//Chapter 15//

Friday, December 4th, 8:15 PM

Scully took off her heels and tossed them into the closet. /Last time I'm wearing _those_ shoes to work. My feet are _killing_ me./ She took off her stockings. /Just what I thought. Another pair ruined./ She threw the pantyhose into the wastebasket. /That's it. No more skirts and stockings for work. It just isn't pratical now. I'm in scrubs most of the day and if I ever get oustide of Quantico on a case, I'm sure I'll be crawling around some crime scene./

She knew she shouldn't complain. Overall, her first week in ISU Forensics had been a good one. She'd been a free agent for so long, she thought she'd chafe at being back in an organized department. She couldn't have been more wrong. Gabe Sinclair definitely ran a tight ship, but he was more kindly grandfather than whip-cracking disciplinarian. And her fellow additions, Elly Klingler and Josh Washington, were really great people. They'd even gone out to lunch together yesterday when things were at a lull. /I might actually get to like this job,/ she thought.

She hung up her blazer and headed for the bathroom. /Hmmm. Cold shower or hot bath? Fletcher won't be back until tomorrow night. Can I wait until then? I doubt it./ Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a key unlocking her front door. /I know it's not Mulder. He'd knock. He knows I'm here. Could it be Fletcher?/ Her heart - and her clit - twitched in anticipation.

She quickly walked to the living room. She reached the door just as Fletcher opened it.

"Fletcher!"

"Hey, Red."

"You're home early. I didn't expect you until tomorrow night."

"I threw myself on the mercy of the ticket agent. When that didn't work, I flashed my badge. I just couldn't spend one more night without you."

Fletcher set down her suitcase and briefcase as Scully shut and locked the door behind her. She immediately turned to Scully and took her into her arms. She kissed Scully gently at first, then her kisses became more insistent, more passionate. She leaned into Scully, pressing her back against the door.

"I've missed you so much, Red," she said, kissing Scully's neck, her hands roaming up and down her sides.

"I've missed you, too. _Really_ missed you," Scully replied, her hips grinding against Fletcher.

Fletcher was overwhelmed by how great her desire for Scully was. /I've been feeling it since getting back to her tonight became a reality. Once that plane touched down at Dulles...I've been wet since then. It's been too fucking long since we've seen each other, touched each other./ She returned back to Scully's lips. /I can't kiss her enough...and the way she's moving her hips against me...oh, Goddess...I've got to touch her _right now_./

"I need...I need to touch you...touch you right now," Fletcher said, her voice hoarse. She slid her hands up Scully's thighs, bunching Scully's skirt up around her waist. "I'm so sorry, Red...I can't wait another minute...I really need to make love to you...here...now..." She almost sounded ashamed about her passion, her need.

Scully placed her hands on Fletcher's cheeks and looked at her, forcing Fletcher to look at her. "It's okay, honey..." she whispered, bringing her mouth closer to Fletcher's. "I need you to make love to me, too." The thought of making love to Fletcher where they were, by the door, standing up, seemed incredibly wanton, incredibly arousing to Scully.

Fletcher saw understanding, and the unmistakable want in Scully's eyes. /I love this woman so much,/ she thought, her heart almost overfilling with love. She felt Scully move her arms around her neck as she kissed her hard on the lips. Scully lifted one leg, wrapping it around Fletcher's thigh. Fletcher groaned and grasped Scully's buttocks in her hands, pulling her close. "Oh...Red...I love you so much..." Her voice caught in her throat as she pressed her lips to Scully's neck.

Scully suddenly gave a little hop and her thighs were squeezing tightly around Fletcher's waist, her back against the door. /Oh, god, Scully.../Fletcher could hardly think straight, her mind was so fogged with want and need.

"Touch me, Fletcher...I need you to..." Scully said, almost pleading, her hands on Fletcher's neck, then her cheeks.

Fletcher slid a hand between them and roughly pushed aside Scully's wet panties. She pressed, almost pinned, Scully back against the door with her own body, one hand cupped under Scully's ass in an effort to support her. "Oh, Red..." she murmured, stroking her fingers back and forth, "...you're so wet...so open..."

"Fletcher, go in me...now...please..." She felt two of Fletcher's long fingers slip inside. /Oh, god, I love it when she's in me like this./"Oh, yes..." she moaned. "Deeper...deeper..."

Fletcher did as requested, feeling Scully's hips thrust again and again. Scully kissed Fletcher harshly on the lips, drawing Fletcher's tongue in, then suddenly she pulled away, her head back, her hands seizing Fletcher's shoulders, her fingers grabbing at the leather coat. "Oh, god, Fletcher..."

The speed and strength of her climax startled them both. Fletcher thought she could feel Scully's orgasm all the way up her arm, thought she'd lose her breath from Scully's thighs contracting around her waist. "I love you...I love you..." Fletcher repeated over and over, her fingers slowly stilling as she felt Scully's body relax.

"Love...you...," Scully gasped as her legs slowly dropped from Fletcher's hips, first one, then the other. She felt too weak to stand and her chest heaved with every breath. She clung to Fletcher, her arms around Fletcher's neck, certain that she'd fall to the floor if she didn't. /Oh, god...how could I come so fast...it was so quick...so _good_.../

"Oh, Red...Scully...babe...where'd that one come from?" Fletcher asked, gulping for air, her forehead pressed against the door.

"I'm sorry, Fletcher...I couldn't last...I didn't think..." she said, breathless.

"It's okay, hon...it's okay...I wasn't much help in holding back either..." Fletcher smiled and kissed Scully gently on the forehead. "Talk about lack of restraint..."

Fletcher held Scully up for a few more minutes, loving the feeling of just having her in her arms. She could feel Scully's body relax further and her hands began to lightly stroke Fletcher's cheeks and neck. "Can you stand?" she asked Scully, kissing her gently on the lips.

"I think so. Why?"

"There's something I _really_ need to do," Fletcher said, her voice low and heavy.

Scully felt her thigh muscles tense at the sound of Fletcher's voice. /What does she want now...I know what _I_ want her to do.../ She felt Fletcher's hands slide inside the waistband of her panties. /Take them off...take them off.../ she silently pleaded. As Fletcher slowly dropped to her knees in front of her, she pulled them down with her. She stepped out of them, kicking them off as she did. /I can't stop my legs from shaking.../ She moaned softly as Fletcher moved her hands up the backs of her thighs, lifting her skirt as she did. When her hands reached Scully's buttocks, she drew her forward.

Scully felt a new flood of warmth between her legs when she looked down and saw Fletcher's head disappear under her skirt. Fletcher's breath was hot against her and her tongue was tantalizing close. /Oh, Fletcher...please...I need your tongue on me.../

Fletcher's hands moved across Scully's ass, down her thighs and back up again. She caressed the round bottom again and again, her mouth almost, but not quite touching Scully. /She smells so good...,/ Fletcher thought, breathing deeply. The first touch of her tongue on Scully's clit caused Scully to jerk hard and her hands fell to Fletcher's face and she held her tight against her.

"Lick me, Fletcher...do it...please..." she rasped, finally verbalizing her need.

/It's never been like this,/ Fletcher thought, her tongue seeking Scully out. /She's so wild tonight, so excited.../ She could feel Scully's legs beginning to sag, and Fletcher moved her hands to Scully's hips, holding her up. /Stay with me, Scully...let me make love to you this way...Oh, goddess she tastes so sweet.../

Scully's body continued to spasm with every stroke of Fletcher's tongue. She kept one hand on the back of Fletcher's head, pressing her face as close as she could. /So good...so good.../ she chanted in her mind. With her other hand, she lifted her skirt up further so she could see Fletcher. /Oh, god...this is so...so incredible.../ she thought, seeing Fletcher's mouth upon her.

Fletcher looked up, not stopping the motion of her tongue, and their eyes met. Around and around Scully's clit she swirled her tongue, like she was licking an ice cream cone. She watched Scully's mouth open, her eyes never leaving Fletcher's. Her chest was moving up and down with every breath and her hips were gently rocking back and forth. Fletcher suddenly drew Scully's clit into her mouth and sucked hard.

"Nhh...oh...god..." Scully gasped, her eyes closing, her fingers tightly clenching Fletcher's shoulders.

/Not long, Red...not long, now.../ Fletcher slowly eased three fingers into Scully, loving the feeling of touching her so deeply. A few slow thrusts of her fingers and she knew Scully wasn't far from another orgasm. She backed off and let Scully set the pace, timing her thrusts with the movements of Scully's hips.

"Oh, Fletcher...now...make me come...do it...do it..." she half-sobbed.

Her fingers filled Scully and her tongue flicked hard against Scully's clit, making Scully cry out as her orgasm slammed into her. Her hips were suddenly moving everywhere, dancing out of control and she grabbed at Fletcher's head.

"Fletcher..." she wailed.

The rest of Scully's responses were unintelligible. Her body still spasmed even though Fletcher's tongue and fingers had become motionless. "Oh, god, Fletcher, it feels so good..." she moaned, slowly sinking to her knees, her body slumping against Fletcher's.

Fletcher waited before she gradually withdrew her fingers. Her arms tightened around Scully's waist. /Let me hold you, Red./ "You feel so good," she whispered. "I love making you come..." Fletcher buried her face in the red hair and she cradled Scully close.

Once she'd caught her breath, Scully lifted her head off Fletcher's shoulder and kissed herself off of Fletcher's lips. Her tongue gently probed, touching every part of the warm interior of Fletcher's mouth. Her hands moved to Fletcher's shoulders, inside of her coat.

"You're a bit overdressed," she murmured against Fletcher's neck, slipping Fletcher's jacket off. She reached behind Fletcher and tossed the coat, and it partially landed on a chair. She then pulled off Fletcher's holster and repeated the motion. It landed on top of the coat.

"Pretty talented woman, you," Fletcher smiled, her fingers slowly unbuttoning Scully's blouse. /Her breasts are perfect...so soft,/ Fletcher thought as she unhooked Scully's bra.

"You're not so bad yourself," Scully said, untucking Fletcher's turtleneck. She slowly trailed her fingers up Fletcher's ribs, then brushed them across the already stiff nipples. Fletcher's stomach twitched and trembled. "Your nipples are so hard, Fletcher..." With one hand, she pushed aside Fletcher's bra and pinched Fletcher's nipple. She dropped her other hand and reached between Fletcher's legs. "Is your clit hard, too?" she asked, feeling Fletcher squirm at the first touch of her fingers.

Fletcher could only groan helplessly as Scully began to knead her clit through her jeans. Scully cupped her hand and squeezed Fletcher, feeling the dampness that had soaked through. "Are you close, lover?" she asked huskily. "...do you need me to touch you?"

/Oh, goddess, what's come over her? She doesn't usually do this, talk like this.../ Fletcher couldn't believe how quickly she was losing control of her own body, how astonished she was at the sudden turn the evening had taken. /I need her...I need her to touch me.../ Fletcher's hands dropped to her waist and she undid her belt. Scully knocked her hands away before Fletcher could unzip her jeans.

"Scully..." Fletcher was shocked at how needy her voice sounded.

"Slow down, 'Romeo'..." Scully replied, even though her fingers continued to massage the crotch of Fletcher's jeans.

"I can't, Red..."

Scully's lips lightly touched Fletcher's ear, the tip of her tongue tracking her earlobe. "It's your turn, Fletcher...tell me what you need...what you want..." Scully whispered.

"I need you to touch me...I need to come, Scully..." Fletcher pleaded, almost hating the sound of her own voice. /Oh, goddess, please.../ The pounding of her blood in her clit was nearly driving Fletcher mad.

"All you have to do is ask," Scully said, unbuttoning, then unzipping Fletcher's jeans. She slid her fingers down, tangling them in the short, damp hair. Her fingers edged down further. She gently squeezed Fletcher's clit between her thumb and forefinger. "Oh, my, Fletcher...you're so swollen..."

Fletcher, still on her knees, spread her legs further apart, her pelvis thrusting forward. She leaned into Scully, both of her hands flat on the door behind Scully.

"Do you like this, baby?" Scully asked, her fingers slipping lower into the wetness, then back up to Fletcher's clit. Over and over she rubbed her fingertips across Fletcher's clit until it felt impossibly hard. /She's so big...I've never felt her clit this hard...she must be going crazy.../Scully thought, her fingers relentless.

Fletcher grunted her response, unable to speak, her body seeming to move on its own. She looked down and seeing Scully's fingers inside her pants caused another gush between her legs. /Oh, Scully, you're driving me crazy...how can this be happening...like this.../ Every movement of Scully's fingers was like torture to her.

Scully somehow worked her hand inside of Fletcher's pants and she managed to shove two fingers up inside of Fletcher. /She likes that...she needs it...and she feels _soooh good_,/ Scully thought, pumping her fingers. "Yes?" she breathed into Fletcher' ear.

"Oh, god, Scully..."

"Yes?"

Somehow Fletcher nodded. "Y... y... yes."

"Come, Fletcher...come for me...just for me..." Scully urged, her fingers still driving into Fletcher.

Fletcher groaned loudly, wordlessly. Her body shook as she came, then she collapsed against Scully. Scully slipped her fingers out of Fletcher and eased them both to the floor. She showered Fletcher's face with kisses as she stretched out on top of her.

"I love you, Fletcher," Scully said, her face against Fletcher's chest.

"I love you, too," Fletcher said, sighing.

"Well, that's got to be a record for us," Scully joked a few minutes later, her hands moving up under Fletcher' shirt.

"What's that?"

"You never even made it more than three feet into my apartment."

"It's been a long ten days," Fletcher replied, a smile on her face. "Do you think that maybe we could at least move this little, uh, 'party' to the sofa?"

- - - - -

Fletcher lay Scully down on the sofa, then straddled Scully's hips. She leaned over and took off Scully's blouse, then her bra. /I could look at her for hours...she's so beautiful...I love to see her like this...like she's mine for the taking.../

Scully reached up and pulled Fletcher's shirt and bra off and tossed them over on to the coffee table. /She's looking at me so intensely...it feels like her eyes are touching me.../

"I think you'd better take your skirt off before I rip it off you," Fletcher suggested, her voice low.

