Bahnsen and Dawn
Art by Theresa Filardo
INFO: Written for I Made This Productions Virtual Season 8 RATING: PG-13 CLASSIFICATION: XA KEYWORDS: MSR SPOILERS: Mild through Je Souhaite DISCLAIMERS: The usual. They aren't ours, never will be, but we can pretend, can't we? AUTHOR'S NOTES: At the end FEEDBACK: Treasured, adored, and practically worshiped SUMMARY: The names and places have changed but the story is the same -- or is it? Mulder and Scully travel to West Virginia to investigate a disturbingly familiar case. Prologue 8:16 p.m. Somewhere in the woods Rural West Virginia Twilight spreads across the forest, leeching color from the trees and painting the vegetation in shadowy variations of black and gray. No longer daylight, not yet night, nature holds its collective breath as the last warm tendrils of sunlight give way to the cool spill of moonlight. Small animals wake and creep from burrow and nest, soft rustling of undergrowth and snapping of twigs betraying their furtive search for food and water. Crickets' reedy high-pitched songs meld with the lower rumble of frogs and the whirring of cicadas, creating a peaceful cacophony. Until another sound, piercing, desperate, and completely alien, shatters the tranquility. Now silent, the forest watches. And waits. "JACOB!" *Shock. Bewilderment. All encompassing agony -- red-hot nails driven through bone. Can't move, can't run. Small, delicate hands push back tangled yellow curls streaked with dirt and tears. Blinding white light, blue eyes squinting, watering. FEAR.* "JACOB! HELP ME! HELP ME! JACOB! PLEEEEASE!" Legs pumping, heart pounding, lungs straining for air. Crashing through thickets and brush, slipping on mossy stones and tripping over broken branches. Plunging to the ground, knees skinned and bloody, palms scraped. "jacob, help me! don't leave me! jacob!" Not as loud now. Not as scary now. Scrambling upright, shaking twigs and leaves from dark, sweat soaked hair. Stumbling onward, cloaked in a numbing fog. Dark eyes searching, seeking. Finding the amber glow of safety. Of home. Small is good. Small is safe. Huddled in the corner between the bed and the wall, arms wrapped around knees, eyes huge. Rocking. Time slipping. Flowing. Voices. "Rachel? Jacob? Where are you?" Footsteps. "Jacob? Jacob, what are you doing there? Where's Rachel?" Gentle hands tugging, voice high and trembling. Mom. "Jacob. Jacob, answer your mother!" Deeper. Louder. Dad. "Jacob, WHERE IS YOUR SISTER?" A whimper at first, it grows -- a wail, then a shriek. Endless. Mindless. Drowning out comfort, obliterating reason, it's too late. Once the screaming begins, it won't stop. ********************************** ACT I 9:37 a.m. FBI Headquarters There was a tear in her stocking. Scully leaned against the wall, out of the flow of traffic, and wriggled the toes on her left foot while carefully balancing a cup of coffee in each hand. After perhaps twenty seconds of pointing and flexing like a ballet dancer warming up at the barre, her big toe still poked annoyingly through the fabric, and she'd garnered more than her share of curious stares. Scully pressed her lips together and straightened, resigned to endure another in the long chain of irritants that had dogged her footsteps like a pestering child since she'd awakened that morning. As she was startled from a deep sleep, her arm flailed, sending the alarm clock crashing to the floor where it died an untimely and violent death. They'd been flushing the hydrants in her neighborhood without giving notice, evidenced by the rusty orange water she had no choice but to shower and brush her teeth with. She'd donned her favorite pantsuit before discovering leftover mud stains from the last time Mulder dragged her off to look at phantom crop circles in the pouring rain. And to top it all off, she'd burned her very last whole-wheat bagel and been reduced to wolfing down one of the sugar laden S'mores Pop Tarts she'd purchased for Mulder. Scully grit her teeth and gave her toes one more surreptitious wriggle. This day couldn't possibly get worse. "Agent Scully? A moment of your time, please." Then again... Scully performed hasty cosmetic surgery on her expression and favored Skinner with a polite nod. He ducked back out of sight, and she reversed direction with a sigh. Entering the outer office, she returned Kim's smile with a conviction she didn't feel and deposited the two Styrofoam cups onto the small table beside the couch. Skinner was waiting just inside his office, one hand on the doorknob and an inscrutable look on his face. Scully crossed to her usual chair and sat, watching her boss shut the door and settle himself gingerly behind the large oak desk. Freshly back to work, one arm still swathed in a sling and flash burns from the explosion still healing, Skinner moved with an economy that suggested lingering discomfort. Skinner extracted a manilla folder from a pile at his left elbow and opened it on the blotter. "I've been contacted by the local P.D. in..." Scully's brows drew together. "Excuse me, sir. Shouldn't we wait for Agent Mulder?" Skinner glanced up sharply, his dark brown eyes stern and assessing. "I didn't invite Agent Mulder to this meeting, Agent Scully. I wanted to speak with you privately about this case." Scully's eyes narrowed and her voice dropped 10 degrees. "I see." Skinner sighed, shoving his glasses up so that he could pinch the bridge of his nose. "No, Scully, you don't see. But you will. Please, hear me out." Scully's brow remained furrowed but she inclined her head. "Early this morning I spoke to a man named Jonas Sullivan. He's the sheriff in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia -- a small town about 40 miles outside Charleston. A little girl disappeared from her home the night before last. Looked like a straightforward kidnapping case until the only witness to the crime started talking. An agent from the local Bureau familiar with the X-Files division suggested contacting Mulder. You and Mulder hadn't arrived yet, so the switchboard forwarded the call to this office." Scully fought the urge to let her eyes slip shut in resignation, sensing where the conversation was headed. Keeping her expression neutral was difficult, but not impossible. "I assume the witness believes the child was abducted by aliens?" Skinner fingered the folder. "Sullivan faxed me the file. From what I've read and my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject, it looks like a textbook alien abduction scenario." Scully studied her boss's face, taking in the clenched jaw and the twitch of a facial muscle high on his left cheek. "What aren't you telling me about this case, sir? Who exactly is this witness?" Amazingly, Skinner's jaw tightened further. "The victim's 11-year-old brother. The parents were at a church meeting. He was babysitting." Scully dropped her eyes to where her hands lay neatly folded in her lap. A string of highly unprofessional responses remained sealed behind her pursed lips. "This meeting isn't really about the case, is it? You want to know if I think Mulder can run the investigation and still remain objective." "He's had a difficult year, Scully. We both know this type of case pushes some buttons for him." Scully's head came up, her eyes blazing and her spine ramrod straight. "Sir, Agent Mulder is first and foremost a professional and..." "Scully." Skinner's voice was quiet but authoritative. "He took himself off the LaPierre case. I saw your face, you were just as stunned as I was. Before I send him back into the water I need to know he's not going to drown. Like it or not, as his partner you are the best judge of his fitness for this type of assignment. Do you or do you not feel Mulder is emotionally capable of handling this case?" Images cascaded through Scully's mind. Mulder's initial, eerie sense of peace after learning his sister's fate had been a transient balm for deep wounds not so easily healed. When the dust settled and reality set in, she'd done her best to help him pick up the pieces --occasionally buffering the anger and bitterness over his mother's suicide; more frequently holding him as he wept over the contents of his sister's diary. He'd come a long way. Genuine acceptance, not only of some agonizing truths but of his inability to change them, had created within Mulder a serenity she'd never before witnessed. But could that fragile peace withstand the onslaught of painful memories this case would provoke? Scully licked her lips. "Sir, as I already stated, Mulder is more than competent to..." A sudden commotion in the outer office cut short her reply. Behind the closed door they could hear indignant treble interspersed with an equally insistent bass. Frowning, Skinner rose to his feet just as the door swung open to reveal Mulder, an irate Kim on his heels. "Agent Mulder, what do you think you're doing?" "I tried to tell him you were in a closed meeting, sir, but he just wouldn't listen," Kim said, her eyes telegraphing clearly that if she had her way Mulder would be a dead man. Mulder's bland expression couldn't disguise his fury. "And I tried to explain that there's been a mistake. That there's no way you'd discuss a possible X-File with the department head absent. Isn't that right, *sir*?" The term of respect left his lips like a curse. Skinner locked eyes with his most troublesome agent for a long moment before dismissing his assistant with a weary wave of his hand. "I'll handle this, Kim." Mulder's face displayed no triumph as he crossed the room and dropped into the empty chair, just a brief glance of betrayal directed towards his clearly uncomfortable partner. He leaned back, tightly folded arms and rigid shoulders screaming defensiveness and mistrust. Skinner opened his clenched fist and spread his hand flat on the desktop. "Agent Mulder, I..." "You might be surprised to learn I have a friend in the Roanoke Bureau. Met him during one of those ridiculous team building seminars I couldn't talk my way out of back when I was in Violent Crimes. We've managed to stay in touch." Mulder's voice was frigid, his eyes the only expressive feature in his face. "Matter of fact, I just got off the phone with him. He wondered what my thoughts were on a kidnapping case. He was pretty confused when I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, since the cop in charge had already called to request my help on the investigation." "I just received the information within the last hour, Mulder." Skinner's words were clipped, his tone warned against insubordination. "I've barely had time to go over the details." Mulder leaned forward, his hands grasping the chair in a white-knuckled grip. "But you had time to call my *partner* in and discuss them with her! Unless it wasn't the *case* that inspired this impromptu meeting of the minds. Worried that Spooky's going to hare out, sir?" Scully shifted to face him, lips compressed in a straight line. "Mulder..." He rounded on her, the rage in his hazel eyes tempered by hurt. His voice dropped to a level that excised Skinner from the conversation as efficiently as a surgeon's scalpel. "So, what did you tell him, Scully?" Scully met his gaze. The question in Mulder's eyes, the uncertainty, could be handled so simply in another time and place. Her fingers twining with his, her lips brushing his cheek... Mulder was an extremely tactile person. One amazing discovery she'd made during their evolving relationship was how easily she could reach him with a simple touch. Her fingers ruffling a stray lock of hair, her thumb stroking the soft skin on the back of his hand -- even fiddle with his tie, and Mulder turned to putty in her hands. Ever mindful of Skinner's scrutiny, she attempted to convey the same emotions with her eyes and the barest tilt of her lips. "Before you burst in here, Mulder, I was about to tell the A.D. that I feel you are perfectly capable of handling this investigation. And that I believe you may just be that little girl's best hope." Mulder blinked. His eyes, formerly black with anger, turned a mossy green. Message received. Sucking in a deep, calming breath, he turned back to Skinner. "Any further questions, sir?" Skinner's eyes darted between them, a look of intense concentration on his face. He thrust his jaw forward, closed the folder, and held it out to Mulder. "You'd better get down there ASAP. I'll have Kim make the travel arrangements. Contact Sullivan from the Gauley Bridge sheriff's office first, he'll see that you have access to the crime scene and the family. And Agent Mulder..." Mulder paused, one hand on the doorknob, the other pressed to the small of Scully's back. Skinner stood, shoving his good hand deep in his pocket. "This is a small town where everyone knows everyone else's business. Tread lightly." Mulder's lips twisted as if to spout a patented smartass response, but Scully's covert