Title: The Firestorm

Author: The IMTP Producers

Rating: PG

Category: X

Keywords: Case file, MSR, M/S/Sk friendship

Spoilers: Fire, VS9

Archive: Two weeks exclusively on VS9, then Ephemeral. Others, please contact any of the producers for permission.

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. For the moment. No copyright infringement intended.

Summary: "Where there's smoke, there's fire" takes on a whole new meaning when Skinner joins Mulder and Scully on a case.

Feedback: A note in the IMTP VS9 guestbook would be greatly appreciated!

Authors' Notes: This special producers' offering is a team effort written by Vickie Moseley, Susan Proto, Sally Bahnsen, Theresa Filardo and dtg. Many thanks to Dawn for her spot-on beta delivered at light speed, and to Suzanne and Michelle for their timely suggestions. If you have even half as much fun reading this as we did putting it together, it will be time well spent!

The Firestorm by The IMTP Producers


Clifford Heights, IL
Early June, 2002

Kara Brooks looked around her newly painted bedroom and sighed. She'd just been moved from the only home she'd ever known, and Kara was still having trouble reconciling herself to it. She tried to imagine what it was going to look like once she'd unpacked all of her belongings. The robin's egg blue was a soothing shade that coordinated perfectly with the bright, royal blue carpet. Kara loved the feeling of her toes sinking into its plush, deep pile. But no matter how lovely it might be, it still wasn't "home".

She stood up and opened another cardboard box. She couldn't believe how many boxes were scattered around the room. "When the heck did I get all this junk anyway?" she asked herself aloud. When she finished digging out the top layer of crumpled newspapers, she discovered the box of stuffed animals that had always graced her bed. Her mother used to joke that there was barely enough room for Kara amidst all of her "loveys". She wondered if she should bother taking them out of the box. After all, she was a teenager now, and she wasn't sure it was still cool to have a bevy of stuffed animals lodging on her bed.

She heard a knock on her door. "Kara, are you hungry?" It was her dad.

"No," she replied. "Not right now. Maybe later."

"Okay, well, we're gonna call in for a pizza in a little while, okay?"

"Sure, Dad. Sounds great." She knew her tone said otherwise. Her dad must have heard it, too, because he opened the door.

"Kara, are you okay, hon?"

"Yeah, I'm good. Just a lot to do here, that's all."

"Well, Bonnie and I offered to help -"

"Dad, I know. But I gotta go through this stuff myself and decide where I want it all, ya know?"

"Yes, but if you're going to sit in your room all day getting bummed out over having to unpack everything..." he began, but stopped when he saw her withdraw even more. "Okay, okay. I'll leave you alone for now. But when the pizza comes, I expect you to join the family, understand?"

She nodded and watched him finally leave, closing the door behind him.

"Family?" Kara muttered aloud to herself. She'd never heard him refer to them as a family. Sure, her dad had invited her to join him and Bonnie for a meal, but never to join 'the family'. "Oh, yeah... we're a family," she whispered to herself.

Now the question was, did she believe it?

She returned her attention to the box of gray, furry elephants; brown-spotted puppies and soft, multi- striped snakes. She smiled at the small, gray seal pup that her mom had bought for her at the aquarium gift shop on their last vacation together. It had always been one of her favorites; it held a good memory for her.

But now she had to decide what to do with all of the junk in these boxes.

"God! I don't want to do this now!" she cried out in frustration.

Being thirteen years old and figuring out stuff was hard enough without adding a new house, new school, new friends, and a new stepmother into the mix. In all honesty, Kara liked the house. Her room was bigger than the one she'd had at the old house. And she did get to paint it whatever color she'd wanted.

And she knew school wasn't going to pose a problem. Sure she was a freshman at Clifford Heights High School, but she was taking all advanced courses and she was sure that she'd be able to keep up with her studies. That had never been a problem, even when she'd had to get through the time her mom was in the hospital. When she was dying. She'd still managed to ace all of her classes.

Friends. Well, that was a bit more of a cause for concern. Kara had always been seen as an egghead and therefore not cool to hang around with. She'd managed to nurture one friendship with Anna Lynn Collins, who was as big a nerd as Kara. The two girls hung out together and got along well. Best of all, no one bothered them, for which Kara was very grateful. It wasn't uncommon for those who were deemed uncool to be bullied by certain cliques at her old school. She hoped to avoid that at Clifford Heights.

Okay, then there was the matter of her stepmother. It wasn't that Bonnie was a bad person; she was actually a very nice person and her dad was obviously very much in love with her. But she wasn't her momma, a fact that had been heavy on her mind for the last year, ever since Bonnie had come into their lives.

From the time her dad had started dating Bonnie to the moment they'd said their "I Do's" at St. Mary's Church, Kara could not escape the thought that Bonnie might actually take her momma's place. It was crazy; Kara knew it was crazy because she loved her mom and always would. But Kara liked Bonnie; she liked having a woman to talk to about...women things. She was more than grateful for Bonnie's assistance when 'womanhood' had hit with a vengeance that first time. Kara still blushed with embarrassment at the idea of asking her dad to buy her "personal care" products.

And now they were in the new house, and Kara had to decide which of the things from her old life to include in her new one. Hard decisions for a thirteen-year-old. She wished her momma were here now.

She left the box of stuffed animals and moved to another box. Not finding what she was looking for, she opened yet another carton, and then another.

"There you are," she said, relieved. Kara pulled out the carefully-wrapped item, and removed the newspaper wrapping. She looked at the silver photo frame and breathed warm air onto it. She buffed it with her cotton sleeve and smiled as she saw its shine reappear. Kara set the framed photo of Lisa Brooks on her nightstand. "Welcome to your new home, Momma."

Then Kara scrunched up the strewn, crumpled newsprint and jammed it into the wastebasket. She looked over at her mom's photo and stared at it.

And stared at it.

And stared.

Downstairs, Kevin and Bonnie Brooks were in the midst of a somewhat heated and sadly familiar discussion.

"Kevin, I think you're overreacting."

"You didn't know her before. She was never like this."

"Like what? A thirteen-year-old girl who's going through enough physical and emotional changes to send any normal human being into a straight jacket?" retorted Bonnie.

"No! It's just that she's never been this withdrawn before."

"Kev, she's got a lot to deal with. She's never exactly been Miss Popularity, has she?"

"No, but--"

Bonnie cut him off. "Listen to me. She's a good kid. C'mon, how ridiculous is this? I'm supposed to be the evil stepmother complaining about the stepchild, not defending her! What's wrong with this picture, Kevin?"

He had to smile at that. "Okay, maybe I am being a worrywart over nothing. You know what? I'm starving. Let's call for that pizza now, okay?"

Bonnie nodded and dialed the number on the pizza-shaped refrigerator magnet that had come in their "welcome" kit. After calling in the order, she said, "Why don't you go up and let Kara know I'm gonna have dinner whipped up in about twenty minutes."

Kevin laughed. "Emeril, eat your heart out!" He turned and started up the stairs to his daughter's bedroom.

Kara was gazing so intently at her mother's photograph that when her door opened and her father called out to her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Kara! What the hell are you doing?"

"What?" she asked, her voice filled with confusion.

"Jesus Christ, Kara! We just moved in for God's sake!"

"Daddy, what's wrong?" she cried out as she saw him rush over to the wastebasket.

The crumpled wads of newsprint were aflame in the basket, sending glowing bits of paper floating lazily to the carpet at her feet.


Act I

J. Edgar Hoover Building
Washington, D.C.
Six months later
Monday, 4:40 p.m.

One minute, forty-five seconds from portal to portal. Down the hall to the elevator, up three floors, then twenty-three paces to the A.D.'s office door. How many trips did it take to start earning frequent-ass-chewing miles? And what did it say about him that he had this level of detail in his head?

"Mulder? If you go in there with that look on your face, you'll guarantee us an extra ten minutes on the carpet."

The picture that popped into his head had nothing to do with their boss's floor covering. Visions of a recent Saturday afternoon in front of Scully's fireplace and a well-earned complement of rug burns put a grin on his face. "Nothing like a few extra minutes on the carpet with the one you love."

The elevator doors opened onto a small crowd of their fellow agents, cutting off her snappy comeback, but Mulder saw the smile before she turned her face away.

Kimberly looked up and smiled as they entered. "He's waiting for you. Go right in."

Scully and Mulder exchanged glances. Kimberly's greeting was generally a pretty fair indication of her boss's mood. Whatever he'd called them up here for, it wasn't something he'd been ranting about to his assistant. That could mean that the report Mulder had turned in Friday afternoon, the one Scully had been so concerned about, had made it past the first hurdle.

Mulder leaned down and put his lips close to his partner's ear. "You owe me a buck." He gave her an I- told-you-so wink and turned to Skinner's door, pushing it open as he knocked.

"Come in, agents." Skinner glanced up quickly, then returned his attention to the folder in front of him.

Mulder tried to assess the A.D.'s mood. 'Awkward' was as close as he could come, and his burst of optimism took a sudden downturn. Scully apparently felt it, too, judging by the look she gave him as they took their seats.

The man wasted no time getting to the point. "I'll be accompanying you on this next case. Let's just get that out of the way so we can move on." He folded his hands and looked directly at Mulder.

His statement was greeted with stunned silence. Mulder was actually at a loss for words. His partner was not.

"Sir, may I ask why?"

Skinner pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers, then readjusted his glasses and refolded his hands. "Expenditure validation was, I believe, the term that was used. What it boils down to is that your creative record-keeping has finally surpassed my tap dancing ability." He turned his focus to Mulder. "It was either agree to accompany you on the next case personally, or allow your favorite bean counter to go in my place. Which would you have preferred?"

Mulder found his voice. "And what is this supposed to accomplish? Teach us not to have that second snifter of brandy after dinner? What the hell do they think we're doing out there?" He was leaning forward, both hands clenched around the arms of his chair.

Scully touched his arm. "Mulder--"

"We already have our names in the roach motel hall of fame. I've replaced three cell phones out of my own pocket this year alone, not to mention the suits that haven't survived their first trip into the field. I know I don't need to tell you of all people that what we do is a little outside the norm. So, what's this really about? Another lame--"

Skinner held up one hand and Mulder stopped. "It's a formality. Let's not read anymore into it. I'll verify that your expenses are valid, and that will be the end of it." He opened the case file and pulled out a stack of photographs. "A postal employee in Clifford Heights, Illinois is recovering from burns suffered when his backpack caught--"

Mulder heard Skinner stop in mid-sentence, but his focus was elsewhere. The silent debate he was engaged in with his partner required his full attention.


Scully's eyes flashed a parting shot and she turned to face their boss. "Yes, sir?"

"If I could have your full attention?" The corner of his mouth was twitching in what, on anyone else, Mulder would have seen as a smirk.

"Yes, sir." They answered in unison, and this time the smirk almost got away from Skinner, but the stern mask quickly returned.

"The victim was burned over sixty percent of his body by what at first appeared to be a letter bomb. He insists that his entire pack burst into flame as he was leaving the last house on his route. Not just the contents, the canvas bag as well."

Scully reached for the photographs and began to leaf through the stack. "Why couldn't it still have been a letter bomb of some kind?" She leaned to her right and held the photographs so Mulder could see them.

