IMTP VS8 Episode 20:

Volatile

By Debra Longley
Art by
Mairad

 

Title: Volatile
Author: Debra Longley
E-mail: d_a_longley@hotmail.com
Completed: Nov. 2000
Category: MulderTorture, M/S Angst, MSR, X-File 
Rating: R for bad language and disturbing imagery
Spoilers: Very slight references to "Closure", "Irresistible",
"Orison", "Duane Barry", the cancer arc, VS8's "Eyes of Texas"
and "Letters"
Summary: Mulder and Scully are part of a law enforcement team 
accompanying a convicted serial killer to the grave of one of his
victims, setting in motion his deadly plan of revenge.   

Archive: IMTP for the first two weeks, then MTA, Xemplary, 
EMXC, COX; any others please ask so that I may visit. :-)

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully, and Skinner belong to Chris Carter,
Ten Thirteen Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox Television. 
They are used here without permission. No copyright infringement
is intended. (I had to do it. Doggett ain't no Mulder.) Victor Dugas
and other unrecognizable characters belong to me. 

Author's Notes: This was written for I Made This! Productions as
one of the episodes of Virtual Season 8. IMTP can be found at
http://www.i-made-this.com/. 

Locations are real, although I've taken some
liberties with them. No disrespect is intended.

Thanks: to the IMTP production staff, for permitting me to be a
part of such a wonderful project. To VS8's writers and artists, for
inspiring me. To Dawn and Suzanne, my betas, bouquets of
gratitude for not letting me stray off the path. If I've tripped, it was
all *my* fault.

Feedback: Much appreciated. :-)



~~~~~
Teaser
~~~~~

Catoctin Mountain Park
Thurmont, MD
five years ago

*Do as he says!* Her mind screamed. *Don't go with him!* The
conflicting thoughts skyrocketed her fear. Frantic, she looked
around for a source of help, but her only witness was *him* and the
trees, dark and old, merely sentries to her suffering.

He forced her down on to the ground. When she struck the dirt, she
twisted, striving to get away from him, but he only tightened his
hold on her neck. She tried to bite him, but he seized her hair,
pulling her head away from his hand. 

"You have a mind of your own. I like that." Excited by her fight, he
pressed himself against her, his heavy, sweating weight settling
against her body, squeezing the breath from her lungs and turning
her stomach.

"Stop... please, you mustn't," she begged. She spit dirt from her
mouth.

"Shut up!" The knife pressed against the tender skin of her neck. 
"I control things here -- and, today, I choose to kill you."

She froze then, too cowed to move. But, determination replaced her
terror. Was she just going to lie here and let him kill her?

Bucking, she twisted sideways, attempting to get him off of her. She
slammed her fists against his chest. Desperate, she grabbed his
hand, wrestling him for the knife. He dropped it, and she grabbed it,
cutting herself. Staring in horror at the blood -- her blood --
panic raced through her. *Run! Scream!* But she was sluggish,
exhausted, and could only stare stupidly at the blood trickling down
her wrist. Breathless, no longer able to stand up, she crumpled. 

Taking in small breaths, she attempted to regain some semblance of
normal breathing. Shouting for help, she heard him laugh. It was
elevated in pitch, the laugh of the devil's altar boy. It was enough to
propel her to her hands and knees and crawl toward the path.

Catching her foot, he wrenched her to her back. Lifting the blade, it
sliced through her chest, puncturing her left lung. He made a second
thrust that passed clean through her heart. 

Lastly, Victor Dugas drew the blade across her throat.


~~~~
Act I
~~~~

Maryland House of Correction Annex
Jessup, MD
Monday, March 26, 2001

Although he had made prior arrangements with Warden Peyton Roe
at the state's maximum security complex, Mulder had decided to
contact the inmate, Victor Dugas, and request an interview, after 
he and Scully had arrived. It had meant making the trip from the 
Hoover Building to Jessup without the sureness of Dugas' 
cooperation, but Mulder had been willing to take that chance.  
Arriving unannounced would give Mulder the element of surprise,
and would be the surest way to ensure that Dugas hadn't prepared
some sort of self-serving fiction.

The facility was only 26 miles from Washington, D.C. and the drive
had taken just forty-five minutes even though it had been raining 
steadily much of the way. Mulder slowed and turned the Taurus 
through the gate that provided an entrance through the perimeter 
fence. The car lurched slightly as its right front tire hit a pothole. 
Braking, he reached into an inside pocket of his trench coat,
pulling out a leather case. Lowering his window, he extended his
arm through it, showing his FBI credentials. The fingers of his
other hand tapped the steering wheel lightly. The guard stationed
at the gate house studied the badge, looking at the photo then at
Mulder, and, handing it back to him, waved him through the gate
without saying a word.   

Pulling the car into a parking space in front of the administration
building, Mulder climbed out into the now soft drizzle, his legs stiff
from the time behind the wheel. Smelling the damp, he turned the
collar of his trench coat up before reaching for his briefcase on the
front seat. Cradling the case under his arm, he slammed his door,
striding toward the main entrance, trailing at Scully's clicking heels.
Treading on pebbles lying on the shower-soaked steps, Mulder felt
himself sliding. Shifting his weight, he overcompensated, losing his
balance and going down on his right knee, his teeth clicking
together.

His back bent at an ungraceful angle, pain radiated from his kneecap to
his hip. The agent got to his feet, testing his knee gingerly.  It
throbbed, but it bent the way it should and he was able to walk.  
He brushed his pant leg off, which really did no good because it
was more damp than dirty. Hobbling up the steps, with each
footfall his embarrassment swelled. He hoped to hell Scully
wouldn't say anything.

As he reached the heavy glass doors where Scully was waiting for 
him, she asked, "Are you all right, Mulder?"

*Shit.* Nodding, he brushed past her, concentrating on hiding his
discomfort, and managing to straighten his leg. 

Relinquishing their weapons inside Roe's office, the two agents 
signed a waiver stating that the complex was not answerable if
Dugas was to take them hostage. Having an FBI agent as a
hostage could be, obviously, an enormous bargaining chip for an
inmate, and they would not be bargained for.

Mulder and Scully were ushered into a room to wait Dugas' 
appearance. A small metal table and three chairs stood in the 
middle of the room. Scully could smell old cigarette smoke, 
cleanser, and the fresh scent of Mulder's soap.  

The inmate was shepherded inside in a matter of minutes. Wearing
an unbuttoned work shirt over a white t-shirt, he was tall, razor-thin,
with dark hair and dark eyes over a long, sleek nose. His prison
haircut was beginning to grow out unevenly, reminding Scully of
Mulder's own ruthlessly short razor-cut hair. Dugas may have been
considered by some people as handsome, if not for the scarring. His
face was pockmarked, with what might have been pox or acne scars.
But what marred his features most of all, and made him appear
sinister, were his intense, blue eyes. Right now, they were peering
out of a face that had the look of someone laughing at a tragedy.  

"Why don't you have a seat, Dugas?" Mulder said from the head
of the table, gesturing to the only vacant chair. Turning the folding 
chair around and straddling it, Dugas lowered himself, his arms 
resting on its back. His unbuttoned cuffs shifted from his forearms, 
revealing a professional tattoo on the left that said "Beast".

Mulder had removed his trench coat and dark suit jacket, draping 
them neatly across the back of his chair. His crimson silk tie was
knotted perfectly under the collar of his smooth blue shirt. His
Italian-made shoes were spotless beneath his creased suit pants. The
badge, tucked over his belt, shone, reflecting light from the recessed
dome lights in the ceiling. His spit-and-polish appearance made him
look like the poster boy for the FBI.  

Rolling up his sleeves, he gave a casual impression, but, feeling
oddly nervous, the hairs crawled on the nape of his neck. Plucking
Dugas' file from his briefcase he set it on the table in front of them.
Leaving it closed, its contents were hidden.

Eyeing the file folder briefly, Dugas spoke. "Do you know how
you caught me?"