touch on his arm stalled it. Mulder shot her a brief look of amusement before nodding. "Yes, sir." Scully followed in Mulder's wake as he took up a brisk pace through the outer office. She mouthed a quick apology in Kim's direction, scooping up the two cups from the side table where she'd deposited them earlier. "Mu...Mulder!" The only acknowledgement that he'd even heard her was a cursory glance over his shoulder, his long legs striding in the direction of the elevator, file tapping aggressively against the top of his thigh. Scully had received enough attention from onlookers today. She bit back the next "Mulder" forming on her lips and waited until she caught up with her partner at the elevator. "Mulder." It was low, non-threatening, not quite pleading. "I know what you're going to say, Scully." He gave the call button two more hard shoves with the heel of his hand, as if the elevator would respond to the extra force. "Really?" Scully, took a step back and would have folded her arms across her chest if she hadn't still been holding what probably amounted to lukewarm coffee. Mulder clasped the file under his right arm and brought both hands to his face. He scrubbed at his eyes, his voice weary and resigned. "It's the same old story, Scully. Anything involving missing children prompts psych evaluations on "Spooky" Mulder. Will he hare out? Can he hold it together? Is it too close to what happened to his sister? What the hell was Skinner thinking? Have I lost so much credibility that he finds it necessary to check my state of mind with you before assigning me a case?" Though his eyes reflected both hurt and anger, only the latter colored his words. Before Scully had a chance to answer, the elevator car dinged its arrival, the doors opening to reveal a handful of people. Without a second thought, Mulder stepped inside and planted himself at the back of the crowded car. The absence of his guiding hand left a sinking feeling in the pit of Scully's stomach. She knew he wasn't angry with her, and hoped when he really thought about it he would realize that Skinner was only looking out for him. The doors opened on the ground floor and the last of the passengers stepped out. There wasn't a lot to attract FBI employees or visitors to the basement. And while in the early months of their partnership Scully resented it, now she viewed it as a blessing. The basement was their haven, an escape from prying eyes and whispering tongues. They did good work and she was proud of their accomplishments, both professionally and personally. Over time the tag of "Mrs. Spooky" had lost its sting, no longer feeling like an insult. Mulder unlocked the office and shouldered the door open. Scully followed him in, ditching the cold coffee in the nearest trashcan as she entered. Mulder retreated to the corner of the office and dropped into his chair. He propped his feet up on the desk and laid the unopened file across his lap. His eyes took up an intense study of the wall just above Scully's head as his right hand absently stroked his chin. All the classic signs of Mulder in a sulk. "Skinner was only trying to help. You've had... it's been a tough year for you, Mulder. There's been a lot going on. This isn't a straight forward kidnapping case, it appears to indicate... The witness is claiming alien abduction." Scully's shoulders bunched as she anticipated Mulder's reaction. He dropped his feet to the floor, heedless of the file that slipped from his lap, contents spilling from the manila covering. Mulder leaned forward, hands splayed across the desktop, his body language reminiscent of Skinner's as he'd confronted the wayward agent storming into his office. "I am the head of this division. If the assistant director feels I am unfit to handle that responsibility..." "Mulder! Enough. The A.D. was acting out of concern for you. The little I heard before you joined us gave every indication that Skinner's intention was to assign this case to you. He was just making sure... " Scully leaned over, gathering one of Mulder's hands in her own. She watched as the rigid set to his shoulders relaxed and his head dropped until his chin rested on his chest. "To be perfectly honest with you, I agree with Skinner." Mulder's head shot up and he captured her gaze with narrowed, suspicious eyes, his hand twitching in hers. "*Not* because I don't think you can do this, but because I think you do this too well. Your ability to empathize with the victims, to feel their pain ...it's what gives you the edge over other agents. But..." "But?" How could she say it without sounding as if she *did* doubt his ability? "Are you sure you're ready for this? To go..." "Scully. I was too late to save Samantha. I know I can't change that. But this little girl... she still has a chance. *I'm* that chance. Aliens kidnapping a child? They'll just investigate right over the top of that, or bury the file so deep it will never surface. I'm 'IT,' Scully. I'm the only one that will take those claims seriously enough to either prove or disprove them. I have to do this. For that little girl. For her family. For me." Determination, compassion, assurance. They were etched into Mulder's features so deeply that Scully wondered how she had ever doubted he'd cope. She squeezed the fingers still nestled in hers and briefly pulled them to her lips, lightly kissing the rough skin across his knuckles. "Well then, G-Man, I suggest you gather that file up off the floor. I'll make us a cup of coffee, and we can go over the police report before we leave." Scully smiled up at him and released his hand. "Thanks, Scully." She threw him a questioning look. "For backing me up with Skinner and trusting my judgement on this." "Hey, what are partners for?" Scully moved off to make the coffee, feeling strangely at odds with the flush she could feel spreading across her cheeks. "And Scully?" "Mmmhmm?" "I take two sugars, not one. I know you've been cutting them back," he chided lightly. "Too much sugar is not good for you, Mulder." "I like my coffee sweet, Scully." He let his voice drop an octave. "Just like my women." He ducked behind his desk to retrieve the file and to avoid a well-aimed projectile hurled at him from the general direction of his partner, hiding a wide grin as he gathered up the strewn papers. Scully added creamer to her coffee and one sugar to Mulder's, pausing before tearing open a second packet. "You should be getting over the sugar craving by now. Have you given any more consideration to using the nicotine patches suggested by Dr McManus?" She added the second sugar and stirred the hot black liquid before handing it to her partner. "I'm not suffering from nicotine withdrawal, Scully. I don't need patches and I'm not craving sugar. I just got used to drinking it sweet." "But..." Scully's train of thought was interrupted by the insistent trill of Mulder's phone. "Mulder." Scully sipped her coffee while Mulder pulled a pen from his breast pocket and started jotting notes on a scrap of paper. "Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yep. Okay, thanks, Kim." He replaced the receiver back in its cradle and scooped up the file from the top of his desk. "Drink up, Scully. Skinner's signed off on the 302, and Kim got us a noon flight to Charleston. We can swing by our apartments on the way to the airport." He was already unlocking his briefcase and stowing the folder safely inside. He flipped the catches and rolled the combination before swinging it off his desk, grimacing as the movement wrenched sore ribs. Scully observed the pain flicker across his face. Was he really up to this? In her heart she knew he was right, that he was that little girl's best hope. No one else would investigate this case with the same drive and determination. Yet she couldn't help worrying that this case, like so many others involving children, would take its toll. Mulder paused in the doorway, tapping his foot impatiently when he realized she wasn't at his side. "Are you coming? Time's a-wasting, Scully. Let's go." He was practically bouncing on the spot. "Okay, okay. I'm coming." Scully whisked her own briefcase off the floor from behind her chair and preceded Mulder out the door, comforted by a light pressure at the small of her back. 3:06 p.m. Gauley Bridge Sheriff's Office "I'll be honest with you, Agent Mulder. I'm not one for believin' in little green men." Sheriff Sullivan tipped his considerable bulk backward, eliciting a groan of protest from the rickety wooden chair. His index finger tapped his lips as his dark eyes shifted between Mulder and Scully. Scully leaned forward, giving her partner a warning glare on the way. "Sir, you called us in on this case. Now there must be some reason..." "I called you in, Agent Scully, because I couldn't come up with anything better. Before this, my biggest problem was getting Julia Sterns to press charges against her husband for knocking her around when he drinks too much. Now I've got a little girl missin' and the local feds telling me that they don't have enough to go on, just spinnin' their wheels. When Agent Mulder's friend mentioned that y'all specialize in this type of case, I jumped on the suggestion." "We've read the information you faxed Assistant Director Skinner." Mulder's voice was calm, unruffled, his body sprawled elegantly in the chair. "Is there anything you'd like to add before we interview the Marcussens? Are they a close family? I take it from the police report that you are a personal friend." "This isn't Washington, D.C., Agent Mulder; I'm a personal friend of just about everyone in town." Sullivan sighed and kneaded the back of his neck. "But I guess you could say I know the Marcussens better than most. I drove Sam and Beth to the hospital when she saw fit to have Jacob in the middle of a snowstorm. And I helped them find Rachel the time she wandered off and got herself lost in the woods. They're good, God fearin' folks, and those children mean the world to them." "No one is questioning their devotion to the children, Sheriff Sullivan," Scully said, her voice firm but soothing. "Not out loud anyway." When Scully opened her mouth to protest further, he held up a callused hand. "Look, I may be a babe in the woods compared to you big city fibbies, but I'm smart enough to see that, little green men aside, there aren't many suspects in this case. I don't intend to see Rachel Marcussen turned into another Jon Benet Ramsey. You get my meaning?" Mulder sat up, both feet coming to rest on the floor, his hands resting lightly on his knees. "And I can't promise to respect boundaries that interfere with my ability to do my job." His eyes flicked to Scully's, and his tone warmed. "What I *can* promise is that I will do everything in my power to find out what happened to that little girl, and to bring her home safely." Sullivan's lips compressed to a bloodless line, and his eyes bored into Mulder's. Mulder met the scrutiny without flinching, shoulders dropping imperceptibly when the sheriff finally nodded and stood with a grunt. "Let's go, then. Sam and Beth are expecting us, and I wouldn't want to keep them waiting." 