideas, however. Like a black streak he was off the porch, had seized Mulder's coat sleeve, and was tugging him forward. The old woman waited for them both, the wide smile that had broken her face into a thousand wrinkles fading slightly.

"You have something to do with bringing this bad boy home?" she called.

Mulder forced a smiled. "He got himself in a tight place. He let me know that he needed some assistance."

"Bet he did." The old lady looked down at the dog sitting at Mulder's side, sitting, but not calmly. Excitement was popping out all over the muscular body. "Well, what's keeping you. The boy's been frettin' himself sick. Git on up there, y'hear!" Like a child with a dollar burning a hole in his pocket and a candy store at his feet, Thor looked up imploring into Mulder's face. Only after receiving a gentle nod did the dog take off again, this time to leap from trash can to dumpster to the landing of a fire escape that he climbed running. Finally, five stories up, he disappeared inside an open window. The old woman and Mulder had watched the whole performance, Mulder with amazement and the woman with satisfaction.

She turned back to 'the suit' with a grin. "No one better ever move that trashcan," she said. "And you should have seen the day that someone left the top off the dumpster. 'That' never happened twice. You would have thought that World War II had started all over again. That old boy was right annoyed." Her expression sobered as she viewed her companion with curious interest. "Now I've never seen him do that before, ask anyone's permission for anything except for the boy, of course. That's high praise coming from Thor. You must be somethin' special."

Unbelievably, Mulder felt himself reddening, the hurt no longer as tender. "The feeling is mutual. I'm very happy to have met Thor. I was glad to be able to bring him home though it was more like him bringing me. The 'boy' you've mentioned, is he your son?"

"Spark? No, Spark doesn't have a mother that I know of, nor father. Just those of us in the neighborhood who've bonded together to take care of him." Her eyes glittered good-naturedly seeing how this tall, well-dressed, and good-looking white man kept looking up at the window of the crumbling apartment building. "Why don't you go up and see them. Thor would want you to and Spark will want to say thank-you."

Mulder hesitated. Being thanked always made him feel uncomfortable. The Lone Ranger had the right idea...just disappear into the West before things got mushy.

"You might as well go up, the boy won't be coming down. He's sick." Her old eyes still shone but with something other than humor. "I guess he won't be coming down ever again except for that one last time."

There was no choice now but Mulder knew that the experience was not going to be an easy one. He made it to the landing. "How old is he this Spark?"

"Who knows? Sometimes I think eight, sometimes eighty. Somewhere in between." She resumed her interrupted sweeping. "Top floor, apartment five-oh-eight."

Mulder didn't take the steps with any speed. The foyer with its yellowed tile and the worn stairway with its thread-bare carpet reminded him of the old junior high school on Martha's Vineyard. All around him the air was alive with noises from behind doors -- TVs, radios, a baby crying, an out of tune guitar, rap music. The smells of exotic cooking -- cumin and curry -- went a long way towards covering the more pungent scents of dry rot and old urine. He found the door to 508. There wasn't a traditional knob on the door, but instead a long four-inch handle. No sound came from within so he knocked softly. Immediately, there came the gentle tap, tap, tap of claws on linoleum and scratching on wood about three feet from the ground. Finally, the handle swung down and the door opened.

Of course it was Thor. A wet nose and warm breath tickled the palm of Mulder's right hand and then the dog was gone. A nimble leap took the animal back onto the bed where, clearly, he had left to answer the door.

"You're Thor's new friend," came a whisper-thin voice from the bed. The mattress had been raised and placed so that its occupant could easily see through one of the small room's two windows to the street below. The window was open and there was no screen. Clearly, this was Thor's private entrance. The room had been painted a brilliant yellow so that it would glow golden in the sunlight, but other than that it was a barren, depressing place. There was a small battered TV, though it didn't look like it was used much, but no VCR, CD player, CDs, computer, pictures or books. There were medical supplies, however -- IV pole, wheel chair, and a cart with towels, large diapers, spit up bowl, bed pan and liters of fluids. A life stripped to its biologic basics.

Unable to avoid the meeting any longer, Mulder looked down at the figure in the bed. 'Eight or eighty' the old woman had said. She had been right. The body was certainly no larger than a child of eight, but that was because of its stick-like thinness. It was long enough to be older. The head looked larger especially as its scalp was covered with a shapeless woven cap of many colors. And the face... the face still showed where the boy had once been beautiful. All the best of every imaginable ethnic group. It was his eyes, his eyes, the same hue as his golden skin, which were ancient.

"You can come closer. What I have isn't catching, not just from talking."

"I don't want to tire you. Should I ask someone's permission? Where are your --" No parents, the old woman had said. "-- your people?"

"You mean all my grandfathers and grandmothers? They won't mind. I do what I want --" he paused to catch his breath, "-- pretty much of the time." At Thor's shifting to snuggle closer, the boy looked down at his four-footed friend. "T-Thank you for Thor. I was so a- afraid." The words may have come from a tight throat but the sentiment was from the heart. The boy's hand came to rest on Thor's sleek head that lay pillowed on his chest. Mulder didn't know why he should be surprised but he was as he realized that when he woke that morning Thor had been lying with his head in the very same place only on his own chest. Now, however, the dog looked with total adoration at this boy. The emotion was clearly mutual.

When the boy's attention returned to Mulder he seemed stronger than before. "How did you happen to be at the fire? You don't look like a fireman or a policeman, not dressed like that."

Mulder shrugged inside his suit. "Police is close enough. I work for the FBI. They had offices in that building. My partner and I are here to help with the clean up."

Half way through Mulder's explanation, Thor yipped nearly soundlessly and the boy turned his head for a moment so that they could share another one of those silent communications. "Then you're just passing through, you and your partner?"

"That's right, we're here for just a few days."

"Must be nice to have a partner, kind of like an automatic best friend, like Thor and me."

Mulder almost laughed at the thought of what Scully would think to hear their relationship compared to this interspecies meeting of minds. On the other hand, the boy wasn't far wrong. There were times when life would be so much simpler and happier if all that was required of him was to lie with his head in her lap. "I guess that's true, in a way. When you get along, it is like having a best friend, the best of best friends."

"So you and your partner get along? Is he a nice guy?"

"SHE is a very nice guy and very good at her job." He would not say that he would trust her with his life, not here with this young life hanging by a thread.

Though his body barely moved even to breathe, Spark's eyes momentarily widened at the revelation of Scully's sex, then the boy seemed to turn inward, so quiet and for such a long time, that Mulder thought he had fallen asleep. The gold of the setting sun was flooding through the far window now. The picture of a slip of a boy with his faithful dog stretched out at his side would be a vision Mulder would not quickly forget. As quietly as he could, the agent moved with soft steps towards the door.

"So you'll be in town a few days yet?" came a whisper from across the room. Mulder turned back. The boy's voice had seemed as insubstantial as a shadow as if he were half-sleep. His hand still rested on the dog's head.

"That's right, a couple of days, maybe three."

Spark coughed but without any real force. "Could Thor come visit? He won't be in the way. I don't like to keep him cooped up here with me. Besides he sees things and does things and then comes back and tells me."

A bitter-sweetness flooded the space between Mulder's ribs. It was a sad but lovely game that the dying boy shared with his best friend. "Sure, he can come visit. I'd like that. Do you want me to come get him?"

"You don't need to do that. Thor will do the finding. He's good at locating people he's been close to." The boy looked down his nose at the animal now. "Is that all you're gonna do? Lie there?" The dog's head came up like a shot, all attention. "Well, go and say 'goodbye' to the man." With one bound the animal was off the bed and half way across the room, leaping forward to plant his forefeet just below Mulder's shoulders. A large wet tongue licked his face. At that instant Mulder felt a little dizzy. Everything seemed to gray out for a moment as it sometimes does when you stand up too suddenly. Must be related to the emotion that tightened his chest. The moment passed as swiftly as it had come. Gently, he took the dog's forelegs and lowered the animal to the ground. "You take care of yourself," he said to the Thor and his boy simultaneously. After that he couldn't take himself into the cooling evening air and away from death's door fast enough.