Mulder looked startled, not expecting the question, feeling the
surprise even before he recognized it.  

"Do you know how you caught me?" Dugas repeated.

Calming his face into an indifferent mask, Mulder said, "We got 
lucky." 

"You know everything about me or you wouldn't have found me. 
We're *alike.*"

"You're a sociopath, Dugas."

"I've read all about you. It's the way you think."

"There's been a lot of crap about the way I think." Mulder glanced
at Scully. She was still huddled inside her trench coat, her face
moist from the rain. She did not speak or smile, but regarded him 
with an even gaze. Seeing her eased the tension he felt and  steadied
him.  

Slipping his chair closer to Dugas, Mulder locked in eye contact,
his voice flat. "It was part of the challenge, part of the game, right,
Dugas? Snatch a beautiful woman from her own home, kill her,
then dispose of her body... minus her right thumb." 

Dugas grinned, tapping his right forefinger on his temple,
reinforcing his earlier point that the agent knew him intimately.

Mulder had profiled Victor Dugas, using his gift for seeing the 
crimes both from Dugas' and the victims' points-of-view. He had 
studied the police files, crime scene photographs, autopsy
protocols, and, finally, the trial transcripts. It was all in the file
folder laying in front of him. He would have no need to refer to it
as his memory was extraordinary.

Pulling her coat open at the neck, Scully said, "Don't repudiate the
facts. You murdered six women brutally. Cause of death was
multiple stab wounds. You used a double-edged blade, sharpened
on both sides, then slit their throats. You hacked off their thumbs. 
A jury found you guilty."

"I don't deny them. What do you want to know?"

"Why?" 

Dugas stared at her for a moment. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he
pulled out a package of cigarettes and shook one loose. Placing it to
his lips, it defied gravity, dangling from his bottom lip as he struck a
match on the sole of his boot. He extinguished the flame with a
shake of his wrist, flinging it to the floor at his feet. He took a long,
slow drag, exhaling through his nose.

"It's what I am," Dugas replied finally.

"There are so many things to understand," Scully said. "Will you
help me to understand?"

Dugas gestured to Mulder. The cigarette bouncing between his lips,
he answered, "He watches and figures out the people around him.
And long before he fingered me, I had been watching him. I had
him figured out from the first time I heard about him." He took one
more puff, dropped the cigarette, and ground it to the floor with the
toe of his boot. "You've walked in my shoes, Mr. F.B.I. You tell
her."

"Hunting and killing was the most important thing."

Bracing his feet on the floor, and placing his arms on the table and 
leaning toward Mulder, a little too intimately for Mulder's liking, 
he confirmed, "It was my life." Dugas grabbed the agent's right wrist
abruptly with both hands. Gripping firmly, so that he couldn't pull
away, he bit into Mulder's right thumb.

As Mulder yelped, Dugas' lips turned up with glee, stained with
Mulder's blood. Uncurling his fingers, Dugas loosened his hold, 
freeing him. Springing to his feet, sending the chair tumbling to
the floor, Mulder stared at his injured hand with a sort of puzzled 
revulsion. Settling it against his chest, it was half-closed, 
his fingers curled over the thumb defensively.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Infirmary
MHCX, Support Services Building

The nurse washed Mulder's thumb with mild soap and warm
running water for several minutes before carefully assessing it for
penetration into the tendons. Dugas' teeth marks were visible and
the surface of the skin was broken, but it was not bleeding severely,
nor, luckily, had the integrity of the tendons been compromised.
After applying a dressing and wrapping the thumb, she gave him a
broad-spectrum antibiotic to prevent infection.

Once he and Scully were in the hallway, Mulder rested his forearm
on the wall, leaning his forehead against it. She could sense his
withdrawal. 

"It's a good thing that you weren't alone with him," Scully
commented. She grasped his arm and squeezed gently.

Shifting toward her, his mouth worked as if he was chewing
inwardly words he might have said.

To end the silence which had gone on too long, she clasped
Mulder's right hand, caressing the bandage gingerly with her own
thumb. Mulder could feel the soft material of her coat grazing the
back of his hand. Releasing him, she asked, not entirely about his
physical injury, "Are you okay?"

"Yes," Mulder answered brusquely. Then he sighed. "No serious
damage. It hurts though."

"I'm sure that was the general idea." She paused for a moment,
then continued, her eyes sparkling impishly. "Everything occurs in
threes, Mulder. That's two freak accidents for you."

It worked like a charm. The muscles of Mulder's mouth contracted
and he grinned with pleasure. He held out one hand, touching her
cheek lightly. "Why, Scully, I do believe I've turned you to the
Dark Side." Slipping his arm around her and resting his hand on
her lower back, he guided her to the exit. 


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Assistant Director Walter Skinner's Office
FBI Headquarters
Washington, D.C.
April 2, 2001

The blinds in the windows had been opened to let in the morning 
sunlight. Mulder stood in front of the large window, his back to 
Pennsylvania Avenue; a flag on the building across the street 
whipped back and forth in the wind. The light behind him, 
shadowing his face, his hands were in his pants pockets. Sensing 
Scully's disapproval, he turned his head toward her, glancing 
across the spacious office, although it was impossible to see 
anything of his expression.

"He's fixed on you as a worthy adversary. You know it, Mulder,"
Scully said from her chair in front of the polished oak desk.  
Mulder's eyes were hidden from her but she knew he was looking
at her. Her body responded by leaning toward him, as if reacting to
a magnet's pull, her hair falling forward to frame her eyes. She
wished she could see his face. Deciding on honesty, she said, "I
don't want you up there with him no matter how many guards
accompany him."

Stepping out of the shadow, his hands still shoved into his pants
pockets, his hazel eyes continued to scan her face, noting the faint 
flush in her cheeks and the slightly angry eyes. There was something
exposed in his own eyes as if he was looking for some sort of sign
from her.  

*Is he seeking my approval?* Scully turned to Skinner, leaning
back against the chair, her back rigid. "Mulder's just recovered
from a stab wound. He nearly died. That is Dugas' mode of 
operating. But, you've already decided to stick Mulder's neck out,
haven't you, Sir?" she accused, gripping the arms of her chair.

The assistant director folded his hands and placed them on top of
the desk. Frowning, his brows were drawn together, as if he was
weighing that decision. His eyes narrowing behind his wire-rimmed
glasses, the balding man returned, "Agent Mulder, as always, makes
up his own mind."

Scully continued to stare with displeasure, doubting that either 
one of them, at the moment, possessed good judgment.

Walking across the carpet, his shoes sinking into its plushness,
Mulder settled into the vacant chair next to Scully, smelling the 
familiar scent of her hair. "Dugas claims he'll lead us to another
body, Scully, one we didn't know about, in exchange for reducing
his death sentence to that of life imprisonment. The D.A. has
already agreed to the deal."

*The district attorney is a horse's ass,* Scully thought darkly.

"I can't refuse this even if the man is a horse's ass," Mulder 
echoed uncannily, shoving his fingers into his hair. "I've lived 
it. Unburying her will destroy what little hope that her family 
has held on to, but they'll have an end to an emotional 
relationship that they've had with her. They'll be free to move 
on. I, of all people, know what that means."  

Something in his voice silenced any argument she might have
made and decided the issue. However, she couldn't help but add,
"What if Dugas has something planned?"

"Undoubtedly, he does," Mulder agreed.  

Rising from his leather chair, Skinner slid his hip on to the 
corner of the desk. Taking off his glasses, it made him appear 
younger and friendlier. "If he's expecting something specific 
from you, disappoint him," he suggested.

Mulder didn't answer. He was envisioning Dugas' victims: 
fair-haired, blue-eyed, about Scully's age.

 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Catoctin Mountain Park
Thurmont, MD
Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Catoctin Mountain ridge was located in central Maryland, and
extended over 37 miles. It was the site of Catoctin Mountain Park, a
forested national park where Dugas had claimed to have buried a
seventh victim.  