3:45 p.m. Marcussen residence "Coffee, Agent Mulder?" Beth Marcussen was a whip thin woman with dark blonde hair and blue eyes so large they swallowed the rest of her heart- shaped face. She'd been a bundle of perpetual motion since they'd arrived, seating them on an overstuffed couch in the living room, bustling off to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, and now serving them with restless, fluttering hands. She reminded Scully of a lovely but fragile butterfly, unable to settle for long in one spot. "Thank you, Mrs. Marcussen." Mulder smiled as he accepted the cup, pointedly ignoring Scully's disapproving stare as he spooned in a generous ration of sugar. "Please, call me Beth. Seems silly to be so formal with the folks who we're countin' on to..." She pressed her knuckles tightly to her lips to stop the flow of words." "Mrs. Marcussen -- Beth, please sit down." Mulder's voice was soft and gentle. The one reserved for victims and suffering family members. "We need to ask you and your husband a few questions about the night Rachel disappeared." Beth's shadowed gaze darted to her husband. The antithesis to her nervous energy, Sam Marcussen had remained still and mostly silent in a large recliner near the fireplace. With a tilt of her head, Beth crossed the room to perch on the arm of the chair. "We've read the police report and we've talked to Sheriff Sullivan," Mulder said, acknowledging the man with a slight nod. "What we'd really like, is to hear the events of that night in your own words." Beth sucked in a long breath of air and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear in a gesture that reminded Mulder eerily of his partner. "There's so little to tell. Sam and I had a meetin' over at the church right after supper. They're lookin' for a new pastor, and we're on the search committee. There weren't going to be any kids there, so Jacob offered to stay home with Rachel. He watches her all the time when I go to the grocery store or shoppin'. We were only gone an *hour*." Beth's voice, which had become progressively more wispy, broke. Sam placed a large, steady hand over her trembling one and squeezed. He turned his haunted eyes on the agents. "It was full dark by the time we came home, but there were no lights on in the house. I thought maybe the kids were playing some fool game of hide 'n seek, so I started callin' for them. It wasn't 'til they didn't answer that I got scared." "You found Jacob in his room?" Scully prodded. Sam snorted, but there was no humor in it. "Not at first. He was kinda folded up in a little ball, wedged between his bed and the wall. Beth saw his foot stickin' out and called me. We tried to get him to tell us where Rachel was but it was like he couldn't hear us. Just kept rockin' back and forth. I was so scared, I guess I got a little rough with him. I grabbed holda his arm and shook him, yellin' at him to tell us where his sister was." Sam dry washed his face and ran trembling fingers through his hair. "He just started... screaming. Wouldn't stop until the doc came and gave him somethin' to make him sleep." Scully sipped her coffee to disguise a surreptitious glance at her partner. Mulder's face, though a bit pale, was composed. "You weren't able to talk to Jacob until yesterday morning?" "No way he was makin' any sense," Sullivan spoke up. "We tried to search the woods surrounding the house, but it was near impossible in the dark. I had a team of volunteers cover about a three mile radius yesterday. No one turned up a thing." Mulder gazed out the picture window at the thick forest that encircled the small house. He gently placed his cup on the coffee table and braced his elbows on his knees. "We'd like to speak to Jacob, if you think he's up to it." Sam and Beth held a silent consultation before she nodded. "We knew you would. He hasn't said too much since he talked to Jonas and those other agents, hasn't even left his room except to eat. But he hasn't started screamin' again either." She tried to smile but her lips quivered. "Jacob's always been the brave one. Rachel was..." She caught herself, "IS more like me, afraid of everything." "We don't want to upset him, Beth," Scully said, mimicking Mulder's actions with her own cup. "We'd just like to hear the whole story in his own words. There's always the possibility he'll remember something new." "His room is the last door on your left." Sam stood and led them to a hallway that ran along the back of the house. "Just... He's a little boy who lost his sister. Please, don't forget that." To Marcussen, an almost curt bob of the head and a carefully neutral expression communicated professional courtesy. To Scully, a reflexive swallow, a tightening of jaw muscles, and a few additional lines around the eyes betrayed a more emotional response. She moved past Mulder, discretely allowing her hand to brush his before continuing to Jacob's door. When Mulder reached her side, his expression slightly less pinched, she rapped firmly. "Come in." Scully wasn't sure exactly what she'd expected -- posters of rock bands, perhaps, or famous sports figures? Certainly not the schematic of a space station and a periodic table of elements. She let her eyes roam the walls and surfaces while Mulder strode directly over to where Jacob sat at a small wooden table, his head bent over some type of model whose pieces were scattered across the polished surface. "Hi, Jacob. I'm Agent Mulder and this is Agent Scully. We're trying to help Sheriff Sullivan find your sister." Jacob carefully set aside what Scully now recognized as a partially assembled space shuttle, and methodically wiped glue from his fingers before shaking Mulder's outstretched hand. He looked each of them up and down coolly. "Agent?" "We're from the FBI," Scully explained, making her way to Mulder's side. Jacob shoved unruly brown hair off his forehead. "Local? Or D.C.?" Mulder's lips quirked. "D.C. Why?" Jacob shrugged and fingered one of the tiny pieces. "No reason. I just thought that the other agents were givin' up." Something passed across Mulder's face before he circled around the table and lifted the half-completed model. "Looks like you're really into space exploration," he mused, gesturing at various models of rockets and planets scattered throughout the room. "Been following the Mars launches?" Jacob made a face. "Yeah, even though they keep losin' them. Four spacecraft in one year's pretty sorry, dontcha think?" "They do seem to need a new approach," Mulder agreed, crossing over to sit on the bed. Jacob swiveled to face him. "Look at the Polar Lander -- it smashed to bits! Breakin' thrusters shut down at an altitude of 130 feet, and it impacted the surface at about 50 miles an hour. All 'cause one missin' line of computer code told the on board systems that she was safely on the surface when she was still in the air. But then, what can you expect when they've gone so cheap they've got people workin' 80 hour weeks?" Scully arched an eyebrow in Mulder's direction. Nobody had mentioned Jacob Marcussen was 11 going on 30. Mulder's lips curved as he gently steered the conversation back on track. "We're here because of your testimony, Jacob. Will you answer some questions for us?" Jacob shrugged. "Already talked to the other agents. Didn't seem like they believed me." "Well, we're from a division of the Bureau that specializes in paranormal phenomena -- exactly the kind of thing you say happened to Rachel. Would you mind going over what happened the night she disappeared, one more time?" Jacob studied them with intense, dark eyes. "Mom and Dad were at a church meetin'. Rache and I aren't allowed to play outside when they're not home, so I was foolin' around on the computer, and she was watchin' TV. Then all of a sudden, the electricity cut out, so we went out front to see if anybody else's lights were on. That's when we saw the spaceship." "Spaceship?" Mulder's face reflected only polite interest, but Scully watched his hands slowly curl into fists. Jacob nodded matter-of-factly. "Yep. Had to be. It looked kinda like an airplane but it was movin' up, down, and all around like a helicopter. And fast! It swooped real low over the house, and we ran around to the backyard to follow it. Looked like it dropped down into the trees, and we could see the light reflectin' up. Before I knew it, Rache took off into the woods sayin' she was gonna see a real live flyin' saucer. I tried to stop her..." He looked down, blinking. Scully crouched beside him and laid one hand on his knee. "It's all right, Jacob. Take your time." Jacob gave her a tremulous smile before continuing. "I would've caught up with her; I'm a much better runner. But then there was this really bright light. It swallowed Rache up and I couldn't see her anymore. I tried to yell her name, but I couldn't talk -- I couldn't even move!" He lifted dry eyes to Mulder. "I could hear her scream for me, but I couldn't move." "Did you see the spaceship?" Mulder asked. Jacob shook his head. "I couldn't see anything, just the light. It was so white -- you'd a thought it would be hot, but it wasn't. It was cold." He shivered. "Next thing I knew it was gone, and I could move again. I could still hear Rachel screamin' but it sounded far away. I...I ran, I guess. I don't really remember much after that 'til my mom and dad came in and found me here." Mulder pressed one fist to his lips, trading a long look with Scully. Jerking his gaze from the concern in her blue eyes, he stood up. "Is there anything else you can tell us, Jacob? Anything you want to add that you might have forgotten?" Jacob slowly shook his head. He scooted his chair back to the table and calmly picked up the model, though his eyes skittered back and forth between Mulder and Scully. "Thank you for answering our questions, Jacob," Scully murmured, straightening up and moving to the door. "We know it isn't easy for you to talk about that night." Mulder pulled open the door and guided Scully through with his hand pressed to the small of her back. He turned back to Jacob, who was opening a small tube of glue. "Try not to worry, Jacob. We'll do everything we can to find Rachel." Jacob never lifted his head, and his voice remained steady. "You can try all you want, Agent Mulder. But I don't think they're gonna bring her back." Mulder backed into the hallway, unable to tear his eyes from the crown of Jacob's shaggy head and the smooth, deliberate movements of his small hands until he carefully shut the door. He sagged against the wall with eyes closed, trembling fingers leaving a trail of unruly spikes in his hair. Scully's solid warmth at his elbow encouraged him to crack open one eye. "Well, that was a little too close to home." He molded his features into a cookie cutter smile, not sure if it was for Scully's benefit or his own. "Mulder, if this case..." Mulder swallowed the shock like an exceptionally bitter pill and peeled himself off the wall. "I'm fine. And the Marcussens are waiting." A brush of his fingers down her arm and he strode up the hallway toward the living room. Scully pressed her lips tightly together and followed. ******************************** ACT II 4:03 p.m. Outside the Marcussen Residence "Agent Mulder, I gotta tell you, when I asked you to come out here and take a look at this case I thought you'd help put to rest these wild claims of young Jacob." Sheriff Sullivan leaned against his car with arms folded across his chest and a frown darkening his rugged features. "Wild claims? You think he's making it up?" Mulder asked with mild curiosity. His eyes actively scanned the treetops behind the Marcussen's house. "He's an 11-year-old boy who's lost his sister. I don't think he knows up from down right now. I was hopin' you'd set him straight, help him remember. Don't get me wrong, he's a good kid, but after what happened... well you can't blame him for bein' a tad confused." "Really? He didn't strike me as the type of kid that would be easily confused." Sheriff Sullivan's eyes narrowed, and he pinned Mulder with a steely glare. "And what's that supposed to mean?" "It means, Sheriff, that despite the recent trauma, Jacob appears to be an exceptionally intelligent and self-assured kid." "Excuse us." Scully sidled up to Mulder, took his arm, and turned him to face away from the other man. "Mulder..." The use of his name a quiet warning, letting him know he was close to stepping on fragile, law enforcement toes. "Remember what Skinner said before we left..." "Yeah, yeah, Scully. I *am* treading lightly. Do you see him hopping up and down?" A hint of mischief danced in Mulder's eyes. Scully smiled in relief. The knot that had been growing in her stomach since the interview with Jacob was slowly untangling as Mulder shed the tight, troubled expression that had haunted his face. But she still needed to know, to be sure. "Are you okay with this, Mulder?" She tilted her head to the side, searching his face for the truth. "I'm fine. Really. Look, Scully, why don't you head back into town with the good sheriff? Check in with the Roanoke office and make nice. Ask for Tim Spencer, he'll give you the straight story without any attitude. You could also look up the doctor who treated Jacob the night Rachel disappeared. Maybe Jacob said something... anything before he was sedated." "What are you going to do?" "I'll take a walk around the Marcussens' property and check out the woods, try to come up with some evidence to support the boy's story. I also want to interview the neighbors, find out if they have anything useful to add." Sheriff Sullivan sidled closer. "I already talked to them. No one saw or heard a damn thing worth repeatin'." "You have to ask the right questions to get the right answers, Sheriff." Mulder spun on his heel and strode toward the trees. The thick woods swallowed him within minutes. "Is he always like that?" Sullivan stood with his hands on his hips, watching Mulder's retreating form. "Like what?" Scully asked, deadpan. "Forget it. I'll give you that ride back to town." ********************************** Mulder picked his way through low hanging branches, swatting at the odd mosquito as it buzzed past his ear or settled on his cheek. The rich scent of rotting vegetation hung heavily in the humid air, and the soft, spongy ground squished under Mulder's feet. The shrill chirp of cicadas competed with the warbling cry of birds as they called to one another above his head. And every now and then a rustle of leaves would alert him to some woodland creature scurrying on its way in search of food or shelter. But the forest showed no