"Then take off the rest of your clothes, too," Scully said, lifting her hips and sliding her skirt and panties off. Fletcher untied her boots, kicking them off, then she tugged her jeans and underwear off. They landed on the floor beside her boots.

"You're so beautiful, Red...every part of you..." Fletcher whispered as she lowered her body on top of Scully once again. /There's something special happening here tonight,/ Fletcher thought as she kissed Scully tenderly on the lips. /Scully's on fire, her body so hot...and me...I've never surrendered this much control during sex.../

Scully's arms went to Fletcher's waist, then her hips, then her ass. She spread her legs, pulling Fletcher between them. Once again, her legs were wrapped around Fletcher's hips. Fletcher raised herself up, almost as if she were doing a pushup. She brushed her nipples across Scully's while she slowly ground her clit into Scully's. Their eyes met and Fletcher knew then that Scully sensed it as well.

Scully's hands moved back to Fletcher's hips and she guided Fletcher, set the pace for them. "This feels really good, Fletcher...different..."

"I want to make you come again, Red...tell me what you need...what can I do to make you come..."

"Kiss me...suck my nipples hard...don't stop what you're doing...slide your fingers deep inside of me..." Her voice dropped. "Fuck me..."

"Scully..." Fletcher sucked in a deep breath, not quite believing what she had just heard.

"Take me, Fletcher...make me scream your name..."

"You're making me so fucking hot," Fletcher groaned.

"Good...good...because you make me hot too..."

Fletcher snaked her hand between them as she kissed Scully forcefully, almost ravenously. Scully opened her mouth wide, sucking on Fletcher's tongue so hard Fletcher thought she was going to bite it. Fletcher broke the kiss off as she abruptly shoved three fingers deep inside of Scully.

"Oh, yes...Fletcher..."

Fletcher returned her mouth to Scully's lips and their kisses became frantic, frenzied. Scully grabbed at Fletcher, her hips rocking with every thrust of Fletcher's fingers.

"Deeper, Fletcher...deeper...oh, god...fuck me..."

Fletcher's thumb slid across Scully's clit, over and over. Scully spread her legs as far she could, trying to get Fletcher's fingers in completely. Fletcher slid her other hand underneath Scully's ass and she began to stroke a finger against her asshole.

"Yes...yes...Fletcher...do it...fill me..."

Fletcher eased her finger inside Scully's other hole, letting the thrusts of Scully's hips draw her inside. Once she had filled Scully as much as she dared, she resumed the steady drive of her fingers of her other hand, her hips joining the motion.

/It's too much...it's not enough.../ Scully thought, her body feeling as though every nerve was overloaded with sensation. /Don't stop...don't stop...oh, Fletcher...here it comes...oh, God...it's so.../

"Fletcher..." she screamed.

"I've got you...I've got you..." Fletcher cried out.

Scully clung to Fletcher, her hands almost bruising Fletcher's back, then her shoulders. Her hips continued to jerk as another orgasm shook her body.

Fletcher leaned over and kissed her forehead, her neck, her cheeks, her lips. When she felt the shudders coursing through Scully's body subside, Fletcher slowly pulled her fingers out, one at a time, then she pulled Scully tight against her body.

/God, she's never orgasmed like that before,/ Fletcher thought, feeling Scully's tears on her shoulders. /I think the whole apartment building heard that one. Hell, they might've even heard her in Arlington./ She smiled and kissed Scully's forehead, then the few tears that slowly trickled down her cheeks.

"You okay, Red?" she asked gently, her voice voice full of love.

"I think so...just give me a minute to catch my breath..." She took several deep, long breaths. "That was..."

"Intense." Fletcher grinned, finishing her sentence.

"Incredible." Scully smiled back.

"Unbelievable," Fletcher continued, kissing the tops of Scully's breasts.

"Ground shaking."

"Mindblowing."

"Earth shattering." Scully's fingers danced up and down Fletcher's back.

"Uh, amazing." Fletcher looked up at Scully. "Your turn."

"Fantastic,"

"You win," Fletcher conceded a few moments later. "I've run out of adjectives. Guess I'm too distracted by these," she said, nudging Scully's nipples with her lips.

"Out of this world, wonderful, fabulous, terrific," Scully laughed, then she moaned ever so slightly, feeling Fletcher's tongue gently flick at her nipples. /Oh, that feels so good...what she does to me...I'm surprised I'm not comatose after that...but she's starting to get me all excited again./

Fletcher shifted her body so that her legs were spread and she was kneeling over Scully, straddling her hips once again. She reached down and began to softly caress Scully's breasts.

Scully moved her hands to Fletcher's legs and began to stroke Fletcher's thighs, her thumbs gently caressing the inside of the strong legs above her. "Are you as wet as I am..." Scully asked, her voice hoarse.

"I don't know. Why don't you find out for yourself and tell me?"

Scilly could feel Fletcher's wetness on her stomach. She inserted one finger, sliding it in the wetness, then pulling it out. Fletcher's eyes were open, but glazed. /She feels so good...,/ Scully thought. /So warm...so wet.../ Scully began to inch her body down so that Fletcher knelt was kneeling above her. Fletcher leaned forward, supporting herself with her strong arms. Scully looked up, her eyes and lips full of her own desire.

"Do you want me?" Fletcher asked, her voice loaded with passion.

"Yes...yes...I want to taste you..."

"Suck me, Scully..." Fletcher half-ordered as she lowered herself.

The moment Scully's lips closed around her swollen, distended clit, Fletcher bucked hard. Scully's firmly grabbed Fletcher's hips and she tried to hold her down. /So hard...so swollen.../ Scully thought, moaning against Fletcher as her lips continued to nibble Fletcher's clit.

"Oh, Scully...oh, yes...suck it hard..."

/Oh, goddess...my head's going to burst.../ Fletcher thought. /I'm going to have a stroke.../ she thought irrationally. Suddenly three of Scully's fingers were buried deep and Fletcher cried out. "Do it, Scully...now...Oh, goddess, I'm coming..."

Still sucking on her clit, Scully began to flick at it with her tongue, driving Fletcher closer and closer to her release. /She's going to come for me...and soon...I can feel it...just a little more.../ Scully's own desire rose up, surprising her. /Oh, god, I'm going to come, too.../ She released Fletcher's thigh and brought her hand between her own legs. /Oh, god, I'm still so swollen...so wet.../

"Scully...I'm so close...oh, goddess...Scully...make me come..." she pleaded.

She turned her hand slightly, slipped her ring finger out Fletcher's vagina, and eased it up into the tiny hole behind it.

"Scully..." Fletcher howled, her hips moving violently on their own, straining with every thrust of Scully's fingers.

/She's coming...and so am I.../ Scully thought, furiously rubbing her own clit. Her own hips rocked as her orgasm built.

"Scully..." Fletcher shouted one last time before falling forward, her face pressed down on the arm of the sofa.

"Fletcher..." Scully sobbed out loud, seconds later.


Saturday, 12:45 AM

Fletcher dozed beside Scully, her mouth open, her snoring faint. Scully reached down and brushed the hair back off her face. /I must've nodded off too. No wonder,/ she thought smiling. /I'm amazed we even made it off the couch. I thought for sure Fletcher was going to fall asleep there. She surprised me when she bounced back only a few minutes later./ Scully's hand slid down her stomach and rested between her legs. /When she lifted me up and carried me into the bedroom, my legs around her waist.../ She smiled at the memory, her face flushing. /We just fell to the bed and started up again.../ Scully began to touch herself, the very tips of her fingers stroking the very tip of her still sensitive clit. /I don't know what's gotten in to me...is it possible to feel sated _and_ insatiable at the same time?/

Fletcher slowly woke up, her body instantly sensing the motion beside her, knowing it for what it was. She slipped her hand over to Scully's thigh.

"Do you know how much that turns me on, Red?" she whispered against Scully's neck as she repeatedly squeezed Scully's thigh.

"What?"

"When you touch yourself..."

"Tell me..."

"I think about you touching yourself, when we're apart...when I'm talking on the phone to you...I think about how you'll be touching yourself when I hang up..."

"I touch myself when I talk to you, Fletcher...I don't _always_ wait until you hang up..."

Fletcher closed her eyes as she felt the sudden rush of warmth to her groin. She moved her fingers so that they were side by side, entwined with Scully's. She and Scully each pressed a finger on opposite sides of Scully's clit. "Are you as wet as you are hard, Red?...should we find out together?..." Fletcher lay a finger atop Scully's and together they slowly entered Scully. Scully gasped, as she watched Fletcher watch her. "How does it feel, Red?...can you feel how warm and soft and wet you are..."

"So good..." was all Scully could manage to say.

"Yes, so good...so very good..." Fletcher agreed, as she pushed their fingers in deeper. "Let me show you..." She curled their fingers and stroked the inner wall. "Here's the spot...here's where you like to be touched..."

"Oh, God, Fletcher..." Scully moaned, drawing a knee up, her hips rocking forward.

"Help me make me you come...let's make love to you, Red...together..."

Their fingers slid in and out in a steady rhythm, Scully's breaths increasing with every stroke. Fletcher added another finger, her thumb pulling back on the hood surrounding Scully's clit.

"Just a little more...just a little more..." she urged Scully. "Touch your clit...bring yourself off..."

Scully moved her other hand down and feversishly began to rub her clit. Her climax was building and building. /Oh, god...I'm coming...it's so.../

"Fletcher..."

"Now, Scully...let it go..."

With a shout, Scully's hips lifted up from the bed as her orgasm finally took over her body. For a moment her back arched stiffly, then she fell back to the bed. "Oh, Fletcher..."

"I love you, Red...I love you so much..." Fletcher said, kissing Scully over and over, her fingers still deep inside of Scully. Scully's finger slipped out and she threw her arms around Fletcher, pulling her on top of her.

"Don't stop, Fletcher...just like that...keep moving in me...I'm so close...make me come again..."

"Yes...yes...come, Scully..." Fletcher clung to Scully as she climaxed along with Scully. "Oh, Scully..." she cried, her words catching in her throat.

"I love you," Scully said, her face tucked under Fletcher's chin, her hands pressing aginst Fletcher's back and shoulders.

"I love you, too." Fletcher rolled over onto her back, taking Scully with her. Her hands cupped Scully's ass and she pulled her between her legs. "I love you so much, Red."

Scully lay her head on Fletcher's chest, a hand covering one of Fletcher's breasts. /I love her,/ Scully thought. /I love making love with her, to her. She makes me feel so good, so loved./

"Fletcher, is...do I...is it good for you, too?"

"Oh, Red, the best." Fletcher smiled and kissed the top of Scully's head. "I can't begin to tell you how good it is with you." She slipped a leg between Scully's. "Let me tell you something." She paused, her hand moving up Scully's back. "All those other women...it was _never_ like it is with you."

Scully lifted her head, her chin on Fletcher's sternum. She looked into Fletcher's eyes. /Those blue eyes...I always feel like they're looking right into me, right into my heart,/ Scully thought.

"I love you," Fletcher said, her voice quiet and intense. "I'm _in_ love with you."

Scully lay her head back down. "Sometimes, I get worried that..."

"What?"

"That I'm too inexperienced for you, that I can't please you..."

"Oh, Red," Fletcher sighed. "When I had sex with them, and yes, it was sex. It was never making love. It was always sex." Fletcher took a deep breath. "Making them come was never about them. It was always about my ego. I wanted them to come because my ego needed them to. And I very rarely let any of them touch me, make me come. I wouldn't allow it." She kissed Scully's hair. "Making love with you is what I've needed, wanted. I just never knew I could find it with anyone. You touch me like no one else ever has."

Scully kissed Fletcher's chest. She reached for one of Fletcher's hands and squeezed it, unable to speak.

"Scully, I don't just mean touch me physically or sexually. You touch my heart. Somehow, you found a way into my heart. Or maybe, you're just so special that I finally opened my heart."

/She could be talking about me,/ Scully thought, tears welling up in her eyes. /Fletcher's the first person I've ever let this close to me. How did I ever live without her? It was so lonely./

Fletcher felt Scully's tears on her chest, but said nothing. She caressed her hair, her back, kissing her forehead.

"I love you, Dana. I'm so glad you're in my life, so glad you let me into yours." She placed her hands on Scully's cheeks and lifted her face. She kissed her once on the lips, then she kissed the tears from her face.

"I love you, Fletcher," she said, kissing Fletcher.

Their kissed deepened, and they found themselves making love once more. This time it was quiet, tender and gentle. Bodies wrapped together, they drifted off to sleep as only two lovers could, their hearts beating as one.


Saturday, 10:10 AM

Scully became aware of a knocking sound. She looked at the clock. /Almost ten. What time did we go to back to sleep anyway? Five o'clock?/Fletcher still lay sound asleep, her arm around Scully's waist, her legs threaded around Scully's, her face buried in the pillow. Scully carefully untangled herself from Fletcher and got out of bed without waking her. She put on her robe, then pulled the covers up over Fletcher. She leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead.

Scully closed the bedroom door behind her and went into the livingroom. The knocking on her apartment door was soft. She looked out the peephole and saw her mother standing in the hallway. For the first time in years, Scully found herself wanting to believe in the power of prayer. /Oh, God, please stay asleep, Fletcher. Please stay in bed./

//End Chapter 15//


<<Chapter 16>>

Saturday, December 5th, 10:10 AM

"Hi, Mom," she said, forcing a cheerfulness she didn't feel as she opened the apartment door.

"I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd stop by and see if you wanted to go Christmas shopping," Maggie Scully explained, stepping in to Scully's apartment. "Macy's is having a sale that looks even better than the one you and Jill went to."

"Sounds great," Scully said, casting a quick eye at her bedroom door. Her confidence in prayers waning, Scully switched to a fervent desire to believe in ESP. <Keep dreaming, Fletcher. And for God's sake, please don't snore.>

Maggie Scully was surprised at her daughter's appearance. Scully was still sleepy-eyed and her hair was completely disheveled. <Ten o'clock in the morning and she's just getting up?> She also noticed that her daughter's legs were bare beneath her robe. <She's not dressed,> Maggie thought, a little shocked. She pursed her lips and held back her questions.