End of Act II


September 15, 11am

Scully washed her hands for a long time at the old lab sink. She had been more tired and she had attended to more odious bodies, but she had seldom had to work under worse conditions. The FBI had been given space in the basement of the oldest wing of the local hospital to use as a temporary morgue, rooms that hadn't been occupied in decades. They'd displaced a lot of roach families and every stirring of air from the laboring fan had made her imagine worse things scurrying along the floor. Dropping her 'greens' inside a thirty-gallon plastic trash can labeled for laundry, she fled the place, hoping that by moving quickly the fleas couldn't attach to her ankles. Her body wanted coffee though she wasn't looking forward to the swill from the hot pot someone had set up on a rickety table by the stairs. A smile brightened her face as she saw that a pleasingly familiar figure was lounging against the exit's double doors. She noted that her partner had not come in, though there had been nothing to prevent him from doing so. Mulder didn't care for dead bodies at the best of times, and the charred, blackened victims of fire were his least favorite.

Her smile of greeting widened to a grin when he extended a familiar cup in her direction. "A tall, mocha latte?" she guessed, inhaling the fumes with pleasure. "Ambrosia, I could kiss you!"

"Promises, promises," Mulder drawled. "I thought we should touch base. Is this a good time?"

"As good as any. Let's go outside. Even if it weren't a beautiful day, let's get out of here. I keep having images of rats feasting on my toes." As they emerged from the dim lighting into the full brightness of day, Scully noted that her partner looked a little gray. He appeared to need the sun even more than she.

They didn't speak right away but sat on a bench and lifted their faces to the warm rays. After the clammy dampness of the basement, Scully appreciated the quiet moment. The hot, silky liquid melted her insides as thoroughly as the sun warmed her skin.

"You certainly came back very late last night," she said. "I heard you come in -- when was it? -- after three?" She eyed him speculatively. "Still have your shirt?"

He returned a wan smile. "I only dropped about a hundred. I stopped when it began to look obvious that I didn't know what the hell I was doing. After that I just tried to appear bored and carried my chips and my ginger ale from table to table. That's when the really interesting stuff began. It turns out that gambling is not the only game on the Lucky Lee and the Southern Star."

By the mournful tone in her partner's voice, Scully steadied herself for bad news. "What happened?"

"Nothing much except that I was asked twice if I wanted a little action and they didn't mean the card playing kind."

"I see. Male or female?"

Sighing, Mulder crossed his long legs. "Both actually."

Something in his face warned Scully that this was no time for jokes. "And?"

"A rather odious personage offered to pay me. He thought I worked there."

It was a struggle not to choke. "How much are you worth?"

"Don't be crude." Mulder was not laughing; he should have been, considering the normal bent to his humor. She just waited. He would tell her in his own time.

"I went up on deck to get some air -- I needed it -- and this boy of maybe twelve bumped into me." Mulder took a breath to steady his voice. "He then proceeded to rub himself against my -- Anyway, he had these little white cards -- an address -- if I was interested." Mulder hunched down as if he felt a sudden chill. "I took a card, but I didn't go, not last night, not without the vice squad at my back."

"I'm sorry," Scully breathed. They sat in silence for the moment, trying to capture in their souls the gentle sounds of water from a fountain and the song of birds. Scully noticed that in addition to the loss of her friend's peace of mind, something else was wrong. In what she thought was a change of subject she asked, "I don't see your shadow. I assume that Satan found his way home?"

"Who? Oh, Thor. Yes. Dog and his boy are very happy. He's where he should be." And Mulder obviously meant that, but then why did he still look so glum. Worse than glum, he was shaking and a trembling hand came up to shield his eyes from her. Anxious, Scully slid over until they faintly touched. The hell with it if someone saw them!

"What's wrong, Mulder?"

"Thor's owner -- just a boy -- he's dying. Spark is what he calls himself. AIDS. Won't be too long."

The cooling coffee nearly spilled from Scully's hand. "I'm so sorry. Are you sure that's what it is?"

Anger flooded up through his lean frame, but not at her. "By now I should damn well know Kaposa's sarcoma lesions when I see them! Worse, I suspect that six months ago, maybe a year, Spark was like one of the boys on the ship. He's a beautiful child even now and has no parents, but someone must pay the rent on the little room he lives in and for the medical supplies I saw."

What could she say. Scully reached between them for his hand and squeezed it. It was chill and damp. "Are you sick?"

"At heart."

She squeezed it again and felt a desperate returning pressure. More silence then for a little while to let the horror dim a little. "So where does this all lead us?" she asked. "Were the warehouses trysting places? Were these men involved? Is someone taking out the devils?"

"Yes, and yes, and yes in my highly educated opinion." He pulled a little white card out of his pocket. "This is a warehouse, too. If I lived close by, I'd get in a supply of hot dogs and marshmallows." Like an animal he shook as if to dispel an image from his mind. "What have the crispy critters revealed?"

"What you would expect. Only a couple of odd things."

"Such as?"

She hesitated. "I'd like to wait till I look at the most recent victim. If I find the same anomalies, then I'll let you know."

Mulder nodded. He didn't push her. He was the same way. He didn't want to reveal his theories until he was sure either -- certain in his own mind anyway. Evidence was a secondary issue.

With a sign he stood, stretching. "Got to get back on the trail. All this makes it hard to want to go after the ones with the match, however."

"Prove what the dead were doing," she told him. "No one's going to push you much beyond that. The fires have to stop, though, before some innocent person is hurt."

"Some innocent person already has been, just not by fire."

"Want me to stop by and see this Spark," she asked. For the first time in their conversation he dropped the shield completely; his eyes were bleak as winter as he looked down at her. "I was hoping you'd ask, but there's no rush. He's well taken care of."

"Before we leave I will."

A nod and he wandered away, shoulders stooped. She watched him go and then returned to her own unpleasant task.

It was late afternoon before an even more subdued Agent Scully entered the supermarket, now temporary FBI field office. Mulder was not answering his cellphone. As usual when this happened she had to work to unclench her jaw before the tension brought on a headache. In deference to their changed realtionship, Mulder had begun to at least carry the thing and keep it charged. Afraid of running down the battery, however, he would often turn it off when he was within reach of a phone and then forget to turn it back on when he wasn't.

Even though she always worried when unable to reach her wayward partner, Scully's anxiety was tempered this time because of the autopsy findings she would have to report when she did catch up with him. That part of their reunion, she would be happy to postpone indefinitely.

Nonsense, she told herself. A simple test could as quickly prove innocence as guilt.

A gray-haired retiree wearing old jeans and a ragged T-shirt covered with the ever-present sooty smudges directed Scully to the back of the store. The combined homicide and arson teams had taken over what had once been the dairy manager's office. The tiny cube was the one place that had not already been claimed. Scully's nose twitched as she entered. The room had that old ice cream carton smell. Not an unpleasant smell, but distracting.

At the moment, only one frightfully young agent occupied the room. "Special Agent...Mulder? He had a visitor. Black hair, long legs, a real looker." The smooth face that still wore traces of acne scars grinned.

"Thor," Scully surmised.

"If you say so. They went out over three hours ago and I haven't seen either since."

"I'll find them." She gazed down at the impressive pile of data. "How's the investigation going?"

The amusement left the young face and was replaced with an expression of awed respect. "Agent Mulder told us what to look for and, it's hard to believe, but it's all here exactly where he said it would be." The young man pointed proudly to the stacks while clearly indicating that he was reluctant to defile his hands by actually touching them. "These guys were dirty, and I mean dirty. If they weren't already dead, I'd take them out myself."

"I hope you don't mean that," she replied sagely. "If you just fire your weapon, the paperwork is unbelievable."

At that she left, more than a little pleased to see that her partner was for once getting the respect he deserved. It was nice to visit a place that didn't listen to the stories. Unfortunately, the visit hadn't helped her find Mulder, though if he and Thor were still together it would simplify her task greatly when she did find him. Standing outside the empty-windowed market, she looked up and down the street wondering where to start. A drop of sweat trickled down her temple. The day was no longer pleasant. Humidity had rolled in from the South and now lay over the city like a heavy, wet blanket. Fretfully, her damp hand took another wrap on the handle of the plastic bag she carried. In it was a large block of paraffin that she'd purchased at a craft store immediately after viewing the last victim.

In the end she found her partner easily enough. When the street was quiet she heard in the distance a familiar sound. It didn't take much investigative insight to head in that direction. As she drew closer, the repeated thuds of the bouncing ball were joined by the distinctive grunts that always seemed to accompany the exercise of male egos. After a couple of false starts -- once into an alley with no egress and once thwarted by a fenced parking lot -- she found what she was looking for. Behind a WWII vintage apartment building that was sandwiched between two old mills, a rainbow group of teenage boys were playing a vigorous game of basketball -- a group of boys and one tall man. He still wore his suit but had shed coat and tie. Scully stood to watch. She had often seen Mulder play. He was good, quick and yet graceful. Unfortunately, he wasn't bare-chested as he often played, so she was denied the sight of the strong swimmer's muscles moving across his chest and back. His pale blue shirt was unbuttoned halfway down, however, giving him a romantic, roguish appearance that would have to do.