intention of confiding the secret of what had happened to a little girl on a warm September evening. Thirty minutes later, Mulder was sweaty, mud-spattered, and frustrated. Nothing was consistent with an alleged UFO landing site. The treeline bore no evidence of damage, no burnt or singed leaves. The foliage remained lush, green, and intact. The sheriff's men had searched a three-mile radius without noting anything unusual in their report. How far could a 6- year-old girl run in a matter of minutes? The abduction had to have taken place close to the family home. Mulder had begun his exploration in the hope of finding something that would corroborate Jacob's story, lend credence to his claims. Instead, he'd come up empty. He gave the ground a halfhearted kick and craned his neck skyward as if the answer would fall from the heavens. Dropping his eyes, he scanned the trees one last time before hiking back toward the house. Maybe the neighbors would be of more help. 4:58 p.m. Millers' Residence "It's a cryin' shame, I swear, Agent Mulder. Dear little thing just up an' disappearin' like that. I don't know what the world's comin' to when folks ain't even safe in their own homes. The Marcussens are real good community- minded folks. They deserve better. Beth's on the PTA over to the school, and her Sam's always up there fixin' this, mendin' that -- real handy. And little Rachel..." Louise Miller swiped at her eyes with a tissue. "I can't believe this has happened; it's a cryin' shame. A cryin' shame. Can I get you another glass of lemonade?" "No, thanks. Still working on this one." Mulder smiled and held up his glass, half full. "I really appreciate you helping us out with our inquiries. Can you tell me what you remember from the night Rachel disappeared? Did you notice anything... unusual?" "Well, that's the thing, Agent Mulder, I didn't. I know what that poor boy is sayin'. Crazy talk about aliens landin' and takin' little Rachel. 'Course he ain't thinkin' straight right now. How could he, losin' his sister an' all?" "So you didn't see any strange lights, hear any odd sounds?" "No sir. The night passed just like any other 'round here, nice an' quiet." "What about the power? Was there any interruption of your electricity?" Louise's face twisted with confusion. "Why, heck no. We was all watchin' the TV 'bout the time little Rachel was s'posed to've gone missin', and we'd sure have known if the power went out." Mulder glanced around the modest living room. The television was the centerpiece of the room. A sofa and two armchairs, including the one in which he was seated, faced it. Photos adorned the top of the TV, pictures of Louise, a man Mulder assumed to be her husband, and two children -- a boy with cropped blond hair and smiling brown eyes, and a little girl with pigtails and missing teeth. "Are those your children, Mrs. Miller?" Mulder tilted his head toward the photos. She nodded, eyes brightening and lips curving. "Luke an' Jessica. They're the same age as Jacob an' Rachel. Oh my, how Beth and Sam must be sufferin' right now." The smile wavered, then crumbled as she dabbed at her eyes and nose again with the tissue. Mulder discreetly averted his gaze, waiting for her to compose herself before resuming his line of questioning. "I'm sorry, Agent Mulder. This is just so hard to understand. So hard to believe. My kids are real friendly with Jacob an' Rachel, in the same class at school an' all." The sound of a door slamming shut and the high pitched squeal of children's laughter rang through the house. "I'm telling Mama!" "No! Luke, stop it!" "Ha, ha. Betcha can't catch me!" More laughter was followed by the sound of running feet. "Kids! Hey, cut that out! How many times have I warned you about runnin' through the house?" At the sound of their mother's voice, two young faces, sweaty and rosy cheeked, pulled up short just inside the living room door, chests heaving and laughter still bubbling. "Mama, tell Luke to stop ticklin' me," the little girl whined, but there was no malice in her words. "Luke, leave your sister alone. Now quiet down you two; we got company." Two sets of eyes strayed from their mother to take up a steady examination of the stranger sitting in their living room. "This here's Agent Mulder. He's from the FBI in Washington DC. He's come all the way to help find Rachel. Agent Mulder, these are my children, Luke and Jess." The little girl took two tentative steps towards Mulder. "You gonna bring Rachel back home, mister?" "I'm going to try my hardest. Were you and Rachel friends?" "Uh-huh. She's my best friend." Mulder turned his attention to the older boy. "What about you, Luke? Do you and Jacob hang out together?" A nearly imperceptible shadow passed across both faces. Jess looked at her brother with wide-eyed anticipation, lips pressed in a tight line. The boy's startled gaze held Mulder's for only a second before he lifted one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug and turned to his mom. "Can I be excused, please? Jimmy's waitin' for me at the lot; he's expectin' me back any minute. I only come home to get my mitt and ball." He tugged on his sister's arm. "C'mon Jess, we gotta get goin'." Mrs. Miller shot Mulder a look that said, "What can you do?" and bobbed her head. "Go ahead. You know the rules, though, be back before dark!" Jessica puffed a quiet sigh and her face relaxed. Something niggled at Mulder's brain. What had just passed between Jess and her brother? "Kids, huh? Just one big bundle of energy." Louise shook her head, smiling indulgently as the back door slammed shut again. "Agent Mulder? I sure hope you can find Rachel. Jacob'll be lost without his sister. Those two are like peas in a pod, always together. Jacob doted..." She paused at her choice of words, the tissue working convulsively in her hands. "I mean, he *does* dote on her. We gotta think positive, right? No wonder that poor boy's seein' aliens and such -- probably the only way he can cope." "I'll do everything within my power to bring Rachel back safely, Mrs. Miller." Mulder placed his empty glass on the table and reached inside his coat pocket. He offered a card to the woman in front of him. "If you think of anything else, you can reach me on my cell phone or contact the sheriff's department. Thank you again for your help." "My pleasure, sir. Like I said, I hope you find that sweet little girl." For just a moment time slipped backward, and Louise Miller wore Billie LaPierre's face. Mulder blinked and mustered a nod. "I hope so too." 6:47 p.m. New River Lodge Scully tossed her keys onto the cheap pressboard table, kicked off her shoes, and sagged against the wall with a gusty sigh. The connecting door to Mulder's room hung ajar, and the hiss of water on tile drifted through the opening. Tucking back a strand of auburn hair turned mutinous by the humidity, she padded into her partner's room. "Mulder, I'm back." She pitched her voice to be heard over the shower while rescuing a pair of Armani pants from a heap on the floor. "Hey, Scully. How'd it go with the doctor?" She eyed the dried mud splattered around the hem of each leg before folding them neatly. "He was very helpful. I'll tell you all about it later. I'm starving, Mulder." His low chuckle, dark and smooth as molasses, chased away a little of her weariness. "Pizza's on the way. I'll be out in a minute." Pizza. Mulder considered it one of the five basic food groups. Scully assessed the gnawing in her belly coupled with the desire to don an old pair of shorts and a tee shirt and decided pizza didn't sound so bad after all. By the time the pizza arrived she'd shed her suit, and Mulder was sprawled on her bed, his wet hair making an annoying damp spot on one of the pillows. Scully set the carton and a nondescript white paper bag on the table, pausing with her hand on the lid. "Why am I suddenly afraid to open this, Mulder?" He sat up, palm pressed to his heart and a wounded expression plastered on his face. "Trust, Scully. I thought it was the cornerstone of our partnership." Scully arched an eyebrow to demonstrate how unimpressed she was with his theatrics. "I trust you with my life, Mulder. Just not my stomach." She flipped back the lid, mouth curving in a smile. Mulder peered over her shoulder, the scent of his shampoo in her nose and the warmth of his breath on her neck intoxicating. "Pepperoni, bacon, and onion for me, veggies and extra cheese for you." She could sense the smile without using her eyes. Tilting her head back until it rested on his shoulder, she grinned up at him. "If there's a Diet Coke in that bag..." Mulder reached around her to produce a white and red can. "Never doubt it, Scully." She nibbled her way through two slices while Mulder recounted his walk in the woods and the interview with Louise Miller. Under the guise of slurping strings of cheese and sipping soda, she observed him carefully. Though he'd obviously regained his equilibrium, she sensed something still bothered him. His voice softened when he described the absence of heat damage to the trees; and when he related his brief encounter with Luke and Jess Miller, his gaze turned distant, his manner preoccupied. "Mulder?" Her verbal nudge brought him back from wherever he'd gone, and he smiled. "What about you? Did you speak with Tim?" Scully's eyes crinkled and she pursed her lips. "Oh, I had a very productive chat with your friend, Mulder. None of it will help solve this case, but it was still very... enlightening." Mulder dropped his head back to stare at the ceiling with a loud groan. "Oh God, what was I thinking?" Scully gave him a long, deliberately speculative look. "You know, I always have pictured you as the type to sow his wild oats." Mulder literally squirmed in his chair before getting up and pacing to the window. "Have they turned up anything new?" She shook her head, watching in amusement as he fiddled with the cord that controlled the drapes. "Not a thing. The prevailing opinion is that Rachel's either lost out in those woods or in the hands of someone who has no interest in money." "Spencer always was a little more open minded than most." He snorted, turning around. "Obviously -- he befriended Spooky Mulder." Scully didn't bother to conceal her smirk. "Come clean, Mulder. Did you really get so drunk that you..." "So, what did Jacob's doctor have to say?" Letting him off the hook, Scully made a mental note to revisit the conversation in the future. "His name is Warren Blake and he's a GP -- takes care of the whole family. He describes both Jacob and Rachel as average, healthy kids." Mulder dropped back into his chair. "Surely he's aware that Jacob's intelligence is far from average." "Not just above average -- well within range for MENSA. Blake said he's been tested at 162." His teeth worried his lower lip. "Kids with exceptionally high IQs often have difficulty relating to their peers," he murmured, more to himself than to Scully. Scully's brow furrowed but she continued. "According to Blake, Jacob is a model child. Very polite, very helpful." "And the night of Rachel's abduction?" Scully contemplated mentioning that very little about this case pointed to abduction, but prudently held her tongue. "When Baker got to the Marcussens' they'd managed to coax Jacob out from the corner, but he was still pretty incoherent. He said the boy kept repeating something about a bright light and not being able to move. He finally had to administer a mild sedative to calm Jacob down. Said he hadn't seen him that upset since the time Rachel got lost in the woods." Mulder looked up sharply. "Sheriff Sullivan mentioned that incident. Blake was involved?" "Initially he participated on one of the search teams," Scully replied, puzzled by Mulder's abrupt and intense focus. "He wound up staying back at the house when Beth became hysterical. Mulder, I can't help wondering if what we have here isn't a simple repetition of that incident. Jacob admits Rachel went running off into the woods..." "How did Rachel become lost?" Scully frowned. "I didn't ask. Blake did say she was no more than two or three at the time. The way he tells it, Rachel has always been a rather accident-prone child." She held up a hand. "And before you ask, Blake vehemently denied any signs of child abuse. He depicts Sam and Beth Marcussen as model parents, and assured me that although Rachel has suffered more than the average number of childhood traumas, Jacob is disgustingly healthy." She watched him absently picking pepperoni off a slice of pizza without consuming it, noticing for the first time that he'd eaten very little. Placing both elbows on the table she leaned into his personal space -- a little trick she'd learned from the master. "Mulder, are you going to eat that pizza, or autopsy it?" His fingers froze in the act of extracting a scrap of bacon, and he adopted a smartass grin. "Aw