Maggie's eyes quickly glanced around the apartment. She'd never seen it look so cluttered and messy. There was an open briefcase on the dining room table with a stack of folders next to it. Another briefcase sat on the floor next to the front door, a suitcase beside it. A well-worn, brown leather jacket had been thrown on one chair, a holstered gun atop it. Clothing was scattered about the room. A pair of jeans was under the coffee table, a skirt beside it. A blouse was on the sofa with what looked to be underwear; another shirt was on the coffee table, but it looked in danger of slipping to the floor at any moment.

Scully quickly picked up the clothes that were on the floor and couch, hoping her mother didn't see that there were two bras in her hand. "Can I make you a cup of coffee?" Scully asked, hoping - praying - her mother would decline.

It was then that Maggie spotted the black military-style boots on the floor by the couch. They were obviously too big to be Dana's. Seeing that the bedroom door was closed, she put two and two together and realized that Dana was not alone.

"This is a bad time for you, isn't it?" she asked. <_Fox_ is here. That's why the bedroom door is closed! Dana, why haven't you told me?>

"Sort of," Scully replied, her cheeks reddening.

Maggie's face turned a fine shade of red. "I'm sorry. I should have called first. I'll do my shopping alone today. Call me." Scully nodded. "This afternoon." Scully knew that if she didn't, her mother would call again and again until she did. "We'll go shopping together tomorrow."

Again, Scully knew she couldn't say no. <At least she's not pursuing it now. Thank goodness. But I _will_ have to explain. She won't let it go without an explanation.>

"Okay. I'll call you around dinner time," Scully said, walking her mother to the door, the small pile of clothing still clutched in her arms. Maggie started to give her daughter a hug, then saw her arms were full and simply kissed her cheek.

Scully's mother had to collect herself for a few moments after the door closed behind her. She took a deep breath and started down the hallway, balancing the two emotions that were working on her consciousness. She was truly mortified at the scene she'd just seen. Mortified, and pleased as punch.

- - - - -

<Oh, God, that was too close for comfort,> Scully sighed, setting the clothes on the chair. <She knows I'm not alone, and she knows I was...having sex.> A small smile flickered across her face. <That must've shocked her. Surely she knows I'm no virgin. But to be confronted with it, to have it so obvious...> Scully looked around the room, then caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. <Could she tell that it was only hours ago I was gasping my lover's name?> She brought her hands to her face and rubbed her cheeks, then her eyes. <Oh, Mom, if you only knew...>

Scully returned to the bedroom. Fletcher was on her back and she was still asleep, or at least appeared to be. Scully dropped her robe on the bed and climbed back under the covers.

"Who was that?" Fletcher asked, her eyes still shut.

"My mother."

<Oh, shit.> "Good thing I stayed in bed."

"Definitely."

Fletcher moved over to Scully and put her arms around her, her chest pressed up against Scully's back. "Everything okay, Red?"

Scully didn't answer. Fletcher held her and waited, knowing not to press. "You should've seen the look on my mother's face," Scully finally said, her voice oddly quiet. "It was such a strange combination of looks. At first, shock because it was obvious that I - her darling daughter - had been having sex - and in the living room, no less. I'm sure it never crossed her mind that I was capable of _that_." Scully smiled briefly, then her smile turned into a small frown. "She looked disappointed, too."

"Disappointed?"

"Disappointed that I hadn't told her I was seeing anyone, hadn't told her _who_ I'm seeing." Scully paused, and then said, "And she looked happy for me. Is it possible to see all of that in a mother's face in only a few minutes?"

Fletcher hugged Scully, kissing the top of her head. <She's worried,> she thought. <She's not comfortable with her mother knowing about us. Damn, I knew this was going to happen. I just thought we'd have more time. First time I've ever had to deal with a family situation before. I never dated anyone long enough to meet the family. Except Clarice. And she had no family for us to worry about.> Fletcher knew that what she said next, or how she acted, could effect her relationship with Scully profoundly. <I've got to tread lightly here. I don't want to discourage her, think I won't support her, but I don't want her to feel pressured to tell her family about me.>

"I'm going to have to tell her," Scully said, thinking aloud. "I can't hide us; I don't want to."

"Red, I don't have a whole lot experience with this," Fletcher said carefully.

"Did your father know?" Scully asked.

"Yes."

"Did you tell him?" Scully threaded her fingers through Fletcher's.

"Sort of. It wasn't long before he died. I hadn't been with the Bureau but a year or so and I was in Boston. My dad came up on family business and we had a long talk."

"How did it come up?" Scully asked, curious.

"It was kind of off-hand. He was staying with me. One night were up late, having a few drinks and he just said out-of-the-blue, 'I'm not going to have any grandchildren, am I?'"

"What did you say?"

"Once I choked down my drink, I very gently I told him he wouldn't have a son-in-law either." She chuckled softly. "Then he shocked the shit out of me by asking if he could at least have a daughter-in-law." Fletcher's smile widened at the memory. "He always knew. He just didn't know how to ask me, how to talk about it."

"But at least he had some idea."

"Yes, he did. I never dated any men and he knew it. At first he rationalized it as me working on my education, getting my doctorate. Then he thought it was because I was focused on my career."

"Was he okay with it?"

"Yes. I was lucky. It wasn't a total surprise to him. I only confirmed what he already knew."

Scully fell silent again for a few minutes. She squeezed Fletcher's hand and said, "I...I'm not ashamed of loving you, Fletcher."

"I never thought you were," Fletcher said gently, kissing her temple.

"And I don't want anyone to try and _make_ me feel ashamed of loving you."

"Aren't you jumping the gun a little, Red?"

"I'm just...I'm not sure how my mother, or my brothers will take hearing the news."

"What's the rush in having them know?"

"I want to spend...No, I'm _going_ to spend Christmas with you. If I can't bring you home with me, then I'll stay here with you."

"You don't have to tell them, Scully. I can be, uh, well-behaved. No one need ever know that we're lovers."

Scully shook her head firmly, her hair brushing Fletcher's nose. "I refuse to be dishonest. I'm not going to lie to anyone."

"You don't have to throw it in their faces either," Fletcher said quietly. When she felt Scully stiffen in her arms, she shifted gears like she was racing at Le Mans. "Red, whatever you decide is fine with me. If you want to tell them, that's okay with me. If you don't want to, well, that's okay with me, too."

She kissed Scully behind her ear. She could still feel the tension in Scully's body. She moved a hand from Scully's waist to her breast. She began to lay soft, tiny kisses along Scully's neck and collarbone.

"How do you know?" Scully said with a small sigh.

"Know what?" Fletcher continued with her kisses.

"How do you know where the sensitive spots on my neck are?" she asked. "You've seemed to know since the first night we were together."

"They're not your _only_ spots, you know." Fletcher ran her thumb down the curve of Scully's breast, then back up the side of it.

"Mmmmm..." Scully sighed. "Do you think I could convince you to show me all the other spots?"

"I don't know..." Fletcher's fingers trailed down Scully's rib, then across her belly, just above her pubic hair. "A woman's got to have some secrets..."

"You're..." Scully couldn't finish. <Her hands...her fingers...her lips...she knows my body so well...>

"I'm what?" Fletcher whispered into Scully's ear, her tongue barely touching her earlobe, her breath heavy and warm.

"Getting me very, um, very aroused," Scully replied, her body losing one kind of tension but acquiring a different, _better_ kind of tension.

"I'm thinking that I'd like to stay in bed with you all day," Fletcher said, her hand sliding down. She suddenly rolled over onto her back, taking Scully with her, one arm tight around Scully's waist. Scully's body nestled between Fletcher's legs, her back pressing against Fletcher's front. Fletcher slid her feet down Scully's legs, then she hooked her feet over Scully's calves, spreading their legs apart.

"And I'm thinking that sounds like a really good idea," Scully agreed, her legs opening further to accept the gentle strokes of Fletcher's fingers.


Saturday, 3:30 PM

"We're really going to have to get out of bed at some point," Scully said, her body stretched out across Fletcher's. She pressed her face against Fletcher's back, between her shoulder blades, and her hand caressed the firm, small buttocks.

"Why?"

"Because I'm hungry. We need to eat something."

"We just did."

Scully playfully slapped Fletcher's ass. "You're so bad..."

"That's not what you said earlier. If I'm not mistaken, you said, 'oh, it's so good, Fletcher...you're so good...'," Fletcher mimicked.

This time Scully pinched Fletcher's ass.

"Ouch!"

"Behave yourself. You're embarrassing me."

Fletcher flipped over onto her back, a smug, knowing smile on her face. "Let me make it up to you," she said, reaching for Scully.

"Uh uh. Food first," Scully replied, catching Fletcher's hands.

"Then let's just eat light. I'd like to take you out to dinner later tonight."

"Where?"

"Feel up to a little dancing with dinner?"

"The club?"

"Yes."

"Hmmm. Do I want to go out for dinner and dancing with you or do I want to order take-out so we can stay in bed?"

"Wait, wait," Fletcher protested. "I didn't know that was an option."

"What'll it be? Dinner out or eat-in?" Scully's smile was wicked as she leaned over Fletcher.

"Who's being bad now?" Fletcher retorted, her arms pulling Scully down.


Saturday, 6:45 PM

"I've got to call my mother," Scully said, her head on Fletcher's shoulder. Her hand stroked Fletcher's chest, her breasts, then her hips.

"Tell you what, Red. I'll call an order in to Jimmy Chen's. I'll shower and go get it. That'll give you some time to talk to your mother."

"I'm not going to be telling her now. I'm just going to make plans for shopping with her tomorrow."

"I know. I just don't want to distract you. And if I stick around, well, I can't guarantee I'll keep my hands off of you." Fletcher's smile was warm, loving.

"You're insatiable."

"Uh huh," Fletcher agreed. "But I don't hear any complaints either."

"And you won't." Scully smiled and kissed Fletcher lightly on the lips. The kiss grew into more than a simple kiss and Scully found herself becoming aroused once more.

It was Fletcher who broke the kiss off, albeit reluctantly. "We're never going to get any dinner this way," she said, sitting up, letting go of Scully.

"I suppose you're right," Scully concurred. <She's right, even though I want her again. How can that be? Haven't we made love enough? We've been in bed - and on the couch and on the floor - > Scully smiled, looking at the clock. <for almost twenty-four hours.>

"What are you doing tomorrow?" Scully asked suddenly, reaching for her robe.

"Probably Christmas shopping. I was going to give Mulder a call."

"Why don't you two meet us for lunch?" She looked at Fletcher. "It would be a good way for you to meet my Mom. We'd have Mulder as a buffer, too."

"I'll call him when I get back. Hand me the phone, would you please? I'll order dinner now."

- - - - -

As soon as Fletcher had left to pick up the food, Scully called her mother. She took a deep breath while she listened to the phone ring. <This is one of those times I _really_ miss Melissa. It would've been nice to have told her first, had some support when it comes time to finally tell Mom.>

"Hello?"

"Hi, Mom."

"Dana." Maggie glanced at the clock above her stove. <Forty-nine minutes.> In that time, it had taken all her will power not to pick up the phone, call her daughter, and find some point in the conversation to say, 'Don't you have something you want to tell me?' <Patience is a virtue,> she reminded herself.

"I was calling about tomorrow." <And please don't ask me about last night. Please,> Scully silently pleaded.

"Do you want me to pick you up or meet you at the mall?"

"How about we meet at the mall?"

"The usual spot - in front of Macy's?"

"Sure. What time?"

"Nine-thirty okay?"

"That's fine. Not a problem." Scully swallowed hard. "And Mom, Mulder and a friend of ours are going to meet us for lunch."

"Oh, good, it'll be nice to see Fox again." Scully couldn't see the broad smile that crossed her mother's face. "What time and where?"

"I'll confirm it tonight."

<I'm sure you will, dear,> Maggie thought. <Is Fox still there? I wonder. I hope you're going to be telling me soon.>

"When are Charlie and Jill and the kids coming?"

"The Sunday before Christmas. We're going out for the tree Monday afternoon and we'll be decorating it that night."

"I'm so glad they'll be home for Christmas this year."

"I'm getting spoiled," Maggie said, a different kind of smile on her face. "To have all of you home for Thanksgiving, and then almost a full house on Christmas, well, it's more than I ever expected."

"I'm happy for you, Mom," Scully said sincerely.

"Nine-thirty tomorrow?" Maggie repeated.

"On the dot."

"I'll see you then."

"'bye, Mom. I love you."

"I love you too, honey."

Scully hung up the phone. <That wasn't too bad, but she sure acted oddly when I mentioned Mulder. I could hear her voice change just a little bit. Weird.> She looked at the clock. <Plenty of time for me to grab a quick shower before Fletcher gets back.>

-end-


<<Chapter 17>>

Sunday, December 6th, 6:00 AM

Scully quickly shut the alarm off. Fletcher hardly stirred. <She sleeps so soundly. I'm so glad she hasn't had any more of those - what does Mulder call them - 'walkabouts'?> She curled her body around Fletcher's. <Who'd have thought that waking up beside someone could feel so nice, so _right_?>

"Fletcher?" she said gently. "Fletcher, I'm getting up now."

"Now? So soon?" she groaned, turning over. "Can't you stay in bed a little longer?"

"Well, you _could_ try a little gentle persuasion," she suggested, kissing Fletcher's forehead, then her nose, then her lips. "I'm sure I'd be open to that."

"I like the sound of that," Fletcher said, grinning happily as she gently tugged Scully into her arms. She hugged Scully close, then kissed her. "Red, last night, yesterday, hell, the whole fucking weekend, has been so wonderful."

"It's been pretty spectacular for me, especially when we started it out with a bang," she smiled coyly, "so to speak."

"Think we can end the weekend with a 'bang'?"

"I don't think we'll have any trouble seeing fireworks tonight."

"How 'bout some this morning?" Fletcher rolled them both over, laying her body on top of Scully's, her hips beginning to thrust in the familiar rhythm that Scully had come to know and love. "I'm sure your mother would get a kick out of seeing her daughter with that well-fucked look on her face again."