"I can see why this would fall under Federal jurisdiction, but why assign it to us? What makes it an X file?" That was usually Scully's line. He saw her glance up at him, stifling the same smirk he'd seen on Skinner a moment ago.

"The victim claims that the letters in his hand ignited at the same time."

Mulder looked up. "Spontaneous combustion with two separate points of origin?"

"The initial forensic evidence would seem to bear him out. There's also the fact that the house he was leaving when the incident occurred has had four unexplained fires in the six months since the new owners moved in. The only common factor in all of these incidents, including the attack on the postal employee, appears to be the owners' thirteen-year-old daughter, who seems to have been present each time."

That got his attention. "Has the girl ever shown any telekinetic ability before this?"

Scully dropped the photographs in her lap. "Who said anything about telekinesis?"

"At the moment, it's as plausible an explanation as any. Unless you prefer spontaneous combustion?"

"Mulder, the evidence is inconclusive. That does not automatically open the door to something paranormal."

Skinner cleared his throat, and both agents turned to face him. "We leave for Chicago tomorrow morning. Clifford Heights is an hour's drive south. I'll pick Scully up at 6:30. Mulder, we'll be by for you at 7:00."

Scully stood up and handed the photos back to him. Mulder remained in his chair.

"Was there something you wanted to say, Agent Mulder?"

"Sir, will this trip answer any questions regarding the... legitimacy of our budget, or--"

"Or will I be tagging along on future assignments?" Skinner's jaw tightened, and Mulder could swear there was another smirk in there somewhere. "Not if I can help it." He closed the folder and held it out to Mulder. "I'll see you in the morning."

Scully opened the door and turned to wait for her partner. Mulder tucked the folder under his arm and followed her out, closing the door behind him.


The Brooks Household
Monday, 4:54 p.m.

Kara sat in the center of her bed, waggling her number two pencil between her fingers. If she moved her hand up and down at just the right speed, the stiff yellow piece of wood and graphite would begin to look rubbery. After about five minutes of zoning out on the "flaccid" pencil, she finally dropped it onto her open textbook. It bounced once, then settled into the crack between the pages.

Word problems. It wasn't that she disliked Math. It was just that the problems never seemed to relate to anything useful. She stared at the open page which displayed a color photo of an Amtrak train zooming across the great plains somewhere in America. It was always a train, wasn't it? Who cared if two trains raced from New York to Boston? If anyone really wanted to get somewhere sooner, they should have taken an earlier train.

She sighed heavily and noticed a smell just on the farthest edges of her perception. It was not quite sweet, and it carried a hint of garlic and herbs along with it. Mmm... food. Her tummy reacted with an elongated creaking sound. She glanced down at her assignment: five more problems to go. Kara wondered if she had time to finish those before...



"Kara, dear, would you be able to take a break and set the table for me?" Bonnie called from downstairs.

"Be right down!" she groaned, loathing the choice between pointless story problems and chores. She didn't like her options.

It was nice, though, to be able to reclaim the role of "daughter" again. At least she was no longer the one juggling both homework and cooking until her father came home from work. Bonnie seemed to be getting into the Holly Homemaker thing. "Let's see how long it takes her to get tired of it," Kara thought darkly.

As she hopped off the last step and rounded the corner into the kitchen, Kara was hit with the full olfactory onslaught of Bonnie's experimentations. She gasped at the hanging sting of onion acid in the air.

She had to smirk as she let her mind return for the briefest moment to her homework upstairs. If Bonnie were to use three more vegetables and two more cubes of tofu in her "Bonnie's Special Veggie Surprise", how much more time would I have to spend in the bathroom from all the fiber intake?

"What's that, K?" Bonnie asked. Kara hadn't realized she was muttering under her breath.

"Oh, smells great, Bonnie. Um, what did you want me to do first?"

Her stepmother turned from the sink, wet hands cupping a dripping mound of soaked beans. She blew a stray clump of curly brown hair from her forehead and pointed her chin in the direction of the hutch. "Why don't you start by setting the table? I think we'll eat in the kitchen tonight."

Kara strolled over to the china closet and found her Dad's Aztec-patterned dinnerware, the ones he had bought especially for his weird culinary excursions. When he was feeling brave, he used to invite Bonnie over to try out Emeril's "hot dish of the week." The plates were his special guest-ware, because he wanted the "perfect canvas" to present his masterpiece. They seemed fitting, seeing as how Bonnie was in an experimental mood.

She grabbed three plates, some napkins and silverware, then carried everything over to the kitchen table.

Bonnie glanced over her shoulder as she piled the beans onto a bed of green leaf lettuce. "Oh, no, dear, use the everyday Corelle dishes. This is nothing fancy we have to bother over."

Kara bit back an urge to argue. Did she want her to help or not? What difference did it make which dishes they used? She held the plates a moment longer, feeling a little defiant, almost setting the table her way anyway. Instead, she pursed her lips and said, "Fine," and carried the Aztec guest-ware back where she found it.

It was a funny thing, Kara realized. They had never used the everyday plates before the wedding. Since Bonnie had been living with them and had settled herself into their lives, it felt weirdly intimate -- like telling someone what kind of deodorant you use. People weren't supposed to know stuff like that. And guests weren't supposed to see the everyday dishes. Now Bonnie was telling her, in her own house, to use them... just like it was any normal weekday evening -- nothing special. She wasn't sure, but when Kara thought about it, she almost enjoyed that idea.

She found the white Corelle plates in the cabinet next to the refrigerator, and was about to pull one down, when her finger snagged on a rough spot, right on the edge of the plate. She jerked her hand back from the sharp pinch, pulling down the plate in the process. It crashed to the floor and seemed to explode in a hundred pieces all over the linoleum.

Bonnie gasped, and Kara flinched, expecting the usual barrage of anger thrown in her direction. Instead, her step-mom rushed over to her; agitated, yes, but more concerned than anything. "Kara, are you all right? Let me see."

She presented her cut finger like a little girl. She half expected Bonnie to kiss it, the way she was hovering.

"I'll be right back with a Band-Aid and some antiseptic. Run it under some water to clean it out."

Kara did as she was told, a little shaken just from the noise of the crashing plate. She noticed one of the larger pieces of debris -- the one that actually had the chip that cut her. She remembered that accident as well. She'd been washing the dishes for her *real* mom, helping her because she *wanted* to. The little bump against the porcelain sink had sounded like she broke the whole plate. Her mother instantly began yelling at her for her clumsiness. Kara knew she'd had a bad day at the doctor's. That was the reason she was helping. She tried to remind herself while her mother unloaded on her that it was the stress talking, but she'd finished the chore in miserable silence.

And now, the plate had actually broken but Bonnie was showing nothing but concern for her, like her mom used to before she'd gotten so sick. Before Kara had had to grow up too early and become the caregiver. Before everything--

Her stepmother returned and nursed her wound. "You OK? You know, it can happen to anyone. Let's clean this up before your father gets home."

Bonnie grabbed a dustpan and they were both sweeping up the tiny pieces when a whiff of something foul- smelling wafted past their noses.

"My tofu!" Bonnie yelled in distress, and dropped the dustpan, scattering the pieces again.

At the same moment, Kara heard the front door open and her father called into the house, "I'm back!" As she bent down toward the mess on the floor, she heard him walk through the dining room.

"Whew! I must have just saved this! Funny, nothing seems to be burned..." Bonnie mused, but got cut off by a very angry sounding man.

"What the hell!"

Suddenly a flurry of motion swept through the kitchen. Kara vaguely processed the image of her father diving across the kitchen for the fire extinguisher and flying back into the dining room. Bonnie followed after him, and Kara heard her scream. A smoky smell filled the air, and it definitely wasn't Bonnie's bad cooking.

Kara felt dread sink into the pit of her stomach, for she knew it was happening again. She slowly got up and inched around the corner of the doorway to peer into the dining room. White foam splattered the floral wallpaper and covered a smoldering rectangular object on the wall. Her father put down the red tank and wiped at the wall, revealing a singed wooden frame, and a very charred, slightly melted image behind the cracked glass.

She knew that photograph well: her father in a brand new blue suit, his hands resting on the shoulders of his two "best girls." One wore her white chiffon gown and held a large bouquet of daisies. The other in her first formal gown, powder blue with short sleeves. Kara loved that dress.

She could see the image of his and Bonnie's wedding day with her eyes closed, which was the *only* way she'd ever be able to see it now, for it was forever stained with burn marks from the flames that her father had just extinguished.

He turned toward her slowly. "Kara, I don't know what you're trying to do here, but it's got to stop now!"

"Kevin, she was with me the whole-- " Bonnie stopped in mid-sentence. She glanced quickly at her stepdaughter. Kara could see her processing the information behind saddened eyes. She hadn't been with her the whole time. So, she was taking her father's side!

Kevin Brooks slapped his hand against his thigh in frustration, wiping sticky foam over his suit-pants. "Her bedroom, the videotapes. . . now this?"

Kara was jolted by the anger in his voice. She opened her mouth once, then ran upstairs, slammed the door shut, and flung herself onto the bed.

"It wasn't me..." she whimpered into her pillow. She stared blurry-eyed at her mother's picture. "Momma, I wish you were still here."


Mulder's Apartment
Monday, 10:35 p.m.

Mulder was attempting to stuff another pair of black socks into the already straining-at-the-seams side pocket of his two-suiter while juggling the phone between his right shoulder and ear.

"I'm telling you, Scully, he made this whole thing up," he said with as much conviction as he could muster while grunting at the uncooperative footwear.

"Why, Mulder? Why on earth would the man make up a story like that? Besides, you know as well as I do that Accounting has been on the warpath lately. I'm surprised we haven't been brought before the OPR on some of your expense reports! So how can you say Skinner is making this up? Do you think he's just bored behind that desk and wants to come out and play?"

"I think he suspects something. I think he's on to us."

There, it was out in the open. Mulder could practically *feel* the little frown line forming between her eyebrows.

"So why not just come out and ask?" she countered. "Why all the game playing?"

"Because he wants to be sure," Mulder shot back. At that precise moment, the socks slipped into the pocket and he was able to zip it shut. Another sign that he was right about their boss and his sudden interest in what went on out in the field. At least to Mulder it was.

"I just think you're being . . ."

"If you say 'paranoid' that's TWO back rubs you owe me," he interjected before she could finish her thought.

"I was going to say 'overly concerned'," she replied dryly.

"Same thing. Two back rubs. Payable upon demand."

"Sure, fine, whatever." Her voice had the quality that came from being strained through gritted teeth. "I still think you're making too much of this."

"Then explain to me why I'm sleeping on my couch, without my favorite 'blanket' and that same 'blanket' is going to be across town, sleeping in her awfully big and cold bed tonight?"

"Because our boss is picking me up at 6:30 and you at 7:00," she reminded him.

"I could have been out before he got there," he shot back.

Her snort was most unladylike. "Mulder, you have never managed to wake up before 7:30 any time we've slept together."

"Face it, Scully. You're thinking the same thing. Skinner is going to be watching us like a hawk. We have to be very careful."

She sighed, and he knew she was about to change the subject to something he wouldn't like. "It's fire, Mulder," she said quietly.

A shiver went down his spine. "I know." He couldn't have said more if he'd tried.