Steering the Taurus past the closed Visitor Center, Mulder noted
that there were already several vehicles in the parking lot,
including a Maryland Department of Corrections van. Braking at
the end of the row and glancing behind him, over his shoulder, he
backed the Taurus deftly beside the van.

"Really, Mulder," Scully said. "What purpose does this serve, 
except to cater to Dugas and to put you, especially, in danger?"

"We've been over this, Scully," Mulder answered, cutting the
engine, his hand resting on the keys. Pausing, his voice was soft. 
"We both know we're here for *her*. She doesn't belong in this 
place."

Unbuckling her seatbelt, she sighed. "I know. I just -- "  

" -- wonder if he's simply another con trying to save his ass?"
Mulder turned to look at her. Positioning his arm along the back 
of the seat, behind her, his lined windbreaker was open, leaving his 
neck exposed. It made him seem vulnerable. Scully felt a wave of
tenderness toward him. 

"Why bury her?" she asked. "He didn't inter any of the others."

"I don't know." And, as so often occurred, he admitted to himself
that he'd had the same questions, but hadn't been inclined to think
about them until she put them into words, right in front of him. 
Reaching up with his index finger, Mulder touched her shoulder 
briefly then withdrew his arm. "Coming?" he asked, with a hint of
impatience.

Scully knew that he was not really looking for an answer. Turning
away and staring out of the passenger window, she shook off a
vague sense of uneasiness before shifting her legs to get out of the
car.

Mulder opened his car door, slinging one arm over it. Propping his
foot on the frame, he looked over the area before shutting his door
and helping Scully retrieve their heavily-loaded backpacks from the
trunk. The agents followed the road into the park. The air smelled
different: of grass and earth, fresh and clean. Their boots crunching
in the gravel, every so often they disturbed a pebble, sending it
skimming across their path.    

Although they were less than two feet apart, so close that she could
hear him breathing, Mulder was submerged noticeably inside his
own head. "What is it?" Scully asked.

"When did she realize that she was going to die? Did she make
one last desperate effort, knowing that there was no one -- except
him -- to hear her scream? Did she feel fear? Hopelessness?... 
Alone?"

The words threatened to close her throat, hitting a little too close 
to home. Victor Dugas. Donnie Pfaster. Ed Furlow -- only several of
a long list of sadistic killers she and Mulder had come up against,
playing their little head games, making them their prey. 

Was that Dugas' intention?

Mulder had fallen silent, his thoughts interrupted by a twinge of
pain in his right knee. Since he had slipped several weeks ago, it 
had flared up intermittently. *Damn, I feel old.*   

They crossed an open field, backed by a forest of oak and pine. 
A base camp had been set up and several tents had already been 
pitched. The rest of the group were scattered nearby, including a 
handcuffed Dugas, hemmed in on both sides by his guards -- Jerry
Gray, a police detective, and his partner, Dean Connelly -- Leah
Pearl, a newspaper reporter who had covered the story from the
beginning, and Marc Wooff, a crime scene videographer.

Staring knowingly at the agent, Dugas lifted his hands to his mouth,
his right thumb raised upright. Lowering his lips over the tip, he bit
down on it.
 
For a split second, Mulder experienced phantom pain in his own
thumb. Flexing his fingers, he chided himself, considering giving the
bastard a cheery wave to deflate his purpose. He decided that it
would make him no better than Dugas and might appear to the
others as if he was making light of their quest. 
                                 
Wriggling free of his loaded backpack and dropping it to the
ground, Mulder bent his right knee casually, propping his hiking
boot against a large rock. His pant leg drawn upward a little, his
ankle holster protruded from under the material. The sight assured
him. He rubbed the offending body part with both hands. The ache
in his knee abated. Dressed entirely in black, he was not an easy
man to overlook. Wearing the windbreaker over a fleece jacket,
over a soft sweater and jeans, they hugged his thighs as he massaged
his knee. 

Mulder tried to ignore the sensation of being watched. He looked
toward the inmate, expecting to see him staring at him again.
Christ, the man reminded him of a picture his grandmother had
had of the Mona Lisa. From its place on the wall, no matter where 
he had stood, her eyes had followed him. It had been so unsettling, 
he wouldn't go to bed unless the picture had been tucked away, out
of sight. But Dugas was not the cause of his discomfort. Turning
to look behind him, he saw that Leah Pearl was watching him
intently. Her shoulder-length, caramel-colored hair was pulled
into a loose braid. She was clothed in bluejeans, a white turtleneck
sweater and a royal blue hooded sweatshirt. Mulder noticed that in
height, build and skin tone, the fortyish reporter resembled Scully.
Even her feelings, whatever they were, were not on display.

*Except for the failings of Spooky Mulder,* he recalled.  

Victor Dugas had made headlines in Leah's Daily Times Press,
along with her scathing narrative of the former FBI profiler, on 
assignment with the Violent Crimes Section of Quantico's 
Investigative Support Unit. He had been helping local police identify
the murderer, as part of their Serial Killer Task Force.

Remarkable instincts, police had stated.  

An exaggeration, she'd penned unequivocally after the fifth victim
had been discovered. The agent is nowhere near as good as he
thinks he is.         

*He's more guarded than I expected.* Smiling sweetly, Leah
stepped toward him, extending her hand. "I'm Leah Pearl. I don't
believe we've ever met, Agent Mulder."

Striding toward her over the rocky ground, Mulder slid his hand 
into hers, his grip firm and warm. Topping her by almost a
foot, it was his presence rather than his size that made Leah feel
that, although he was standing still and looking at her in silence, 
he was crowding into her space. Was she reacting this way just
because he still held on to her hand?

"Not formally," he confirmed.

Although she had encountered men who were taller and more
heavily built than the lean agent, she felt smaller than she had
ever been aware of before. She was sure that she didn't like it.
Compensating, she gripped his hand more tightly than she had
intended before pulling away.

"I've been wanting to meet you for a long time," Leah continued.

Mulder regarded her thoughtfully. There was something about her
smile that made him wary. It was too... practiced. Her affability
was artificial, part of the job. "Thank you," he replied politely.

He was intent and frowning at her, belying his words. "You don't
believe me," she said.

*Understatement,* Mulder thought.  

"It's the truth," she insisted.

*Don't give me any crap about the truth.* Instead, he voiced, 
"The quicker we get started, the sooner we'll find the grave site 
and Dugas will be back where he belongs. That's what's important."

Inclining his head toward her, he started walking with an easy stride,
picking up his backpack by the left strap and swinging it over his
right shoulder. "See you around," he tossed back at the reporter as if
they had just had the friendliest of encounters. 

Picturing herself calling her editor and telling him that Mr.
Tight lips had been less than cooperative, so that she'd failed to 
do her job, the image was less than pleasant. Too bad the agent
wouldn't take a flying leap off of one of the scenic overlooks.


~~~~~
Act II
~~~~~

"You've really got a way with the ladies." Dugas voice was 
low-key.

Mulder stopped abruptly. Dugas was eyeing him, laughing softly. 
One of his guards, Jerry Gray, was ordering him to shut up. The
black detective had a wide, friendly face. He was huge, bearded, 
a mammoth teddy bear. At the moment, he looked anything but 
cuddly; he looked irritated.  

Indicating Leah with a nod, Dugas leered, "She really fills out a shirt
and jeans. She reminds you of your partner." His voice was
suddenly vicious. "She's fucking her way to the top, has been right
from the get-go." It intimated that Scully had behaved in a like
manner.

Although Mulder had a face of stone, he was about to say
something. Scully could see the words forming on his lips.

*Don't give him what he wants, Mulder,* she entreated.

Leah was unable to ignore the insult. Never in her professional
career had anyone accused her of such a thing, at least not to her
face. "I never have and never will sleep with anyone to get a job,"
she huffed.

Dugas couldn't leave it there. "She's out for herself," he snorted at
Mulder. "She counts you as a day's work, a headline. It pisses you
off, doesn't it?"