c'mon, Scully, be a sport. Mom never let me play with my food." *Deflecting*, Scully thought as he wiped the greasy digits on a napkin and picked up his soda. Mulder used humor like a shield whenever real life hit a little too close to home. "Mulder, something is obviously bothering you. What is it?" Both eyebrows soared and his eyes flew wide open. "I don't know what you're talking about, Scully." "I think you do. You haven't been yourself ever since we talked to Jacob Marcussen." The feigned innocence gave way to anger. "I already told you, Scully, I'm fine." "That's bullshit, Mulder, and you know it! You were barely holding it together outside Jacob's room, and you've been distant and distracted all through dinner." She sighed, sliding her hand across the table and tangling her fingers with his. "Mulder, that boy could be you. You'd have to be made of stone not to be affected by this case." He refused to meet her eyes, but his fingers curled to stroke her palm. "I... It's not what you think, Scully." She waited, the restless shifting of his body testifying that more was coming. His voice was very soft, and very calm. "Scully, did you know that when Samantha disappeared, I was a suspect?" She could feel her jaw drop, her brows squeeze together. Mulder ignored her discomfiture, never lifting his eyes or breaking the slow, steady stroking of his thumb. "True, I was hysterical -- catatonic, even. But my father's gun was lying on the living room floor. It wouldn't be the first time one sibling killed another, due to anger or a game gone tragically awry. Samantha and I were typical kids, we had more than our share of brawls. And I was precocious, too smart for my own good, according to some. I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't those who still believe I killed her and hid the body somewhere." Scully finally located her voice. "Mulder. What exactly are you trying to say? Surely you don't suspect Jacob Marcussen of murdering his sister?" She wanted him to laugh. To flash her that maddening smirk and declare, "I got you, Scully. Big time." But when Mulder raised his head his eyes were deadly serious. "All I'm saying right now, Scully, is that I don't think aliens abducted Rachel Marcussen. And I really want to know why Jacob says they did." Scully gaped at him a moment before shaking her head. "Mulder, there are many more plausible explanations than..." He stood, gently drawing his hand from hers. "I want to talk to the Marcussens first thing in the morning, Scully. Jacob should be in school, so it will be the perfect opportunity to ask questions without worrying about him overhearing." Scully grit her teeth. "What kind of questions? Excuse me, Mrs. Marcussen, but has Jacob ever tried to kill his sister?" Mulder turned away, but not before she saw the hurt on his face. "I need to hear exactly what happened when Rachel was lost in the woods. And her other 'accidents.'" The mule-ish tone of his voice erased her momentary regret. "I can't believe you're considering this, Mulder. He's just a little boy." Mulder crossed to the connecting door, pausing with one hand on the jamb. "So were Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy. Monsters aren't conjured from thin air, Scully. They have parents and a childhood just like you and me." She stared at the open doorway long after he'd vanished through it. 9:14 a.m. Marcussen Residence "We appreciate you speaking with us again, Mrs. Marcussen. Particularly on such short notice." Mulder reclaimed the seat he'd occupied the previous afternoon, casting an uneasy glance at his partner as she silently joined him. They'd exchanged less than two dozen words, all couched in excruciatingly polite terms, since he'd retreated to his room after dinner. He knew she felt repulsed by his suspicions regarding Jacob, and frustrated with his inability to provide concrete evidence to back them. Unable, or unwilling? Scully had a very limited acquaintance with Fox Mulder the profiler. Other than his unavoidable slide during the Mostow case, he'd carefully shielded her from that side of himself -- though he couldn't combat the "Spooky" Mulder legends that still circulated through the Bureau. Truth was, a great deal of his profiling ability rested in pure instinct. Yes, his eidetic memory allowed him to assimilate and piece together an incredible amount of seemingly unrelated data. But when push came to shove, it was his gut *feeling* about a case -- and the killer -- that earned him his nickname. And he had a feeling about Jacob Marcussen that wouldn't go away. "It's Beth, Agent Mulder. And I'll be happy to do whatever I can to help bring Rachel home." Exhaustion ringed Beth Marcussen's eyes, and her hands trembled until she clasped them tightly together. "Sam isn't home. He and a few of our neighbors are off takin' another look in the woods, just in case..." She pressed her folded hands tightly against her lips. "What did you want to ask me?" "You mentioned another time Rachel was missing, when she was just a toddler. Did she..." Mulder's question cut off abruptly when Jacob wandered into the living room. His brown eyes lingered on first Scully and then Mulder before coming to rest on his mother. "Mama, I wanna go down to Mrs. Hayes' house to see the puppies." Beth slipped an arm around his waist and gave him a small frown of disapproval, though her tone remained mild. "Where's your manners, Jacob? Say hello to Agent Mulder and Agent Scully." Jacob ducked his head and flashed them half a smile. "Hello." "Hello, Jacob. It's nice to see you again." Mulder struggled not to feel rebuked by the warmth in Scully's voice. "Hi Jacob." Jacob looked at him. Time slowed, and Scully and Beth faded to the background as Mulder's gaze locked with the boy's. For just a moment, he was certain he saw something cold and calculating in those eyes, a touch of scorn in the smile. Then Jacob blinked and turned back to Beth. "Please, Mama? Mrs. Hayes says I can come over whenever I want." Beth smiled and pulled him close, her eyes shiny. "Go ahead then. But mind your manners, and be back before lunch!" Jacob wormed his way out of her grasp, but paused in the doorway. "Mrs. Hayes says I can take one home if you say yes. Can I, Mama? Please?" Beth's smile vanished and her pale brow furrowed. "Jacob, we've been over this a hundred times. You can't bring home one of those puppies; your sister's allergic! Havin' a dog in the house would make Rachel sick, you know that." Jacob looked away, his mouth drawn in a thin line. "How about if Rachel doesn't come back? Can I have a puppy then?" His mother jerked as if struck, face twisting. "Jacob! How can you even..." She sucked in a long, slow breath. "Rachel *will* be back. Now go play." Jacob's eyes narrowed, and he stole a quick look at Mulder before disappearing through the doorway. Beth forced a shaky laugh and scrubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. "Kids! Hard to figure sometimes. I'm not sure why I kept him home from school today. Guess it was more for me, than the boy." She looked back and forth between the agents. "Coffee? It's no trouble, really." Five minutes and a pot of coffee later, Beth had visibly calmed. Mulder set his cup down and leaned back, one arm stretched along the back of the couch behind Scully. "Mrs. M... I mean, Beth. Could you tell us about the time Rachel wandered off and became lost in the woods?" Beth frowned. "I don't see what use it could be, Agent Mulder, but I will. Rachel was only two at the time, and Jacob seven. Jacob was playin' in his room and Rachel was watchin' TV -- Barney, I think -- so I went to take a quick shower. When I came out to check on them -- couldn't have been more than ten minutes -- Jacob was still in his room but Rachel was gone. I didn't worry at first. Rachel loved to play hide 'n seek, and the house was childproofed. Then I saw the back door was open and I panicked. A grown man can get lost in those woods, and she was just a baby." Her voice, which had become progressively rougher, broke, and she sipped some coffee. "It took a search party nearly three hours to find her. Thank Jesus it wasn't a very cold day or she might have froze." "Guess things weren't as childproofed as you thought," Mulder remarked very gently. Beth shook her head vehemently, eyes bright. "That's the strangest part, Agent Mulder. I had one of those plastic rings on the doorknob that's supposed to keep little ones from openin' the door. Somehow she did it anyway." Mulder nodded, glancing over at his partner, but Scully kept her eyes studiously fixed on Mrs. Marcussen. "My nephew is like that," she told Beth. "Into absolutely everything! My brother and sister-in-law can hardly keep up with him." A feeble smile tugged at the corners of Beth's mouth. "That's the odd thing. Rachel had never been that kind of child; she was always good as gold. Jacob, now, he was always tryin' to open cupboards and takin' things apart. Sam used to call him Taz, 'cause he said Jacob reminded him of the Tasmanian Devil." A flicker of movement just over Beth's shoulder caught Mulder's eye, and he stared at the open doorway while Beth continued to expound on the challenges involved in raising an exceptionally bright child. Convinced he'd been mistaken, Mulder returned his attention to the interview. "Dr. Blake mentioned that Rachel has quite an extensive medical file," Scully was saying. Beth winced. "Poor child is terribly clumsy. 'Course, I can't say I'm particularly coordinated myself, always seemed to have two left feet. Rachel's always takin' a tumble down the stairs or fallin' off the jungle gym. Sam says she ought to own stock in the Band-Aid company." "Jacob and Rachel are pretty close?" Mulder watched Beth's face intently, one thumb rubbing the back of his hand. Beth shrugged. "Close as any, I guess. They fight, of course, and Rachel complains that Jacob's bossy. I don't leave them alone often, mostly 'cause Rachel doesn't like it. She says she's afraid there'll be a fire or a robber'll come and Jacob won't be able to protect her." Her lips curved, but her eyes showed only sorrow. "Like I said, Rachel scares easy." She stood and gathered their cups onto the tray. Mulder reached out to help, but succeeded in spilling the dregs from his cup onto his tie. "Here." Beth handed him a paper napkin to blot the dark liquid, and gestured down the hallway. "There's a bathroom right across from Jacob's room if you'd like to rinse that out." "Thanks, I'll do that." The shadowed hallway contrasted sharply with the brilliance of the sunny living room. Mulder made a perfunctory stop in the bathroom to splash water on his tie, then paused outside Jacob's room, head cocked. Scully and Beth's voices, reduced by distance to abstract murmuring, gave him the reassurance he sought. He carefully turned the brass knob and pushed, freezing in place with a grimace when the wood creaked a protest. When the conversation in the other room proceeded without a break, he cautiously stepped inside. An odd conglomeration, he mused, fingering a carefully constructed replica of Apollo 8 perched beside a deck of Pokemon cards. Books explaining the physics behind launching the space shuttle occupied the same shelf as an impressive collection of comics. A chart of the solar system stretched across the ceiling above Jacob's bed, but a poster of Michael Jordan covered one wall. From the looks of things, the boy had already gone through a dinosaur phase -- a model tyrannosaurus stood atop textbooks about paleontology, and a plastic bin of assorted Jurassic Park figures lay nearby. More than a child, not an adult -- Mulder gnawed on his lip and tried not to remember. He wondered if Jacob had learned to stop asking questions, to keep silent during class discussions. Egghead. Brainiac. Know it all. Kids don't like a classmate who has all the answers, and teachers quickly become uncomfortable when asked questions they can't answer. Only discovering how to blend in with the crowd, and later his athletic prowess, had spared him from winding up an outcast. But not before a few hard lessons. Mulder sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, turning slowly. What had he expected to find? A list of ways to get rid of your sister? A written confession? He fiddled with Jacob's computer, clicking on several files that turned out to be saved games of Myst and Doom. A stack of pencil drawings on the corner of the desk captured his interest, and he flipped through them. A creature that looked like a yellow and brown striped squirrel. Obi Wan and Darth Maul dueling with light sabers. Six puppies chasing a ball. Mulder flipped to the final picture and stilled, eyes narrowed. A spaceship, hovering over the ground. A little girl surrounded by a beam of light and suspended in midair, screaming. A boy hiding behind a tree, watching. Smiling. Mulder