"Are you OK with this? I mean, with Skinner there and everything..."

"I managed to get Thor out of that building, Scully," he reminded her. It still caused a little pang in his heart to think of the huge, loveable mutt, even if he couldn't recall all of their time together. Maybe some memories were better left buried.

"When you found Thor, the fire was out, Mulder. This time the fires seem to be ongoing. And spontaneous. We won't have any warning. I just don't like the thought of you--"

"If you're there, I'll be fine," he said with more confidence than he felt.

"I'll be there, but Skinner will be, too. And he'll be watching,"

"See! You do think he's up to something! You just don't want to admit it," Mulder taunted.

"Whether he's 'up to something' or not, we have to be very careful. We've managed to keep this from him so far, and I want it to stay that way."

"I know, Scully. I know. I'll promise to be on my best behavior. I mean, how bad can it be? It's not like I have to room with the guy."

She chuckled lightly into the phone. "He'd be asking for another room the minute you started to snore," she teased.

"I do not snore!" he exclaimed, putting on his best 'I'm offended' voice.

"Yeah. Must be that other guy I sleep with," she teased.

"Scully, keep this up and I'm coming over..." They both knew he was only half kidding.

"Sweet dreams, G-man. I'll see you in the morning."

"Back at ya. Hey, and Scully?"

"Yes, Mulder?"

"If I do have to room with Skinner, would you shoot me? I usually get private rooms in the hospital."

"Good night, Mulder."


Act II

404 Millbrook Lane
Clifford Heights, IL
Tuesday, 12:20 p.m.

There were certain privileges that came with being an Assistant Director in the FBI, Mulder knew. A big office, a polished oak desk, a personal assistant who could be summoned with the flick an intercom switch.

And it apparently also included the power to commandeer the front seat of a car and take over the driving.

Sometimes protocol sucked, Mulder mused to himself from his assigned spot in the back seat.

"Scully will be my navigator, Mulder," Skinner had announced. "It's a documented fact that you couldn't navigate your way out of a paper bag."

Squished into the tiny space behind his boss, long legs alternately slung into the space behind Scully and then back to his own side where his size-13 feet were jammed underneath the seat in front. (It would seem that being an Assistant Director didn't extend to having enough influence to obtain a bigger rental car.) Mulder had even toyed with the idea of sticking his toes up so they would form a hard lump underneath his boss's rear end, but he'd opted instead for the more constructive activity of flipping through the case file to familiarize himself with the police and fire reports before they arrived at the Brooks' residence.

Telekenisis. Mulder's skin positively tingled with the thought of pursuing such a possibility. It was only the fact that Skinner was tagging along like a bad impersonation of someone's kid brother that had thrown cold water on his excitement. Well, that and the obvious problems inherent whenever Mulder and fire came into close proximity. But he'd been okay with that, knowing Scully would be at his side. *His* side.

Currently ensconced in the Brooks living room, Mulder glared silently at his boss.

It should have been him sitting beside Scully during the long drive from Chicago, not Skinner. Just as it should be him now, leaning back in the two-seater couch, ankle crossed over knee and elbow brushing against Scully's as he conducted the interview. Not Skinner! A.D. Skinner, the observer. Mr. "Its-just-a- formality".

If eyeballs were bullets, Skinner would be a dead man.

Mulder forcibly reined in his hostility. No use dwelling on what couldn't be helped. Maybe if he just ignored Skinner, pretended he wasn't there, he might be able to handle this unwanted invasion of his investigative privacy without resorting to violence. Sighing quietly to himself, Mulder sat up straight in the chair and pulled a notebook and pen from his pocket.

They had dispensed with the formalities earlier and been led into a very comfortable living room furnished in the American version of an English country house: elegant dark oak tables, faux open beam ceilings and floral print overstuffed furniture. A large bowl of potpourri waged a futile battle to hide the lingering smell of smoke and burnt timber that hung in the air.

No matter how hard he tried not to stare, Mulder's gaze kept returning to the blackened hole in the wall beside the dining room table. The affected area looked as if an acetylene torch had been held against it until the wallboard turned to charcoal. He wondered what could have ignited that would allow the damage to be so contained.

When Scully started to speak, Mulder turned his attention back to the two people sitting diagonally across from him. A man and woman who held their bodies too rigid, whose strained expressions told him that they would rather be doing anything else other than sitting here talking to the FBI.

"Mr. Brooks, as my partner explained when we arrived, we're here investigating an incident that nearly killed an employee of the U.S. Postal Service in your front yard. Do you recall the incident?"

Kevin Brooks huffed a humorless laugh, "It's not something we're likely to forget in a hurry. But as I told the police, Bonnie and I were in the kitchen. We had just sat down to lunch, so we really didn't see anything." He leaned over and laid a reassuring hand on his wife's arm.

"Do you normally come home from work to eat lunch?" Mulder asked, keeping his expression bland and non- threatening.

"I work from home. My office is out back."

"What do you do, Mr. Brooks?"

"I'm an electrical engineer."

Mulder nodded thoughtfully, leaned back in his chair and made a note in his book.

Scully picked up on Mulder's cue and resumed her line of questioning. "Did either of you hear anything?"

"Of course. The man was screaming for help not twenty feet from our front door," Kevin answered testily.

"What did you do?"

Kevin shrugged, "We went to see what the hell was going on. When I opened the front door and saw that man rolling on the ground with his clothes in flames, I yelled out to Bonnie to call 911."

"Did you do anything to help the victim?"

"I grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and tried to smother the flames." Kevin's brown eyes lost focus, his expression dark and serious as his thoughts seemed to turn inward, perhaps reliving the horror of watching a man burning to death in front of him.

"Mr. Brooks, where was your daughter at the time of the incident?" Mulder asked.

Kevin Brooks snapped back to the present as if he had been doused in icy water.

"What?" He couldn't have sounded more outraged if they'd asked him to consider selling his daughter into the white slave trade.

"We have eye witness testimony that puts your daughter at the scene just before the postal worker's bag ignited," Mulder said, holding the man's angry gaze.

"What the hell has that got to do with anything? Just what are you implying?"

Scully gave Mulder a look that told him she wondered where he was going with this. When it became obvious that he wasn't going to answer the man's question, she said, "We're interviewing all witnesses, Mr. Brooks. We are not implying anything about your daughter. If she is able to help..."

"Leave her out of this!" Kevin snapped.

Mulder saw Bonnie take her husband's hand and entwine her fingers with his, rubbing soothing circles over the knuckles with her other hand. Scully was watching, too, he noted. It was the same gesture she often used to comfort him, and Mulder could see the shared memories in her eyes. How at the end of the day they would lay in each others arms, safe and protected for a few short hours from a world that sometimes felt as if all that existed in it were unimaginable horrors. Mulder knew that his partner wasn't conscious of the angry look she was shooting in Skinner's direction. If it wasn't for him, they would be sharing a bed tonight as usual. She was as upset about this as he was.

"Kara didn't see anything. The police have already questioned her. They've questioned us. *We* didn't see anything. I don't understand why you're here. What do you want from us?" Bonnie turned pleading eyes to her husband.

Mulder studied the couple for a second, trying to make sense of the defensive stance they were taking. He wondered what his boss was making of this and glanced quickly at Skinner. He tried to gauge the expression on his boss's face, but the A.D. was giving no indication of what was going on in his head.

Scully spoke up again, her voice calm and soothing. "Mrs. Brooks, we are simply trying to get to the bottom of this. A man is in the hospital with burns over sixty percent of his body. We need to find out what caused this, and to do that we have to talk to anyone who might have seen what happened."

Breathing deeply, Bonnie Brooks nodded and gave Kevin's hand a gentle squeeze.

"I believe you've been the victims of several house fires yourselves over the past few months." Mulder said, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward.

"Who told you that?" Kevin asked, slipping his hand out from his wife's grip and folding both arms across his chest.

Scully flipped through her note pad, the pages rustling loudly in the still room. "We have four reports from the fire department documenting their attendance at four separate fires here. The police report also says that neighbors mentioned several smaller outbreaks around the home. What do you think is causing them, Mr. Brooks?"

Mulder didn't miss the way Kevin dug his fingers into the flesh of his upper arms, a small muscle twitching along his jaw line. Nor did he miss the flash of fear that sparked for just a second in Bonnie's eyes.

"Mr. Brooks, can you think of anyone who might hold a grudge against you, or your wife and daughter?" This from Skinner.

Mulder had wondered when it would become too much for Skinner to remain the silent observer.

"A grudge? You think someone is doing this deliberately?" Kevin's hostility receded a little, genuine surprise coloring his words.

"It's a possibility we need to consider," Scully said.

"What about your line of work?" Skinner asked, "Any disgruntled clients, bad debts?"

One field trip in how many months and suddenly he thinks he's Magnum, PI. The A.D. was really starting to get under Mulder's skin. Not content to simply take over the car, the driving, and his partner, now the man was muscling in on his investigation. There's gotta be a way of ditching him, Mulder thought as he stared daggers at his boss.

"No. No unhappy customers and no bad debtors."

"Any problems with the neighbors?" Mulder asked, determined to reel this investigation back into his own lap.

"None. Mostly, we all keep to ourselves. We say hey every now and then, and we talk about the weather, but that's about it."

"Can you think of anyone that might want to hurt you, Mrs. Brooks?" Scully asked.

"No, nobody. We've never had anything like this happen before, it's only since we moved here. The first fire got started on the day we moved in. There hadn't been time to make enemies."

"Is there a history of this happening with the previous owners?" Scully asked.

"I wouldn't think so. The house wasn't in great shape when we bought it, but there was no sign of fire damage. We've pulled up carpets and put new ones down, and painted the house inside and out. I'm sure we would have seen *something*," Bonnie answered.

Mulder scribbled in his notebook, then looked up and asked, "How has your daughter settled into her new neighborhood? Is there any possibility that these fires might be directed at her?"

"Of course not. She's thirteen, for God's sake, what the hell kind of a question is that?" Kevin's eyes burned and his nostrils flared as his anger started to climb again.

Ignoring Kevin's outburst, Mulder pressed on. "Any problems at school? How are her grades?"

Kevin ran a hand over his face, sighing loudly before answering. "Kara is a good kid. An 'A' student. When her mother passed away nearly two years ago it was really hard on her..."

"I...I'm sorry. Mrs. Brooks," Mulder turned to Bonnie, "you're not Kara's mother?"

Kevin answered for his wife, taking one of her hands in both of his before doing so, "Bonnie and I married seven months ago. When Lisa, Kara's mom, died of breast cancer, Kara took it pretty hard. It wasn't easy for either of us, but we got through it. Together. Kara took on the role of homemaker. It seemed to help her cope." Kevin shook his head and chuffed a soft laugh. "She would always make sure there was a meal on the table at night, that I had clean clothes to wear...she's a good kid, Agent Mulder. I can't for the life of me imagine her making enemies anywhere."

"How did she react to you marrying again?"

"Kev, let me answer that." Bonnie smiled at her husband. "When Kev and I first started dating, I could detect a note of resentment from her. But as time went on and she realized I was in for the long haul, she started to relax. We got along fine, we *do* get along fine. I try to be there for her, and I think she appreciates having another woman in the house to talk to. I don't try to take the place of her mom; I couldn't be what Lisa was to her, I know that. We take one day at a time, and I really think she is starting to accept me as part of the family."