*It's time to lay open a bit of truth, Dugas.* "It pissed *you* 
off," Mulder said. "Oh, not the attention -- it gave you power, the
power to slit another throat -- but there were so many
misstatements."

Comprehension flashed across Scully's face. She looked over at
Leah and saw shock, her mouth in an O as if she couldn't believe
her ears. Scully was positive that the reporter hadn't recognized
what Mulder had done. Most serial killers were good manipulators;
Dugas was no exception. Mulder had wrestled control from the
inmate. To Leah, however, it must have sounded merely impolite.
Now, the woman looked like she had just taken a bitter pill, and
didn't like the aftertaste.      

Not letting his expression reveal that he'd been taken aback, Dugas
acknowledged that he, who was used to being in control, was being
controlled. It was turning out to be a damn good night, the inmate
thought, reveling in the game. But, the man's smarts wouldn't be
enough. *Are you ready to die, FBI man?* His mouth turning into a
smile, the cheerfulness was not undone even when he was grabbed
roughly by Gray and wrenched purposely toward their tent.    

Detective Dean Connelly came toward the agents and introduced
himself to Scully as Mulder's former colleague on the task force,
and Gray's partner. Slightly overweight from age, he had a
salt-and-pepper moustache, contrasting with his completely black
hair. He'd soused it with gel, but a stubborn lock had escaped,
hovering over his brow. Scully thought wistfully about the obstinate
hair that used to hang over Mulder's forehead.  

"Dean and Jerry," Scully said, absorbing the combination of  first
names with amusement. As a matter of fact, Connelly's hair did
remind her of that of the crooner.

"We do a mean act at Christmas parties," Connelly winked, used to
the association.

As Mulder turned to Scully, she noticed tiny beads of sweat 
glistening on his forehead. Had Dugas affected him more than he 
let on? "This is my better half, Dana Scully," he presented.

"Well, that's as plain as the nose on your face, Mulder."

"That's what I like about you, Connelly, you're a laugh-a-minute."

The detective grinned. "I only call 'em as I see 'em. We're all set up.
Can I give you a hand putting up your tents?" he offered. 

With his help, the work was done by dusk. Pulling aside his small
tent's flap, Mulder fired his backpack inside before crawling through
the opening. Taking a look around, there was a gentle wind,
swelling then collapsing the sides, making the tent appear as if it was
breathing. Too restless to sit still, Mulder told himself that it was his
inherent desire to be active, not the juvenile goose bumps that had
nothing to do with the temperature. Unzipping his backpack, he
rummaged for a plastic bag of sunflower seeds, stuffing one
between his teeth before shoving a few into the right front pocket of
his jeans and edging himself, backside first, out of the tent.

Searching for Scully, he spotted her leaning against a white oak at 
the far side of the field, alone, looking grim. He'd seen that look 
before, in Skinner's office. Crunching then expelling the seed's husk,
his tongue sliding over his lips, licking away the salt, he headed
toward her. She looked in his direction, finding his eyes on her face.

"Walk with me, Scully?" he requested.

"I think we'll be doing enough of that tomorrow, Mulder," she 
replied wryly. However, when he started to stroll away, she fell 
immediately into step beside him.

They walked in companionable silence, broken only by the sound
of Mulder crunching another seed, until he seized her by the elbow
and drew her closer to him. "What scares you, Scully?" he asked 
soberly.

He seemed so serious that she didn't know quite how to answer.
"Why do you ask?"

"No reason. I just want to know."

The breeze caught her hair, blowing it across her face. Hesitating, 
placing the strands back behind her ear, she confessed, "... You do." 

Putting his arms around her, Mulder hugged her. Relaxing,
releasing a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, Scully
squeezed him back. They held each other tightly, his face buried in 
the scented softness of her hair. Raising his head, he looked down 
into her face; she saw that he was smiling. 

"Scully -- " he began, his voice husky.  

Easing gently out of his arms, ending their embrace and halting 
his words, she maintained bodily contact by clutching his hands. 
Scully looked into his eyes, which seemed almost black with
longing. Her expression plaintive, she said, "I'm sorry, Mulder. This
really isn't the time or the place."

There was regret in her voice. Mulder realized that he couldn't ask 
for more than that. "It's all right, Scully," he assured her.

"We should go back," she proposed, a long breath of lingering 
disappointment paralleling the release of his hands. "You want a 
hot chocolate? I've got a full thermos in my tent."

Wanting to lighten the atmosphere, a slow smile lit his face. 
Wiggling his eyebrows playfully, Mulder replied, "Watch it, Scully.
You'll ruin my reputation."

"Any time we find ourselves anywhere other than a stale tent, dingy
motel, or middle of a chilly forest surrounded by butchers and other
assorted strangers, Mulder... " she returned, her voice tapering off.

It was a promise. Mulder thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't yet
gotten to the hot chocolate, or he surely would have choked on it.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thursday, April 5, 2001

Hearing soft snoring from the other tents, Mulder moved restlessly
in his sleeping bag, finding finally a position that he liked. Preferring
the quiet, it wouldn't be long until the sounds of stirring would
indicate that everyone was up and would soon be boiling water for
coffee and making breakfast. He thought intuitively that Dugas was
also lying awake, listening to every noise from inside his tent. 

After a breakfast of hot oatmeal, fortified with dried fruits and
nuts, and coffee, the group, bearing their backpacks, crossed the
field and headed into the forest. Dugas had claimed that his victim
had been buried at least a five hour's hike into the park. The
handcuffed inmate and Gray were followed by Mulder and Scully,
Leah and Marc Wooff, and Connelly, who was bringing up the rear.
Their loose, double-lined progress on the hiking trail was slow-
paced. Mulder believed that Dugas was moving intentionally slower
than a three-legged turtle. The inmate was at home here; he was
sure of it.

Wooff, video camera in hand, recorded the party as they made
their way on foot, inserting shots of Black-Eyed Susans. He was 
in his mid-twenties, with overlong, thick carrot-red hair, looking
perpetually in need of combing. With his pointed chin and goatee,
he had reminded Mulder of a living version of Shaggy, the cartoon
spook hunter from Scooby Doo. Now that they were back in 
fashion, he was even wearing bell-bottomed corduroy jeans.

Itching to move more quickly, Mulder increased his speed, putting
him closer to Dugas. Using the proximity to his own advantage, the
inmate leaned his head back. "It's a real pisser, isn't it?" he addressed
him. "You want to turn back, yet you feel you have to come along."

"You don't know what I want, Dugas," Mulder replied, stepping
over a tree limb that had fallen on to the path. He tugged at the
straps on his shoulders, adjusting the weight of his backpack.

"Bullshit," Dugas said matter-of-factly. "You'd give your left nut to
find her, Mulder."

"Shut the hell up," Gray growled, catching Dugas' collar in his
fist and dragging him onward, "or I'll bust your ass."

His feet pulled out from under him, Dugas did an odd dance before
righting himself. Turning back to look at Mulder, his expression
was intent.

Leah saw Dugas' eyes go to Mulder, triggering her reporter's 
curiosity. She was certain there was more going on here than a 
simple trek to find a body.  

"I hate this," Scully stated.  

"What?" Mulder asked, his voice subdued.

"This whole damn thing," she added, lifting her chin, standing her
ground. Her weapon secreted in her shoulder holster, under her
ebony, hip-length padded jacket, only accentuated that it was a
gamble based on Dugas' truthfulness.

"I'm man-enough to take a few taunts, Scully." Mulder tried to
swallow, but his mouth was bone-dry, refuting his words.
Disquieted, there was nothing to account for it really, other than
instinct.

And his guts were agitated, mirroring his mood. 

Diving into his backpack, he found a water bottle. Twisting the 
cap from it, Mulder guzzled the liquid, the sound audible. It 
didn't alleviate his thirst. Holding it out to Scully, he offered, 
"Want some water?"  

"Thanks." She took the bottle, sipping slowly. It was warm, so
she handed it back to him. Screwing the top back on it, he thrust 
the bottle back into his backpack.  