With men of his own age and height, Mulder played all out with an aggression she had seen burst out as anger time and time again. With boys and teens, he dialed back the intensity, always sensitive to their level, but never backed off enough so that it was easy for them. If you played with Mulder, he made you work for every point but you felt good about it at the end. All in all, it was a relief to see him relieving the tension; he had been way too tight when she'd seen him that morning.

As she watched, however, a crease appeared between her eyes, her brows slowly came together, and then she frowned. There was something odd about the play. Mulder was not laying back. When he wasn't making baskets or high-fiving his listless team members for doing so, he was using his greater height, reach, and experience to steal the ball from the other team. The boys were sweaty, hot, discouraged and even angry. This was true even of the ones who seemed to be on Mulder's team, mostly because he never seemed to pass the ball. She even saw him make deliberate fouls more than once but none of the boys said anything, their faces only darkened the more, not that the triumphantly capering adult in the midst seemed to notice.

And on the sidelines, watching Mulder's every move with doggie glee, was Thor. But the dog was no longer Scully's primary concern.

All at once while putting the ball back in play from the sidelines, a tall boy made a bad pass. Mulder went after it, his smile a wolfish grin. One of the smaller boys unfortunately got in the way of the charging man's left elbow. The boy went down. Mulder got to the ball, made the basket and congratulated himself but made not a move to offer a hand to the boy on the ground.

Scully stepped forward but stopped as the youth got stiffly to his feet. Her frown had deepened from disapproval to alarm. Someone had to stop this.

As it turned out, she didn't have to. The grumbling boys seemed to have already broken up the game on their own.

So furious was she that she didn't trust herself to go to him but instead waited for him to notice her. He took his time. A couple more lay-ups, a little fancy dribbling. Finally, he deigned to head in her direction, a lazy smile on his sweat-drenched face.

"Right now I don't have time to talk about that 'exhibition'," she said coldly. "I need your help with another matter."

He barely looked at her. More than half of his attention was directed at trying to spin the ball on the tip of a finger. "What kind of help?" he asked in a flat voice.

Scully took a deep breath. "Remember at lunch that I said that I found some anomalies with the bodies of the first two victims. I found the same marks on the third, even more pronounced."

Half bent in his dribbling, he actually had to look up at her through his damp lashes. "Like what kind of marks?"

"I think they're bite marks, from a large animal." She waited for that to sink in. Not only did he not react, but his dribbling became more rapid. "Will you stop that!"

He did and stood, his hair wet, his clothes disheveled and sweat- stained, and the basketball under his arm. "So?"

"Do I have to say it? Thor was found in the same general area as the third victim." She opened the plastic bag she carried and pulled out the block of paraffin. It was six inches square and an inch thick. "We need to measure his bite and get an impression. It will be crude, we won't be able to make a positive ID but we can rule out any obvious inconsistencies. I assume that's something that you want to do. You two get along so well that I'm sure that if you worked with him --"

But Mulder only shrugged, one eyebrow lifting to his left. "Too late."

Scully whirled. Thor had vanished or at least she thought he had. Then she caught a glimpse of something low and black loping down an alley.

"Shit! Well, aren't you going to run after him?"

Her partner's only response was to stretch and reach towards his back. "Can't. I think I pulled a muscle."

Scully stood stupefied for a long moment and then growled low in her throat, "We'll talk about this later," and took off at a run after the animal. At least she was wearing her most comfortable shoes.

At the entrance to the alley she did pause to look back. Unperturbed, Mulder was practicing hook shots again. Swearing, she ran on.

Thor led her a merry chase -- no, anything but a merry chase -- a sweaty, infuriating one. She now understood how the animal had remained free without leash or presence of an owner for so long, which certainly must be as illegal here as anywhere. Thor was friendly as a teddy bear, unless he didn't want to be caught and then he couldn't be. He must have God's own wisdom to tell friend from foe with such accuracy. Unerringly, Thor knew every passage and hole in the city where he could venture but his human trackers could not. He knew every fence that was just a little too high, every narrow pathway choked with garbage that less fastidious city creatures had pulled from trashcans, every blind alley that was not quite blind -- at least not for a creature with his size and flexibility. His least endearing trait was his habit of turning around and laughing at his tracker with his doggie grin while his tail wagged merrily.

So Thor was the one having the merry chase. Only the hope that he would give up at any moment and lie down, paws in the air in order to have his stomach rubbed, kept Scully in the race long after she should have given up.

Footsore and filthy, Scully wearily trudged back to the neighborhood court where she'd last seen her partner. He was gone. Two of the boys had returned, however. One was making long and ineffective attempts at the basket, the other was the smaller boy who had been roughly pushed to the ground during the game. He was still holding his arm.

Scully approached, cautiously. "You may have seem me watching the game. My friend was the man you were playing with. I'm also a medical doctor. You seem to have hurt your arm. Can I take a look? It may save you a long wait at the emergency room."

The boy shrugged very much as Mulder had. He was about fourteen but small for his age. The other boy joined them as Scully began prodding the arm, checking for range of motion. "Tell me when it hurts and where."

He didn't speak but he did wince, which is all you could expect from a boy his age. "I think it's only a strain. Put some ice on it now, some heat tonight and take some Ibuprofen. Do you know what that is?"

"Our Mom will know," the second boy said. "She's a nurse's aide."

"Then tell her what I said and do see a doctor if it's not better by morning. I am really sorry that this happened. I've never known my friend to play so rough."

Both boys shrugged. "No big deal. We should 'a known."

"Known what?"

"He was with Thor," the older boy replied as if that explained everything. He then spoke curtly to his brother. "Come on, Luke, we gotta get home or Mom'll throw it out." The interview was clearly over.

Thus they moved off leaving Scully with a head full of questions.

Hoping to find Mulder there, and in need of a shower, Scully returned to the motel. An extra tip which would have to be worked into their expense account ensured that their rooms had returned to what must have been their original shabby cleanliness, but Mulder wasn't in his. He had been, however. Suit jacket, shirt, trousers and shoes made a trail from the door. The shower in his room had been used and his luggage rifled. Tennis shoes, jeans, and his favorite cutoff sweatshirt were gone. She knew the sweatshirt well for its threadbare softness made it also one of her favorites. By the time she'd showered and dressed, Mulder had still not returned and still did not answer his cell phone, so Scully decided to go shopping. Having had to use the inadequate bottle of cheap shampoo the motel supplied and the five dollar hair brush reminded her that she had items to replace.

It was dark and beginning to rain when Scully returned and her heart lifted, first in relief and then in renewed irritation when she saw that the lights in Mulder's room were on.

She found him sitting with Thor in the middle of his bed eating an ice cream cone. They both were eating ice cream cones, her partner holding one out to Thor who licked daintily. An empty pint carton and a box of cones had joined Mulder's running shoes and the other obstacles on the floor.

Scully leaned against the doorframe between their rooms, crossed her arms and gave him her very best 'look'. The partner she had worked with for nearly nine years should have known instantly that he was in trouble. This one reached the cone out to her with a friendly, "Want a lick?"

"No, I don't. Mulder, what's going on?"

She cringed as he gave that shug again. "I don't know what you mean."

"Yes, you do. Your behavior this afternoon." With alarm she noted the color of the ice cream. "Is that strawberry?"

He grinned, charmingly. "Yes. Change your mind?"

"Aren't you allergic to strawberries."

"No, I'm not; it's my favorite."

"No, Rocky Road is your favorite, you say that it's just like your life. We have to talk, but not now; I'm not in the mood. Is he --" meaning Thor "-- spending the night? Are the two of you at least going to stay in?"

Her partner looked down at his canine companion. "Are you spending the night?" Thor gave a soft yip in reply. "He's staying. So am I. It's raining and they have cable."

Scully swore, slammed the connecting door, and took another shower.

The dip in the bed came around midnight. she didn't even need to look at the cheap bedside clock. She could estimate the time because she could hear Letterman's voice dimly from the TV in the next room. The connecting door was open letting in just enough light to see the shape of the figure that had come to sit beside her on her bed. He was looking at her badge of all things, tilting it this way and that way to catch the light as if he was trying to actually read it.

"Mulder, what's wrong?"

He reacted to her voice first, snapping closed the wallet and guiltily dropping it back onto the nightstand as if it burned him. At last he reacted to the question. When the answer came his voice was strained. "I guess I don't feel very well."