stared at the drawing for a long moment, then replaced it. He turned toward the door, mindful that Scully and Beth would soon miss him, when something under Jacob's mattress caught his eye. He crossed the room and dropped to his knees, leaning in for a closer look. Paper, glossy and colorful. He slid one hand between mattress and box spring and lifted, pulling out a small stack of magazines. And gaped. "Alien Encounter." "Sightings." "UFOs -- The Untold Story." Pulp magazines filled with lurid tales of flying saucers and alleged irrefutable proof of extraterrestrial life. Mulder, noticing certain pages had been dog-eared, turned to the marked spot. A chill raced up and down his spine, and he quickly checked the next marked page. And the next. He examined each magazine, his throat tightening and a headache hammering just behind his eyes. Abduction experiences. Jacob Marcussen had his own little reference library hidden beneath his mattress. A soft rasp, like the whisper of sneakers on carpet, snapped Mulder's head up from the magazines. He scrambled to his feet and strode to the door, cautiously poking his head out. The hallway was vacant, and he could still hear Scully and Beth in the living room. He rested his head against the doorjamb and blew out a long breath of air before realizing he still held the magazines in his hands. After only a slight hesitation, Mulder lifted the back of his jacket and stuffed them under his belt at the small of his back. He smoothed the wrinkles from his jacket and the frown from his face before rejoining the two women. "There you are." Beth squinted at his soiled tie. "Doesn't look like the water helped much, Agent Mulder." Mulder put on a smile. "That's why I have a good dry cleaners." He looked at Scully and tipped his head almost imperceptibly toward the door. Interpreting the gesture correctly, she rose and offered Beth her hand. "Thank you for your time, Beth." "No trouble, Agent Scully. Talkin' to y'all makes me feel like I'm doin' *somethin'* to help find my little girl." Her voice quivered but her shoulders remained squared, her gaze determined. Mulder ushered Scully through the door but paused before following. "Beth, would you mind giving me the names of the children's teachers?" A thin line appeared between her eyebrows. "Agent Mulder, you sure do ask some of the strangest questions. Rachel is in Irene Pollard's class and Jacob has Kathy Fergus." Mulder smiled. "Thank you. We'll stay in touch." Scully turned to him when they reached the car. "What was that all about?" Mulder unlocked Scully's door before circling around to the driver's side. "What?" "The children's teachers? Mulder, please don't tell me you plan on driving over to the school to talk to..." She trailed off, lips quirking in amusement as Mulder slid behind the wheel and began gyrating around on the seat as he attempted to reach his hand down the back of his pants. "Mulder, what in the hell are you doing? You're acting like you've got ants in your pants." "I'd ask you to do this for me, Scully, but we're on duty," he replied, managing a respectable leer that turned to a look of triumph when he produced the magazines. Scully stared at them, lips parted. "Mulder! Did you take those from the Marcussens?" "Look at them, Scully. They were in Jacob's room." Her incredulity twisted into a scowl. "You spilled that coffee on purpose, didn't you? You did it so you could snoop through that little boy's room." Mulder clenched his teeth. "*Look* at them, Scully." She pressed her lips tightly together and snatched them from his hands. After studying each cover and flipping quickly through the pages, she lifted her eyes and pinned him with an icy glare. "All right, I looked. And I can't say I see anything to justify removing private property." "Scully, those magazines outline countless abduction experiences in vivid detail. And he's got them marked like... like research material!" She rolled her eyes. "Mulder, are you suggesting that Jacob is deliberately lying about what happened to Rachel?" "He clearly has an extensive knowledge of abduction scenarios, Scully, and his testimony combines all the classic elements." "Mulder, Jacob is obsessed with space, something you should certainly be able to understand. He experienced a severe trauma and his 11-year-old mind couldn't cope. So he subconsciously created a fantasy. It's hardly surprising that fantasy would include aliens and spaceships." "They were hidden under his mattress, Scully," Mulder said tightly. "It was pure luck that I found them." Scully snorted, opening one of the magazines to a garish illustration of a man pinned to a table by a laser beam while bug-eyed aliens looked on. "Probably for the same reason I used to hide my MAD magazines, Mulder. My mom would've tossed them in the garbage if she'd ever found them." She thrust the magazines back into his lap. Mulder slammed his fist against the steering wheel. "Damn it, Scully, why can't you see it? Rachel's injuries, getting lost in the woods... She got out a childproofed door because *she* didn't open it -- Jacob did! Yesterday he as much as tells me she won't be coming back, and today he's asking for a puppy! And to top it all off, he's gotten all the details of his story from these magazines. Can't you at least admit the possibility that he's responsible for Rachel's disappearance?" Scully shook her head, her expression bewildered rather than angry. "Mulder, you were once exactly where Jacob is now. How can you accuse another child of something so brutal, so...so calculating?" Mulder dropped his head onto the seatback and closed his eyes. "Scully, when I was with Violent Crimes we investigated the murder of a 4-year-old boy. He disappeared while at the mall with his mother; she turned her back for only a moment, and he was gone. We found his body the next day in a dumpster near some railroad tracks, barely recognizable. He'd been beaten with a baseball bat, burned with cigarettes -- his skull had been smashed with a large rock." He let his head loll toward her and opened bleak eyes. "We eventually caught the murderers, thanks to an eyewitness who saw them leading the child away from the mall. It was two 12-year-old boys, Scully. They had this idea, see, of how to spice up their summer. Strangling puppies and setting cats on fire gets boring after a while." He swallowed thickly. "I was in the room when they confessed. Neither one ever shed a tear." Scully's hand crept across the seat, her fingers soft and warm on the back of his hand. "I'm sorry, Mulder. Sorry you had to experience that kind of horror, and sorry it will always be a part of you. I just don't..." "Just trust me on this, okay, Scully? Let's talk to Jacob's teacher, find out what kind of kid he is when he's not with Mom and Dad." She looked into his eyes for a long moment before nodding. "All right, Mulder. But I still think you're on the wrong track." Mulder gave her hand a brief squeeze before reaching up to turn the ignition. "I never thought I'd say this, Scully. But this time, I hope you're right." *************************************** ACT III 10:56 a.m. Gauley Bridge Elementary school The monotonous drone of children's voices sing-songing the well-known chant of a jumping rope rhyme drifted through the air. Mid morning sun combined with black asphalt to create an eerie shimmer as the heat rose from its dark surface. The peculiar yet familiar stench of stale orange peel, old sandwich crusts, and dried up apple cores filled the air, reminding Scully of her own days spent in schoolyard playgrounds. "Can you smell that, Mulder? There's something about the smell of a schoolyard that remains constant throughout time and space." Scully closed her eyes and sniffed the air. "Yeah, makes me think that someone forgot to take out the trash." Mulder broke his stride only long enough to answer her before continuing towards the large glass doors of the school building. Various forms of climbing equipment -- some new and brightly colored, others worn, shabby, and giving the impression they had seen better days -- dotted a grassy play area to the left of the concrete path. Scully's steps faltered as she slowed to watch a gaggle of rosy-cheeked children swinging, sliding, and playing tag while their teacher looked on with a tolerant smile. A little girl with a cap of strawberry blonde hair raced past, squealing in delight as she evaded the outstretched hand of a little boy hot on her heels. *Emily would be that age now.* Scully forced her feet to move and the soft voice to the corner of her mind where she relegated thoughts too painful to explore. A small hill, covered in green, leafy trees stood out as a picturesque backdrop to the modern red brick building. This school bore a close resemblance to one that she had attended. Despite the regular moves imposed on her family by the Navy, she had enjoyed her education. She achieved academic success and made friends easily, some of whom she still managed to keep in contact with these days -- albeit only a quick phone call or email to wish them a happy birthday or to congratulate them on the arrival of a new baby. She wondered about Mulder. It was no secret that his life after Samantha's disappearance had been a turbulent time full of sadness. On those rare occasions when he opened up to her, his comments about his childhood were usually vague and filled with bitterness. She knew it hadn't been easy for him. Is that what the future held for Jacob? Was his fate to be the same as her partner's, isolated and under constant suspicion of murdering his own sister? Scully shuddered, the anger she had managed to suppress surging to the forefront once again. How could Mulder suspect a little boy of something so evil? He of all people should understand what Jacob was going through. "You coming, Scully?" Mulder propped open the heavy glass door with his hip, gesturing for Scully to precede him. Scully marched past with a perfunctory "thank you" as she slid into the cool foyer. Although her head told her it was unreasonable, she couldn't help feeling a little annoyed that Mulder persisted with the theory that Jacob was to blame for what happened to Rachel. She sensed Mulder sending her questioning looks as they presented badges to the secretary and introduced themselves to the principal, but ignored him. "I don't know that there's too much more to tell; we already spoke with Sheriff Sullivan a day or so back," Principal Jackson said, fiddling with first a pencil holder and then a paperweight. Short and slight of build, he looked lost behind the huge pine desk. "And I have to say, I'm not real keen about disrupting Irene's class again. The students have been upset enough about this whole business." He leaned forward, the chair creaking its irritation as he repositioned himself. "I'm sorry, sir. I think you've got the wrong idea. We'd like to speak with *Jacob's* teacher..." Mulder flicked through his notebook, stabbing his finger at a page. "That would be... Kathy Fergus?" He raised his brow. "Jacob's teacher? Has something happened to the boy?" A flicker of panic crossed Jackson's features. Mulder shifted in his chair, feeling Scully's look of disapproval but choosing to ignore it. "No, no, this is just routine. We're talking to everyone who had contact with the family in the days prior to Rachel's disappearance. We're just piecing together the events leading up to that night." "Well, as I told you, I don't know that I want to disrupt the children. It doesn't matter to them that Rachel wasn't in their class. This is a small town, sir, and we're all feeling her loss." Stubbornness ironed out the man's earlier expression of alarm. Mulder opened his mouth to reply, hesitating when he felt the warmth of Scully's hand brush his. "Mr. Jackson, I understand that this is hard on everybody. When a child goes missing, it affects the whole community. We'll be as quick as we can, but it is important that we speak with Jacob's teacher. We want to do everything in our power to bring Rachel home." Scully pulled her mouth into a reassuring smile, widening it when the principal nodded his agreement. "You can wait in the staff lounge; it's just along the corridor a ways. We have a coffee machine in there; feel free to help yourselves. I'll go get Miss Fergus and bring her to you." "Thank you, sir." Mulder unfolded himself from the chair and stood, pausing. "Mr. Jackson, how would you describe Jacob Marcussen?" "Young Jacob? I wish I had a whole school of him. You know, he's never been sent to me for disciplinary reasons. He's an extremely bright boy." Jackson paused, swiping his hand along his jawline. He shook his head and snorted. "It's the strangest thing, him coming up with this fanciful tale of spaceships stealin' his sister. Jacob's not one to be taken with flights of fancy. He likes to stick to the