After hiking for three hours, they stopped for lunch, crowding 
around a small fire, welcoming the warmth. Dugas resumed staring
at Mulder. The meal consisted of soup, with added crumbled
crackers, and more hot coffee, with plenty of sugar for energy. 
Despite pushing on until noon, and all of the fresh air, Mulder 
found that he didn't have much of an appetite. He picked at his food, 
the tin bowl on his lap, until he spied Scully's concerned features, 
and made more of an effort. 

Before they got too comfortable, they limited their break to the time
it took to fix and ingest the meal. Tidying up the site under a dull
gray sky, amidst gusts of wind that promised rain, the party slipped
on waterproof ponchos before leaving the clearing and rejoining the
trail. A short time later, it began to rain. Her poncho reaching only
to her knees, Scully's lower extremities were exposed. The shower
peppered her with water, the drops soaking through her winter
weight leggings until she was wet and miserable. Forcing herself into
a steady tempo, her eyes registered where her feet went, but her
mind was preoccupied by more than the uneven path or the passing
scenery.

Mulder. Turning to look at him, she frowned. His fingers were
kneading the back of his neck. He looked so tired, as miserable as
she was. 

Sensing her scrutiny, he stopped and made a face. "I know, Scully. I
look like a drowned rat." As soon as he spoke, a raindrop fell from a
limp strand of his hair and dribbled down one side of his face.

Scully paused at his side. "I don't know how to put this delicately,
Mulder, but I think your poncho leaks." 

He laughed at the jest, and started to walk again. Soon, the urge to
relieve his bladder overcame his desire to keep moving. Abandoning
the trail, finding a level spot behind a tree, he called loudly, midst an
unmistakable splashing sound, "If you're going to videotape this,
Wooff, better get it from several angles."

*Is he always like this?* Leah wondered. *He takes some getting
used to.*

"I'll pass, Mulder," the young man responded, rolling his eyes.

"He doesn't want to run out of tape," Connelly retorted.

Unable to keep a straight face, Scully relaxed. Early in their
partnership, she had found his humor annoying, then funny. Now it
was familiar. It was one of his attractions. Steering her attention to
the day ahead, she wondered what they would find. Where was
Dugas leading them? Who was his victim?

Leah's thoughts were also on the search for the grave. Turning to
Wooff, she asked, "How will he remember where she is?"

"Well, I can help with that," Wooff answered. "I take pictures of
crime scenes, but I'm also a student -- of forensic anthropology. My
day job led to my interest, actually. Being on a trip like this is a
dream come true." Tempering his enthusiasm, he finished, "I don't
mean to be insensitive; it's my field." Warily, he said, "I don't want
you to write that I didn't show proper respect for the dead."

"You were telling me about identification of the burial site," Leah
said quietly.

"Well, there would be clues. Essentially, Dugas created a
disturbance in nature. He dug a hole, filled it with a body --
fertilizer, if you like -- and covered it up again."

"He dug up existing vegetation and new plants would have to grow."

"Exactly. They'd be a little shorter and more sparse than the
surrounding foliage. It's likely that the grave itself would have
settled after he refilled it with dirt."

"I see," Leah said. 

The rain fell for nearly an hour. They crossed a narrow, shallow
stream and, moving downhill, found themselves in a large field. It
gave Gray the creeps. He had heard once that a place took on the
personality of its occupants. This area felt cold, empty, and
unhappy. 

Noting that Dugas was showing interest in the field, Mulder
demanded, "Do you recognize it?"

Dugas shrugged. "If you'd shut the fuck up, maybe I could orientate
myself. I haven't been out here in five years." 

It was difficult to tell if he was lying or had forgotten. Mulder
suspected that he knew exactly where to find the grave. 

Inspecting the field again, Dugas said, "She's here."

"We'll set up camp," Mulder ordered.

"*Here?*" Leah said with disbelief, wondering just how far away
from the team *she* rested.

After setting up their tents, the party paused for a short break,
nibbling on snacks of granola and hot chocolate to maintain their
energy.

Slipping on their backpacks and moving away from the tents, the tall
grass brushing against their legs, they traversed the field. Dugas
strode ahead, halting finally near some trees. Leah could see that a
small area was noticeably different from the surrounding growth,
just as Wooff had described.

Not allowing him to watch the disinterment from an intimate
distance, as Dugas had wanted, Gray moved the serial killer away. .
Treating the site as a crime scene, Wooff both videotaped and
photographed it. There was none of the banter that had gone on
before. She had been a person with a soul, someone's daughter,
sister, or mother and her fate had been terrible.

Easing on latex gloves, working leisurely and carefully, Scully and
Mulder set up small stakes around the settled soil, indicating exactly
the position of the grave and where any remains may be  found.
Scraping away the soil carefully, screening every shovelful, the
grave was uncovered at a painstaking pace. Mulder bagged some of
the dirt, labeling the evidence bags. Wooff continued to videotape.

Removing some small rocks, Mulder spotted green plastic. The rock
had split it open, the narrow tear revealing bone. "God damn it," he
muttered, wiping mud from his fingers on to his pant leg. He was
looking at skeletonized remains. It was, clearly, the rib cage. Since
she had been there for years, there was little odor.

It was an unbelievable rush, to watch a body being discovered!
Especially, Dugas gloated silently, when *he'd* made those remains
out of a living human being. "I told you!" he called smugly. 

Mulder thought with disgust that he'd probably looked like that
when he'd been wiping clean his knife. Inspecting the grave, he
spotted a corner of a second plastic bag, this one clear. Brushing
away the grime, there were several personal items inside, including
earrings, a bracelet watch, and a delicate silver chain with a tiny
cross. Moved, he traded glances with Scully.

Looking up at the reporter, Mulder told her, his voice taut with
compassion, "You may report that we found another victim, but
nothing more until we're ready to release the information... Let's get
on with it."

Kneeling, with gloved hands, Connelly unfolded a body bag,
stretching it out over the ground.

"I'll count one, two, three," Mulder said. "When I say three, we'll lift
her at the same time and lower her slowly into the body bag. That
should minimize any damage we might cause by shifting the bones."

Connelly nodded, reaching for one end of the green plastic, and
gripping it securely with both hands. "I'm ready," he told the agent.

"One."

Leah stiffened, inhaling a quick breath. Looking at her pale face,
Scully took her by the arm, suggesting, "Let's take a little walk." The
two women headed away from the site.

Disappointed, Leah knew she had lost it. She should be acting more
like a reporter. The story always came first. Still not quite ready, she
stopped, looking back. Mulder and Connelly were kneeling at the
grave's edge. Wooff was standing nearby, operating the video
camera. Gray was guarding Dugas. She heard Mulder say, "Two."

Mulder's eyes were drawn inexplicably to Dugas. With the grass
between them, their gazes met. Mulder thought, *He's waiting for
something.*

The thought had barely materialized, Mulder's blood running cold,
when he screamed, releasing his end of the plastic.

"NO! DON'T LIFT -- "

Bewildered, Connelly continued to pick up the skeleton. Adrenaline
kicking in, Mulder threw himself away from the hole.

"Move!" Scully ordered. When the other woman stood there,
without comprehension, the agent threw her arms around her. "Get
down!" she rephrased harshly, pushing the reporter down into the
tall grass face-first, shielding her with her own body.

A deafening blast erupted from the grave, echoing over and over
again, throughout the mountain ridge. In the babel, among piercing,
too-brief cries of pain, there were other sounds, too. 

Loud gunshots.


~~~~~
Act III
~~~~~ 

The stillness was more horrific than the screams.

A strangled sound came from beneath her. Scully slid her hand over
Leah's mouth. "Be quiet," she hissed. When the other woman
nodded that she understood, Scully loosened her hold. Shifting into
a crouched position, she slipped her hand beneath her jacket, pulling
free the Sig Sauer from its holster. She tried to assimilate what had
happened. There was smoke, and the air stank of burned,
fragmented flesh and blood, stinging her eyes and nose. She tried
not to breathe it in. Dugas had rigged the grave with an explosive
device, and lifting the bones had been all that had been required to
detonate it.