Scully asked, "Mr. Brooks, would you agree with that?"

A slight hesitation, a quick lick of his lips, an almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow, but Mulder noted them all. "Kara likes Bonnie. We don't have anything to worry about there."

"How do you account for the fact that Kara has been the only one present at all the fires that have broken out around your house?" Mulder asked, deciding a change of tack was in order.

But before either of the Brooks could answer, there was a soft popping sound followed by a hiss and a crackle. A bright orange light ignited in Mulder's hand.

"Oh my God!" Scully and Skinner raced to where Mulder was sitting. The A.D. began stamping his foot on the flames as the small notebook Mulder had been holding lay burning on the floor.

"Shit!" Mulder jumped to his feet, too, but his focus was on his arm, frantically batting the flames licking at the sleeve of his jacket.

"Here!" Bonnie helped Scully wrap a throw blanket around Mulder's hand and arm, effectively smothering the flames.

"Get me some water, hurry." Scully said to Bonnie, not bothering with the niceties of "please and thank you".

"Mulder, sit down." But Mulder had other ideas. He stood, hunched over his injured left hand, cradling it in his right and cursing softly.

"Sit, Mulder. Let me take a look." A bucket appeared at Scully's side. She took it and carefully lowered Mulder's hand into the cool water over his hisses of protest.

Mulder sat on the edge of the chair, right forearm leaning on his knee and left hand submerged in the bucket between his legs. His whole body felt as if all its nerve endings were centered around his burnt hand. It both throbbed and stung, intense heat resonating from fingertips to wrist. The pain sent his stomach into nauseous spasms.

"Agent Scully, is there anything I can do?" Skinner was crouched beside her, eyebrows pulled into a tight frown, voice strained with concern.

"Yes, help me remove his watch. Be careful of any clothing that might be stuck to the skin. Don't pull on it if it is."

Skinner gently pried Mulder's watch loose, stifling a gasp as a small strip of skin came away with it.

"Should I call 911?" Kevin Brooks asked, a slight tremble to his voice.

"NO! No. It's okay." Mulder said, eyes darting between Kevin and Scully.

But it was obvious he was anything but okay. His face was pale, the features drawn and pinched, and his lips were pressed so tightly together they almost appeared bloodless. Scully reached up and pressed two fingers to the pulse point in Mulder's neck, frowning at what she found.

"We need to get him to the Emergency Room." Then turning to the Brooks, who were helplessly looking on, "Where's the nearest hospital?"

"It's Clifford County Medical Center. I'll draw you a map." Kevin Brooks hurried off to find a pencil and paper, obviously glad to have something constructive to do.

"Bonnie, could you get me a clean sheet? An old one will do. I need you to wet it with cold water. And I need some ice in a plastic bag."

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Bonnie's apology followed her out of the room as she left to find the sheet and ice.

Scully turned back to Mulder, her expression deeply concerned. He sat hunched forward in the chair, head now propped on his right hand, teeth biting into the fleshy area under his thumb.

Ignoring the fact that their boss was squatting right beside her, Scully reached up and cupped Mulder's jaw. Gently stroking his cheek with her index finger. "How are you holding up, partner?"

"'m 'kay." But he couldn't help a low groan as the intense pain in his hand drove all pretense of being "fine" right out of his head. "I think I need to get out of here, Scully. I don't feel so good." Mulder swallowed thickly as his stomach gave him a not-so- gentle reminder that it wasn't doing too well either.

"Here you go, Agent Scully." Bonnie Brooks handed her the wet sheet and a bag of ice.


Carefully, Scully pulled Mulder's hand from the bucket of water and wrapped it lightly in the cool, wet sheet, wincing at the red, blistered skin covering his fingers, palm and wrist. She laid the bag of ice across the sheet.

Scully turned to Skinner, "Sir, can you help me get him to the car?"

Skinner hooked his left arm under Mulder's right and helped him to his feet, stumbling slightly when Mulder's knees seemed to give a little. "Easy, Mulder. I've got you."

Scully supported his left arm, making sure the wet sheet and ice didn't slip and that his hand was elevated above his heart.

"I'll get the door." Kevin went ahead of them, making sure the path was clear.

Back in the living room, Bonnie stood alone. Arms hugging her chest as she watched the three FBI agents leave her home. Her eyes strayed to the ruined notebook lying on the floor, reduced to nothing more than a small pile of ash. She scanned the dining room, eyes coming to rest on the blackened wall where their wedding photo had hung. She thought of the various other fires that had broken out around the house during the past six months. "God, why is this happening?" She pleaded quietly to herself.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs. A stifled sob, then a blur of red and blue clothing whizzed through the dining room and disappeared into the kitchen.

"Kara?" Bonnie called after her stepdaughter, but the only answer she received was the creak of hinges and the sound of the back door slamming shut.


Skinner had helped get Mulder out to the car, then had stood back and watched while Scully helped her partner situate himself in the front seat. He had sensed their awkwardness; her need to touch him was as obvious as his need to be touched. This was the first opportunity they'd had to hold on to one another legitimately in front of him. Helluv an excuse, he thought to himself. The careful distance the two of them continued to maintain in his presence only reinforced his recent decision to have a talk with them about their...situation.

After his agents drove off, the A.D. turned and started to walk back to the house. A flash of color drew his attention to a tree behind the house. There was a tree house near the top, and he realized that he'd just seen someone moving around in it.

Skinner moved to the large oak and called upward. "Hello? Who's up there?" He wasn't surprised by the lack of a response, but the idea of having to climb up the somewhat rickety-looking ladder didn't sit well with him either.

"Kara? Is that you?" Once again, silence prevailed, and Skinner played his trump card. "Kara, I know that it's you up there. If I have to, I'll climb up to speak with you, but I don't know if your ladder is going to hold me. So how about making it easy on the old guy and come down here so we can chat?" He waited a moment and added, "Honey, I just want to talk to you. Please."

The small, almost mousy-looking child peered out from the treetop framework, and appeared to be debating what to do next. Finally, as if deciding to face the inevitable, she backed out of the doorway and climbed down the ladder.

"Thank you, Kara, for coming down to speak with me." She remained mute, standing with her head down. "Do you have any idea what's going on?"

She shook her head without saying a word.

"Kara, I bet it's pretty scary to have to move to a new neighborhood after living all those years in your old one. Probably a little frightening to have to start a new school, too, I guess." He waited for a response, a small reaction at the very least, but got nothing.

"Kara, I have to ask you-- what's going on? How come there's been all of these fires lately?"

At this the child looked up, and her eyes searched his. Finally, she said, in a small, almost weary voice, "I don't know. I don't know how they start or why."

"Is it possible, Kara, that you-- "

She cut him off immediately. "--No! I haven't done anything! It's not my fault! It's not-- Oh, no!"

The young teenager's eyes widened; fear evident all over her face. Skinner's eyes turned to what had caught hers, and immediately jumped to his side as heat and flames danced uncomfortably close to his body.

"Jesus!" he yelled out, but once he was a safe distance from the fire, he quickly ascertained the situation.

A damned rose bush just burst into flames, he thought incredulously.

He moved quickly to look for something to put the fire out, and noticed a garden hose that lay near the foundation of the building. He squeezed the trigger nozzle, and was relieved to see water spout out. He pulled the hose along with him and sprayed the bush, effectively putting the fire out almost as quickly as it had started.

Skinner took a deep breath and allowed his heart rate to return to normal. Damnedest thing, he thought. At that moment it dawned on him that he was standing out there alone. "Kara? Where are you?" He received no answer. "Damnedest thing."

He looked up and once again perceived movement, only this time it was by the back door. "Kara?" he called out.

"Please don't talk to my daughter without her stepmother or me present, Mr. Skinner. You've upset her greatly." Kevin Brooks' tone matched the stern look on his face.

Skinner wondered, exactly when had Mr. Brooks appeared at the back door?


Motel 6
Tuesday, 6:20 p.m.

After his aborted interview with the girl, Skinner had attempted to get back on track with her father and stepmother. The atmosphere had become decidedly chilly and, although the Brooks grudgingly took him through the house and described the fires they'd experienced, it became abundantly clear that he had worn out his welcome. He'd eventually decided that a cooling off period was needed, and called a taxi to take him back to wait for his agents. His cab pulled up in front of the motel just in time to see Scully kneeling next to the passenger side of the rental car, talking softly with her partner. Skinner paid his fare and moved quickly to join them. Scully started to rise when she saw him, but he motioned for her to stay where she was.

"You stay here and keep an eye on the patient, Agent." As he turned to go register their rooms, he couldn't help the small smile that found its way to his face. This was not going to be easy on any of them, he mused to himself, not easy at all.

"Hurts like hell, doesn't it?" she asked, once Skinner was out of earshot.

"You know, Scully, you'd make a helluv an FBI agent, what with your astute powers of observation," he replied with obvious weariness. "I still can't believe this happened."

"At least it's not your right hand."

"God, Scully, it really does hurt like hell. You sure the doc said it wasn't too serious?"

"Just have to watch for infection, that's all. So as soon as we get you settled, you're going to take your nice little pink pills and lay down and rest for a while." Her expression brooked no nonsense. "No arguments, Mulder."

"Okay. Right now, the idea of a nap actually sounds pretty good."

She murmured some sounds of sympathy but quieted as she saw Skinner leave the front entrance of the motel. "Well, now the fun really begins, doesn't it?" she mused aloud.

Skinner returned to the car and climbed into the driver's seat. He handed Scully a keycard, then put the car into gear and drove them around the back. As he pulled into the parking space, he remarked, "I got us a first floor, Mulder. Scully, yours is the corner unit."

"Corner?" asked Scully.

"Us?" piped up Mulder.

"Agents, I'm traveling with you so I can make recommendations regarding cost-cutting measures on your trips. Did you honestly think I was going to get us three separate rooms? Besides," he muttered, almost as an afterthought, "I figured Mulder would need a nursemaid to watch for a fever or something."

Once Scully found her voice, she said, "Let's get our things inside," and she got out of the car. Skinner popped the trunk, and she hauled out her and Mulder's bags.

"I can carry my bag, Scully." She handed it to him. "Drop your things off and then come to my... our--" Mulder hesitated and looked at his superior with a hint of disbelief, and then continued "--room so we can discuss Skinner's findings." He then turned to his boss when he realized that he was essentially giving the orders. "Um, assuming that's okay with you, sir."

"Mulder, this is still your case to run." He gestured to both of them. "I'm here as a third wheel, an observer. But I do have something to discuss with you regarding the Brooks family. I think it might be very relevant to the investigation."

"Very well, sir. I'll be there momentarily." Scully then looked briefly at Mulder, and silently urged him to "hang in there". He nodded slightly in response, and she left to drop her bag off and freshen up.

Mulder then followed Skinner to their room. He wondered how in hell he was going to deal with being roomies with his boss; it was certainly a far cry from rooming with his partner. They entered the small, somewhat antiquated room and dropped their bags on their respective beds. Both men sighed at the short length of the full-sized beds, resigned to the necessity of keeping expenses in line for their friends in Accounting.

Mulder tried to unzip his suit bag but was having difficulty manipulating the zipper with only one hand. As he became more and more frustrated with his limitations, he began muttering under his breath.