With a sigh, Scully leaned over and switched on the light. She only needed to blink a couple of times to get the full affect of his swollen, blotchy face and arms. She lifted up the sweatshirt and she was sure. "You have hives. A really good case. I warned you."

He looked almost -- scared was the only word that could describe it. It was hard to believe what with the things Mulder had seen, but then he didn't like the sight of runny eggs either.

"Was it the strawberry ice cream?"

"Like I said -- told you so."

"It itches."

"I'll bet it does. Now stop that! Don't scratch. Let's see if I have any Benadryl."

With an inarticulate grumble rumbling deep in her throat, Scully crawled out of bed and opened the smaller of the two bags she carried. This one went with her everywhere, her traveling ER. She found the antihistamine and gave him the full dose. He made a face. "Oh, come on, don't be a baby."

After more rifling she found some topical poison ivy cream that had calamine lotion as the primary ingredient. Then she begins to dab the pink lotion on the hives with a cotton ball.

"I hate pink," he sulked. "Does it have to be pink?"

"Live with it, Mulder. Now take your shirt off," she ordered wearily.

He complied, but with hesitation, hiding his face. She'd seen enough though. Was Mulder actually blushing? He had reddened. Had to be the rash. Mulder was as vain as a peacock around her and always had been.

She'd treat his back and then he could do the rest himself. As she moved across the broad shoulders, however, working the creams into each rosy splotch, she noticed that he had begun to shiver. This didn't make sense as the room wasn't cold. Lower down she revised her earlier assumption. No, not shivering, no gooseflesh had appeared, but a tense trembling. Then she knew what it was because her own body, attuned to his harmonics, had begun to respond in kind.

Yes, that kind of trembling. The kind that led to other things. Sweet, deep, glorious things.

'No!' she told himself, rising from the edge of the bed where she sat. This was not the time. It wouldn't be even if she weren't still furious at him for his odd behavior of the afternoon. Whirling, she thrust the tube of cream at him.

"Here, you can do the rest yourself. The antihistamine will also kick in in a few minutes and help you sleep."

But he just sat there, gazing at her with eyes as huge and bright and mysterious as the moons of Mars. He had looked at her in lots of ways before, with love, with lust, with joy, with sorrow, hurt, in pain, daring her, and even hating her but never this way. She couldn't put a word to it, but it was as if he were looking upon something totally new and simply wondrous. Slowly, he reached out a hand and, almost as if afraid, touched her left nipple where it had begun to stand out from her thin camisole. Scully felt herself sway with the sudden desire to touch him in the same way, as if this were something new and precious flowering up within her.

Not taking his eyes from hers, he stood. That broke the spell for he didn't move with his usual grace. His foot caught in a trailing sheet. Afraid he would fall, she automatically reached for him and felt the warm skin of his muscular arms. The heat in her belly retreated somewhat, at least enough so that she could reason again.

Not tonight, Fox Mulder. Not tonight.

"Go to bed, Mulder," she said, though her voice didn't come out with any of the cool detachment she had intended, for his hand had come around to cup her breast. They were standing so close now that she had to tilt her head far back to see his face, hoping to read there what he was thinking. But he wasn't thinking at all, that was certain. What a turn on it was for her. Those dreamy, half-closed eyes turned her knees to jelly. She had never seen such total abandon on that beautiful face.

"Mulder..." came out a squawk this time.

All at once he swept down on her. She had never felt so aware of the difference in their sizes as his mouth came down to cover hers. It was hard, hot and demanding. His body smelled of sweat. His arms clasped her to him with rib crunching force. Something hard, like hot iron, rubbed up against her belly. But beyond all of this was the growing fact that she could not breathe and not just from the alarming embrace. It was the way his mouth had enveloped hers as if he was determined to possess her completely. She began to struggle. At first she moved only a little, just so he would know that he was hurting her. She expected at any moment that he would ease off, but he didn't. If anything, his hold tightened. He had wrapped himself around her so strongly that one hand was free to roam, and it did. When that hand came around to squeeze her buttocks, his eyes closed completely. One would think from his soft, blissful moan that he was the one in pain.

If there had ever been any pleasure for Scully in this ardent attention, the joy had disappeared totally. Her chest ached from lack of air as well as from the vice-like grip of his arms. With the situation rapidly turning critical, she struggled harder and for the first time felt the beginnings of real panic. She could not budge him. Like a wild thing she was forced to fight in the only way she could. She bit down -- hard -- heard a baritone- pitched yelp and tasted blood. Extreme, maybe, but at least sweet air was flowing into her lungs again. She was still locked in a crazed man's arms, however.

This was no love-making that she had ever known. His hands hurt, his body was hard and demanding like that of a mindless, wild creature and with every feminist bone in her body she knew that she didn't have to take it. She may be small but in their current configuration she also knew that she was not defenseless as well he should know.

With one last "Mulder... Stop...!" such as she'd been gasping since getting something like her breath back, she let the anger flow. She didn't understand why he was acting like this, she did not want to hurt him again, but enough was enough!

Levering herself against his strong shoulders, she brought her knee up with all her strength, automatically following his first staggering gasp of pain with a rapid kick in the same general area. It was the first lesson in self-defense for women; don't just startle and hurt, they'll only come back angrier than ever. Incapacitate.

It was easier that she thought it would be. He reeled back, bent over, gasping, tears of agony already flowing from his eyes. The bewildered, blotched and sweating face looked nothing like that of the man she knew.

With surprisingly fierce strength she threw back the connecting door and pushed him out into his own room, throwing the poison ivy cream after him. "When I say 'stop' I mean 'stop!'" she gasped. "And you can take care of your own damn hives!" Shaking with confusion, hurt and anger she slammed closed the door and turned the dead bolt.

She sagged back against the door she had just closed. 'What had just happened?' She couldn't think, didn't want to think, needed a bath. She usually found herself in the tub after Mulder had one of his attacks of sheer, irrational bull-headedness. Over the years that amounted to a lot of bubble baths. Seldom had she wanted one more than now, though she doubted that anything could wash the imprint of those iron fingers from her body and the feel of that hard, unloving mouth from hers. She could still taste his blood. With furious, fumbling fingers she began undressing only to see that there was a rip in her delicate camisole and two of the tiny buttons were gone. When had he done that? She couldn't even remember.

The remains of the silk had barely slipped from her shoulders when a shiver ran up her spine. It felt as if she were being watched. Having learned to trust such instincts, she turned swiftly. From a dark corner, two inhuman eyes glowed. By habit she was about to call to Mulder but then the memory of the last incomprehensible minutes came back and she recalled her state of undress. Instead, clutching the ripped garment across her front, she edged to the nightstand for her weapon and challenged the eyes in the corner. It was Thor. She hadn't even realized that he had followed Mulder into her room and she had thrown her partner out too quickly for the animal to leave with him.

Too distraught to be concerned about the bite impression she needed to collect from her 'suspect', she threw open the room's front door. A blast of sultry night air flowed over her bruised skin. "You, out!" she commanded. "Go home or you'll get the same."

Tail between his legs, belly to the floor, looking utterly miserable as if he already shared his substitute master's pain, Thor crept from the room. He was barely clear before the door slammed behind him.

Trembling with delayed shock, Scully's crept to the bathroom to tend her aches and bruises. The salt of her tears turned sour the delicate perfume of her bath.


September 16, 7am

It was full light before Scully woke. She had been so cold when she had finally gone to bed that she had heaped on every blanket she could find. Now she was wringing with sweat. Another shower followed. She was grateful for the steam that fogged the mirror. The bruises were less visible that way. Wrapped tightly in her bathrobe, her body aching, she collapsed wearily down on the edge of the mattress. The night before she hadn't wanted to think, but now she did. She must. What had happened made no sense. Mulder was no monster. He was a gentle, considerate lover. Sure, they wrestled sometimes, mock battles over pillows and bedclothes, but he had always held his far greater strength in check, allowing at least the illusion of a fair fight...

... in exactly the way she had expected him to hold back during the pickup game behind the tenement. He hadn't, however, and the results had been disastrous. Then there was the ice cream, and his reticence, his refusal, to help with Thor.

She wasn't angry any more; she felt only a deep weariness. "What's happened this time, my love?" The trembling began again when she considered what she had done. How badly had she injured him? She should have thought of a less extreme way to break his hold, but that wasn't how she had been taught and the Mulder she knew would have known that.

At least Mulder in his right mind would have.

Just then Scully heard the faintest of knocks on her connecting door. She didn't get up at first, allowing herself just to savor the relief she felt. He was up and moving at least. Then muffled, halting words came through the too thin sheet of plywood and paint. "Scully...?" After a pause again she heard, "Scully... please... just let me know that you're all right."