Motionless, Mulder did not get up. Her lips parted, a cry trapped in
her throat. To add to her panic, Dugas was free, silhouetted in the
smoke, his right hand clutching Gray's weapon. Extending his arm,
one handcuff dangling from his wrist, he aimed it at Mulder's head.
There was little time to get into a stance or to even sight her gun.
Scully got a good two-handed grip, and, firing, blew a hole through
the inmate's left thigh.

Staggering backward, losing his gun, the shock deflated the
ballooning, deep-felt joy he was feeling at the probability of bringing
off Mulder's death. Sinking, making himself less of a target, Dugas
looked frantically for an escape. It was only a matter of seconds
before she would kill him with a second shot. Using Mulder's body
as a shield, he holding it in front of him, he dragged it with him as
he backed up to the cover of the forest.

Scully moved ahead quickly, shouting "No!" Running, she skidded
in the carnage, falling to her hands and knees. All hope of finding
anyone alive was devastated. She saw the black hole that had been
the grave. Those who had been too close to the blast had been
blown into pieces. Scully saw Wooff's dismembered foot, the sock
still inside his sneaker. Her observation took half a dozen heartbeats.
Scrambling to her feet, she pushed herself on, still faster than was
safe. Letting her feet find their own path, something made a
snapping sound beneath her left foot. She didn't know if it was it a
bone fragment or a twig, but she didn't stop to look. Coming across
the body of Gray, Scully found that he hadn't been killed by the
bomb. The shots she had heard -- it had been Dugas. Somehow, he
had seized the detective's weapon, shot him in the head, then had
used it to separate the handcuffs, liberating himself. 

Not daring to fire, not wanting her bullet to hit her partner, she
reacted just as Dugas had known she would. Dropping Mulder,
lifting his arms to the sky in a gesture of victory, he whooped.
Veering into the trees, he was gone.
 
The agent lay face-down, his arms outstretched, eerily reminiscent
of Dugas. Mulder had been so close, so close to the bomb. *He
can't be alive,* Scully despaired. But why would Dugas need to
finish him off? In the same breath, she pleaded, *Please, God.* 

Approaching the agents, sobbing and babbling, Leah stammered,
pressing a fist to her mouth, "I-Is he dead?"  

Replacing her weapon, mindful that she may need it again, Scully
answered stubbornly, "No." She knelt beside him and lowered her
fingers toward his neck. Stopping short of it, she was afraid to touch
him, afraid that she would find no pulse. Steeling herself, she placed
her shaking fingers on his carotid artery, squeezing her eyes shut,
battling tears.

Mulder was alive.

"Help me turn him over," Scully said to the other woman. Working
together, they managed to roll Mulder on to his back. His clothes
were burned slightly and his hair had been singed on the ends. His
face was covered in blood and his right pant leg was blood-soaked.
Leah's features were ashen. The sight of the blood, on top of
everything else, was not easy for her.

Leaning her cheek close to his mouth, Scully could feel his warm
breath on her skin. He had a pulse; he was breathing. *Mulder two,
Dugas zero,* she tallied insanely.

Addressing him several times with no response, she repeated,
"Mulder, can you hear me?"

He moaned, opening his eyes, but he didn't answer.

She appeared to be saying something, but he wasn't sure. Her voice
was competing with... *hurt*. He couldn't understand what she
wanted from him. In the haze of pain, he didn't much care. It was
easier to close his eyes. Something caught his upper arm, giving the
sleeve a gentle tug. He directed his eyes on her.

"Try to stay awake, Mulder!" When he continued to stare at her in
confusion, Scully asked, "Do you recognize me?" Holding her
breath, it was a long, agonizing moment. He was taking so long to
answer. She wondered if she would ever draw air into her lungs
again. "Damn it, Mulder!"

"Hurt," he said groggily. "Hurt... Scul-ly."

"Where do you feel the pain? Where are you hurt?"

"Hurt," he repeated. She was leaning over him, worry lines etched
in her face. He had to do better. *Head... eye... * It was too hard to
focus. "Head," he said simply.

Had he suffered trauma to the head? Was that why he was having
trouble understanding her, communicating with her? "I'm going to
look at your head for an injury. Tell me if I hurt you, okay?"
Moving her fingers over his skull, probing lightly through his hair,
she noticed that there was some bloody fluid drainage in his right
ear. He appeared to be able to hear her questions, ruling out a less
grave eardrum rupture, with its own set of considerations. A head
injury, however, even without a skull fracture, could be further
complicated by inside bleeding.

"What... hap-pened?"

There was a brief silence. Scully inhaled deeply. "You were caught
in an explosion. Do you remember?"

Hearing her draw in her breath, he saw that there was something
wrong with the expression on her face. "Explosion?" Mulder
echoed. He'd been leaning over the grave, then... The pain muddled
his thinking, distracting him from completing the image. He tried to
get up, to see what she was talking about. *Blood.* There was so
much on him. He had to be bleeding to death.

"Mulder, you should lie still," Scully objected, putting out her hand
and resting it on his shoulder. She gave him a fleeting smile of
reassurance. "I'm right here. You're safe. It's going to be okay." 

His hasty change in position made him nauseated. Shaky and
breaking out into a sweat, he made a sound of distress. Bending his
knee, his face contorted with pain, the agent rolled clumsily on to
his left side. Hanging his head down, his stomach muscles heaving,
he made a violent retching sound.

Concern warring with sympathy, Scully put her hand on his back,
rubbing soothingly. Tensing, he made her think that he was going to
be ill again, but he turned and slackened into her, leaning heavily
against her.

Images inundating him, his Adam's apple lifted then went down.
"Scully," he cried softly. "There was no time... to draw my weapon.
Dead... they're dead." Horror-struck, he scrubbed at the blood on
his face and hands. "It's not mine... not mine." He didn't want to
think who it had belonged to.

Her hands slid under his arms, pulling him tightly against her,
burying his face in her neck.

"I'm sorry," Mulder murmured, a whisper of his breath alighting on
her throat.

"What for?"

"For bringing us up this damn mountain."

Exasperated, not indulging him, she said, "You take far more
responsibility than you need to take. You blamed yourself for not
getting to my apartment when I was kidnaped, and you blamed
yourself for my cancer. Now, you're blaming yourself  for
something Dugas made happen. None of it was your fault."

Put out, he said, "I studied psychology, Scully. I know... what
you're trying to do."

"And you need to try to forgive yourself," she said gently. "Now, lie
down. I want to tend to your other injuries."

Dugas needed a cigarette. After turning his pockets inside out, he
had surveyed the trail for discarded butts, obviously a waste of time,
but he had done it anyway. It hadn't made the craving for nicotine
any less difficult knowing that his pack was back at the camp,
waiting for him.

Mulder would be there, with his partner and that bitch, the reporter.
The self-important federal agent had thought he had known
everything. Instead, it had been he, Victor, who'd been one step
ahead of them all. Idiots. Those who had been close to the bomb
were dead. Gray had been an easy kill. He'd been agitated; it had
been simple to take his gun away from him, and, putting a bullet
through his head, burst his left eyeball.

Wrapping a piece of his shirt around the wound on his leg, he pulled
tightly, making a knot. Now, the three of them were surrounded by
death... his handiwork. They wouldn't know if he had run or would
return for them. Truthfully, he was torn between the two, but he
had a job to finish. He would begin with the reporter, slitting her
throat and watching her lies spill out of her in a stream of blood. He
would drag Mulder's woman into the field, penetrate her with a real
man's prick, then make her dig her own grave. He'd make Mr.
FBI watch.

Then he'd kill him.

Assigning Leah some tasks, Scully had asked her to fetch her first
aid kit then scoop dirt over the vomit. The other woman had been
glad to have something to do. Dragging Mulder a few feet away
from the mess, Scully complained facetiously, "Mulder, you weigh a
ton." 