"What? What do you mean, 'again'?"

"Red, yesterday morning, when you came back after answering the door...if anyone ever was sporting a well-fucked look, it was you."

"Oh, God," she groaned. "Do you think she could tell? Really?"

"Well, we could always try again this morning and see if she notices," Fletcher suggested with a smirk.

"I don't think so," Scully said, trying to wiggle her way out from underneath Fletcher, but her efforts were only half-hearted. She slid her hands down Fletcher's back, her hands on her hips, urging Fletcher.

"Are you sure we have time, Scully?"

"We'll make the time," she replied, kissing Fletcher hard on the lips.


Sunday, 12:50 PM

<This hasn't been too bad,> Scully thought as she walked beside her mother on the way to the restaurant. <She hasn't asked one prying question. That's a little unusual, but she doesn't act like she even wants to, either. She's been content just to talk about the family and Christmas presents. She hasn't asked me once about work. I don't know if I should be relieved or worried.>

Ruby Tuesday's sat on the lower level of the mall, right next to Macy's. It had the common failing new restaurants had of thinking Tiffany lamps, 70s music, and posters from long-forgotten movies added up to Atmosphere. But the food was both good and reasonably priced, and it had a great salad bar, always a plus in Scully's estimation. Scully and Maggie paused at the entrance. The hostess station was empty. "They're not here yet," Scully said, her eyes scanning the booths.

"We're a little early."

"Or Mulder's a little late, as usual."

"I'm sure you're used to that by now, Dana."

"I'm used to it, but it doesn't mean I like it."

Again, Scully noticed a peculiar, almost secretive smile on her mother's face. <What is going on? Why is she smiling like that? It's driving me crazy.>

"Can I help you?" The hostess had returned, interrupting Scully's thoughts.

"Yes, we'd like a table for four. We've got two friends meeting us, but they haven't shown up yet."

"No problem," said the hostess, who couldn't have been more than twenty. "I've got a table in sight of the door. Right this way, please."

She followed her mother to the booth. It was on the opposite side of the restaurant, but it had a clear shot at the door. She sat down beside her mother and accepted a menu.

"Do you have much more shopping to do, Dana?"

"I've got two more people to shop for."

"Is Fox one of them?"

<There's that smile again,> Scully thought. "Yes. He's so impossible to shop for. I never know if he's going to give me a serious present or a joke gift. I always end up guessing wrong and giving him something totally inappropriate."

"I'm sure whatever you give him, he'll like it just fine," Maggie commented, spreading her napkin on her lap.

"There they are," she said, spotting Fletcher and Mulder. Mulder was wearing his black leather coat, Fletcher was in her brown leather one. Both were wearing jeans and sweaters, and she could just make out the outline of Fletcher's gun hanging from her shoulder harness. <I love her so much,> Scully thought suddenly. <Easy. Don't stare too much at Fletcher,> she warned herself as she realized she was smiling broadly. <Don't make it obvious. As far as Mom is concerned, Fletcher's a friend, a co-worker.>

<Dana's got such a smile on her face,> Maggie thought, as she watched Scully watch her friends. <She looks so happy.> A warmth filled Maggie's heart. <Finally. Dana's finally got some happiness in her life. I'm just surprised it's taken her - them - this long.>

Mulder greeted Maggie Scully warmly, a quick hug and a quick peck on the cheek. Fletcher hung back, an almost shy look on her face.

"Mrs. Scully, this is a good friend of mine, a co-worker, Fletcher Buchanan. Fletcher, Mrs. Scully."

"How do you do?" Fletcher said, softly, politely, her hand extended for a handshake.

<What an unusual looking woman. Kind of masculine looking, even,> Maggie Scully thought, shaking her hand. <And her eyes. They're so blue and so intense. I'd swear she was wearing contacts if she wasn't already wearing glasses.> She looked again at Fletcher. Something about her looked familiar, but Maggie couldn't quite place it.

Mulder sat down next to Maggie, his manner almost taking on a little boy persona. Fletcher sat in the only seat available, next to Scully. She sat stiffly, her posture formal. <She's nervous,> Scully thought. <She's not comfortable with this at all.>

"How's the shopping been?" Scully asked. "Any luck?"

"Some," Fletcher allowed. "How about you two?"

"We've made some progress."

"How have you been, Fox? I haven't seen you in quite some time," Maggie said, turning her attention to Mulder.

"Fine, thank you. I've been very busy with work. Did Scully tell you we've been transferred again?"

"Yes. What a horrible drive it must be for both of you."

"It's not too bad," Mulder explained, taking a sip from his water glass. "I stay at Fletcher's. She only lives about twenty miles from Quantico."

<Now I'm confused. Is Fox dating Fletcher? She doesn't seem his type at all. She doesn't seem _any_ man's type.> She picked up her glass. <But if he is, then who was in Dana's room Friday night?>

"Do you work at Quantico as well?" she asked Fletcher.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm the Assistant Unit Chief of the Department."

Maggie hid her surprise very badly. "So you're their boss."

Fletcher gave an embarrassed shrug. "Technically speaking, yes."

"And how long have you known Fox?"

<Stop grilling her, Mom> Scully thought. She nonchalantly dropped her hand to her lap, then carefully placed it on Fletcher's thigh. Except for the sudden, slight twitch beneath her hand, Scully could detect no other signs on Fletcher's face.

"I've known Mulder for what - ten years now?" she said, looking at Mulder.

"Something like that. We worked in ISU together before I took over the X-Files," he explained.

<So they're just friends,> Maggie thought, her hopes for Fox and Dana returning.

"Hi, there, folks," the waitress interrupted. "I'm Trish, I'll be your server. What can I get you?"

- - - - -

Throughout the meal, Maggie had carefully watched her daughter and Mulder interact. She couldn't perceive any difference in their relationship. If anything, Dana had spent more time talking with Fletcher than with Mulder. <I was sure they had finally taken the step and become a couple, but now...I'm not so sure.> She was almost saddened by the thought.

"Will you be joining us for Christmas this year, Fox?" Maggie asked, reaching for her coffee cup.

"I, um, I," he stammered, looking first at Scully, then Fletcher.

"It wouldn't be the same without you. Unless you have other plans."

"No, no, I don't have any plans yet."

"Then you must join us. I won't take 'no' for an answer."

Mulder knew he was trapped. He looked again at Scully for some help, but she only smiled at him. "I'd love to," he finally said.

"Good."

Maggie went to pat him on the hand but her arm slipped, and she knocked her spoon to the floor. She reached down under the table to pick it up. She lifted her head and realized she was looking directly at Fletcher's feet. It suddenly occurred to her that she'd seen Fletcher's boots before - in Dana's apartment. <The leather coat I saw at Dana's. Fletcher's wearing that, too. But how could?... Unless... Oh, no. No. No, it can't be. That's silly. That's...>

She sat up, her mouth tight, her face white. In an instant, all of her plans for her daughter and Mulder were gone. Maggie felt as if someone had torn a hole in her heart.

Scully put her hand on her mother's arm. "Are you okay, Mom?"

"I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

"You're so pale all of a sudden."

"I must have sat up too fast," she said tonelessly.

Fletcher looked carefully at Mrs. Scully. <She knows. I don't know how, but she knows. And it's not good. She looks like she's seen a ghost.> She looked at Mulder out of the corner of her eye. He noticed the change in Maggie, but hadn't a clue as to what had caused it.

"Can I get you anything, Mrs. Scully?" Fletcher asked.

"No, no, I'm fine," she said quickly, too quickly.

Fletcher felt a familiar vibration against her hip and looked down at her pager. <I don't know if I should glad it's going off or not.> She gracefully stood up. "Excuse me. I have to make a phone call. My pager just went off."

"Do you need me, Fletcher?" Mulder asked.

"Not right now. I'll know more when I come back."

She apologized again, then went out into the mall to use her cell phone. "This is Agent Buchanan. I was just paged...Yes, I'll hold...Roy, it's me."

"What's the phrase nowadays," Roy Tupper, her immediate superior, asked. "'You've got mail?'" The connection was crackly, the signal broken up by the mall's steel structure.

"Don't tell me you haven't got AOL, Roy," Fletcher joked. "All the _cool_ kids do."

"My secretary handles all my email," Tupper informed her. "I look at computers too damn much as it is. This is actual paper-driven, pen-written, post-office-delivered mail we're talking about." His voice had become serious.

"Fan mail from some flounder?" She wasn't as buoyant as she had been a moment ago. <I have a bad feeling about this...>

"Close." He paused. "Your boy's got himself a pen pal."

Fletcher went cold. "New Jersey?"

"He refers to himself as 'Algernon', like the lab rat in that short story. He sent a letter to a columnist on one of the New York tabs, and he included serious detail about the crime scenes, including everything we've held back. It's the real deal."

"Jesus Christ," she breathed. <What kind of serial killer calls himself 'Algernon',> the satiric part of her asked. <The same kind that called himself 'Son of Sam'. Hell, writing one of the tabs is right out of Sam's playbook.> "The paper holding onto it?"

"Not without a lecture on Freedom of the Press and The Public's Right To Know. I know _I_ was edified." When he was in the mood, Tupper could lay the sarcasm on with a trowel. "We negotiated them down to keeping it on ice for seventy-two hours. After that, it's open season."

"Peachy." <We've been working this case for _weeks_! Now I've only got three days? 'Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my ass...'>

"There's more." Tupper paused. "He mentions you in the letter."

If she was cold before, she was frozen now. "Me _personally_?"

"Not by name, but there's a passage in the note about 'the skinny alien with glasses who keeps stepping all over my art work.'"

"Fuck!" Her exclamation made several passersby give her a sidelong glance. "He's been watching us work the scenes!" <Shit, he hasn't just escalated. He's _mutated_!>

"The little bastard's getting cocky," Tupper agreed. "I've got a crash briefing set up for four o'clock. Crocker's flying down from New York with the letter. Can you rustle up Mulder? He's not in the office, and I still don't have his cell phone number."

"I'll find him," Fletcher assured him. "We'll be there." She snapped her phone off. <Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK!>

Mulder and Scully were talking about something when Fletcher returned to the booth. Maggie Scully was silent, and still very pale. Fletcher leaned over and whispered into Mulder's ear. "We've got to leave. We need to be in Quantico for an emergency meeting."

"What's up?" he asked, rising out of his chair.

"I'll explain it to you later." Fletcher turned to Maggie and Scully. "Excuse us. We've got to leave right now. Duty calls."

"Of course," Maggie said, a slight fluting tone to her voice. "We understand."

"Do you need me?" Scully asked, switching to Professional Mode.

<Boy, do I.> "No, Gabe's been riding point on this one. If he needs help, he'll holler, don't worry. Besides, this isn't about forensics."

"Let me know how it goes." <She actually looks frazzled. I wonder what the call was about?>

Fletcher was frazzled, all right, and not just about the man she now knew as Algernon. <I don't want to leave like this,> Fletcher thought. <I can't leave Scully knowing that her mother _knows_. She's bound to say something to Scully.> She tossed some money on the table. <And I can't even say goodbye to Scully, can't even tell her that I'll call her when I have a chance.>

"We'll be in touch," Fletcher said, hoping Scully understood the meaning behind her words. "I don't think the meeting will go much past six or six-thirty."

Mulder quickly realized that Fletcher was trying to pass a message on to Scully without being too obvious. "We'll grab dinner at Fletcher's," he added.

Scully nodded as she watched them hurry out of the restaurant. She waited a moment before turning her attention back to her mother. Maggie Scully was still pale, and hadn't said much before or after Fletcher had left to make her phone call.

"Mom, what's wrong?" Scully asked.

Her tone lacked all color. "When were you planning on telling me, Dana?"

"Tell you what?"

"Or were you _ever_ going to tell me?"

"What are you talking about?"

"You...You're...I can't..." Maggie Scully almost choked on her words, unable to form sentences, unable to meet her daughter's eyes. She leaned forward, her voice a whisper now. "Dana, _how_?" She swallowed. It didn't help the rasp in her voice. "_Why_?"

<Oh, God, she knows. How?> Scully closed her eyes and turned away.

-end-


<<Chapter 18>>

Sunday, December 6th, 2:15 PM

"Can I get you ladies anything else?" the waitress asked, coffee pot in one hand and a blue vinyl check carrier in the other.

<How about a double scotch?> Scully thought. <I could really use a drink right now.> Instead she said, "Just a quick refill, please. Mom?"

"Nothing for me, thank you," Maggie said politely.

They remained silent while Scully's cup was filled. When the waitress had gone, Maggie leaned forward, her voice low. "Is it true, Dana?" she asked.

"Is what true?" she responded, trying to buy herself a little more time.

"Are you...are you and Fletcher..."

<Time's up.> "Are we seeing each other?"

Maggie tried not to flinch. "Yes."

<I'm not going to be ashamed of you, Fletcher.> "Yes."

"I see," Maggie said coolly, noticing the almost defiant look on her daughter's face, her chin slightly raised, her mouth tight. "And how long has this been going on?"

"A few months," Scully admitted.

"And you never thought to tell me about it?"

"Mom, I don't think this is the time or place to talk about this..."

"Fine," she said brusquely. "Let's go back to the house then." She was out of her chair and standing before Scully even got her napkin out of her lap.

- - - - -

"You need to drop me off at Scully's so I can get my stuff," Fletcher said to Mulder.

"Sure." He stopped at a red light and looked over at Fletcher. Her chin was cupped in her hand and she was staring out the passenger window. "Fletcher, what happened back there?"

"I don't know," she sighed. "Scully's mother knows about us. I don't know how, but she does. I just _know_ she does." She reached under her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "The last thing I wanted to do was to leave Scully there by herself, without any reinforcements." She turned to her friend. "You know her mother. Is it as bad as I think it is?"

"Well...it's gotta come as a shock to her." <Yeah. Like Hiroshima was a shock to the Japanese.> He moved off when the light turned green. "She has to be feeling disappointed."

"Disappointed? Why?"