"You got a problem, agent?" asked Skinner.

Mulder stopped momentarily and then looked at the Assistant Director. He nodded and simply pointed to his "problem". Skinner nodded and quickly unzipped the suit bag so Mulder could hang his extra suits up in the closet. He then pulled out the underwear that was at the bottom of the bag and placed them in a drawer. The shaving kit bag was moved to the bathroom vanity.

"How's the hand, Mulder?" asked Skinner.

"Throbs a bit," he answered honestly.

"You scheduled to take anything for it yet?"

Mulder checked his watch and shook his head. "Got another hour or so before I'm due, unfortunately. Don't worry; I'll survive."

Skinner shook his head slightly and muttered something about "having enough practice at it" when he heard a knock at the door. He walked over and let Scully into the room.

"Sorry I took so long. I had to call the front desk. Our lovely accommodations include my very own petting zoo," she said irritably.

"Petting zoo?" both men echoed.

"There was a mouse in the bathroom. She and her family will be removed while they find me another room. They're checking to see what's available," she explained.

"Hard to believe that they have to 'check' what's available in this rat trap...um, no pun intended," commented Skinner. Mulder and Scully both smiled at the remark; even Skinner broke into something akin to a grin.

"Well, sir, why don't you fill us in on your information?" suggested Scully.

Skinner nodded. "Well, something rather odd happened while you were at the ER," he began, somewhat hesitantly. He then filled them in on the incident, doing his best not to color the facts with opinion. The reaction was immediate.

"Are you all right, sir?" asked Scully, assuming her physician's demeanor.

"Yes, Scully, I'm fine."

"Do you think the girl is somehow responsible?" she asked.

"No," replied Skinner quickly. "No, actually, I don't. She just looked too surprised for me to believe that she actually had a hand in setting that bush on fire."

"But there's precedent for just this type of behavior, sir. Remember Cecil L'ively?" Scully began, then noted Mulder's slight shudder at the memory she had just evoked. She touched his arm in gently. "I'm sorry, Mulder."

"It's okay, Scully. But to be honest, I don't think it's the same thing."

"Mulder, she's got to be the one setting the fires. She's always present," Scully insisted.

"No, Scully, I don't think it's her," interjected Skinner.

"Then who?"

"The father. He's an electrical engineer, people. And he works at home. He very well may have a hand in this. I'm not sure how, but the man's background suggests that he could have the expertise to rig up some kind of incendiary device."

"But why? I mean, I can understand a disturbed teenager seeking the attention. She just lost her mother and her father remarried, all within the last two years. What possible reason could the father have?"

"I suspect it goes back to the mother's illness. There would have been large medical bills to pay. Since the man is self-employed, it's possible that his insurance was inadequate to meet all of those bills."

"He's doing it for the insurance?" she asked. "I don't know, sir. I find it hard to believe that the man would go to the trouble of selling his old house, buying a new one, and then constantly setting fire to it. It seems to me that's an awful lot of effort for comparatively little return."

"He most likely sold the old house to help pay off the medical bills. Their former house was apparently a real showcase, Scully."

Mulder was observing the exchange silently, but with obvious interest.

"I'm reasonably certain that you have a theory, Agent Mulder. Would you care to share it with us?" asked Skinner.

Mulder looked a little surprised at being addressed directly. "Sorry. To be honest, I don't think it's either one of them."

"Mulder? How can you say that?" asked Scully. "If this isn't a repeat of Cecil L'ively, I don't know what is."

"I don't think you can discount the father as a possible suspect either," offered Skinner.

"I understand what you're both saying, and I haven't rejected anyone at this point. It's just that it doesn't add up when I put either of those two into the equation," explained Mulder.

"So? Who do you think it is? Surely not the mother?" asked Scully.

"Depends which one you mean, Scully." Mulder watched as two pairs of eyes rolled simultaneously, just as he'd anticipated they would. "Let's just wait and see, okay?" he countered. "I think I'm ready for a pain pill, and taking that catnap sounds like a really good idea," he announced with a yawn. The trauma to his hand was catching up with him.

"I guess I should go see if they found me another room... though I should really check your hand out to make sure there's no infection, Mulder." She was aiming for her cool, professional tone and not quite making it.

"Why don't *I* go and see if they've found you a room Agent Scully? In the meantime, you can check Mulder's hand," offered the AD.

"Oh, thank you, sir. That would make a lot of sense. Thank you. Thank you very much," she said, though she realized it was probably one or two times too many.

Skinner looked at her with a curious expression, shrugged his shoulders slightly, and left to go to the front office. As soon as the door closed, Scully immediately moved to Mulder's side. "You know, this is going to drive me crazy."

"You? I'm the one who's rooming with him, Scully. Besides, you promised to shoot me if I had to room with him, remember?" Mulder smiled and tried to stifle a yawn, but he wasn't successful.

"Doesn't look like I'd be getting any tonight anyway," she said with a grin, but when she leaned in to kiss him, she brushed against his injured hand.

"Damn," he hissed.

"Oh, Mulder, I'm sorry. I'll get you a pain pill." She rose, got the painkillers and some water. "Take a nap. You'll feel better when you wake up." She quickly planted a kiss upon his lips and was about to get up when she felt herself grabbed and dragged down on top of him.

"Mulder, your hand!"

"I've got my hand way over there, Scully," he said, indicating the protective posture he had assumed.

"And if Skinner walks in on us?"

"Well, then maybe he'll realize we'd appreciate it if he took the other room and left you in here with me," he retorted with a small chuckle.

"Oh, yeah. I'm sure that would be the first thing Skinner would offer to do-- after he drummed our sorry asses out of the FBI, that is."

"Well, at least I wouldn't have to play 'musical roommates' any longer," proclaimed Mulder.

"Oh, stop whining and get some rest. If any one of us is in the ballpark with respect to a possible suspect, I have a feeling that means we'll be paying another visit to the Brooks' home all too soon."


The pale blue wall silhouetted Kara's shadow as she lay in bed, huddled under the multicolored afghan her mother had made for her so long ago. It had been knitted from all of the remnants of her past projects, and it served as a reminder of all the sweaters and blankets her mom made for her and her dad. "Momma," she murmured in her sleep. Tears ran down the teenager's cheeks as she dreamed of times long passed.

Gentle fingers tried to wipe away evidence of sadness on the child's face without waking her, but Kara woke up with a start. "Who's there?" Kara looked around, but saw no one. She felt her heart race at the possibilities, and sat up straight in her bed. "Please, if anyone is here, answer me!" She paused momentarily and then called out, "Bonnie?"

Suddenly, a gust of wind swept through the room accompanied by a brilliant flash of light. "Who's there? Please, who's there?" she pleaded with a trembling voice.

Kara felt a light probing touch on her face, the tears that continued to fall seemingly absorbed by something unseen. She thought she should feel afraid, but the gentle touch was actually very soothing. Kara closed her eyes and allowed herself to be washed in the comfort of it, unlike anything she had experienced since--

"Momma?" she whispered aloud.

Kara felt warmth pressing against her forehead...a kiss.

"Momma, I miss you so much. I want to be with you, Momma. Please, take me with you."

Kara felt a sudden chill and she cried out, "Don't leave me! I'll stay here, but don't leave me yet!"

The chill was instantly replaced by a sweet warmth, as if loving arms were embracing her. Kara nuzzled into that warmth and fell peacefully asleep.



Motel 6
Tuesday, 11:00 p.m.

"Agent, is that absolutely necessary?" Skinner lifted his face from the pillow and waved in the general direction of the television.

Mulder immediately muted the sound. "Sorry. It's the only way I can sleep. Do you want me to turn it off?"

Skinner rolled to his side and propped himself up on one elbow. He gave Mulder a speculative look. "If you can live without the sound, I can live with the light." He punched the pillow into shape, stretched out on his stomach, and buried his face in the crook of his arm. "Get some sleep."

"Yes, sir." Mulder settled back against the headboard and tried, without much success, to find a position for his hand that didn't make it throb like a toothache. As pathetic as it sounded, all he wanted to do was sneak down to Scully's room so she could fuss over him. He pushed the thought away and concentrated on the silent flickering screen.

An hour later, his erstwhile roommate was snoring softly, and Mulder was ready to climb the walls. He glanced balefully at the brown plastic bottle on the nightstand. Childproof caps. He couldn't get a pill out if his life depended on it.

But Scully could open the bottle for him. What better excuse for a trip down the hall? Except that it wasn't a hall, it was an outside walkway. And he couldn't get his shoes on without help, let alone tie the laces. He considered the possibilities for all of twenty seconds before climbing carefully out of bed. He was almost to the door before he remembered the pill bottle, and crept quietly back to get it. His hand had just touched the doorknob for the second time when Skinner's voice froze him in his tracks.

"Where are you going?"

He felt like a teenager sneaking out of the house after curfew. "I, um-- I need some ice. For my hand." It was the best he could come up with on such short notice.

Skinner sat up and squinted at him, then grabbed his glasses from the nightstand and looked again. "You won't get much ice in that little bottle."

When had the man developed this propensity for smirking? It was beginning to get on his nerves. "Oh. Right. Guess I was half asleep." He headed for the dresser and exchanged the pill bottle for the ice bucket.

"You're going outside in your bare feet?"

While Mulder was casting around for a suitable response, Skinner reached for his shoes and began putting them on. "I'll get it."

"No, no-- that's not necessary, I'll just--"

"Sit down, Mulder. I said I'll get it." And with that, he took the ice bucket and was gone.


Skinner reappeared a few moments later with a full load of ice. He put it down on the dresser, picked up one of the unused pillows and stripped off the pillowcase. "Can you take the bandages off yourself or do you need some help?" He snagged the plastic laundry bag from the closet and began to fill it with ice.

"I'll just hold the ice against it like this. It'll be fine."

"You'll get the bandages wet."

For the next few minutes, Mulder sat in embarrassed silence while his boss gently unwrapped his hand and placed the makeshift ice pack against it.

"Do you want a pain pill?" Skinner jerked his head toward the plastic bottle now on the dresser.

Ah, the damn bottle that started all this. "No, this is fine. Really." Oddly enough, the ice *was* helping.

That earned him another speculative look. "If you change your mind, wake me up. We'll redo the bandage in the morning." He put his glasses back on the nightstand and got back under the covers.

"Thank you, sir." He was beginning to feel more than a little ashamed of the dark thoughts he'd been sending Skinner's way all afternoon. "I'll be fine. Scully can put a new bandage on tomorrow."

The A.D. raised his head and gave Mulder a look that was once again too close to a smirk for comfort. "I'm sure she can." He rolled over with his back to his 'patient'. "Good night, Mulder."

"Good night, sir." If he didn't known better, he'd have to wonder if the man might not be on to their little secret. Yes, it was going to be an interesting couple of days...


Wednesday, 8:40 a.m.

They were on their way back to Clifford County Medical Center, this time to interview George Bostleman, the injured mail carrier. The man's physician had refused their request to see him yesterday, citing traumatic shock. The police interview had done enough damage, he'd said. The F.B.I. would have to wait until Bostleman was stronger. Otherwise, they would have been here yesterday rather than in the Brooks' living room getting Mulder's hand barbequed.