Laying her palm on his forehead, he felt cool and clammy to her
touch. She ran her hands quickly and gently over his arms, legs, rib
cage, and spine. His right hand had been burned; luckily, it was
superficial and merely the top layer of the skin, the epidermis, had
been damaged. It was red and dry and slightly swollen. Since it
wasn't possible to immerse his hand in cool water, Scully flooded
the burned area with water from a water bottle. It wasn't as cold as
she would have liked, but it would help reduce the skin's
temperature, preventing further damage, reduce the chance of
blistering, and ease his pain. She placed a pad of gauze over it,
securing it with a bandage.

Cutting the pant leg of his jeans open, she parted it cautiously from
his leg, revealing his gun still in its ankle holster. The amount of
swelling and bruising was extensive, and the wound had bled
profusely, but the lower leg bones didn't appear broken. Applying a
sterile pad, Scully bandaged it. Blood seeped through quickly so she
placed another pad on top of the area and bandaged over it.

Mulder's lower lip was indented where he'd bitten down as she'd
worked. How much pain was he in? "How're you doing, partner?"
Scully asked.

"My eye..."

"Right or left?"

"Right."

"What's wrong? Is your vision impaired?"

"There's something in it."

"You may have some debris in there. Let me take a look. If it's loose
and not on the cornea, I can remove it," she told him. She couldn't
see any floating particles. Careful not to press on his eye, she
examined his upper eyelid, grasping his eyelashes between her
thumb and index finger and drawing the lid away. "Nothing there."
Scully repeated the procedure for his lower eyelid, drawing the lid
down and away from his eyeball. "Roll  your eyes back," she
instructed. Dirt was visible. She wiped it away with a clean tissue.
"Better?"

"Mmm." He hesitated. "Dugas? You got him, Scully?"

Her eyes went to the forest. "He's injured, but he's still out there
somewhere."

"We can't stay here," Mulder insisted. "We need to move."

Scully shook her head negatively. "You have a head injury. And
what about your leg?"

"Dugas will be back. He thinks he can handle us. He can't leave any
witnesses. And by the time help comes, they'll never know where
he's gone. Just make me a couple of walking sticks, Scully,"
he attempted to grin, "I'll jog out."

"It will soon be dark," Leah interjected.

"The odds are with Dugas in the dark," he added.

"I agree with you, Mulder. We can't stay in this field, but we'll move
to a tent. You and Leah can get some sleep. I'll keep watch. We'll
walk out in the morning."

"He *can't* walk out," Leah argued.

Scully shot her a dirty look. Leah's lips thinned, but she realized her
slip. Mulder couldn't accept defeat and simply lie there, waiting for
the inmate to return. He had to try. 

They all had to make the effort or become Dugas' latest victims.

With Scully's help, Mulder half-pushed, half-pulled himself to a
standing position, his arm slipped around her neck. He put weight
on his right leg gingerly. Pain shot up his lower leg to his knee. It
took his breath away and made him break out into a sweat. "This leg
is really getting it," he bit out.

Leaning heavily on her, Mulder gritted his teeth, and said
unenthusiastically, "Let's go before I pass out." Moving beside him,
Leah took his other arm and pulled it over her shoulders. "Hey," he
protested lightly, "Heroes always carry the damsel in distress, not
the other way around."

You're pretty enough to be a damsel," Leah said, shocking him.
"Shall we pretend?"

Maneuvering Mulder slowly toward the tents, over the uneven
ground, he did not complain, but he panted with the exertion. Scully
tried to keep his attention away from the bloodshed by addressing
him, asking him about his condition. His face was haunted, and she
knew that she hadn't been entirely successful.

They took frequent stops to rest, for Mulder's sake. It was
painstaking. Had Dugas watched their exhausting effort?

Scully managed to get Mulder into a tent and on to a sleeping mat.
Once Leah was also inside, with their supplies, there wasn't much
room to move around. Unrolling a sleeping bag, Scully put it over
him. He looked flushed, his jaw dusted with five o'clock shadow.
Even a slight loss of water could adversely affect his condition. "Are
you thirsty, Mulder? Do you want some water?"

"No," he answered listlessly, his eyes half-closed. He'd held the pain
back until he made it to the tent, and, now, he just wanted to sleep.
"I'm tired... "

"I know you are, but If you don't drink it, I only have to carry it
tomorrow." Scully held a bottle to his mouth. "Sip it slowly," she
suggested. When she saw that he had managed to get down a
mouthful, she handed him a couple of acetominophen. "Take these.
They'll only help a little, but they're better than nothing at all."

Drained, he rested quietly. Elevating his feet with a backpack, Scully
put a second bag over top of him. It shouldn't take him long to fall
asleep.

"Get under there with him," Leah said. "I'll take first watch and 
wake you up in a few hours." When Scully hesitated, she added,
"Go on. He needs you."

Nodding gratefully, Scully slipped under the sleeping bag, putting
her gun within easy reach. Settling herself next to him, he felt cold.
He reached for her, hauling her hard against him. Feeling heat
creeping into his legs, heat given by Scully, Mulder mumbled,
"Better." He fell asleep almost immediately, but he was restless and
unsettled.

In his arms, Scully didn't allow herself the luxury of truly relaxing
and falling into a deep sleep. She doubted Dugas would try to return
at night, but, years of experience had taught her not to take any
chances. Dozing, she was alert enough to hear the bastard. If he
came anywhere near Mulder or Leah, she would put a bullet right
between his eyes.

Scully had stirred twice through the night, awakening Mulder, and
checking that his condition hadn't worsened by asking him his name
and street address. The second time, tongue in cheek, he had given
her his name and *her* address, mumbling "I live with you, Scully,"
then had told her to leave him alone. 

She had offered to relieve the reporter, who was sitting on her own
mat, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands wrapped around
them. The woman had turned her down with a promise to wake her
up several hours before morning.


Saturday, April 7, 2001

Leah was tired. Thoughts of what lay beyond the tent in the
meadow, and the unknown location of the escaped inmate had
helped to keep her awake. They'd have to scrape her off the ceiling
if she saw one more shadow or heard one more snapping branch.
Grizzly bear or the escaped inmate? In her mind, there wasn't a hell
of a lot of difference. Either way, you ended up dead. She had even
imagined the strike of a match, and the smell of cigarette smoke
accompanied by a soft cough for Chrissake.

Watching the agents sleep, Leah knew that Scully would be 
irate once she discovered that she had slept all night. It was just
after dawn -- there was enough light to make out Mulder's pale
features. Extending her hand, she felt his forehead. He was warm,
too warm. She thought back to the stream that they had passed what
seemed like ages ago. The water would be cool there, much cooler
than what they had left in the water bottles. It wouldn't take long to
get the water and return.

Mulder would feel much better.

She made her way quietly out of the tent. Was he standing outside,
watching, waiting? No sense of danger raised the goose bumps on
her skin. Nothing happened. No arm shot out of the darkness to
stop her. Inspecting the path for several yards in both directions, she
couldn't see Dugas. Steadying herself, shaping her palm into a fist,
she thought, *I can deal with this.* If he wanted her to be scared,
she would remain calm. Besides, what was there to be frightened
of? She knew now that there was no one there. The killer wasn't
that careless  -- the length of time he'd eluded law enforcement
personnel before his capture was proof of that. He would have
made a run for it. 

Not thinking it was too easy, she made her way to the stream. She
walked swiftly, not wanting to take too much time.

Mulder roused to the feel of a definitely female body against his.
Jolting him awake, he remembered where he was. Realizing with a
start that he and Scully were alone in the tent, he wondered what
had happened to Leah. Had she left on her own, or had Dugas
taken her? If he'd taken her, why hadn't he killed him and Scully
why they slept?

*Because he's a sadistic bastard. He'd want you to see death
staring you in the face.*

He had a bad feeling. Shaking Scully awake, he told her that Leah
was gone. Searching the tent for a clue to her disappearance, they
discovered that she had taken a backpack and the empty water
bottles.  