With cold fingers she undid the lock.

September 16, 8am

The dreams were not the worst he'd ever had, they were too shadowy for that, but they went on and on. He felt young and omnipotent, immortal the way only the young can feel. At the end he remembered becoming aroused in that horrible, wonderful way that, again, only teenage boys can feel. But this wet dream hadn't ended the way it should. It had ended with terrible confusion and the most horrible pain.

He woke to the most horrible pain.

Tears of anguish running down his cheeks, he curled around his center on the sagging bed, his mind nothing more than a fuzzy red blur. His lip hurt as well. It had ballooned to twice its size or at least felt that way, and this skin itched! Bloody hell, what had be been doing? It came to him more slowly than it should have; if he'd been in a fight and kicked in the balls, then what had his unknown assailant done to Scully that he should find himself alone?

That thought got him out of the bed when nothing else would have. What he saw in the bathroom mirror confirmed what he suspected about his lower lip. His skin was both painful and blotchy. He recognized the hives but more by the pink calamine stuff on his arms then by the rosy patches themselves. There was more pink goop on his back. So how come there was none on his stomach that itched worst of all? Again, he shut his eyes and tried to think. Nothing came except for an itching in his mind that matched that of his skin. Scratching idly at a blotch on his hand he recalled a dim memory of the first time he remembered having them. Unable to understand what was happening to him, he'd taken his fears to his mother's room, relieved that his father was out of town on business again. Mom would make everything all right. Again he heard her soothing voice, felt her small hands, oh, so tender as she smoothed the medication on his back. A wave of arousal threw him from the memory.

Now THAT hadn't happened, not with his mother!

Oh, shit!

Mulder barely made it back to the bed before his knees gave way. That was Scully's touch he remembered. Her touch and his body. His body reacting to that touch. Never, never had he felt that way before. The wanting... the needing... the taking...

Suddenly sick to his stomach Mulder wrapped his arms across his chest as he began to shake. No, he didn't. He couldn't have. Not to Scully. Just a dream. Only there was the evidence of the cut lip and the pain, the terrible pain down below. Oh, shit...Oh, shit...

Somehow he hobbled to the door that connected their rooms.

It was locked.

In eight years he could count on one hand the number of times Scully had locked her door like this. Tears sprang to his eyes. No, no, no, don't let this be real. Anything but that. Had he hurt her? He took some solace in that fact that at least she'd been able to lock the door, that was something, but she had felt the need to lock the door and that was everything. He saw his world, his life, his hope for a future, begin to crumble. He wanted to disappear. How could he look at her again? He had to at least know how she was, to see with his own eyes what he had done.

Then? Then he would see.

At first he only scratched at the door, wanting to get her attention but only if she was awake. When no answer came, however, he knew that he couldn't wait. What if she needed doctor? He knocked a little louder. He would break down the door if he had to but not yet. He didn't want to frighten her any more than she was already. It was after the third time that he heard the faint noises on the other side. In time the door opened, though only a crack.

A face as pale as his own looked up at him, red hair sticking out in all directions as if she'd gone to sleep when it was still wet. Neither spoke. Wary eyes swept him from head to toe. His muscles locked, he even held his breath, afraid that any move would be misunderstood. Finally, she opened the door a little farther and for the first time the light from his room fell fully on her face. He staggered back at the sight of the bruises around her mouth. His own tender tissues reacted with a deep twisting pain of their own.

She stood and watched it all. His grimace and honest reaction of shock and horror drew a tiny, grim smile from those swollen lips.

"I think you'd better come in," she said swinging the door fully open. "I think that you're hurt worse than I am."

He managed to make it across the floor somehow to sink gingerly onto the edge of her unmade bed.

"What did I do?"

"Don't you remember?"

He stared down at the fading hive blotches on his arms and then back up at her face, misery written all over his. "Just shadows. I dreamed."

"Maybe they weren't dreams. Did you dream about playing basketball?" she asked.

His only response was to look more confused.

"Eating strawberry ice cream?"

"Scully," he replied in a small voice into which fear was creeping, "I'm allergic to strawberries."

"I know. I tired to warn you. You and Thor shared a whole pint."

His head came up with a sharp snap. "Thor?" A possibility, like a shot of electricity surged through him.

Sensing his mood shift and knowing all too well the way his mind worked, she sat suddenly straighter in the chair facing him. "Oh, no," she whispered almost inaudibly, but the message had already flashed between them. "Not here, not now."

Mulder knew what the 'Oh, no' meant - Oh, no, not an X-File -- and yet it would explain everything that so badly needed an explanation.

"When was the last time you saw Thor?" he demanded to know..

"Don't you mean when was the last time you did? Because you were with him all afternoon and he was here just a few hours ago. I threw him out right after our little altercation."

So he had been there all along when all the strange and terrible things that he couldn't completely remember had been happening. Mulder just sat there, hands between his knees staring off into space, his brow creased in concentration. "After I left you in the park, I was walking back to join the task force to see what they'd found. All at once he came bounding up. He knocked me down. I thought he was just happy to see me. We wrestled for a bit and..." Mulder's hand went to his cheek "...then he started licking my face. He wouldn't stop. I..." his voice faded. "It all gets fuzzy after that." His entire body seemed to crumple as he buried his face in his hands. "Shit, oh, shit." It had been in him. What had been in him?

Gently but firmly, he felt her pull his hands away. "Mulder, I know what you're thinking. Don't. There was nothing bestial about what happened. Canine possession? Mulder, I know that you can do better than that."

His weak, sheepish grin told her that he thought that he could, too. "Unfortunately, it's not going to turn out to be anything as simple as that. After all, I didn't howl at the moon, did I? Besides, dogs don't play basketball. Now if I'd been playing tennis or frisbee..."

Her brows drew together, all serious again. "Speaking of basketball, I ran into two of the boys you played with later. They didn't seem surprised that you played so rough. In fact, they blamed themselves for agreeing to play with you." To the question in his eyes, she answered, "Because you were with Thor."

Wheels began to turned in Mulder's head. Now that was interesting.

"There's another thing that I mentioned last night but you forgot," she added almost reluctantly. "All three of the arson victims show wounds on their extremities that look very much like bite marks from a very large dog."

The wheels stopped turning. They didn't need to. "I think I'd better see a boy about a dog and I think you'd better come with me."

"Couldn't leave me behind if you tried."

He started to rise then and then thought better of it. Oh so carefully, he sat down again. "First things first, about last night... and us. Just how awful was I?"

She came to sit close beside him, hesitating before she began to roll up the sleeves of her robe. He read the seriousness in her and stilled, barely breathing.

"I'm not showing you this to hurt you or blame you, but because you're bound to see it all eventually."

He thought he was going to faint as he gazed open-mouthed on the vivid red marks on her upper arms that were already darkening to purple.

"Oh, Scully..."

"You were a bit over-enthusiastic."

"That's not what I would call it." He was sick to his stomach again. "If you hadn't --" he gestured down at his crouch "-- would I have --?"

Her distress must be mirroring his. "Oh, Mulder, no. At the time, I thought, maybe. With no inhibitions you're stronger than you know, but having given it some thought I don't think that it would have come to that. You see I had a similar experience once a long time ago. There was this teenage boy. I found out later that the other girls called him Octopus Man. Given an inch of encouragement, he'd be all over you."

One corner of one lip made a feeble attempt to curl upwards. "The bus is barreling downhill and no one is at the controls?"

Scully was well aware of the power of the emotion they were discussing. "That would explain it. But that boy never got past a certain point. Of course, at the age we were then, he was not so much larger than I." Her mouth suddenly took on a musing pout. "You know, the male's sexual awakening happens when he is not yet fully grown, but females his own age are. I never thought of that particular arrangement as a species survival trait."

Mulder glowered, finding no humor in the situation. "So how was it? Did I - did he - act as if he even knew what was going on?"

"Oh, you - he - knew, but the train wasn't stopping, not for anything. That is not you by the way." She tired to smile but her mouth didn't curve entirely right. "You like to take your time."

How hard she was trying to lighten this. Caught up in his guilt and terrible visions of what could have been, the tentative touch of her hand on his thigh came as a surprise, but it was a welcome surprise, her hand so soft, the expression in her eyes so warm. "How are... things... with you?"

'Things' began to stir.


Reluctantly, he slid his leg out from under her hand. "I don't think that you'd better do that for awhile."

"Sorry. Have you tried ice?"

"Are you out of your mind, woman?"