Breakfast had consisted of burned coffee and stale bagels with a strangely reticent Skinner. He'd insisted that they handle the interview without him, claiming to have a number of phone calls to return. Scully had found his behavior very puzzling until Mulder shared last night's events with her after they got in the car.

"Mulder, are you out of your mind?" She gave him a look that said she'd already answered her own question. "What were you thinking?"

"Obviously, I *wasn't*."

The contrition in his voice was sincere, and she turned back to him with a much softer expression. "I wanted to see you, too, Mulder. But it was a foolish risk. That's why we need to make a new rule--" at his knowing grin, she continued, "--and *stick* to it this time. No fraternizing in the field." She pulled into a parking space and shut off the engine.

"But look at the money we could save by just getting one room." Mulder added his patented eyebrow waggle, and wisely prepared to duck.

She shot him a look. "Let's stick to business for the remainder of this trip, shall we?" But her eyes were twinkling.

Mr. Bostleman was sitting propped in his hospital bed, his blistered face, and arms glistening with ointment. His attention was focused on the television, and he didn't look at his visitors until Mulder spoke.

"Mr. Bostleman? I'm Special Agent Mulder with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is my partner, Special Agent Scully. We have a few questions, if you feel up to it."

"Oh, I'm up to it, all right. The cops in this town seem to think I'm imagining things. I'm hoping for a slightly more open mind from the Feds."

Mulder glanced quickly at Scully . The corners of her mouth twitched dangerously for an instant before her cool, professional mask returned. "Yes, Mr. Bostleman, I think you'll find Agent Mulder in particular to be quite open minded." When she looked back at Mulder, her eyes were positively dancing with amusement.

"Uh, yes, Mr. Bostleman. What is it that the police think you're imagining?" Mulder shot back a look that he hoped would convey just how amusing he thought this all was. Scully's expression remained impassive, but the merriment in her eyes actually kicked up a notch.

"Well, to start with: they don't believe there's anything unusual going on in that house. Hell, any fool in town can tell you these new people are very strange." At the "any fool in town" comment, the postman made a sweeping gesture and winced as the movement stretched the burned skin. "Their neighbors told me that there have been a half-dozen unexplained fires since the Brooks moved in."

Scully called him on that one. "Our information makes it four fires, Mr. Bostleman, not six."

"Four, six, what's the difference? Besides, they haven't called the fire department every time, if that's where you're getting your *information*." He almost sneered the last word.

Buddy, you do *not* want to get into a verbal fencing match with this woman, Mulder thought. "So, what is it that you think is causing the fires?"

The man turned his attention back to Mulder. "I think these people are in deep financial difficulty and they're making it look like there's a poltergeist or something in the house. Setting little fires so that when the big one finally *happens*, they won't be under suspicion. They got a pretty large insurance windfall coming if they torch the place, but only if no one suspects them of arson."

"What makes you think the Brooks are in financial trouble?" Mulder had been resting his hand in his overcoat pocket, but hanging down like that was making it throb again. He quickly tucked it into his jacket in a Napoleonic pose.

"Hey, what happened to your hand? Was it *another* fire?" He gave Scully a triumphant glance before eyeing Mulder carefully. "Did you get that in the house?"

Mulder ignored the question. "I asked why you think the Brooks have money problems."

Bostleman shrugged as much as his injuries permitted. "It's not hard to figure out when you deliver them a mitt-full of bills every day of the week. And not just bills, *past due* bills. Lots of them, from two hospitals and a shitload of credit card companies, not to mention three or four collection agencies. My sister-in-law, Ruthie, works at the Publix supermarket. Said Mrs. Brooks was in there a few weeks ago trying to charge her groceries with a Visa Gold card. Not only got declined, but the credit card company made Ruthie take the card away from her."

"That doesn't necessarily add up to arson."

"No, ma'am, it doesn't. But there's just an... *aura* around that house. I can feel it whenever I'm there."

Predictably, Mulder jumped in. "An aura? Is this something you see, or just a general feeling?"

Scully shot him a *don't go there* look. "Mr. Bostleman, can you tell us what happened when you were injured?"

"Not much to tell. I dropped off their day's crop of bills and picked up a couple of outgoing pieces. Before I made it ten feet from the mailbox, every piece of mail I had on me went up in flames. I dropped the pack and ran, but the letters in my hands set my coat on fire. By the time I got it off and rolled on the ground, everything above my waist looked like this." He raised his arms slowly and gestured at his torso and face.

"Was there anything unusual about the mail you picked up from the Brooks?"

"No, ma'am. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a few letter-size envelopes. No wires, no suspicious white powder. Nothing. The daughter was at the door to get the mail from me. She handed me the outgoing mail and shut the door. Didn't even come out when I started screaming my head off."

"This *feeling* you said you had about the house." Two pairs of eyes turned to Mulder. "Can you describe it?"

Another careful shrug. "Creepy. Like someone's standing behind you but you can't turn around fast enough to catch them there."

Scully nodded and wrote a few lines in her notepad. "Thank you, Mr. Bostleman. That's all the questions I have for now." She looked over at Mulder. "Agent Mulder?"

"Not at this time." He placed a business card on Bostleman's tray table. "If you think of anything else, call the number on the card."

They were halfway out the door when Bostleman called out, the strain of his injuries finally apparent in his subdued voice. "I'll give you the same advice I gave the police: Believe me, don't believe me-- that's up to you. But watch yourself." His burst of adrenaline depleted, Bostleman closed his eyes and sagged back against the pillows, asleep before his visitors could respond.


Clifford Heights Police Station
Wednesday, 12:15 p.m.

Scully's cell phone had rung as she and Mulder were getting back into the car after their interview with Mr. Bostleman. It was Skinner, wanting to rejoin the party. He had made no progress trying to work from his motel room and suggested they try the local police department's resources. The Chief of Police had been more than accommodating, handing over his own conference room, barely bigger than a supply closet, but equipped with a fax machine and modem.

Scully glanced at her partner sitting next to her when she heard the growl. Mulder's famous stomach. Better than an alarm clock when it came to determining lunch time. But as she looked at his unconcerned face, glasses perched on his nose, going over the credit reports on Kevin Brooks, her ears heard the sound again, coming from a different direction. She looked across the small conference room table and just caught the embarrassed look on their boss's face.

"Sorry," Skinner mumbled.

Mulder was too engrossed to hear anything, but Scully shot a quick look at the clock on the wall, noting it was a quarter past 12. That made it an hour past lunch to their East Coast appetites.

"Mulder, I think it's time we feed the A.D.," Scully said calmly, but her eyes were sparkling with her amusement.

"Hmm?" came the reply for her partner. He still hadn't bothered to look up. From the moment they had arrived at the police station, Mulder had been buried in every scrap of paper he could find about the Brooks family and the other fires. He'd been calling, faxing and downloading local newspaper accounts for over two hours and even her stomach was starting to protest a lack of real food.

"I'm hungry. Let's stop this and get some lunch," she said slowly, as if trying to talk her partner off a ledge.

He finally looked up, seemed confused that she'd interrupted him. This time, he noticed when his stomach made the now familiar sound.

"Let's get some lunch," he declared, as if he were the first one to think of it.

"Great idea," Skinner said dryly.

"Yeah, wish I'd thought of it," Scully shot back, smiling when her boss tried hard not to chuckle.

They walked out of the police station, which was situated just off the main street of beautiful downtown Clifford Heights, and headed for the car. Mulder turned abruptly in the other direction.

"Where's he . . ." Skinner started to ask, but Scully was way ahead of him. She looked in the direction Mulder was heading and groaned loudly.

"Mulder. No!" she cried out and ran after him, catching up to him in just a few steps.

"Scully, it's right here. We don't have to drive; we'll be able to get back inside and get some work done. We can even get the stuff to go and get back at it," he reasoned, not slowing his pace one bit.

"Mulder, I will not have greasy wrappers littering the same table top I'm trying to write notes on," Scully shot back. Then she tried to touch his hand, but remembered the bandages and let her arm drop to her side. "Please. Can't we try to find someplace-- *anyplace* else?"

"You rode through this one-horse town just like the rest of us, Scully. There is no 'anyplace else' here. Unless you want a stale sandwich from the same gas station we got our stale bagels from this morning?"

By this time Skinner had caught up with them and even figured out their destination. "Hey, look! They have 99-cent Whoppers!"

"And Two for Two fries," Mulder pointed out enthusiastically.

Scully looked for any chance of escape, but realized she was doomed. "Sure, fine, whatever," she sighed and trod grudgingly toward Clifford Heights newest eating establishment--a shiny new Burger King.

She watched in horror as Mulder ordered a Whopper and two fries. Skinner ordered just one Whopper, but added cheese. It appeared to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them that they'd split the two fries between them. It was her turn. "Grilled chicken sandwich, no mayo, and a glass of water, please."

The waitress, an older woman at least 70 if a day, winked at her. "Keep that girlish figure, honey. Their eyes start to wander before you know it." The older woman nodded in the direction of Mulder and Skinner. "And you're one lucky little lady with those two!"

"Don't I know it," Scully said with less enthusiasm than the comment would normally warrant.

By the time she sat down, after getting her water, Mulder was struggling to figure out a way to pick up his sandwich without the mayonnaise-slick tomato and lettuce squirting out the bottom. He was just about to get ketchup all over his bandage when she pulled the sandwich away from him, dug her pocketknife out of her purse, and cut the sandwich into more manageable quarters. He smiled his thanks and went back to eating.

"So, what have we got?" Skinner asked, breaking the silence.

"This isn't the first occurrence of unexplained fires breaking out in Illinois," Scully started, putting her sandwich down and taking out her notebook. "Alton, Illinois, late 1920s. A young girl's family was terrorized by unexplained fires that broke out almost constantly. The girl was thirteen years old, was emotionally disturbed by family accounts. When she passed puberty, the fires stopped. No reason was ever found."

"I think I saw those movies," Mulder said with a grin as he popped a few more fries into his mouth. "They're heeeeere," he mimicked.

Scully shot him a look. "We still don't know all the chemical changes a body goes through when it reaches puberty, Mulder," she chided. "I would think that was the one explanation you'd jump at."

"Close, Scully, but I really don't think it's like the Alton case. In that case the girl had been 'emotionally disturbed', as you put it, for years. And the fires were usually small in nature, although you are right; they were going on almost continually during the year it happened. As a matter of fact, the family started placing buckets of water every few steps around the house to put them out as they broke out. The fire department just threw up it's hands after a few months."

"So why is this different?" Scully asked, sipping from her water.

"It just doesn't feel like it's that easy," Mulder said with a shrug.

"I think I'm beginning to agree with you, Agent Mulder," Skinner said, with an almost surprised look on his face.

"But sir, I thought you were going with the father setting the arson fires, using his electrical skills to set them off?" Scully turned to him with a raised eyebrow.

"How could he have started Mulder's notebook on fire?" Skinner countered. "That's been bothering me since it happened. Kevin Brooks had no access to that notebook. It was in Mulder's pocket or in his hands the entire time, and the analysis of the remains showed no sign of accelerant."

"But why not think it's Kara, as Scully just explained?" Mulder asked, holding back a grin. C'mon, Walt, you can do it, he mentally encouraged.