facts, always quotin' statistics on this or that. Can't imagine what's gotten into him." Scully resisted the urge to remind the man that Jacob had experienced a severe trauma -- obviously this tragedy was clouding more than just Mulder's judgement. ****************************** "Miss Fergus, thank you for agreeing to speak with us. I'm sorry to pull you away from your class, but I'm sure you understand how important this is." Mulder kept his voice low and soothing. "I'm happy to talk to you, Agent Mulder, but I'm not sure exactly how I can be of help." Kathy Fergus, gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses enhancing her grandmotherly appearance, seated herself comfortably in the chair opposite the agents. "I'd like to ask you a few questions about Jacob. I'm sure you've heard about his rather unusual testimony regarding Rachel's disappearance. Our main concern now is to get Jacob to remember *exactly* what happened. It would help us a lot if you could give us some insight into the type of kid he is." Scully sat back in her chair, content to let Mulder set the tone of the interview. Whether due to his talent at profiling or his innate sense of empathy, her partner possessed a knack for setting people at ease -- a crucial component in gleaning information. As she watched him question the teacher, probing carefully for some clue that would point to the little girl's whereabouts, Scully felt her anger recede. If anyone could find Rachel, it was Mulder. "Oh, Jacob is a wonderful kid; don't let anybody tell you any different. He's one of the best students I've ever had the pleasure of teaching. Sometimes he frightens me..." "Frightens you? How?" Mulder interrupted, leaning forward in his chair, arms folded casually in front of him on the smooth formica tabletop, posture relaxed and non- threatening. A tiny gleam in his eye was the only hint Miss Fergus' statement piqued his interest. "Oh... maybe 'frighten' is the wrong word. The things the boy comes out with! I guess you'd say he amazes me. I worry sometimes that he'll get bored with what I'm teaching. It would be a terrible shame to see his intelligence wasted because he's not being stimulated enough in the classroom. But you know, he's never shown any sign of boredom. He's always been able to amuse himself, reading books or drawing pictures. Like I said, he's no trouble at all." She shook her head, a wry smile brightening her face. "Some of those books he reads... If it were me, I'd need a scientist to decipher what's written in them! Not Jacob, though, he understands everything he's reading, and what he doesn't, he finds out by researchin' on the Internet." Scully watched in mild amusement as her partner slumped back in his chair, the scent lost. "What type of books does he read?" Mulder asked casually. "It varies. Right now they're all about space; he's fascinated by it. I'm sure he could recall every detail and statistic on the shuttle launches, dating back to the very first one, if someone were to ask him. Told me once he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. It wouldn't surprise me a bit if we see him commandin' his own mission to Mars one day." She gave a soft chuckle but her expression told Scully she believed her own words. "How does he get along with his peers?" Mulder played with his bottom lip, stroking his index finger from side to side as he formulated his questions and processed Miss Fergus' responses. "Well now, that's got me a tad confused. He doesn't mix so well with the other kids. I can't quite put my finger on it, but if I had to pin it down to any one particular reason I'd say it's because half the time what comes out of the boy's mouth is more like what you'd expect from an adult. The other kids tend to keep their distance, almost as if they're scared of him." Kathy shook her head as if bringing herself to her senses, looking first at Mulder, then at Scully before continuing with a half smile. "Of course that's ridiculous. He's about as gentle as they come. I've never seen him hurt anyone... well..." Her voice trailed off, and she squinted her eyes as if she couldn't quite believe her own memories. "What is it, Miss Fergus?" Mulder prompted as he shifted his body forward again. "Well, there was this one time -- I wasn't his teacher then so this is more hearsay than anything else..." She drifted off, chewing her bottom lip. "What happened, Kathy?" Mulder's body language caught Scully's attention. His voice adopted a silky cadence, gently prompting without pushing. He'd brought his arms back to rest on the table, leaning in slightly but staying out of the teacher's personal space. Scully knew that look -- he was onto something. Kathy squared her shoulders and released her lip. "Every year, just before the end of school we put on a play. This isn't a big school so we try and involve most of the children. There's always plenty to do -- making costumes, collecting props, singing in the chorus. It's a pretty big deal. We perform at the local community hall so that we can fit everyone in; practically the whole town turns out to see it. There's some fine little actors in the school so we hold auditions for the main characters. Last year, Jacob and another boy tried out for the lead role. They were both very good. Luke..." Mulder stole a quick glance in Scully's direction. She met his gaze for a few brief seconds, her face studiously neutral. "Luke? Would that be Luke Miller?" "Yes, yes, it would. Luke doesn't do so well in school, struggles with his work, not so good at sports -- though he tries real hard at both. Jacob, on the other hand, excels at just about everything he attempts. We thought it would be good for Luke if he got the lead role, so that's what decided us in the end. Jacob got the role of understudy." "How did Jacob react to that?" Scully shifted quietly in her chair, the soft fabric of her skirt rustling gently against the vinyl covering. She anticipated where Mulder was going with this, her unease with the line of questioning growing with each passing minute. "He was disappointed, of course, but he seemed fine with it. Or so we thought. Two or three days before the play, Luke fell off his bike -- suffered a bad concussion and broke his leg. He spent the next week in the hospital. Rumors started circulatin' that Jacob was somehow responsible. Of course, there was no truth to those accusations, nothing to indicate that Luke's mishap was anything more than an unfortunate accident. You know how people can be sometimes, and kids are no different than adults when it comes to success. It was easy for them to blame Jacob -- a little jealousy can go a long way in fueling cruel rumors. He's a good boy, Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, and I hope I won't regret tellin' you that story." A look of guarded wariness passed across her face. "We only want to help Jacob, Miss Fergus; he's going through a very difficult time. Our priority is to find his sister, and at this point we haven't a lot to go on. Jacob may hold the key to what really happened that night." Mulder gathered the notes he'd been collecting, folded them into a neat rectangle, and slipped the small bundle inside his coat pocket. Scully caught the quick flick of his eyes in her direction, signaling the interview was over. "We've taken up enough of your time. Thank you for answering our questions so candidly; you've been very helpful." Pulling a business card from her pocket, she handed it to the teacher. "Please, if you think of anything else, you can reach Agent Mulder or myself at those numbers." "Thank you. I'd better be getting back to my class. I wish you luck in finding Rachel. It's a hard thing to see a tragedy like this happen to decent folk like the Marcussens." Kathy Fergus offered a sad smile before heading back to her classroom. ************************************** "Mulder! Slow down." There were times in her life when Scully rued the day fate had decided that her height would never exceed five foot, one. Now was definitely one of those times. She fought to match her partner's long stride while he strode single-mindedly toward their rented Taurus. "I want to get back to the Marcussens, Scully." His pace increased. "Mulder, stop!" Something in the tone of her voice managed to penetrate Mulder's hyperactive thought processes. He stopped walking and turned around to face Scully, annoyance and confusion battling for supremacy. "We've just come from the Marcussens, Mulder. Why do you want to go back there?" "I'm more convinced than ever that Jacob is responsible for Rachel's disappearance. You heard his teacher! The other kids are scared of him; he had no compunction about making sure Luke Miller didn't star in the school play... Scully, he...he exhibits all the classic signs of..." "Don't even go there, Mulder! Jacob Marcussen is just as much a victim in this whole tragedy as Rachel. His teacher qualified everything she said. At no time did she give me the impression that Jacob was this... this *evil* child that you are making him out to be. I really don't understand what has gotten into you, Mulder. This is an 11- year-old boy." She felt like screaming. What was wrong with him? Mulder dragged his hand through his hair, massaging his forehead in a vain attempt to push back the headache that had been steadily building since his illicit search and seizure in Jacob's room. He drew a long, weary breath before answering. "Scully, I need you to trust me on this. I know the evidence so far is circumstantial, but I can *feel* it. Something is not right. Something about Jacob. I want to speak with the Marcussens about allowing an independent psychologist to assess him. If the doctor says there is nothing wrong, then what have we lost? There's a little girl missing, Scully. Do you *really* believe she was abducted by aliens?" A silent stand-off, hazel eyes pleading with stubborn blue. *Did* she believe Rachel was taken by aliens? If she'd been asked that question two years ago she might have been able to answer a decisive "no". Now? She wasn't so sure. A year ago she'd witnessed something that had threatened to destroy her belief in God, to crumble the very foundation of her faith. Now she could no longer deny the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But beyond that, she refused to see evil in this child. To acknowledge that possibility threatened her basic belief in the good of humanity more than the Consortium or a secret government conspiracy. Rachel might be lost, kidnapped -- Scully's mind could comfortably accept such conclusions. But murdered by her own brother? That was a path she couldn't tread. Not even with Mulder at her side. "I don't know what I believe, Mulder. But I do know that I don't see what you see in that child. What are you going to say to the Marcussens, 'Excuse me, Beth, Sam, but I believe your son murdered your daughter. Mind if I have him evaluated by a psychologist?' Do you seriously think they'll agree to that?" Her fists curled into tight balls as her voice rose. "Scully, I would hope you'd credit me with a little more sensitivity than that." Mulder's voice broke from his lips in a soft whisper. The sadness and regret she heard sent her heart plummeting until it landed like an icy lump in the pit of her stomach. Scully drew in a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Mulder, that was uncalled for." She gathered up his hand in both of hers, caressing her thumb in smooth circles along the back of his knuckles. "I don't want this family to suffer any more than you do, Scully. I just want to find Rachel. If a psychological evaluation of Jacob will help achieve that, then that's what I've got to do. I'm going to broach this with the Marcussens under the guise of Jacob needing help to cope with what's happened. As you say, Scully, he is a little boy. Maybe speaking with someone will be enough to help him remember or confess what really did happen." Scully's eyebrows knitted together as she struggled to come up with a compromise. "Okay, Mulder, but I'm willing to support you only so far. The Marcussens may not agree with your suggestion, regardless of how you dress it up." "I know that, but for Rachel's sake I've got to try." She sighed, feeling unaccountably weary. "Could we at least get some lunch first? That bagel was a long time ago." Mulder shuffled his feet fretfully, then offered a weak smile. Truce. "You've got it, partner. But it's my turn to choose." He ignored her soft groan. 