"Want me to take a look? In my professional capacity, of course."

"Not just now, thank you. Just pass me a handful of the strongest pain killers you have."

After that he went quiet except for the new storms rising within, while she dried her hair. Her eyes seldom left his face.

"Mulder, get over it. It wasn't you. We just have to find out what it was and make certain that it never happens again."

"Oh, it will never happen again, of that I'm certain." The storm broke, drenching him with cold anger. "Let's go make that house call."

September 16 10am

After attending to their wounds, the agents dressed and breakfasted on doctored bad coffee from the motel lobby. Neither was hungry. The drive took no time at all and the only problems Mulder had getting there were with one-way streets, which had been no impediment to a man and dog traveling on foot. When two Dobermans leaped out of hiding from behind a bush in a tiny yard as the car approached, he knew they were close. There was the building, a block ahead on the right. This time no old woman was stationed on the steps with her broom to welcome them. Together they climbed the narrow stairs through litter and trash and air filled with the same multi-cultural scents of peanut oil and curry that had pervaded the air before. Outside Spark's room, Mulder called the boy's name, at the same time knocking once, before letting himself in. He could imagine Thor vanishing through his window to escape the incriminating evidence of Scully's block of paraffin, but the elegant black head only raised itself listlessly from the boy's bed where dog lay next to the emaciated form of his god.

Even to Mulder's eyes it was clear that the boy's condition had declined over the few days since they had first met. The child's skin had taken on a yellow, waxy cast and there was barely a flicker in the eyes that opened at their abrupt entry. Mulder felt his anger drain away.

Scully had gone to the boy's bedside immediately. "I'm Agent Scully, Agent Mulder's partner, but I have a feeling that you know that. I'm also a doctor. May I...?"

The thin shoulder's moved ever so slightly in a shrug, the weary acquiesce of someone who had seen more than their share of doctors. "Won't do any good," came the low voice, "but knock yourself out."

As Scully began her examination, Mulder moved to the bedside drawing up the room's only chair. The child was so ill, keeping his interrogator's mask intact was going to take some work.

"What you did, Spark, that wasn't very nice. I thought we were friends."

The boy's hand crept out from underneath the worn sheet to caress Thor's sleek head.

"I wanted to know. I didn't think you'd mind."

"Wanted to know what?"

The voice was weak but not apologetic. "What it would be like to be grown up the way you are. I've never met anyone like you before."

"That's for sure," Mulder heard Scully murmur under her breath. He caught her eye and realized that she had expected something like this. That she was ready to accept this after rejecting so many of his other theories warmed his heart. But there was another emotion in her face, one he saw only in the morgue when he gazed down upon some young and beautiful child, its life cut short. When she spoke, her voice as kind as he had ever heard it.

"Spark, you're very sick."

The child's face with its faded but unearthly beauty looked up into hers and said without hesitation, "AIDS."

"Yes. There's nothing I can do here," she said. "You should be in a hospital."

"But it won't help."

Scully's eyes touched her partner's again. "It would give you a little more time."

"But they won't let me bring Thor."

"True, they won't."

"Then, no thank you."

She sighed. "You should at least have hospice care."

"I do. Andy came early this morning. He just left. I wanted him to stay, but he couldn't." For the first time the boy's peaceful demeanor wavered. "He said that he'd try to come back, but there are so many..." His chocolate brown eyes turned to the window, to the street and the activity below. It was Saturday. Children were playing, children who didn't have one hand on death's door.

Mulder's hands clasped and unclasped between his knees. "Spark, you know that Scully and I work for the FBI. If you are not too tired, I'd like to ask you some questions now. There are things we need to know. I think you know what I'm talking about."

"I'm not too tired. I'm glad you're here."

"Tell me about the fires. How they got started. Tell me about the men who died, why they died and how."

The boy's big eyes stared into the man's hazel ones. "You know already or you wouldn't be asking me."

"You have to tell us in your own words so no innocent person is blamed."

The boy reached out his smaller hand of frail bone towards the man's large one. Mulder wanted to take it but glanced at Scully for her agreement first and both of them knew that it wasn't AIDS he was worried about. At first there was hesitation in her face but finally she nodded.

At the boy's touch Mulder felt, not a jolt of electricity, but a warmth that spread soothingly throughout his whole body. At the same time the sick room faded until it seemed very far away. He stood on a plain of shifting shadows, a vaguely familiar landscape, but before he could peer any further into the gloom, he became aware that his arm hurt, not the one hot from Spark's touch but the other one. The ground also seemed very near. He was a child again, being dragged through dark, wet streets by a man. Uncle, came to his mind. There was no stopping until they reached a small door in the wall of a huge, black building. A series of knocks and the door opened and he was thrust inside. It was even darker inside than out and just as quiet. It smelled of the river and old dust.

A tall figure took him by the shoulder and spun him around. Before he could move they had unzipped his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt and a small light played over his body. There was more than one man - three at least by the reek of cigars - but he couldn't see their faces though they could see his. He shivered in the cold, empty room and wrapped his thin arms around his bare chest.

They didn't talk to him. Their cold business-like voices mingled with that of his uncle. Now they took away his clothes entirely and made him turn around and around like a roast on a spit. More hands, far too many hands. Terrified, he was dragged up narrow stairs, an ungentle slap warning him that he'd better start walking and stop crying. They entered a tiny room where a single red bulb glowed. There were new smells of sweat and old cologne and something sick. He cried his hated uncle's name again and again but the old man had taken his blood money and fled, leaving only the hands of the strange men and the red-lit room.

They hurt him, they hurt him very badly. They hurt him in ways that he didn't want to think about. He limped home that day and every day thereafter, but not until the bleeding colors of dawn touched the skin. He walked fast with his small fist wrapped around the blood money his family so desperately needed. Tip- toeing past his uncle asleep before his new wide screen TV, he meet his younger brothers and sisters just rising from their one bed to get ready for school. But no more school for him. He was too tired. Besides he no longer belonged. How could he sit in a classroom at a desk with other children knowing the un-childlike things he did? He was changed. As the sun left the sky, he rose to walk the dark streets to one black and looming building or another. Each had its hidden, red rooms; each the too-friendly whispered voices; and the fat, hot bodies rubbing against his, lips against his and on his and on him, forcing his mouth --

"Stop it! Stop it!" shouted a voice but far, far away.

Mulder exploded out of the horror like a drowning man rising from the grip of an icy, black sea. His body was shaking uncontrollably. His only anchor to the present was the warm, living body that rocked him, that held him close. The scent in his nostrils this time was the scent of heaven, the blessed, familiar perfume she wore.

"I just wanted to show him," said a small voice far away. The nightmare was fading but not fast enough.

"He asked you about the fires. Don't try to tell me that 'that' was about the fires."

"It was why."

Mulder could not stop the tremors, but for once he didn't mind. He'd shiver for a solid week if he thought they could actually shake off the memory of those large, rough hands.

"How were you able to keep going back?" he was finally able to stammer. He only asked 'How' because he knew 'Why'. For those four small brothers and sisters who kissed him each morning and each evening, who seemed to know without word or understanding the enormity of the burden that he bore for them.

"How?" The sweetest smile came to the boy's lips. "Because something happened a few weeks later. It started out bad, but turned out to be the best day of my life. It was cold that night and raining. I remember it dripping down my neck. I so didn't want to go to 'work'. I was sick with it. Instead, I hid outside, in an alley in the dark. I thought seriously about dying, because my uncle would kill me if I didn't show, but then I couldn't go home either. And then I heard the tiniest sound." The boy's hand reached out to touch one of Thor's drooping ears. In response the flag of a tail beat faster. "He was just the lit'lest thing, only a little larger than my hand and so weak. He'd been thrown out in a bag into the trash but had crawled out. I thought then how alike we were; trash, that is. I had a muffin and one of those juice boxes. I gave him some of that and wrapped him warm in my sweater and put him in a box and hid him in a dark place. I told him not to move or make a sound till I got back. He'd been making these little grunting puppy sounds before but after I told him to be quiet, not a peep. And he was still there when I did get back. Weak as he was, he even licked my finger. I was never so happy in my life. I just loved him SO much, I just wanted him to live so badly, that I guess I poured all my love into him, all my soul.

"It doesn't make sense but when I climbed the stairs to the red room after that, I barely felt it. It was like I was wood, like it was happenin' to someone else though I would never wish that on anyone. And that's the way it was till I got sick; Thor and me together except while my body was upstairs, he waited outside, or more truly we waited outside, he and I together." The huge brown eyes looked up at Mulder. "I don't 'spect you to believe that."