She had gone to the stream.

"You stay here," Scully ordered, retrieving her Sig Sauer. "I'll go."

"Not on your life," Mulder answered stubbornly.

Leah was so intent on filling the bottle with water that she didn't
know the serial killer was there until his knee struck her in the back,
knocking her into the stream, arms first. Ignoring the pain in his leg,
Dugas' arm whipped around her neck, hauling her to her knees, his
breath hot on the back of her neck.

Her trachea constricted, Leah struggled and twisted, but her efforts
were useless against the inmate's hold. Choking, she fought harder,
but, with his other hand, he grabbed her by the hair and slammed
her head into the ground. It stunned her enough to cease her
thrashing.

Panting, his chest heaving, Dugas reached beneath his jacket, pulling
out a knife with a double-edged blade. Pressing the tip to her throat,
he whispered in her ear, "You feel that?"

"Y-yes," she whimpered in terror. 

"I know what you're thinking. You want to scream for help."

"N-no, I don't." Even if she wanted to, she couldn't. The fear had
quashed it out of her, making it hard to breathe. *Keep your wits!*
She had to, if she was going to survive.

"You scream and you're dead. You're dead, she's dead, *he's*
dead. This knife gives me the right to slash your throat open. I could
cut off your head." Absorbing her fear, Dugas was intoxicated.
"What will the papers say, Miss Reporter?"

"My death won't make the papers."

"Come on, you're an opinionated bitch, I'm a fugitive." Dugas
pressed the blade further into her skin and moved it downward,
drawing blood. That should make her less defiant.

She made a small noise.

"Freeze! Federal Agent!"

Swinging his head around, Dugas saw Mulder, positioned feet apart,
his arms fixed and directed at the at the inmate's head, holding his
weapon. The effort to grip the gun in his injured hand, and to stand
unaided was costing him dearly. His face was etched in agony. His
partner was beside him, in an identical pose.

Unfazed, Dugas threatened, "What I did to all of the women?
That's what I'm going to do to her -- and to Agent Scully, too. And
you, Mr. F.B.I? You're going to die today."

Discharging the firearm, Mulder shot to kill.

The three survivors were quiet. All of a sudden, the persistent gray
sky that had hung over their heads for days was replaced by the sun.
It peeped out from behind some clouds. Even obscured, its light was
brighter than Mulder had ever seen before, warming him. It was a
sign, a sign that they had survived the most horrible of
circumstances. He turned to gather the two women in his arms,
hugging them with relief. "It's over," he said. "Finally over."
Underlining his words, there was a sound of a helicopter in the
distance.


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

Mulder's apartment
Alexandria, VA
Saturday, April 7, 2001

Lying on his left side, pressed into the back of the black leather
couch, Mulder moved to his back, shifting his feet. Making an
inarticulate sound of grief and pain, he woke suddenly, his harsh
breathing the only sound in the darkness. He was surprised to find
that the rain on his face was tears. Obliterating the tracks with his
hand, he swung his feet to the floor. 

It had been a damn dream. He took a deep breath, expelling it
between his teeth.

Locking his fingers behind his neck, he leaned forward until his
elbows rested on the coffee table. His head hanging, Mulder cursed
silently. If he hadn't dealt with it, he had buried it. Again, he
couldn't get to his gun. 

And good men who had been his friends still died. 

The telephone rang, distracting him from his low spirits. He
considered letting it continue until the machine picked it up, but it
might be Scully, calling to see if he was okay. Lifting the receiver
awkwardly with his bandaged hand, lacking the grace he ordinarily
possessed, at least he had made it out of the park alive. He was
thankful that Scully was alive. Leah was alive.

Even if the others weren't.

"Mulder," he answered.

"Leah Pearl. I see the hospital didn't keep you long. How are you
feeling?" the reporter questioned.

"No comment," he replied, and she laughed.

"I've had places that hurt worse," Mulder added. "Is it safe to come
clean?"

"Off the record," she said.

"I told Scully that the hospital needed the bed. I actually convinced
the staff that it would be better for both me and my roommate -- the
chatterbox from hell --  if I mended at home."

Pausing, she told him, "I've been writing my story."

*Oh.* "Hazy about something?"

She hesitated. "Well, no... "

Mulder waited.

"It's been on my mind. I see it over and over. I can't think about
much else."

He had his own memories. Closing his eyes, his heart heavy, Mulder
thought that, in a minute, he might even be able to breathe.
When she spoke, he opened them again.

"I haven't been able to go to sleep... I never heard Dugas coming. I
was only aware of him when I felt his breath. You gave me a second
chance."

"I did my job."

"Maybe," she said, "but knowing that doesn't prevent me from
being grateful. He would have killed me if you hadn't been there. I
learned a disconcerting lesson out there. It's my job to get at the
truth. But, was it actually the truth, or was it my truth? I feel like I
should apologize to you, Mulder."

"You did your job the way you thought you were supposed to," he
responded. It was his way of apologizing to her, too.

"I understand now and  I wanted you to know. I hope you have a
speedy recovery," she finished. Maybe her words could save *him*.

"Thanks. I'll see you around," Mulder said. Replacing the receiver,
he stretched his right leg out on top of the coffee table. Reaching for
the television remote, his movement was arrested by two gentle
knuckle raps on the door.

"Mulder, it's me." Scully told him, her voice muffled by the door. 

"Come in, Scully!" he called, hearing the sound of her key in the
lock. 

"I can't see a damn thing. Were you sleeping?" She flicked a light
switch, illuminating the room with a warm, golden glow and
obscuring the vista of city lights beyond the living room window.
She blinked her eyes back into focus.

"Nah," Mulder denied, "Just sittin' and thinkin'." He didn't want to
tell her about the nightmare. Not yet.

Hanging her coat on the coat rack to the left of the door, and
carrying two paper bags into the living room, she put them down
next to his foot. Looking for outward signs that he'd had a bad
night, she couldn't see anything noticeable. Reaching into one bag,
she plucked out a videocassette. "Here you go, Mulder," she said,
dropping the gift into his lap. "Another hilarious, inept movie from
the king of bad cinema."

"Bride of the Monster! This isn't bad... " Mulder asserted.

"... It just isn't good either?" Scully countered.

"You always speak your mind, Scully," the grin in his voice letting
her know that he didn't mind. It was one of the reasons why he
appreciated having her for his partner. "It was probably Ed Wood's
best-known film after Plan Nine from Outer Space, and seventy-two
year old Bela Lugosi's last speaking role," he said with reverence.
"Do you know that Wood stole the rubber octopus from the
Republic Pictures back lot? He forgot the motor, so Lugosi had to
fling the tentacles around himself as he was fighting the monster."

"A special effects milestone." The amusement in her voice lightened
the sarcasm.

Not dissuaded, patting the space beside him, Mulder invited, his
eyes eager, "Ma'am?"

She gazed at him, absorbing him. In the lamplight, he was
incomparably handsome. She'd been fearful that he'd been taken
away from her. But he was safe, alive, occurring to her, every time
she looked at him, as a miracle.

"Sure, Mulder, why not?"

Tickled that she didn't try to say goodbye and escape, Mulder gave
her a lopsided grin. Quoting Lugosi's Dr. Vornoff, he mimicked, "I
vill create my own race of atomic supermen that vill conquer the
vorld!" Giving her the option to bow out all the same, he said, "I
know that Ed Wood isn't a love of yours... "

"He's not on my list at all," she answered. *But you are.* She
seated herself to his left. Mulder's hand, warm and secure, found
hers. He laughed and squeezed her fingers, lacing them together
with his.

She gazed down at their hands, locked together. He held hers more
tightly. 

"Scully? What's in the other bag?"

Snuggling closer to him, she smiled widely. "A full thermos of hot
chocolate."


~~~end~~~
Deb

Additional thanks: To David, because you are the biggest inspiration
of all.