1:22 p.m. Marcussen Residence "You know, I don't see my own mama nearly as often as I see the two of you these days." A wry twist of the lips tempered the note of exasperation in Beth Marcussen's voice as she pushed open the screen door. Mulder hesitated. "If this is a bad time we could come back..." "Don't be silly!" Beth huffed, motioning them forward. "Go on in and make yourself at home -- you know the way by now." Mulder cast a quick look around him before taking a seat on the couch. "Where's Jacob?" Beth shrugged, brushing back a wisp of blonde hair that escaped her ponytail. "Out back somewhere, I expect, playin'. Did you need to talk to him?" "No. In fact, it would be for the best if he wasn't a part of this conversation." Mulder observed her brow furrow and rushed on to explain. "Beth, how would you say Jacob has been dealing with Rachel's disappearance?" "What do you mean?" "Has his behavior changed? Any nightmares, bouts of crying, angry outbursts?" Beth's frown deepened. "Well, he's been quieter than usual, I suppose. When he does talk, he doesn't want to discuss Rachel, or even hear us speak her name. At times it feels as if he'd like to forget he ever had a sister, though I tell myself it's just his way of grievin'. I wouldn't say he's been angry, though he did put up quite a sulk at lunchtime when I told him I don't want to hear any more about a puppy." Mulder nodded, his bottom lip tucked between his teeth. "He's been sleeping all right?" "Like a baby." She glanced away, blinking rapidly. "I should know, since I haven't been sleepin' too well myself." Her eyes darted back to scrutinize first Scully's face, and then Mulder's. "Why? Is something wrong?" "Jacob's been through an extremely traumatic experience, Beth," Scully said gently. "We're just concerned that he may need help processing it." "Help? We've been doing the very best we can, Agent Scully, but if the boy doesn't want to talk..." "We mean professional help, Beth." Mulder took a deep breath. "I think it would be a good thing for Jacob to talk to someone about Rachel's disappearance. The local Bureau has a doctor on staff who specializes in helping kids cope with trauma." Beth's mouth sagged open, her already large sapphire eyes becoming impossibly wider as she pressed fingers to her trembling lips. "A psychiatrist? What exactly are you trying to say, Agent Mulder? Are you telling me you think Jacob is crazy, that all this talk of aliens is..." "NO! That's not what we're saying at all." Scully's voice, pitched low and smooth as honey, contrasted sharply with the dagger gaze she tossed Mulder. "We just feel that Jacob might benefit from the opportunity to talk with someone who can help him understand the conflicting feelings and emotions evoked by Rachel's disappearance." "Jacob's a good boy, a smart boy. Fact is he's head and shoulders above the rest of the kids around here." Beth's voice was high, pleading, and her hands fluttered over the hem of her denim shirt, plucking at loose threads. "We've had enough sufferin' in this family, can't you see that? Jacob's gonna be just fine, there's no cause to think history would repeat itself. None at all." Mulder squinted and leaned forward, his mind trying to make sense of her rambling as he attempted to reassure her. "Beth, believe me, we..." "Where are my manners? I haven't even offered y'all some coffee," Beth interrupted, springing to her feet. "That's not necessary, really; we just had lunch and..." "Please, Agent Mulder!" The edge of panic in his name silenced Mulder, and he bit back further protest. Beth pulled in a long, quivering breath and marshaled a weak smile. "I need to get us all some coffee. Just sit tight and give me a minute." Scully waited until the sound of cupboard doors and running water drifted from the kitchen before rounding on him. "This is wrong, Mulder. I know I agreed to back you up, but you're pushing too hard. The poor woman is grief- stricken, nearly out of her mind with worry over her daughter, and you're adding to that burden." "Scully, no one empathizes with what she's going through more than I. But I meant it when I told Sheriff Sullivan I wouldn't allow any barriers to prevent me from learning the truth about what happened to Rachel. That includes her parents' personal feelings -- and my own." Mulder paused and cocked his head. From the kitchen, Jacob's voice now ran in counterpoint to his mother's, barely audible above the chink of fine china. When he resumed speaking, he barely broke a whisper. "Rachel Marcussen was not abducted by aliens, Scully. And I believe Jacob knows the truth of what really happened." "And if you're wrong?" Scully hissed. "How many years did you spend blaming yourself for your sister's disappearance, Mulder, thanks to misplaced guilt and blame? Is that what you want for Jacob should your unsubstantiated suspicions prove false? You've as much as admitted this case hits too close to home. Can you be sure this 'instinct' of yours isn't simply a means of distancing yourself?" The anger passed across his face like a swiftly moving thundercloud, replaced almost immediately by an expression she couldn't name. "I'm not the only one who brings baggage to this case, Scully." Her eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to mean?" Mulder's eyes cut to the television set, and he stared at the blank screen. "I saw you at the school today. I know being around children reminds you of what They've taken from you. I can read the pain in your eyes." Scully's body turned rigid, even the milky skin on her face stretched too tightly across her cheekbones. "My inability to have children has no bearing on this case, Mulder. I can retain my objectivity. I can do my job." Anger, seasoned with resentment, pounded a drumbeat behind his eyes but he adopted a nearly blank expression. "But I can't, is that it? The cool and enigmatic Dr. Scully would never allow emotion to dictate her actions, but Spooky, the FBI's resident basket case falls all to pieces anytime a case hits a little too close to home?" "Mulder, that's not what I meant. I..." "Here we are." Beth glided back into the room with the familiar tray holding the coffee pot, cream, and sugar. She placed it on the table and motioned to Jacob, who was hovering in the doorway. "I thought maybe you should explain to Jacob about this doctor, Agent Mulder, since it concerns him." Mulder's smile was forced, and never reached his eyes. "I'd be happy to," he replied, his voice telling Scully he was anything but. "Have a seat, Jacob." Mulder sweetened his coffee as Jacob wandered over to sit at his mother's feet. The boy's dark, intent gaze followed his every move, making him feel inexplicably measured and found wanting. Scully's encouraging smile and soft greeting only exacerbated the sensation. "How's that model you were working on, Jacob? Did you finish it yet?" Jacob turned to her, the appraising look gone and a shy grin in its place. "Not just yet. Almost, though. Would you like to see it?" "I'd like that very much, but not right now. Maybe later, after we talk, okay?" "Sure." A dull ache radiated through Mulder's jaw, and he abruptly realized he was clamping his teeth tightly together. Jacob favored Scully with one more winning smile before turning his attention back to Mulder with a lingering curve to his lips. "What did you want to talk to me about, Agent Mulder?" Mulder paused to take a long draught of his coffee, struggling against irritation and the feeling he was deftly being had by an 11-year-old boy. "Jacob, we'd like you to talk to someone -- a special doctor who helps kids like you who have been through a rough time." Jacob's face was wide open, guileless. "I already saw Dr. Blake and he said I'm fine." Mulder caught himself gritting his teeth, forced them apart. "I'm sure Dr. Blake is a good doctor. But we're talking about a different kind of doctor who you can talk to about what you're feeling. I'm sure you must be pretty sad about Rachel, must be missing her quite a bit." Jacob ducked his head and his reply was very quiet. "I don't want to talk about that now, Agent Mulder. But when I do, I'd rather talk to mama or daddy about it, and not some stranger." He tilted his head up toward Beth. "Can I go now, Mama? Please?" Beth stroked her fingers through his hair and nodded. When he was safely out of earshot she squared her shoulders, her face composed and resolute. "I'll speak to Sam about what you said, Agent Mulder, Agent Scully. But if Jacob doesn't see the need for talkin' to this doctor, I'm not keen on the idea." Before Mulder could open his mouth to argue, Scully stood. "We understand, Beth. You know where to reach us if you change your mind." Out-manipulated and out-maneuvered, Mulder had little choice but to follow his partner to the door. He lingered on the threshold, loath to admit defeat. "Beth, I really think..." "I'll be sure to let you know, Agent Mulder." A firm voice and an even firmer door ended the discussion. 3:32 p.m. New River Lodge The drone of daytime TV seeped through the connecting door as Scully's fingers tapped out an update to her field report. Mulder had sulked the entire drive back from the Marcussens', rebuffing all attempts at conversation with single syllable grunts. He'd stomped into his room to watch Jerry Springer or whatever the heck was playing during the middle of the afternoon in a one-horse town. The fact that he'd left the connecting door ajar was small consolation. She shut her laptop with a sigh, chin propped on a fist, and wished that her ears didn't automatically seek and evaluate every subtle creak and scuffle from her partner's room. The initial screech indicating that Mulder had flung himself onto the queensize bed had given way to a nearly continuous whisper of stocking feet. She pictured him stalking about the tiny room, muttering balefully under his breath and running his fingers through his hair. Well, maybe he'd get it out of his system and they could talk honestly, without poking sticks at each other's tender spots. Scully shook her head, chuckling softly as she recalled all the times she'd resisted a romantic relationship with Mulder, worried that such a change would adversely affect the dynamics of their working partnership. She'd feared such intimacy would soften the edge, mellow his cocky assurance of all things paranormal, and loosen her steadfast grip on science. Fat chance. A different sound captured her attention, pulling Scully forcefully from her reverie. Several quick strides, a tug, and she was in Mulder's room, never bothering to knock. Oprah looked earnestly into the camera and warned against the dangers of teenage alcohol poisoning, but Mulder was nowhere in sight. "Mulder?" The sounds again, unmistakable now, and her head snapped around to the bathroom. Scully skirted the bed and pushed the wooden door all the way open. Mulder sat slumped with legs splayed on the chipped tile, forehead pressed to the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl and hands clutching the rim in a white-knuckled grip. The sour odor of vomit and his ashen face stole the breath from her lungs. "Mulder, what's going on?" She tugged a thin, scratchy wash cloth from a towel bar, doused it in cold water, and knelt to wipe his face. Mulder shivered helplessly, his eyes glassy and unfocused. "Don't know...sick...stomach cramps..." "You going to be sick again?" Scully touched the back of her hand to his forehead, frowning at the cool, clammy skin. One corner of Mulder's mouth turned up, though the tremors didn't abate. "Nothing left." "Okay, come on. Let's get you into bed." "Know how long... waited to hear that?" Mulder tried to leer but a particularly painful abdominal cramp twisted it out of shape and spoiled the effect. Scully draped one of his arms around her neck and hauled him to his feet, lending support as he shuffled to the bed like an old man. He stood with both arms wrapped tightly around his belly, shivering violently, while she yanked the bedspread and blanket back with a quick flip of the wrist. Scully eased him onto the sheets and piled the covers on him, stroking damp hair back from his brow. "Told you that chili dog looked toxic, Mulder. Looks like food poisoning." "Arms feel like... asleep," he mumbled, teeth chattering. Scully's hand stalled. "Asleep? You're experiencing numbness?" Mulder nodded, eyes sliding shut. "Tingly. Pins 'n needles." She frowned, tendrils of apprehension creeping up and down her spine. "That doesn't sound like botulism. Is it just your arms?" When Mulder didn't respond, she dropped onto the mattress beside him and gave his shoulder a brisk shake. "Mulder! Mulder, answer me!" Mulder batted wildly with one hand, never opening his eyes. "Stop it... making th' waterbed shake," he slurred. "Mulder, wake up!" Alarmed now, Scully seized his earlobe between thumb and forefinger, delivering a vicious pinch. A soft moan was her only response. Something was desperately wrong, and it wasn't a bad chili dog. Heart hammering in her chest, Scully fumbled the phone from the bedside table, frantically pressing 911, her voice trembling as badly as her fingers. "This is Special Agent Dana Scully. I have an emergency, I have an agent down." To be concluded...