Skinner was quiet for a moment, thinking. Finally he looked over at Mulder. "Her eyes. I looked at that little girl when the rose bush caught fire and there was fear in her eyes. She didn't know what started that fire, and she was afraid of it."

"It could still be puberty," Scully countered. "Remember what it was like as a teenager. Your body betraying you at every turn. You wake up one morning and your face is broken out, your hair won't comb right, your feet are too big and you stumble a lot, your legs are suddenly too long for your body . . ."

"I feel like that every morning, Scully," Mulder interjected. She rewarded him with a smirk. "I think you're on to something, sir. I don't think it was Kara."

"Then who?" Scully asked, sitting back and crossing her arms, ready to duke it out, if necessary.

"Kara's mom," Mulder said, wiping some ketchup off his tie one-handed.

"Bonnie?" Scully asked, her forehead knotted in confusion.

"No, Lisa. Kara's natural mother."

"Back from the dead?" Scully asked with a smirk.

"Not everyone has all the loose threads tied up when they die, Scully. We've seen this before, at an Air Force Base not that far from here."

"Mulder, that was a murder victim. And I'm still not entirely convinced that the ghost of Rebecca Barnes helped solve that case. Besides, there is no murder here. Lisa Brooks died of cancer."

"Maybe she still has issues," Mulder said with a shrug.

Skinner looked from one agent to the other. "Well, I think until we have some way to prove that, we better get back to checking out the evidence we can prove," he said, picking up his tray and carrying it to the trash.

"What? No dessert?" Mulder whined, but picked up his tray and followed suit.


The Brooks Household
Wednesday, 6:05 p.m.

"I really love this arrangement you made today in school, K.," Bonnie commented as she admired the pine needle and orchid centerpiece.

Kara shook a colander full of fresh string beans above the sink, and shut off the faucet. She tore off two paper towels, brought everything over to the table and sat next to her stepmother.

"Thanks. It was a Japanese flower-arrangement workshop. We have workshops like that all week before this weekend's 'International Picnic.'" The two began taking string beans one by one from the colander, snapping the ends off onto the paper towels and tossing the results into a glass bowl.

"So what kind of food should we bring to the picnic?" Bonnie asked, trying to jump-start a new project with her stepdaughter. Perhaps taking more of an interest in her social activities would bring them closer.

"Don't want a hibachi," the girl said with some solemnity weighing her voice down.

"No fires, that's for sure," Bonnie said warily. "We don't want to have to bring buckets of water with us. Unless you want to show off with a wet t-shirt contest!"

The girl gasped and blushed bright red. "You! You, wouldn't..." then she saw that Bonnie's face was beet red as well, trying to hold back her giggles. The two of them broke out into a laughing fit instantly. "I have... nothing to show... for it anyway," Kara continued between deep breaths and laughter.

"Oh, you'll get there," Bonnie encouraged in a more serious tone. "Don't worry, you're perfectly normal, K. I didn't start 'blooming' until I was seventeen." They resumed snapping the string beans, giggles breaking out every so often.

"So, really, Kara. What should we bring for the picnic? A new recipe?"

"Actually, we had to sign up for a country to contribute to. There will be several tables there in the field, something like food-stands for different ethnic foods."

"Did you choose Germany, for your Dad's origin?"

"No, USA."

"Well, that's not very international..."

"No, but our family right now is from the US. I mean, you, me and Dad," she mumbled quietly, a little embarrassed at revealing such a personal feeling toward Bonnie. She really didn't do that too often. When she looked up from her pile of green pointy ends she saw that Bonnie still had some tears from the laughing fits, making her eyes glassy. Wait a minute... that wasn't the laughing doing that.

"That's really nice to hear, Kara. I think it's a wonderful idea."

Kara responded with a wide grin, and grabbed another handful of beans.

Bonnie cleared her throat and shook her curly locks slightly before she changed the subject back. "So, you have anything in mind? We're committed to bringing something now, since you had to sign up."

"I figured we could make something that reminds me of home. Momma used to make this spicy fried chicken."

Bonnie shifted slightly in her seat. "Is that healthy?" she said, a little strained.

"C'mon, how often do we go to a picnic? Besides, we always used to have that at big family events. I'm sure Dad still has the recipe," Kara prodded.

The older woman nodded her head.

It was quiet for a while as they finished up the vegetables. Kara could feel a little creeping sensation up her spine. There was suddenly some kind of tension in the air. Had she said the wrong thing by praising Momma's recipe? But it was true; she did feel like Bonnie was family. Even with all the longing she had felt for her mother popping up here and there. She couldn't forget her, and she would never stop loving her, but Bonnie really cared for her, too. And she really liked the feeling of having a mom again, in the flesh.

She thought back to that moment in her room when her momma's kiss and hug felt so real. She was so sure it wasn't a dream. But how could she tell? Dreams felt real sometimes, and it did happen in her room, while she was falling asleep.

It really wasn't a choice she was making. She just needed someone to talk to. Bonnie was taking that role for her now. She had to tell her how she felt. And the tension felt as if it were growing thicker with every second she let pass by.

"Bonnie?" Kara gently began. Her stepmother looked up at her, waiting for her to continue. "Do you think it's okay to call you something else? I mean, 'Bonnie' sounds like I'm talking to a friend, which is okay..."

"I am your friend, K," Bonnie responded, and put down the last of her string beans to cover Kara's hand.

"Yes, but..." Kara fought to keep her emotions in check. "You've really, um, gone out of your way to take care of me and... it's not like I want to forget her... EVER... but..." Bonnie's grasp loosened a little. Kara continued, "...I used to call her 'Momma.' I was thinking, maybe, if it's okay with you, that I could call you 'Ma.' You know, something a little shorter."

"Oh, Kara, of course you may!" Bonnie got up from her seat and embraced her stepdaughter tightly. They both held onto each other that way for a while. It was comforting, it was warm and nice...

...And it was ruined when the orchid centerpiece on the table suddenly burst into flame! Bonnie pushed Kara away from the table and grabbed one of the fire extinguishers they now kept in strategic places all over the house.

The flames ate at the stems of the flowers, making them seem to melt. Kara panicked as her mind began to replay all of the fires she had seen in the last months. It was like a slide show, flashing before her eyes. So many of them... and all of them trying to burn out symbols of the new life she and her father, and now Bonnie, all shared together.

The tension in the room seemed to double. Kara was a little surprised. She'd gone through so many spontaneous fires lately that she was almost numb to them. Sure, the initial shock was intense, but it felt like there was something else -- a lingering spirit about the room...

A spirit...

Kara raced up to her room and slammed the door, the sound of Bonnie calling after her muffled behind the wood panel. She sat on her bed and waited. And waited.

Anger and distress and sadness were building up inside her -- a jumble of emotions as she waited for that presence to appear. And it did, but very cautiously, like it was standing in the corner, watching her.

"Momma." the girl said with a quavering voice. "Momma, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I still love you! Please, Momma, let us be a family. I still love--" her words cracked in her throat, tears inched down her cheeks.

"Momma, please..."


Act IV

Brooks Household, Kitchen
Wednesday, 6:28 p.m.

Bonnie unwrapped another disposable sponge and filled the cleaning bucket with water. Dealing with the foamy mess of a newly-extinguished fire had become disturbingly routine.

She began by removing the remains of Kara's Japanese centerpiece, now nothing more than a melted plastic pot with some sticks jutting out from the burnt foam block.

As she started to wipe the mess off the table, she heard the front door close. Kevin was home. She could hear him pause in the entrance hall and curse under his breath. He recognized the smell that accompanied another combustible outbreak, as they all had learned to do. Next she heard the keys in the glass bowl, then the heavy, exhausted footsteps through the dining room. She continued her work.

"I can't believe this," he grumbled in frustration. "She's doing it for attention, you know. That's got to be it!" His voice became louder as he went on.

"Kevin, just stop it!" Bonnie snapped, splashing the soaked sponge into the cloudy water.

"I don't know what to do anymore, Bonnie! I've been a good father to her! This is just revenge for the fact that we moved away. I have no other ideas!"

"Well, you can start by talking instead of yelling!"

"I AM NOT YELL - - " Kevin gritted his teeth, then lowered his voice. "One of these days someone is going to get killed. There's only one thing left to do." He went over to the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen and began dialing.

"Who are you calling?"

"The FBI agents."

"Kevin, your own daughter!?"

"She has to be stopped! I can't do anything anymore. She just won't--"

A shrieking scream cut through their argument. It stopped Kevin's heart. He let the receiver drop and it swung by its cord as the two parents raced to the second floor.

An orange glow filled the staircase and smoke hid the ceiling from view, as if a bad storm were brewing inside the house. It was, and the heat of the storm was centered around Kara's bedroom door. Kevin pulled the sleeve of his sweater around his fist and banged on the door.

"Kara, open the door, baby! Kara, we have to get you out of there!"

All they could hear was Kara hiccupping and sobbing inside. Every few seconds a high-pitched squeal would escape. Kevin banged on the door harder with increasing urgency, but it was no use. The strength of the door was otherworldly, and he could do nothing to save his baby girl.

He coughed and shouted in frustration. Bonnie pulled at his arm to get him downstairs, away from the danger.

"We have to call for help or she'll die in there!"

"No! I have to save her! I'm her father!"

"And now, I'm her mother. I'm calling for help." She left his side and ran down the stairs, covering her mouth against the thickening smoke as she went.

When she got downstairs, the phone was still dangling from its cord, and she heard a faint voice calling from the receiver.

"Mr. and Mrs. Brooks? Kara? Hello? Can anyone hear me? Hello. . .?"

Bonnie grabbed the phone, "Hello?"

"Mrs. Brooks, thank God!"

"Agent Scully, please hurry, there's a fire! Bigger than before and we can't get to Kara! She's trapped!"

"We're already on our way."

Bonnie hung up the phone. It probably wouldn't matter in a few minutes. She stumbled over to the staircase again, crouching below the growing clouds of smoke.

She called up the stairs, into the obscurity, "Kevin! We have to try from the outside! The agents are on the way!"

It took a moment before her husband's heavy footsteps tramped down the stairs. He sought her hand and they rushed out to the front yard together.


Wednesday, 6:40 p.m.

Clifford Heights wasn't a particularly large town, so the three agents arrived at the house in record time, even managing to beat the volunteer fire department to the scene. Skinner pulled haphazardly to the curb and jumped out of the car.

Mulder had to reach awkwardly across his body with his right hand in order to open the passenger door, so Scully climbed quickly out of the front seat to help him. Both agents then made a dash for the Brooks' front door.

Skinner was banging his fist urgently against the wood. Just as Mulder and Scully joined him, Bonnie Brooks opened the door, crying hysterically.

"She's in her room. We can't get her out! We can't get her out!"

"Where the hell is the fire department?" asked Scully.

"We called; they said they'd get here as soon as they could. Another emergency across town... Oh, God! Help me, get her out, please!" she cried.

"Do you have a ladder?" Skinner had grabbed Bonnie gently but firmly by the shoulders, speaking intently into her face.

"We can't get her out!" she cried again, oblivious to the A.D.'s question.

"Mrs. Brooks! A ladder-- do you have a ladder?" He shook her slightly and her eyes snapped into focus.