"You'd be surprised what I believe. So what you told me at our first meeting was true. After you got sick you really did send Thor out to see things and bring you back stories, only that wasn't quite true, was it? He never really had to 'tell' you anything because a part of you traveled with him."

A resolute expression put color into the boy's pale cheeks.

"So what happened yesterday? The basketball game? You did more than send Thor to spy on me."

Excitement animated the little body. "I'd never tried that before and it was so easy. You wanted to help me so bad that you let me in, you 'wanted' me in." The enormous chocolate eyes glittered with something like worship. "There's never been anyone like you."

"As I said, got that in one," Scully breathed.

"As for the game, I was always the smallest. I wanted to know just once what it was like to be bigger, taller. I wanted to know what it felt like to win."

"Hmmm, we'll talk about fair play later. And the ice cream?"

"I like strawberry."

"You could have killed Agent Mulder," Scully admonished in her no nonsense voice.

"I didn't mean to."

"And last night... that was you, too," she said. Mulder noted with relief that the statement was not phrased as a question.

"How'd you guess?" Spark asked in all sincerity.

Amused, Mulder cocked an eyebrow in her direction. "Yes, Agent Scully, how did you know?"

Coolly, she answered the boy. "It's come to my attention that Agent Mulder has some skill in that area, skill which was decidedly lacking last night."

Spark didn't have time to ask how Agent Scully had come to be acquainted with Agent Mulder's skill in these matters, for at that moment Thor issued a low, warning growl. His head jerked, first towards the window, then towards the hallway. Before either of the partners could react, the apartment's cheap door burst open and a masked, fatigue-dressed figure spun into the room, a lethal automatic revolver raised. Nothing could have been more unexpected. Neither agent was in any position to reach their weapons quickly, certainly not in time to beat a bullet that would come from a gun already aimed at Mulder's chest.

His hand was only half-way to his shoulder holster when the room echoed with the distinctive 'Splat!' but at the same time a black blur passed before Mulder's eyes. Another shot and another. Scully was rolling low. Thor had the invader's gun hand in his jaws deflecting the aim so that the next shots went safely wild. It was when Mulder felt a new one whistle by his ear from the direction of the open window that they were far from being out of trouble.

From the balls of his feet he launched his body towards the knees of their attacker. A whine screamed by like an incensed bee. Thor yelped and Spark screamed just as Mulder brought the gunman down. Two seconds, keeping below the level of the window, and the man was cuffed. Scully, first crawled over to check on Spark and seeing no blood on the terrified boy bent low and streaked out the door, reaching for her cell phone with her left hand even as she raised her service weapon. Mulder heard her call for backup as her heels hit the stairs with a shower of staccato clicks. He kept his own heel on the back of their attacker's neck, which went a long way towards muffling the obscenities that steamed out of the man's mouth. At the same time he worked himself around as best as he could to try to see from where the other gunman had been firing. The roof of an adjacent building lined up almost perfectly. With the sounds of sirens already blaring from only blocks away, Mulder caught a fleeting glimpse of the second man disappearing through a rooftop door. Staring from the side of the window down to the street below, he noted that Scully had all the help that she would need. What looked like two nightshift police officers and as many security guards had poured out of their apartments in nearby buildings, a little groggy from their interrupted sleep, but armed to the teeth. They scattered following Scully's directions.

With a jerk on the cuffs, Mulder pulled his trash-talking captive to his feet and pushed the man towards the door. He paused at the last moment to look back at the bloodless face of the boy whose eyes were fixed on the floor now streaked with footprints in blood. There Thor moved weakly, whimpering. "Stay still!" Mulder ordered both animal and boy. "We'll be back in just a few minutes. Promise."

Both partners were back in less than five after handing off the two perpetrators to the local police with promises to be in to give statements as soon as possible. Breathing hard from having taken the five flights, two or more steps at a time, Mulder found the boy of little more than skin and bone sprawled on the floor with the head of a panting Thor in his lap. Within moments Scully slid down beside them, her hands moving swiftly through the black fur.

"I don't think it's very bad, Spark," she assured the boy after her initial examination. "Grazed his hip. You were a brave, good boy, Thor. Thank you."

Lovingly, she ruffled the dog's silky head, very much the same way she ruffled his own hair from time to time, Mulder thought wryly.

"We should really take him to a vet to be sure though," she told the teary-eyed boy.

Spark's response was an emphatic, "No! They'll want to keep him. We've never been apart." Belatedly remembering the days Thor had been lost in the fire and later stayed with Mulder, the boy amended with, "Well, almost never. Please, if he's really not so bad could you fix him up here?" His pleading eyes were fixed in Scully's direction.

"That's what I thought you'd ask," she said with a nod towards a small suitcase she'd brought back with her. "I think I might have something in here for our brave hero." She opened her well-stocked first aid kit. "From time to time, it's been sufficient to handle the heroics of a certain other male of my acquaintance. Meanwhile, Mulder will be looking for bullet fragments; we'll need them as evidence. The one that hit Thor just kept going."

A short time later while Scully completed her treatment with only a vague murmur about whether this was a step up or a step down from autopsying pregnant elephants, Mulder sat down next to the boy. He held up a set of plastic evidence bags containing the remains of five slugs. "These men meant business, but they clearly weren't after you."

The brown eyes lowered displaying lush lashes. "No, you. You went sniffing about on the boats, didn't you? Someone got scared and hired those goons to take you out. Pretty dumb going after two 'suits'."

"Right, pretty dumb but then that's more often than not how the bad guys get caught. They might even have succeeded if it weren't for Thor, to which I offer my thanks as well." Hearing his name mentioned the canine's tail wagged so energetically that it got in the way of Scully's bandaging.

"The good news is, the bosses didn't pick their hit men very well. These two are going to talk like a couple of magpies. There will be no trouble tracing them back to their paymasters. Attempted murder on two FBI agents? Your local police will be able to close them down. That is what you were trying to do with the fires and the deaths, yes?" The boy hung his head. Mulder went on. "That's what I was doing on the boats, you know. I had to find out who started the fires and killed those men. That's what put my life in danger -- mine and Scully's and Thor's. You joined with Thor, didn't you? You did it all."

There was no remorse in the child's voice, only anger. "They were evil. I wasn't the only one they used. It had to stop." The boy's mouth curved up bitterly. "Don't you see, the gentleman of the night are always on the lookout for more, the more exotic the better. What about the boys -- and girls -- to come?"

"Just promise that you won't do anything like this again. We have them now. We'll shut them down lawfully." This group at least.

"So Thor and I aren't in any trouble?"

"I didn't say that. And while we're at it, let's talk again about what else you've seen through Thor's eyes." By the look of defiance on the boy's peaked features obviously quite a lot.

From the floor where she was just finishing attending to Thor's injury, Scully spoke in a voice that was soothing yet absolutely firm. "Intruding into other people's lives, invading their privacy? That's wrong."

"And what they did to me wasn't wrong?"

"I seem to remember an old adage about two wrongs," Mulder commented as he rose to help his partner repack her supplies. Mid- action he felt the unpleasant pull of still-tender tissues. That discomfort had been momentarily forgotten in the earlier scuffle.

"Then there's your traveling through Thor to me," he said, doing his best to sound paternally displeased, "don't you ever do that again either. Not to me, not to anyone."

Guiltily, the boy's head drooped. Then seeing Thor standing, albeit shakily, he reached out his thin arms for comfort. Thor made it up onto the bed and into those arms though with less than his usual bounce. Hugging his friend to him, the boy sank back against the pillows looking far too small and old for his age. From the bed the chocolate eyes followed Mulder as he started to leave with Scully.

"Please don't go. Could you... could you stay and talk to me today, at least until I fall asleep?"

Seeing her partner's hesitation, Scully gestured him closer to whisper, "I know you want to stay, so stay. I'll go deal with our two would-be assassins. We promised a statement. I'll also get things rolling in terms of closing down this sordid little ring. Take all the time you need."

It was a generous and kind gesture and all at once he wanted more than anything to kiss this loving woman, only there was Spark and his sad, hungry eyes.

The hell with it.

Bending, he kissed her softly on the forehead which they still did though more often than not their kisses moved from there to more intimate territory. Her eyes closed in pleasure and with a returning squeeze of her hand, she was gone.

"See," came a small and yet triumphant voice from the bed, "I knew that she'd like it."

Mulder whirled. "Not the way you did it!"

The smile vanished from the boy's sharp features and his hand clenched more fiercely into Thor's thick fur. "I said I was sorry. I just wanted to know what it was like between a man and a woman who actually cared for each other." In the bitterest of ironies, the boy who knew more of the dark side of sex then Mulder hoped that he would ever know, didn't know about the best parts.