"I think Scully's mom always envisioned Scully and I getting married someday. You just put two daggers into that dream; not only is Scully _not_ going to be married to _me_, she's not going to be married at all."

<My poor Red. Having to face all that by herself.> Fletcher's cell phone rang and she quickly answered it. "Buchanan."

"It's me. Am I interrupting anything?"

"No, Mulder's just dropping me off so I can pick up my car and my briefcase. Where are you?"

"Fighting my way out of the mall parking lot. I'm on my way to my mother's." Scully paused. "She knows, Fletcher. Somehow she figured it out. I didn't tell her."

"I sensed that, right before my phone rang." She swallowed. "You okay?"

"I've been better," Scully allowed. "Are you staying at your house tonight?"

"I was planning to. Are you?"

"I think I'm going to really need to be with you tonight."

"No problem. If I'm late, just let yourself in." Fletcher cleared her throat. "I'm sorry I can't be there for you right now."

"Thanks, but I think it's better this way. I think I need to handle this alone, at least for now."

"Understood. If you need me, call. I don't care if I'm in a meeting. Okay?"

"Yes, thanks."


Sunday, 3:10 PM

Scully parked behind Maggie's maroon Taurus. Her mother was already in the house. Scully took a deep breath before opening the car door. <Come on, Dana. You can _do_ this.> She clenched her teeth as she went up the walk. The temperature had nothing to do with it. <I think it was easier facing those senators when Mulder disappeared than it's going to be facing Mom.>

Taking another deep breath, she squared her shoulders and went into the house. Maggie was sitting on the living room sofa, her arms folded across her chest. <I can't read the look on her face at all,> Scully thought as she stepped into the room. <She doesn't look so much angry as she does -what? Disappointed? Disgusted?> She resisted the urge to sigh. <This is _not_ going to be easy.>

"I can't believe you're a...a lesbian, Dana," Maggie said abruptly, her face crumpling at saying the word 'lesbian'.

"Mom..." <She didn't waste any time, that's for sure. Just get right to the heart of the matter, Mom. No dancing around the issue with you.>

"How long have you known? How long have you kept this secret from the family?"

"It's not like that, Mom."

"Then explain it to me, Dana. I want to understand this."

Scully looked away, trying to gather her thoughts. She walked over to the fireplace and looked at the ship's clock on the mantelpiece. It was the only piece of furniture that had stayed in the family through every move, every transfer. "I've been on my own pretty much since I left for college. Through med school. Through the Academy. And there've been times when it was... difficult. But I got through it, because... because that was what I did." She drew a finger across the rim of the clock. Her mother always kept it polished, just the way her father liked it. Scully's voice softened. "But I never really knew how lonely I was...how _alone_ I was...until I met Fletcher."

"Dana, you have your family, your friends." Maggie paused a split second then added, "Fox."

"I know, I know." She sighed, her eyes closing for a moment. "But I was still alone. And it was my choice. I admit it. I never let anyone get close to me, never wanted to. Even you, Mom." She gave her mother a look of apology. Then she said, "I don't feel that way when I'm with Fletcher." Her mother just watched her, mute for the moment. Scully gave the clock one more glance and then walked away from the fireplace. She hugged herself as she paced. "I wish I could explain it to you better."

"I'm glad you've got someone you can share things with, honey, but...does it also have to be a...a physical relationship?"

"Yes," Scully said firmly. "It's part of who we are, what Fletcher and I share."

Scully paced the width of the room twice before Maggie could speak again. "I don't understand, Dana. I. Just. Don't. Understand." Maggie shook her head slowly from side to side. "I thought you liked men."

"I do, Mom...just not the way you'd like me to... I just happen to love one woman, happen to be _in_ love with one woman." Scully sat down beside her mother. "I didn't expect to fall in love with _anyone_, let alone a woman. It just happened." She took her mother's hand. "I'm happy, Mom," she said simply.

A sharp comment nearly came from her mother, but Maggie quelled it when she saw the look in her daughter's eyes. <She's thought about this. This is what she wants. This is real.> She looked down at her daughter's hand, their fingers interlaced. "You know, we were all trying to figure out what was different about you over Thanksgiving. I...I thought you might be sick again. Bill did, too."

"I know," Scully said quietly. "He said as much the other night."

"Jill was the one who recognized it for what it was." Maggie had a sad smile on her face. "She said you looked happy, that she'd never seen you look that happy ever. And I agreed with her then."

"And now? Do you still feel that way?"

Maggie examined the white pile carpeting at their feet. "Yes," she conceded. "I have never seen you look so happy, so much at peace."

"It's because of Fletcher, Mom. It's how Fletcher _makes_ me feel, how I feel about myself when I'm with her. If you and dad felt half of what Fletcher and I feel for each other..."

"I think I understand _how_ you feel," Maggie said. She wore a tight smile on her face as she looked up. "But I don't understand, and I can't pretend to understand the kind of 'relationship' that you _have_ to have with Fletcher." Scully let go of her hand and got up from the sofa. Maggie's gaze followed her. "Dana, you have to understand that this comes as quite a shock. I never expected this from you."

<And I suppose she expected me to be a family doctor, married with 2.5 kids and living in the suburbs.> "I didn't expect it of myself."

Maggie chose her words carefully before saying them. "Could this be some sort of reaction to...to what happened last Christmas?"

Scully couldn't follow her mother's logic. She opened her mouth, but quickly shut it. <She's trying, Dana. She's trying to understand, trying to find a reason. Go easy on her.> "Mom," she said gently, "it doesn't work that way." She gestured helplessly. "It just happened for Fletcher and I. Neither of us expected it."

"Then she's never..." <Maybe it is a phase, for both of them. It's their jobs. With the type of work that they do, of course they might end up reaching out to one another, and it just got carried away...>

"No, I'm not the first woman Fletcher's been involved with," she explained.

"And you?" Margaret Scully could not believe she was about to ask this question. "Have you been...have you...with other women?"

<If I'm blushing as much as I think I am, I'm surprised the room hasn't caught fire.> "No. But only because I never considered it an option."

"And it still doesn't _have_ to be an option," Maggie said, her tone as neutral as she could manage it.

<Calm, calm. A reasonable tone of voice. She loves you. She only wants the best for you.> "Mom, it's the _only_ option for me now. Fletcher is who I want to be with, who I _need_ to be with."

Her mother's face fell with her hopes. "And what about the Church?"

<I wondered when she was going to bring that up. I'm surprised it's taken her this long.> "I don't think the Church, or anyone else for that matter, has the right to condemn what Fletcher and I feel for one another."

<Maybe it _shouldn't_,> Maggie wanted to say. She wanted to say more than that. <But Dana, what about your friends? Your co-workers? What about your family? Don't _we_ get a say in this?>

Instead she simply asked, "Does she love you?"

"Yes."

<In a way, that's worse.> "Do you _really_ love her?"

"With all my heart," Scully said, the resolve in her voice hard as diamond.

Margaret Scully had no answer for that.

-end-


<<Chapter 19>>

Sunday, December 6th, 6:00 PM

The letter, encased in a clear Ziploc bag, lay on the center of the table. The only fingerprints to be found belonged to the columnist Algernon had chosen as his 'public voice'.

"So, what do we do about it?" Roy asked the room at large.

"Any chance we can get them to _totally_ hold off?" Gabe Sinclair asked, sucking on his pipe. "Promise them an exclusive when we catch the bastard?"

"We're lucky they gave us the seventy-two hours we have." Bill Crocker felt like he looked. He looked like a man who hadn't slept for a week. "The editor had the same glint in his eye I've seen pit bulls get when you throw raw meat in the cage."

"Even if we _could_ get them to hold off, what's that do to our 'friend' Algernon?" Fletcher pointed out. "If we're successful and the letter doesn't run, will that set him off for more killing? If we let them print it and he gets the publicity, will that encourage him?"

"Damned if we do, damned if we don't," Mulder said quietly.

"Well, we've got three days to take _some_ kind of action," Tupper declared.

Mulder hesitated then spoke, "Maybe we can get the paper to run a story directed at Algernon - make him think they _want_ to believe the letter's genuine, but that they need some sort of tangible proof that he was the one."

Crocker picked up on his line of thought. "Maybe have the columnist ask Algernon to send him something from one of the first cases. It might work, and it might buy us some more time. The paper should go for it as well; more publicity for them in the long haul." He laughed darkly. "'An Open Letter To Algernon.' Hell, the editor'll wet his pants when we give him _that_ headline."

"Jimmy Breslin must be spinning in his grave," Mulder murmured to no one in particular.

"Let's keep that in mind," Fletcher said quickly, closing the subject. She didn't think much of the idea, but she wasn't going to close any doors. "In the meantime, I want thorough background checks on every victim. I want to know friends, family, school chums, work habits, everything. And I want it in my hands by the close of business tomorrow. I want to know if there's any possible link between the families. I don't think there is, but I'm not discounting anything."

"You don't think there's a link?" Sinclair asked, obviously surprised.

"Not with the vics." Fletcher shook her head quickly. "I think it was their shit luck that they were chosen. Maybe it was because their window was unlocked. Maybe it was because they live - lived - in white houses. But I've got a sense that Algernon would have chopped up Ron and Nancy Reagan if they'd been home when he came calling. The victims don't matter here. They're just his art materials."

Crocker looked unconvinced. "And the shoes - what's the significance of the left shoe being taken?"

"Only Algernon knows. It may mean nothing. But even if it means nothing, the fact that he took it means something. Everything the UNSUB does has a reason."

"I also think there's a reason as to the _when_," Mulder offered. "All the killings took place over holiday weekends - Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving. I don't know if it's the holidays themselves, or maybe the holidays afford him the time to prepare the canvass."

Roy groaned. "If that's the case, regardless of the reason, that doesn't give us much time. We've got several holiday weekends coming up - Christmas, New Year's, Martin Luther King Day..."

"If we're lucky, no, if we're good, we'll have him before that," Fletcher said, her voice cold.

"And what do we do about him noticing you?" Crocker asked Fletcher.

"Nothing, for now." She turned to Mulder. "Tomorrow, you and I are going back to the last two crime scenes. They're in adjoining towns, so we can do both in a day. Maybe another look for me, and a fresh look by you will uncover something else, something new."

<And maybe it will draw the killer out, too,> Mulder thought, <if he's still watching the site.>

Fletcher could feel her stress levels building, but outwardly she appeared to be cool and calm. The room felt small, even claustrophobic. She resisted the urge to pull at her collar. She found her concentration wavering, moving from the case to Scully and back to the case. <C'mon, Buchanan, get a grip. Think. Just put aside Scully for a little longer. You've got to. Lives depend on you.>

"Excuse me," Fletcher said, standing up. "I'll be right back."

Ignoring the stares of her co-workers, Fletcher left the room and headed for the elevators. Mulder looked at Roy, and when he saw the small nod, took off after her. He caught up with her at the elevators, stepping inside just as the door closed.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"Yeah. I just needed some air, needed some time to think."

"You're worried about Scully."

"Fuck yes."

"Fletcher, you're smart enough to know that you have to put her out of your mind right now," he said gently.

"I know that," she snapped, stepping out of the elevator.

He followed her outside to the front of the building. "Roy didn't say anything, but my guess is that if you don't get back to the meeting in ten minutes, he'll pull you off the case."

"Don't threaten me, Mulder."

"I'm not. Just stating an observation."

Fletcher stood on the front steps of the building, breathing deeply. "I haven't had to do this in a long time," she finally said.

"What?"

"Juggle my job and a relationship."

She stood in silence for a few more minutes. Mulder watched her carefully. He could see the control return to her. <She's shut it all off,> he thought as he followed her back into the building. <No feelings at all.>

- - - - -

She was relieved when the meeting finally broke up. Mulder walked down the hall with her to her office.

"Ain't we got fun?" she scowled. "Welcome back to ISU."

"You didn't have to do all this for me, Fletcher," Mulder joked. "A new coffee cup and my own parking space would have been enough."

She managed a smile, but it was brief. "This one, Mulder, this one...I need your help."

"I know."

She unlocked her office door. "I thought that with our early morning flight, you might want to stay at the house, save yourself some driving time," she said, changing the topic.

"Thanks. I'll go back to my place and get a few things." The office was just like her cubicle had been all those years ago - a study in organized chaos. He looked at the folders that Fletcher continued to pick through, occasionally pulling one out of the stack and putting it into her briefcase. "Do you have anything you want me to look at tonight?"

"Nothing that can't wait until tomorrow," she replied, closing her briefcase.

"Aren't you spending tonight with Scully?"

"Yes. Your point?"

"Why are you taking work home?" he inquired, nodding at her briefcase.

"I thought I'd review a few files after she goes to sleep."

Mulder knew Fletcher's sleeping habits weren't much better than his when the work stress hit her. "Wake me up when you do. Maybe I can help."

"No, that won't be necessary. You can read them on the flight."

"Okay, boss."


Sunday, 7:30 PM

Fletcher saw Scully's car parked in the driveway and she pulled in beside it. She hurried to the house.

"Scully!" she called out as she closed the front door.

"In the kitchen."

Fletcher paused in the doorway. Scully leaning against the counter, a drink in her hand. She didn't look happy, but she didn't look unhappy either. She just looked tired.

"Can I get you a drink?" she offered Fletcher.

"Yes, thanks. Stoli, please." Scully nodded, pulling a glass out of the cupboard above the dishwasher. Fletcher set her briefcase down and draped her jacket over a kitchen chair. "What time did you get here?"

"About a half hour ago." She took the bottle out of the refrigerator. "A short one?" she asked.

"You tell me."

"I'll make it a double."

"That good, huh?" Fletcher commiserated, kissing Scully's cheek.

"Well, it could've been worse, I suppose."

Fletcher took the drinks from Scully and set them on the counter. She put her hands on Scully's shoulders. "So, tell me. How did it go?"

"She's _trying_ to understand," Scully said after a short silence.

"That's good. It's a start."

"She was shocked, to say the least."

"I imagine she was." Fletcher smiled briefly. "How did she know?"

"My mother should've been a detective," Scully smiled, picking her glass back up. "It was your boots."

"What about them?"