"Ladder? Yes, yes, out back." She brushed by Skinner and rushed out to the backyard, pointing frantically at the rickety treehouse ladder. "This is all we have. Will it do?"

Skinner gave the ladder a swift appraisal and hoisted it over his head. "Show me Kara's window!" Whether the thing would support him or not was a question that would be answered soon enough.

Bonnie pointed to a window on the side of the house, and Skinner sprinted for it with the panicked woman right on his heels.

Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully had dashed into the house, where they immediately heard Kevin Brooks' screams coming from the second floor.

Scully spotted a fire extinguisher on the coffee table to her left and grabbed it before heading up the stairs with Mulder right behind her.

"Kara! Kara, please, sweetheart, open the door! Daddy's not angry! Please, just open the door!" They found Kevin Brooks screaming desperately toward Kara's door as the flames danced around it, blocking his path. Scully pointed the extinguisher nozzle and sprayed the foamy white substance along the floor and at the door, emptying the container in moments. The fire raged on unabated.

"Is the door stuck? Is that why she's not coming out?" Scully shouted above the roar of the flames.

"I don't know! A few minutes ago I was able to get over to it, but I couldn't turn the handle. It felt like it was jammed or maybe locked. I don't know! But now I can't get near it because the whole damn hallway is on fire!" he cried out in frustration. Brooks turned back towards the door and pleaded with his daughter. "Kara, please, open the door!"

Scully turned to ask Mulder where the hell the fire department was, but he was nowhere in sight. "Mulder! Where are you?"

Their situation was all too similar to the L'ively case, and she wondered for an instant if Mulder was reliving the fear he'd felt that night. She could only imagine what he must be feeling.

Then suddenly he reappeared, awkwardly hauling a wastebasket filled with water that spilled over the lip with every step. "Move away, Scully. Let me try this." His grip was precarious, trying to spare his injured hand, but he managed to toss the contents toward the bedroom door.

Miraculously, it made a path large enough for him to pass through, which he quickly did before Scully or Brooks could react. He pushed against the door once with little success and then, bracing himself, plowed his way through on the second try.

He was momentarily relieved to find the room filled with smoke but free of flames, until he tried to take a breath to call for the child and the acrid fumes seared his throat. He choked and immediately got down on his knees, balancing on his right hand. It was impossible to crawl and cover his mouth at the same time, so he opted for forward movement and tried to take shallow breaths.

"Kara? Kara, it's okay. Where are you?" Mulder called out, trying to keep his voice as gentle as possible. The smoke was overwhelming and blinding. He had to find the child quickly, or they'd both be dead in minutes.

Images of the hotel fire years ago flashed through his mind as he crept through the choking darkness. He hadn't made it to the children that time, though the arsonist had. And this was far worse than that night had been.

"Kara, please, say something so I can figure out where you are!" he called out again.

"Here," she whimpered.

"Again, Kara. Where are you?"

"Here. I'm over here," she cried out a little more loudly, then began to cough helplessly.

Mulder crawled toward the sound of the child's voice, eyes streaming from the smoke. He could hear Scully calling frantically from the hall, but he couldn't draw in enough air to make his voice carry that far.

He crawled around the end of the bed and bumped directly into the girl crouched low on the floor.

"Kara! Grab onto my coat and stay low. We're going to get out of here. Do you know where the window is?" He peered through the thick smoke, searching for the light.

"I think it's that way, but I can't see!" She pointed over his shoulder.

Mulder could now hear sirens in the distance but the sound of shattering glass was even more welcomed, as was the resulting draft, which made it easier to breathe, but not to see.

"Kara! Kara, are you in there?" It was Skinner's voice, and Mulder crawled toward it, dragging Kara with him.

"Sir! I've got her. We're coming!"

Within a few feet, Mulder's hand encountered broken glass from the window and he turned to Kara. "Stand up, Kara. We're here." They came slowly to their feet and Mulder reached toward the draft with his right hand. He stepped forward and felt a strong hand grasp his.

"Okay, Kara, time to get you out of here," Mulder said to the child. "Here she is, sir."

Skinner reached in and lifted the child up over the small, jagged pieces of glass that remained in the window frame. He began the slow descent, using one hand to hold onto the ladder, and the other to support Kara as she followed him down the ladder.

Mulder looked at the ladder and tried to figure out how the hell he was going to manage this. His hand was throbbing again, and he knew he'd need the support of both his hands to get himself safely onto the ladder. Once he got to the point where he could start descending, he'd be okay. It was maneuvering himself out of the window that gave him cause to grimace.

"Well, here goes nothing," he muttered to himself. He pushed one leg out the window and began to turn. "Oh, damn!" he cried out. He'd grabbed onto the ledge of the window with both hands for support, and the pain shot through the injured hand from the impact. At that point he realized the damn thing was going to hurt no matter what he did, so he gritted his teeth and forced himself out the window and onto the ladder. Once outside, he managed to descend without a problem.

Once Mulder reached the ground, he turned to find the area surrounded by volunteer firemen and a squad car. Bonnie was standing, holding her stepdaughter, while Kevin was speaking with a member of the local PD. Skinner stood nearby as Kevin answered the questions posed by the cop. Scully saw Mulder and rushed toward him.

"Are you okay?" she asked anxiously.

"Yeah," he replied and immediately began coughing uncontrollably.

"Oh, yeah. You're fine." She gathered him in her arms and began gently leading him toward the rescue vehicles.

One of the EMTs met them and sat Mulder on the bed of his rig. He placed an oxygen mask over Mulder's face and instructed him to take deep breaths. He felt better almost immediately and tried to remove the mask.

"Oh no you don't, Mulder. Leave it on for a few minutes, or you will find yourself making yet another trip to the emergency room," admonished Scully.

He nodded in response and then, rather than attempt to speak through the mask, merely pointed toward the Brooks family.

"Kara's fine, Mulder, though she's obviously upset. But physically, she's fine."

Just as Scully gave Mulder her assessment of the situation, as if on cue, Kara screamed loudly, "No, please, let me go!" She twisted out of Bonnie's embrace and ran directly into the house, leaving her stepmother frozen with shock.

Almost instantly the flames that had mere seconds ago threatened to engulf the structure simply winked out, leaving only puffs of smoke wafting from the doors and windows. The firemen stared open-mouthed. A fire that extinguished itself was completely impossible. And so they stared.

Bonnie recovered almost immediately and ran after the teenager. Kevin and Skinner both tried to stop her, but Bonnie would have none of it. She escaped their grasps and ran into the house. As she entered the front door, she heard Kara coming down the stairs.


"I'm sorry. I had to get it."

"Get what, sweetheart?"

"My momma's picture. I couldn't leave it up there. I had to get it." She paused and looked around her, as if just now realizing where she was. "Jeez...pretty stupid of me, huh?" she asked breathlessly.

"No. Not stupid, Kara. Maybe a little impulsive, but not stupid." Bonnie reached out, and Kara tentatively placed the silver-framed photo into her stepmother's hand. Bonnie used the hem of her tee-shirt to carefully wipe the frame, polishing it to its former gleam.

"It looks none the worse for the wear, does it?" Bonnie asked as she handed it back to the teenager. Kara agreed, and fingered the frame with tenderness. "Maybe we should get ourselves back outside into the fresh air. It's a bit of a mess in here, isn't it?"

Kara looked around her again, nodded, but then said, "But it'll be okay, won't it Bonnie? We'll be able to come back and live here, right?"

Bonnie's expression couldn't hide the surprise at hearing her stepdaughter's words. "You want to come back here?" she asked incredulously.

"Yeah. I like it here, Ma," she replied shyly.

"I don't understand...with all of this craziness going on..." She hesitated.

"It wasn't me; it was my momma. She was the one that wasn't sure. She was the one who thought I'd forgotten her. But she does understand now. It's okay. She knows I really do love her, and that you and Dad are both okay with that." Kara finally managed a small smile.

"Oh, Kara, it really is, you know. Neither your dad nor I would ever want you to forget about her." Bonnie reached over to embrace Kara. "And you're right, kiddo, for a place that was up in flames just a little while ago, it doesn't look like it's in too bad shape. I think with a lot of elbow grease, this place is going to become our home again." The two of them walked out the front door arm in arm.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Epilogue

Motel 6
Thursday, 9:12 a.m.

"Is this everything?" Scully dropped a stack of shirts onto the bed next to Mulder's open suitcase.

"Scully, you don't have to do this. I can--" Then he proceeded to prove otherwise by dropping the shaving kit he had been balancing on his one good hand.

She flashed him an indulgent smile. "So I see. Would you rather have Skinner pack for you?" Mulder winced at the prospect, and Scully nodded in agreement. "That's what I thought."

He retrieved the shaving kit from the floor and placed it on the bed. "First aid in the middle of the night and tying my shoes for me was weird enough. I drew the line at zipping my pants, although he did offer."

Scully's expression was priceless. Then she began to giggle, which never failed to get Mulder going right along with her. They were soon holding each other up, tears running down faces crinkled with mirth.


They hadn't even heard the door open. Skinner was back from checking them out of the motel. He stood just inside the door with his hand on the knob, seemingly frozen by the vision before him. The solemn X-Files division, dissolving into mild hysterics.

They straightened up immediately.

"Yes, sir." Scully found her voice first. "I was just helping Mulder pack." She sidestepped so he could see the suitcase and clothing on the bed, then turned back to complete her task.

Mulder busied himself with opening drawers and closet doors, checking for anything left behind. Skinner watched from the door.

"I can finish that for you, Agent Scully. Don't you have to pack your own things?"

Mulder wasn't sure he could maintain a straight face, so he carefully avoided meeting Scully's eyes. She shook her head, apparently feeling the same urge to snicker that was tickling his own throat.

"It's no trouble. I'll just be another minute." She literally stuffed the last items into the case and zipped it shut, with a little assistance from Mulder's good hand. "There."

She seemed to be avoiding eye contact with Skinner, too. "I'll meet you at the car." She nearly ran from the room, leaving Mulder struggling to keep his expression neutral.

Skinner stepped quickly out of the way to let her pass. When she was out of earshot, he turned back to Mulder. "I don't suppose there's any point in asking what that was all about?"

Mulder could feel the flush in his face. "It was... we were just--"

His boss held up one hand and shook his head. "That's okay. I'm sorry I asked," but there was a glint of amusement in his eyes.

In desperate need of a diversion, Mulder gestured toward the pile of sooty gabardine in the corner. "I don't think this is quite what accounting had in mind when they sent you out here, sir. I would have only wrecked *one* suit."

Skinner gave him a rueful smile. "They wanted me to 'validate the expenditures'. I think I've done that." His expression sobered. "Mulder, is this the way it always is? Leaving a case with so many questions unanswered?"

"You don't buy my theory?"

"That the fires were caused by Kara Brooks' dead mother? That there won't be any more now because Kara has convinced a ghost that she's still loved? I guess I'd have to say that I don't accept that as the most logical answer."

Mulder smiled. "You sound just like someone else I know."

"I'll take that as a compliment." He picked up his own packed suitcase and grabbed Mulder's from the bed.

"Sir, you don't have to do that. I--"

"At ease, agent. You can get the door." He shouldered his way past Mulder and headed for the door. "And you can write the expense report for this trip."

"Two suits and a toasted notebook? Piece o' cake."




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