"If not that, then talk to me about other things. Everything. Like how was it to grow four inches in one summer?"

"Painful, and it was six."

"Cool! Tell about the first time." The fixed brown eyes glittered with pleasure but behind them was a great hunger.

Heaven help us, Mulder mused.

After a moment, he took off his suit coat, loosened his tie, rolled up his shirtsleeves, took his place again in the chair beside the bed, and sighed. "I'm glad Scully's gone."

The boy grinned expectantly with his perfect white teeth.

"There's painful parts to this and it's not something I'm especially proud of, on the other hand..." A flood of bittersweet memories warmed him. "I warn you, it's a long story if you really want to understand it all."

"I'm not going anywhere," the boy responded eagerly.

Another sigh. "Very well."

"How old were you?"

"Fifteen. It had been a terrible summer and some of my so-called friends asked me to go with them to the State Fair and there was this gypsy fortune teller..."

"How old was she?"

"An older woman. In her twenties, if you must know, but am I telling this story or are you?"

Spark closed his mouth and made a zippering motion across his lips.

"All right then. Let me start from the beginning..."

Scully found herself dozing in the cab even though the ride was less that two miles. She had done a good night's work, but then she and Mulder were such heroes with the locals that it hadn't been hard. They booked the two would-be assassins on attempted murder and better yet got the ringleaders of the pedophile group-- those who still lived -- on murder-for-hire charges. She had not expected to see Mulder and hadn't. The man didn't just have a soft spot for children in distress, he had a whole bloody swamp. The girls reminded him of his sister, ripped from her life, her family; the boys reminded him of himself, equally traumatized, lonely and abused, psychologically if not physically. The man-to- man talk would do them both good.

The smell of wet street rose up to her as she crawled tiredly from the cab in front of the boy's building. The last of the street lights glittered in the puddles. As the sound of the taxi's engine faded away, there remained only that odd, almost unnatural quiet of a city just before dawn.

At that moment the front door of the building opened and Mulder himself sidled out. He was awkwardly burdened with a large shapeless bundle, which was wrapped in a blanket that Scully recognized as being from the sick room. She met him at the bottom of the short flight of stairs within steps of where their rental car was parked. He hadn't glanced up as he had come slowly down the steps, but with his face nearly hidden he had looked about as weary as she had ever seen him. Preoccupied with maneuvering the steps with his burden, he was unaware of her presence until she was beside him.

Red-rimmed eyes gazed on her gratefully from his gray and haggard face.

"Mulder, what is it? What's happened?" Fingers on his chin she turned his face to the east and the soft colors of coming dawn. There were tracks of tears on his stubbled cheeks. His eyes lowered towards the bundle he carried. The blanket-wrapped shape was large enough for the boy's emaciated body.

"What is this? Spark? Is he worse? Are you taking him to the hospital?"

The dark-haired head jerked in a negative sign. "Thor..." The word caught in his throat. Hurriedly, Scully folded back an edge of the blanket. Her probing fingers found cool, stiff skin under the thick, soft coat. That bubbling life force was still.

"Oh, Mulder...I don't understand. His injury wasn't that bad."

He clutched the bundle to him, his tired eyes closing. He opened his mouth to speak but couldn't get the words out. Giving up, he inclined his head towards the trunk. After she had unlocked it, he laid the motionless bundle tenderly in the back. With aching slowness, he straightened up and reached blindly for her hand.

"Spark's dead, too."

"No..." but she had half suspected that already.

"I was just telling him stories." Pent up before, the words tumbled out. "We'd been at it for hours. He was just lying there, eyes half open, this little smile on his face. I don't know how long he had been like that but too long." His grip tightened, grinding bone; his low, ragged voice staggered on. "He just slipped away. And...Thor...was lying beside him and when I bent to touch him I found he was gone, too..." The eyes closed, tears on their lashes. "They went together. That bond they shared..." Shaking himself as if from a dream, he pushed back from the car. "I've called for an ambulance. They'll be here for Spark soon, but Thor, I couldn't just leave him there. Just to be dispos--" His voice broke. For an instant his fury at the world surfaced so that he almost slammed the trunk closed. At the last second, however, he caught himself and shut it gently, applying only enough pressure so that the lock clicked. His eyes lifted then to a window on the top floor.

"At least you were there," she said, placing a small hand on his shoulder. "No one should have to die alone." Tenderly she turned over his hand and kissed the palm.

And you're not alone either, my love, and never will be.

"Come on," she said. "I'll come with you. We'll find out who his friends were in the building, try to contact his family, find something for the funeral."

Wordlessly, he nodded. They started forward. Suddenly, he took her into his trembling arms and buried his face in her hair. After a long moment, hand in hand, they climbed the steps together.


September 19

That night in the midst of death, they celebrated life. There was no talk of risk. That no longer mattered. Over the next two days they cleaned up everything they had to with the field office and the local police. Everyone cooperated in quiet efficiency, not as if Mulder would have noticed. Even Samson was surprisingly subdued. No cracks, not a one. He certainly went up several notches in Scully's book, but then the man would have needed to be made of stone not to see the grief that her partner wore about himself like a shroud.

There was no funeral. Only Agents Mulder, Scully and a half dozen 'family' members attended the graveside service. The words were few and impersonal. The eulogy was performed by a minister who clearly knew little or nothing about the boy.

It was at dusk that the real service began. Called by word-of- mouth they came by the hundreds; gray forms wrapped in mist. So silent were they that the tracks made in the wet grass were the only signs that the figures were not themselves the ghosts of the Civil War dead out for a stroll. The partners were only two of the number. In solemn procession at the head of the throng, Mulder, stiff with control, carried Thor in his arms. At the edge of the still-open grave they waited as from all directions the mourners came. Children, parents, shopkeepers and young professionals from blocks around - all came who had heard the inseparable sounds of athletic shoes and the 'click, click' of clawed paws on their streets and sidewalks.

As the last assembled, six silent men pulled the vault from the earth. A stony-faced octogenarian opened it as well as the small, lonely coffin within. By then there must have been two hundred souls all woven about in the fog that had flowed in from the river.

Two hundred and two, Mulder corrected to himself.

In the end the blanket covered both. It was a tight fit but the overwhelming consensus was that the two involved would rest easier now. When the partners and their fellow shades passed back into the land of the living, they left behind them in the twilight a new-covered mound bedecked with flowers and candy and, here and there, a dog biscuit. Oh, yes, and one peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

"That was irregular as hell, Mulder," Scully whispered as they neared their car, "if not down right illegal."

"As illegal as it is to die so young? Or if it isn't, it should be."

"How did they get the cemetery and mortuary staff to agree to this? I doubt that the family was even asked."

"The family was no family." Then Mulder remembered his 'dream', "Well, maybe the brothers and sisters, if they had not been so afraid of the uncle. That individual, by the way, will be receiving a visit from Social Services as soon as our report reaches a certain director's desk. As far as the community goes -- and the cemetery and mortuary staff are part of the community -- the official version of the story will be that a favorite keepsake was forgotten when the coffin was closed. Re-opening has been done before, only the humane thing to do for one so young. Internment was not even complete. Certainly He who ultimately bestows all forgiveness - or 'She' depending upon your level of PC -- won't mind."

"And the unofficial version?"

"Better this than having their children for the next hundred years sit before their cereal bowls and ask whether the child who was up all night walking the streets had found the dog he was calling for."

With understanding she took his hand and led him towards their car. Her small one was warm, where his was still cold. Home soon.

Trusting her to steer him clear of the forest of gravestones, Mulder briefly closed his eyes. Somewhere, he thought he heard the joyous bark of a dog, Lassie finding Timmy after one of their harrowing adventures, their Last harrowing adventure.

But then it might have just been his imagination.


Author's Notes: The story Mulder tells Spark about his 'first' time is actually an older story of mine (and shorter than this one) entitled, Carnival Dark, Carnival Light. If you are interested you can find it on my very inadequate web site at http://members.aol.com/windsinger and on Gossamer under Author, Esty and, probably a lot of other fan fic sites as well.


home   |   illustrations   |   trailers   |   my fanfic   |   contact me


This site was built by Theresa to display fan artwork and fan fiction based on the X-Files TV show and fan fiction written by other authors in the X-files fandom. No copyright infringement intended. All art and fiction is done for fun, and no profit is being made from this website. The X-Files belongs to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions and Fox. Please visit the official X-Files Website for more information on the show.