"When she stopped by yesterday morning, she noticed your boots under my coffee table. At lunch, when she knocked her spoon on the floor - " Fletcher nodded. "- she realized that your boots were the same ones she'd seen in my apartment."

"No shit." Fletcher whistled. "My boots, huh?"

"And your leather coat." She took a long swallow. "I'm sure it didn't help that I couldn't stop smiling at you at lunch."

"I'm sorry, Red," Fletcher apologized, hugging her.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," Scully said sharply, pulling her head back from Fletcher's chest.

"If I hadn't been there..."

"Fletcher, I had to tell her sometime."

"But it should've been on your own terms, when you had a chance to prepare yourself."

"It was actually better this way, I think."

"How so?"

"I don't know. I think if I'd planned a time to tell her, I either wouldn't have gone through with it or I would've driven myself crazy with anxiety."

"Come sit down in the den and tell me all about it," Fletcher said, taking Scully's hand and leading her out of the kitchen.

- - - - -

Fletcher listened in silence, her hands clutching her glass, as Scully repeated her conversation with her mother. She didn't interrupt her once, not even when she had questions. She just sat beside her and let Scully talk.

"And Fletcher, she wants to see us again, get to know you a little better."

"When?" <Oh, goddess, it's not a good time for this.>

"Dinner at my place, next Saturday."

"I've got reserves."

"We'll wait for you."

"Okay. Whatever you want, Red." <Fuck. This red ball case and Scully's mother. What else could go wrong?>

Scully leaned back. "How was your meeting?"

"Fine," Fletcher said curtly, downing the rest of her drink.

<What isn't she telling me - and why?> Scully thought. <She looked stressed when she left us at lunch and I know she's stressed now. It's written in her body and in her face. She's holding her glass so tightly I'm afraid she's going to break it. And even though she acts calm, I can see her jaw constantly clenching, like she's grinding her teeth.>

"Are you hungry?" Fletcher asked, getting up from the sofa.

"I guess so."

"Mulder will be here soon. I promised him a dinner."

"Mulder's staying over?" Scully asked, following Fletcher back to the kitchen.

"We've got an early flight tomorrow morning. We're choppering out of Quantico at seven. We're going back to New Jersey."

"Something's happened with the case."

"Yes," Fletcher said flatly.

"Do you want to talk about it?" <Please don't shut me out, Fletcher.>

"Not yet. Maybe later." Fletcher opened her freezer to pour herself another drink. <Last one for the night, Buchanan. You need to keep your mind fresh.>


Sunday, 8:30 PM

They ate in silence - Mulder and Fletcher deep in thought with the case, Scully thinking about her mother. Fletcher still hadn't told Scully anything about the case, hadn't even mentioned it once to Mulder. She hardly ate anything, either. She just pushed her food around on her plate. Several times Scully caught her just staring off, her hand over her mouth, her eyes dark and brooding.

"I've got to work for a little bit," Fletcher said, getting up from the table. "Just leave everything. I'll take care of it later." She picked up her briefcase and headed up the stairs.

When Fletcher was out of earshot, Scully turned to Mulder. "Are _you_ going to tell me what happened, or have you taken a vow of silence, too?"

"It's become personal now," he said quietly.

"What do you mean?"

"The UNSUB has started a correspondence with one of the newspapers." He paused. "He's been watching the investigation, mentioned Fletcher in the letter."

"By name?" The only reason Scully didn't shout was that Fletcher might hear her.

"No, but it's obvious who he was talking about."

Scully looked at the doorway Fletcher had just walked through. <She doesn't want me to worry. Too late now, Fletcher.> "How many people has he killed?"

"Two victims the first time, four the second, three last weekend."

She swallowed. "Was it bad?"

He thought about it. "Lecter was more creative, but he only worked with single subjects. This one likes to play to a crowd." Mulder pushed a clump of mashed potatoes into some beef juice, but did not raise the result to his mouth. "He's a Great White shark, Scully. He just swims into the middle of the biggest group of humans and starts feeding."

"Can you catch him?" Her voice sounded hollow. Mulder and Scully had been separated professionally before. The gap had never seemed as yawning as it did right then.

Mulder seemed to consider the question. "If anyone can do it, we can."

"Is it always like this for her?" Scully hadn't taken her eyes off the doorway.

"Sometimes. You'd better get used to it. When she gets so engrossed in a case, she just shuts everything else out. And I mean _everything_." He picked up his bottle of beer. "She doesn't have any choice. She has to do it that way."

"I'm worried about her."

"I can't tell you not to be," he said, a small smile on his face. "You'll just...you'll drive yourself crazy if you get worried every time she obsesses over a case." He picked up his plate and put it into the sink. "And Scully, be prepared for one of her walk-abouts."

"What should I do?" She remembered the time in her apartment, just after they had come together. The incident had unnerved her, to say the least. <That wasn't Fletcher, not the Fletcher I know.>

"Leave her be. Let her do what she needs to do."

"That won't be easy."

"You've got to."

She looked at Mulder. She wasn't sure he liked his tone. "Why? She's so wiped out when she does."

"It's a horrible thing to say, but she gets some great ideas, great insight to a case when she does." He took her hand. "She needs to for herself, Scully. It's her way of getting rid of the stress, working through the case."

She gnawed on her lip for a moment. "I understand," she said. <But that doesn't mean I have to like it.>


Monday, December 7th, 2:40 AM

For almost three hours Scully had lain awake. She'd pretended to be asleep when she heard Fletcher get out of bed around midnight, and had waited ever since for her to come back to bed. <This is ridiculous. I don't care what Mulder said. If she burns herself out she won't be doing anyone any good.> She got out of bed and out her robe on. She quietly left the bedroom and went across the hall to Fletcher's office. She stopped in the doorway. Fletcher was sitting on the couch, her eyes closed and her mouth shut. Her head was back and her hand gripped a sheath of papers. Her PC was booted up, the screen saver flashing patterns of light and color across the dimly lit room.

"Time for bed, Fletcher," she said, gently shaking Fletcher's shoulder.

"Whaaa?" Fletcher mumbled, her head snapping forward.

"Bed. Now," Scully ordered, helping Fletcher to her feet.

She took the papers from Fletcher's hand and set them on her desk. She steered Fletcher back across the hall and to the bed. Without a single word of protest, Fletcher climbed into bed. Scully got in beside her and took Fletcher in her arms. With her head upon Scully's chest, Fletcher fell immediately into a deep sleep.

-end-


<<Chapter 20>>

Monday, December 7th, 7:40 AM

Mulder looked up from the folder that sat balanced on his lap. A pad of legal paper was covered with his scribbling. Except for the few moments when he and Fletcher had boarded the chopper, he'd been reviewing the file. He looked over at Crocker, who sat in front next to Sandy Dillard, ISU's resident pilot. Crocker looked to be asleep, or possibly saying silent prayers. He'd never said he disliked flying, but Mulder saw how pale and white-knuckled he'd become once they were airborne. Dillard scanned the horizon, seemingly oblivious to the man's discomfort. Occasionally the block-like blonde would speak to some ground-control entity, but since her passengers were only plugged into the intercom channel, they never heard the reply.

Mulder glanced beside him at Fletcher. Her eyes were shut, one arm folded across her chest, her thumb under her chin, and two fingers across her mouth. He tapped Fletcher gently on the arm and was surprised when she jumped. <Awfully skittish,> he thought. <Not good. Not good at all.>

"What?" she asked, trying to hide her irritation at being disturbed.

"Where's your profile?" he asked.

"Have you written a cursory one yet?"

"Yes." He knew Fletcher had omitted hers from the file, wanting him to write his own profile without any influences. He handed his notes to her and she handed him another folder. They read in silence.

"Then we're in agreement," she finally said, placing his notes in the main folder.

"Yes." <Just like old times.> He handed the folder back to her.

"There's some significance to the name 'Algernon'," she said, closing her briefcase. "Are you familiar with the story?"

He nodded. "I had to read it for Lit class in high school, so it didn't make a big impression on me. Saw the movie version on Starz late one night. Don't remember much, except that Cliff Robertson played the lead."

"There'll be two copies waiting for us in New Jersey. Read it tonight."

The chopper started to descend. Mulder thought he heard Crocker moan. "Newark International coming up, Fletcher," Dillard called out over the intercom. "Three minutes."

"Good." Fletcher started putting away her papers. "McHugh waiting for us at the pad?"

"Yup, with two cars," she told her. "He said he wanted to save you the trip to the field office. He also says that confab you wanted with the local yokels is set for later today."

"Outstanding," Fletcher said, barely aware she was lapsing into military-speak. "Your partner's rock solid, Bill."

"I'll be sure to tell him," Crocker returned, eyes closed and teeth set.

"What kind of yokels?" Mulder asked.

"Homicide detectives from all three towns, plus two investigators from the Jersey state police. We're meeting with them at four o'clock."

"Will that give us enough time at both scenes?"

"It'll _have_ to be enough time."

Her tone was sharp. <This isn't going to get better any time soon,> Mulder decided.


Blenheim, New Jersey Monday, 9:00 AM

The yellow crime scene tape was shredded and flapping in the cold winter breeze as Fletcher pulled up to the scene of the Columbus Day massacre. A county public works truck was parked three or four houses down. The street was deserted except for the county worker, who was snaking a long steel pole down a sewer grate. <Lot of trees,> Mulder observed. <Bet they get a lot of backed-up drains in the fall.>

"Entry was in the back," Fletcher said, parking the car in the driveway. "The UNSUB came through the basement window."

"Weather that night?" he asked as they got out of the car.

"Cloudy, no moon."

"Neighbors didn't report anything?"

"No one home, at least not on either side. One family was visiting relatives in Albany, while the other treated themselves to a weekend in the Big Apple. Time of death was estimated to be sometime after midnight, but I'm having Gabe review the autopsies today. I don't think it's right. I think it was later."

She unlocked the front door using the keys that Bill Crocker had given her. Mulder could smell the stale blood the instant the door was opened.

"It gets worse," she said, flipping on the light.

- - - - -

The county worker watched the two agents go into the house. The moment the door closed, he pulled the snake out of the drain and picked up the orange cones and sawhorses that surrounded the adjacent manhole cover. He glanced at his watch, excitement boiling over like milk in a hot saucepan. He didn't have a lot of time, but what he had would be enough if he managed it right. It all came down to time management. Everything did, in the end.

- - - - -

"How do you want to do this?" Fletcher asked. "Do you want to recreate the UNSUB's steps or go right to where the bodies were found?"

"Let's start with point of entry," Mulder decided.

Fletcher nodded as she led Mulder down the hallway, past the living room and the staircase leading to the bedrooms. Mulder carefully looked around the kitchen before following Fletcher down the basement stairs. Every door frame, cabinet, counter top and appliance was covered in the black fingerprinting dust. <Almost two months and no one's been in the house to clean it up,> he thought. <Have the police kept it sealed?>

"Watch your step," Fletcher cautioned. "The third step down is uneven. Keep to the right when we get to the bottom. I want you to see the footprints."

"Okay."

He followed Fletcher as she stepped lightly down the stairs. <I've heard of athletes having soft _hands_, but Fletcher's soft _footed_,> he thought. <I bet she can re-create the UNSUB's steps exactly as he did, without disturbing anything.>

"He came through that window," Fletcher said, gesturing to a small window that was covered with the same black powder found in the kitchen.

Mulder searched the floor, his eyes tracing the UNSUB's footsteps in the dust. <Standard work boots. Maybe Redwing brand.> Somehow the UNSUB had managed to get into the basement without knocking anything over. <Hell, I don't know how he did it without waking anyone up,> Mulder reflected. <I never understood how any UNSUB got into a house without at least _one_ person in the house hearing him.>

"Did the autopsies show any sign of drugs in the victims?" he asked.

"Only the five year old. Some allergy medicine - over the counter stuff." She looked at Mulder. "Wondering how he got in without making a noise?"

"Yes."

"I have a theory."

<One that you excluded from the file, no doubt,> he thought. "What?"

"Ever hear about an athlete being in 'the zone'? You know, a baseball player during a hitting streak that says the ball looks like it's moving in slow motion, looks as big as melon? Or a golfer that says he knows every putt he makes is going to drop?" Mulder nodded. "I think UNSUBs have a zone of their own. When they make the decision and begin to act on it, I think all of their senses are heightened, they feel super human." She turned away from him, ending the discussion of her theory. "We found something on the windowsill here and on the floor. The same substance was found in two rooms."

"Any idea what it was?"

"The yokels botched the lab work. A similar substance was found last week. Gabe took the samples back with him. He hasn't given me any results yet."

"Show me the rest of the house," Mulder said.


ISU Forensics Lab Monday, 9:15AM

"Doctor Scully, Agent Klingler, I need to speak with you, if you have a minute or two."

Scully looked up from her paperwork to see Gabe Sinclair walking purposefully towards them. Scully smiled reflexively. "Of course," she said, setting her pen down. She liked working for Gabe. His manner was both professional and warm, almost courtly at times. He was unhurried, but everything was completed quickly and thoroughly. He also insisted on calling the pathologists of his staff 'doctors' instead of 'agents'. <Reminds me that the diploma on Mom's wall wasn't a gag gift.>

"What's up," Elly asked, standing as Sinclair reached them.

"I need an assist from you both," he said, handing Scully a small stack of folders. "It's for New Jersey."

<Fletcher's case,> she thought. "No need to explain the importance."

"Good. Those files are the post results of victims at the second site. There are also some labs from the scene. The samples are in the fridge. Doctor Scully, if you'll work over the autopsies, Agent Klingler will handle the lab work. I'd like to discuss findings at, oh, say, three o'clock. I know that's not much time, but I'm only looking for preliminary stuff at the moment. Be prepared, though. Roy Tupper's got a sit-rep scheduled for tomorrow at eleven, and Fletcher will want us to have all our ducks in a row."

"No problem," Klingler said promptly.

"We'll be ready," Scully assured him.

"I'm counting on it," he said, pointing at them both. His trademark grin gave the comment the feel of a grandfather telling his grandsons that there'd be an extra quarter in it for them if they got the leaves out of the back yard in the next hour. In Sinclair's case, it usually meant days off with pay and some kind of free food for the staff on Friday.

Elly grinned at Scully as Sinclair left the room. "Hey, mom, we're finally playing the Palace!"

"Looks like Michael's Deli is off the to-do list," Scully returned, moving the paperwork she'd been paging through to a separate folder. <Looks like I'm working late, too. Somehow I don't think Fletcher will mind.>

"They deliver," Elly reminded her. "Good thing, too. I was looking forward to their tarragon chicken salad, so I didn't bring anything for lunch."

"Josh would have been ticked we went without him, anyway."

"Josh probably discovered some wonderful French Bistro in a strip mall near his motel," Elly laughed. "This way we'll have something to lord over _him_ when he gets back from Richmond."

Scully chuckled as she watched the short-haired pixie bop out of the room. Elly was only two years removed from the Academy, but she'd already garnered a reputation as one of the Bureau's best forensic analysts. Between her and Josh Washington -- a slick-scalped African-American who had just celebrated his 40th birthday, his second divorce, and his fifth transfer in twelve years -- they made a very odd-looking team. Elly had a youthful perspective that invariably made Scully shake her head, and there were times when Josh's cynical outlook made Mulder seem positively sunny.

Even so, they had dropped into an easy office routine and a good friendship. You couldn't help but smile at Elly, bobbing her head to the thrash-metal on her CD Walkman, as she toiled over the microscope for hours on end. In addition to his solid capabilities in the lab, Josh had an innate talent for finding great restaurants that even rivaled Fletcher's abilities. After three months of the zombies in AD Kersch's open-plan research gulag, Elly and Josh were a breath of fresh air. Although they'd never discussed it with her, her new coworkers felt the same way about Scully. Elly had heard plenty of Scully stories at the Academy (most, but not all, connected with Mulder), and thought it was incredibly cool to be working with a semi-legend. For Josh's part, Scully was the first pathologist since Gabe Sinclair who didn't try to get in a turf war with him, and didn't consider him to be a curiosity first and a scientist second. Scully and Josh knew they shared this experience, thought neither of them broached the subject.

The warmth of working with Fletcher, even indirectly, dimmed somewhat when she saw the first autopsy photo. <Not a shark,> she thought. <A piranha.>


Blenheim, New Jersey Monday, 9:20AM

"He killed the parents first," Fletcher explained almost matter-of-factly as they went up the staircase of the split level house.

Mulder looked down at the carpet. The gray deep pile carpet was stained with large blotches of dried blood. The outline of one body, done by the crime scene unit, was found in the doorway leading to the master bedroom.

"The mother or father?" he asked, walking into the room. There was so much blood on the walls; it was almost impossible to tell what pattern the wallpaper was originally.

"Mother. The father died in bed. The UNSUB slit his throat, then shot him point blank in the face through the pillow."

"Kill the strongest first," Mulder commented.

"The mother's throat was slit in the bed as well," Fletcher recited, pointing out the bloodstained mattress. The sheets and blankets had been removed as evidence. "She ran for the door, probably to protect her kids. The loss of blood most likely caused her to collapse, but he didn't take any chances. He stabbed her at least another dozen times."

Mulder looked through the photos of the crime scene. <Overkill.> "Any chance this is a crime of passion?"

"No," Fletcher said. "Those amateurish Y-incisions on everyone's chests blow that theory out of the water."

"And the kids?"

Fletcher walked into the first bedroom. New York Yankees and New York Giants posters adorned the walls. A giant Star Wars poster was on the ceiling. All of the posters were splattered with blood. The bed had been stripped as well, and the mattress was stained with blood.

"How old?" Mulder asked.

"Nine," she croaked. "I can only hope he never knew what hit him."

"Stabbed?"

"Six times and his throat was slit. And of course, that fucking pseudo-autopsy incision."

He looked around the room carefully before stepping out of it. He knew Fletcher felt the same way he did. The autopsies didn't bother them. The bodies in a morgue never seemed real. It was seeing the crime scene, seeing the victims in their own element that rattled them both. He knew Fletcher was talking as dispassionately as possible in order to remove herself, her feelings. He did the same thing. It was a self-taught trick, learned out of necessity.

They entered the daughter's room. It was decorated in shades of purple with a teddy bear motif. About a dozen bears lined the top of the dresser, and there were teddy bear posters on all four walls. The one above the bed was spattered with red.

"There doesn't seem to be as much blood in this room, even if she was smaller."

"I know. She was only stabbed once and had her throat slit. And no Y-incision either. I don't know if the UNSUB was running out of time or if he had second thoughts. The time thing doesn't seem right. Also, she was the only one found with the covers up over her. Almost gently," she added as an afterthought.

Mulder compared the photos to the room. "Think he's got a soft spot for little girls?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." Fletcher muttered the words, but it could have been a scream. Her frustration was mounting, and it was making Mulder uneasy. She took her glasses off and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. She put her glasses back on then practically marched out of the room. "Do you want some time alone here?"

"No, I'm all set. We should move on to the next scene." He followed, giving her space.

"Good. After we look it over, there's a decent diner between here and the field office..."

"A diner in New Jersey?" Mulder grinned. "Be still my heart."

"It's gonna have to be take-out," Fletcher continued, either missing or ignoring the joke. "I want to hear your thoughts once you've had a chance to see both sites, and there's no reason we should ruin lunch for the rest of the dining room."

- - - - -

"We have company," Fletcher said, unlocking the car.

Mulder looked where Fletcher was staring. A blue Escort wagon was parked where the county truck had been, with two people sitting in the front seat. "West Caldwell Journal" was stenciled on one of the doors. Mulder sighed. <Could be worse. The National Tattler hasn't shown up yet. And there's no sign of the Stupendous Yappi.> "Are we going to lose them?"

"No. Get in the car. I'll be right back."

She walked over to the van and flashed her badge.

"You can't -" the driver, a young bearded man, began to protest.

"I'm not trying to prevent you from doing anything," she assured them, striving to sound pleasant. "I want to ask you a few questions."

"What?" the woman in the passenger seat asked. Her eyes were sharp and she smelled a story.

"Did your paper cover the scene the afternoon it was discovered?" They looked at one another, then nodded. "Do you still have all the pictures you took?"

"Sure," the man answered. "We keep the negs on file for a year."

"Could you have copies sent over to the local office? It would really help us out."

"And what do we get in return?" the woman asked.

"You get to follow us the rest of the day, and I won't run you in for hindering an investigation," Fletcher smiled.

"As if you could," the man said cockily.

"With one phone call," Fletcher assured him, still sounding pleasant. She held up her cell phone. "Would you like me to demonstrate?"

Neither the reporter nor her photographer wanted to test the tall FBI agent with the cold eyes. They shook their heads.

"Okay." Fletcher put the phone away. "How soon can I see the pictures?"

"It'll take about an hour to print up copies for you," the man said. It would take less time than that, but it was as close as he wanted to get to rebellion. "I'll call the office and have them start as soon as possible." <There's no way I'm leaving this car. Not now.>

"We'll have a messenger bring them over as soon as they're done," the woman added.

"The Bureau thanks you in advance for your cooperation," Fletcher replied. She kept it cordial, but she couldn't help that a little sarcasm came through.

Mulder was mulling over the significance of the throat-slashings and Y-incisions when Fletcher got back in the car. "What was that all about?" he asked.

"These guys take tons of photos, but only a few are used for the actual story. Remember how Algernon said he saw me at the crime scene? He might be in one of the photos they didn't use." She backed out of the driveway.

"What about the ones they _did_ use?"

"Shots of 'the death house', the cop cars, and the coroner's crew lifting a body bag into their station wagon. Pretty standard stuff, and no civilians in the background." She drove away, making sure that the car was following them.

-end-



<<Chapter 21>>

Kennedy, New Jersey Monday, December 7th, 10:45 AM

Fletcher drove in silence. <I am so sick of driving these 'nondescript four-door sedans' while I'm on a case. It's not like they _really_ blend into the background. You can tell we're law enforcement from the next county! Just _once_ I'd like to drive something with a little muscle, a little style. Shit, even that big-ass Suburban Tommy Lee Jones had in 'U.S. Marshals' would be a step in the right direction!>

Mulder sat quietly in the passenger seat, flipping through the files once again.

"Why the attempt at the autopsy 'slice and dice'?" he asked. "Do you think he's got some background in a pathology lab or coroner's office?"

"No. I think he's just read or seen too many murder mysteries. Ask any of the pathologists we have. Those cuts weren't done by a pro. Besides, after he made the incision, he stopped. He didn't complete the procedure."

"Why slit the throat, stab them _and_ start an autopsy?"

She shrugged, not wanting Mulder to know that she was in trouble. <I can't get a read on Algernon. I can't get in his head. Nothing's making sense. It's like he's deliberately trying to get us off-balance, send us chasing after several different schools of thought. Algernon's a clever bastard. And he's _really_ starting to piss me off!>

"Maybe the story will shed some light," Mulder suggested.

"I don't know...from what I remember, I don't think there was any stabbing in it."

The house was situated on a road that cut across a hill. It was more than just a physical elevation. The house and neighborhood were both a 'step up' from the last house. The houses were further apart, the street wider. As they pulled into the driveway, they could see a very picturesque view out the back. The view from the front of the house was a tree-covered hill.

"I didn't know New Jersey even _had_ any hills," Mulder commented as they got out of the car. <If there was snow on the ground, this would really be beautiful.>

"Maybe we're on the only one. I didn't even know they still had _trees_," she said, looking at the tall pines. She squinted in the sun, certain that she'd seem some sort of flash of light, or reflection. <Probably nothing.> She noticed the blue Escort had parked on the other side of the street. <As long as they keep their distance, we'll be just fine.>

They walked down the flagstone path leading to the front steps, Mulder two steps behind and to the left. The lawn still had a well-manicured look about it, even though the grass was fading to brown and the trees were barren of leaves. As they approached the house, Fletcher stopped. Mulder was looking at the surrounding area, so he nearly ran into her. "What?" he asked.

"Check it out," she said, barely nodding her head at the front door.

Mulder looked. He could feel his heart rate crank up. The front door was separated from the elements by a glass storm door. Taped to the glass was a piece of paper. A message was written on it in red block letters.

"He obviously doesn't fly much," Mulder said quietly. "His balls would set off the metal detector."

Fletcher stood incredibly still. "Think you can go get an evidence bag without getting our journalist friends excited?"

"Method acting is my life." Mulder almost sauntered back to the car, hands in his pockets. He would have whistled, but he couldn't think of a tune.

Fletcher turned her attention back to the note. It was only one line, but it didn't need to be longer.

"WHY? BECAUSE I CAN. ALGERNON"

- - - - -

The photographer aimed his camera through the open window. He'd framed the note and Fletcher in his telephoto lens.

"What is it, Brian?" the woman asked. "Can you see anything?"

"Something's up. There's a note taped to the door, but I can't make out the words."

"Then it's him," she said excitedly. "He's been here."

"Maybe. That lady fed doesn't look too happy, that's for sure. Damn, I wish I could see what that note says." He steadied his hand. "Grab my bag, would you? There's a lens in there that'll read street signs on the moon."

- - - - -

High on the hill behind the Escort, another lens was trained on Fletcher. The lens was attached to a hunting rifle. The present owner of the rifle wore a green uniform with "County Public Works" stitched in gold above the chest pocket.

"That's it," he whispered to himself. "Just stay right there. Don't move." His finger relaxed on the trigger, caressing it. "Watch the birdie, you freakin' alien. Say 'cheeeeeeeeeese...'"

At the same moment he squeezed the trigger, Fletcher suddenly turned her head and looked toward Mulder.

The crack from the single shot echoed down the hill. The photographer snapped the picture, his finger reflexively pressing the button as he flinched. His partner dove under the dashboard, trying to make herself as small as possible.

Mulder ducked down in the car at the sound of the shot, drawing his gun as he did. He immediately looked for Fletcher and froze when he saw her topple over in the bushes, her hand reaching up for her head. "Shit!" he swore, tumbling out of the car. Using the car as a shield, he quickly, but cautiously made his way toward the house.

- - - - -

"Margo, that fed - the woman - got shot!" the photographer barked, still aiming his camera and snapping pictures.

"Can you see where she got it?" Margo asked, still crouching down in the front seat.

"No, no, not yet. Call the office."

She reached for the car phone. "Should we see if she's okay first?"

"Call it in, then we'll check her out. Her partner's almost to her." He opened his door, slowly stepping out.

"Brian, where are you going?"

"I think it's safe. He would've shot more by now if he was going to." <Almost thirty years since 'Nam, and I still think like a grunt.>

- - - - -

Mulder crept closer to Fletcher, his eyes darting up to the wooded hill, then back to Fletcher. She hadn't moved, hadn't made a sound. <Damndamndamndamndamn.> Still unable to see her face, he touched her leg and squeezed it hard. He was rewarded with a loud moan.

"Fletcher? Fletcher, it's Mulder."

He pushed his way through the bushes. Fletcher was wedged between the porch and a bush. He got down on all fours and crawled in further. He bit back his own moan when he saw Fletcher's glasses laying near her head, one lens shattered.

"Fletcher? Fletcher, you're gonna be okay," he said, struggling to keep his voice calm. He took her hand and squeezed it, suddenly realizing her hand was covered in blood. <God, let her only be hit in the hand.> He knew instinctively that it wasn't. There wasn't enough blood on it.

"Can I help you?" said a voice from the porch.

"Who's there?" Mulder asked, his hand back on his gun.

"Brian Hedges. I'm the photographer. With the newspaper."

"Call the police. Tell them an officer's down."

"My partner already did." <Right after she called the office.> "How is she?"

"I can't see anything. I think she's unconscious."

Mulder gently reached his hand in further and touched Fletcher's face. He could feel the warm, sticky blood drench his hand. "Do you have a first aid kit?"

"I'll check."

Mulder heard him run off. <Bet he's got his camera with him,> he thought cynically. He crawled out onto the lawn where he had more room and took his coat off, then his shirt. He maneuvered his way back in and somehow managed to lay his coat over Fletcher and his shirt under her head. "Fucking bushes," he said angrily, snapping off as many branches as he could.

"I don't have a first aid kit," Brian said, falling to his knees by the bushes. "But I've got two blankets," he added, thrusting them through the branches.

"Thanks. We can at least prevent shock."

"Can you tell how bad it is?"

"No. Help me snap these branches, would you?" Hedges pulled a Swiss Army knife out of his vest and started cutting away at the shrubbery. In the distance, Mulder could hear a siren, then another siren. <It's about goddamn time.> He turned his attention back to Fletcher, his hand on her back. His only reassurance that she was still alive was the erratic breaths she was taking. "God damn it, Fletcher, don't you die on me!"

<Oh, God, what am I gonna tell Scully?>


ISU Forensics Labs Monday, 11:30 AM

<The Y-incisions were crude, but they're the only similarities besides the slashed throats. No incision on the little girl, but she also had the least amount of violence done to her, so maybe he couldn't bring himself to cut her open.> Scully took a sip of coffee. It was cold. She was used to it. <But there's no evidence of any kind of procedure _after_ he opened them up. Nothing's missing, nothing's been moved. If you open someone up, you're going to look around. So why didn't he...>

"Dana?"

"Yes?" Scully looked up from the autopsy photos, automatically rubbing her eyes. <Time for a break, anyway.>

Elly walked into their office, a folder in her right hand. "I found something interesting, but I want to know what you think first."

Scully took the folder and quickly read through the results. She was surprised with what she saw, so she re-read it.

"I don't get it. How did these chemicals get in the basement?"

"Wrong question," Elly said, secretly pleased she was ahead of her more experienced colleague. "Where would you _normally_ find them?"

Scully thought about it. "A septic tank, maybe?"

"Or a leach field, or drainage ditch."

"Or a sewer," Scully said, her eyes opening wide. "Where's Gabe?"

"In the main lab with Roy."

"We're supposed to meet at three, but I think we should tell Roy and Gabe about this now. They can pass it on to Mulder and Fletcher." Scully started for the door, with Elly hot on her heels.

"I thought they flew up to Jersey this morning."

"That's why cell phones are in the budget."

- - - - -

"The Fishbowl" was a glassed-in cubicle at the far end of the main lab. The lack of picture-hook-friendly wall space cut down on the decorating possibilities, but Gabe had never been big on that sort of thing. The closest he got was a framed photo on the corner of his old-style desk. It was a family portrait -- Gabe, his wife Beatrice, and their son Sam --taken at Sam's high school graduation. His wife had passed away five years before after a long battle with breast cancer, and Sam had lost his life in a boating accident two months after the picture was taken.

Gabe was seated at a desk at the far end of the lab, an unlit pipe dangling from his lip. Roy stood beside the desk, his arms crossed. They were in deep conversation when Scully and Elly burst in.

"No running in the lab," Gabe called out sternly. The floors were highly polished, and anyone could trip if they took a misstep. The two women automatically slowed down, forgetting their discovery for a moment.

Roy was not so safety-conscious. "Doctor Scully, Agent Klingler," he said, mindful of Gabe's title protocols. "Do you have something for us?"

Scully handed Gabe the lab results. "Elly found an anomaly in the labs. She thinks it's important, and I agree with her."

Gabe took the folder from her and scanned it, Roy looking over his shoulder.

"I don't want to send us down the wrong path..." Elly began.

"No, you're absolutely right, especially with no leach field or drainage ditch in the vicinity."

"What?" Roy asked.

Gabe was chewing on his pipe, wishing all "No Smoking" signs would vanish simultaneously. "Algernon has been spending time in the sewers, if I'm reading these two correctly."

"Sewers?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Gabe replied firmly.

Roy suddenly looked down at his waist. "Can I use your phone, Gabe? My pager went off."

"Sure," he said, starting to get up.

"No, no, it's okay. I don't need your chair." Roy checked the pager readout and dialed the number. After a moment he said, "This is Roy Tupper. I was paged to this..." He listened for a moment, his legs beginning to buckle. "What? When?... How bad?..." He reached for Gabe's chair. Gabe shot out of it and slid it over to him. Roy sank down into it. "What can you tell me?... What hospital?" He grabbed a pencil out of a coffee cup full of writing implements and started writing on Gabe's ever-present scratch pad.

Scully and Elly exchanged looks. Roy was clearly upset, agitated. Even Gabe looked concerned at Roy's response to the phone call.

"Got it. Could you connect me to my office? Thanks..." He paused, his stare feverish. Elly started to ask a question, but Gabe held up a hand for silence. Roy leaned forward as he started to speak again. "Janet, this is Roy. Put a call over to Daryl. I need a chopper ASAP, priority one...I'll be there in ten minutes and it had damned well be ready to go... Yes... Nothing for the press, not yet. We don't know enough... I'll call you when I've got more news..."

He hung up the phone, a hand over his mouth. Scully felt like she was intruding, but she was also curious. She looked to Gabe for guidance.

"Roy, what's wrong?" Gabe asked gently.

"One of the New York news radio stations just broadcast a report. One of _our_ agents was shot today, in New Jersey."

At the sound of 'New Jersey' Scully felt an icy chill down her spine. <Oh, God, please don't let it be Fletcher - or Mulder.> Her chest felt tight, like she couldn't breathe. It seemed as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Using all of her self-control, Scully froze her face and locked her legs.

"Who?" Scully said, surprised that she could even speak.

"I don't know. The report didn't say."

"Algernon?" Gabe queried.

<Algernon? Who's Algernon?> Scully thought.

"Yes," he snapped. He tore the page off the pad and bolted out of the chair, talking over his shoulder as he left the room. "I've got to get on the chopper. I'll call as soon as I know anything."

Elly noticed that Scully's face had grown pale. <Mulder's in New Jersey. She must be worried sick, even if the rumors about the two of them _aren't_ true.>

"Dana, there's a television set in the cafeteria. Let's see if we can find out anything from it."

"Good idea," she said, her mouth tight.

- - - - -

The rest of the department, and those outside of it as well, were crowded in the cafeteria, watching CNN. Word had spread fast and they'd all had the same idea as Elly. The room was hushed, no voices above a whisper. It was one of their own down, and not knowing any more information was making everyone in the room a little bit edgy.

"C'mon, tell us something we _don't_ know," one agent complained.

"What have you heard?" Scully asked an agent standing next to her.

"Only one shot, one agent. Somebody from the press was there. CNN's in setting up an interview with them."

<Please, oh, please, oh, please, let Fletcher be okay.> Scully silently prayed.


Cambridge County Hospital Monday, 12:30 PM

Mulder paced outside the trauma room. He hated being kept out, but he knew he would only get in the way. The paramedics had been kind enough to let him ride in the ambulance, but only after he promised to not interfere. Over and over they tried to reassure him that it looked worse than it was. <I won't believe it until Fletcher herself tells me so.>

Dave McHugh left Bill Crocker huddled with the police officers and detectives. He handed Mulder a bag containing his bloodstained shirt and coat.

"Any word?" he asked gently.

"No."

"I found her glasses. I thought you might want them," he said, handing Mulder the glasses, which had been wrapped in a handkerchief.

"Thanks."

McHugh nodded towards the reporters. "Bill wants to know if you can talk to them soon."

"Not until I know how Fletcher is," Mulder said curtly. "Not 'til I know she's all right."

<And I've got to call Scully. She needs to hear it from me.>

The younger agent wanted to object, but knew it was not his place. "Take my coat, Mulder. I insist."

Dave took off his Navy blue FBI windbreaker and handed it to Mulder. Mulder nodded his thanks and put in on over his t-shirt. The door to the trauma room opened, and their heads snapped around. A doctor in scrubs wearing a plastic surgical gown speckled with blood stood in the doorway.

"Agent Mulder?"


Quantico Monday, 12:32PM

Elly Klingler was a lab rat, and proud of it. Ever since her first forensics class, she firmly believed you solved more cases with tweezers and test tubes than you did with guns and badges. She had minimal experience in the field, and had never lost a friend to a line-of-duty shooting, let alone lost a partner. The thought that Mulder or Buchanan might be hurt, or worse, ate at her like acid. She looked over at Scully, whose eyes remained fixed on the television. She appeared to be totally in control. <She is _so_ fucking cool,> Elly thought, admiring her new friend's stoicism.

Other people were throwing sidelong glances at Scully, but not to admire her courage. They were searching for any kind of break in her legendary 'Ice Queen' facade. Word had spread that Scully's former partner was one of the agents at the shooting, and if everyone in the room hadn't heard the rumors about them, the ones who _didn't_ know were quickly enlightened. Scully's mere presence in the cafeteria, away from her precious cutting tools, _had_ to prove she and Mulder were an item!

In any other situation, Scully would have smiled at the whispers. <If they only knew,> she thought. <They all think it's just Mulder I'm worried about. I wonder how they'd react if they knew Mulder wasn't the partner I'm sleeping with.>

CNN had a live shot set up outside Cambridge County Hospital's Emergency Room entrance. A bearded man with "Brian Hedges - Photographer, West Caldwell Journal" displayed underneath him was talking into the camera, but no one could hear what was said. An agent stood on a chair and turned the volume up on the TV.

"I understand we've got some still photographs from the scene," an off-camera voice, presumably in Atlanta, said. "Brian, could you tell us about them as we show them?"

Scully shifted from one foot to the other. <I'm not so sure I want to see these. Whether it's Fletcher or Mulder, I don't want to find out in a roomful of people I barely know.>

"I've got work to do," Scully said to Elly, her voice devoid of any emotion. "I'll keep the radio on in the office for any news."

Without even a last look at the TV, Scully turned and left the room.

-end-


<<Chapter 22>>

Cambridge County Hospital Monday, December 7th, 1:00 PM

Mulder felt like he was floating as he followed the doctor through the trauma center. He was afraid to look, afraid of how bad Fletcher could be. And he was afraid of what he was going to have to tell Scully. <How do I tell her that I wasn't next to Fletcher, that I wasn't covering her ass? That I let my partner get shot?>

The doctor led him into a private room and slid back the flimsy white curtain. Mulder took a deep breath. Fletcher was lying on a gurney, several pillows propping her up. She was dressed in a blue paper gown, and a large, white bandage loosely covered the right side of her head. It started from just above and behind her ear, to just above her right eye. They hadn't done a very good job of cleaning her up for there was still some blood on her face, shoulder and chest. Her hair around the bandages, what was left of it, was sticking out in every direction. The haircut was definitely done out of necessity.

Her left eye popped open and she raised her left hand, encased in a splint up to the middle of her forearm. There was an I.V. set up in her other arm.

"Hey, Spooky," she croaked.

Even on the worst of occasions, Mulder could joke. "Who does your hair?"

"Little girl I go to. Name's Lizzie Borden." Fletcher's mouth twisted in a painful smile. "I hope it looks better than I feel."

"Christ, you're a sight," he blurted.

"That's how I feel."

He quickly stepped to her side and took her right hand. Once closer to her, he saw that her right eye was swollen shut. There were dozens of tiny little cuts and scratches on her face from falling into the bushes. Mulder had more than just a few of them himself on his face, arms and hands.

"I thought you were dead." His voice almost cracked.

"It takes more than a measly little Terran bullet to stop _this_ extraterrestrial," she replied, her voice shaky through her false bravado.

"What'd the doctors say?"

"That I'm really lucky. A millimeter more and it would've got me good." She grimaced once. "What happened?"

"You don't remember?"

"No. I was looking at the note and - Damn! The note! Did somebody bag it?" She started to sit up, wincing with the effort.

"Dave McHugh took care of it." He waved her back down. "He stayed on the scene after we left."

Fletcher suddenly realized she didn't know if Mulder had been hit or not. She cocked her head and looked at him. "Are _you_ okay?" she asked worriedly.

"Just a few scratches from the bushes," he reassured her.

"Good, good." She sank back against the pillows, relieved. "So tell me, what happened?"

"I was getting the evidence bag and some gloves out of the car when I heard the shot. I looked up and saw you fall over into the bushes."

"The hill across the street...is that where the shot came from?" she asked, both eyes now shut, her hand tightly squeezing Mulder's.

<Why aren't they giving her anything for the pain? What's the matter with these doctors?> "Yes. How did you know?" he asked.

"I thought I saw something when we got out of the car. A reflection or something. Some flash of light."

"McHugh's got a team checking the hillside. No sign of shell casings so far, but there's plenty of places for one of those little buggers to hide. Piles of leaves, fallen trees, gopher holes..."

"He could have picked up his brass, too," Fletcher ventured.

Mulder nodded. "He set us up."

"Yup. Question is, how did he know we'd be there?"

Her grip on Mulder's hand eased and she opened her eyes.

"Fletcher, what else did the doctors say?" he asked, concerned.

"I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. I was a little distracted." She let go of Mulder's hand and raised her hand to her bandaged temple.

His expression hardened. "Bullshit. They must've told you _something_."

She didn't look at him. "I sprained my wrist when I fell."

"And?"

"And that's it. The bullet just grazed me. I'm just waiting for the plastic surgeon to come down and put in the stitches." She took a peek and saw that his expression hadn't changed. "And I've got a little concussion. Nothing else."

"I can always get a copy of your chart and have Scully tell me what it says," he warned her, a tiny smile softening the threat.

"You would, wouldn't you?" she groaned.

<Shit! I never called Scully,> Mulder suddenly remembered. <I wonder if she knows anything? I'm sure someone's said something. Word travels fast through that place. She must be worried sick.>

"What's wrong, Mulder?" Fletcher asked, seeing the look of distress pass across his face.

"I don't think anyone's called Scully."

"Why would they?"

"Uh, Fletcher, I don't know how to tell you this, but you - we - made the news. Those reporters following us..."

"What about them?" she asked, her one 'good' eye growing dark.

"Dave McHugh told me they were interviewed on CNN. The press has been all over this story. Between the murders and you getting shot..."

<Oh fuck oh shit oh damn damn _damn_!> "Where's my cell phone? I've got to call her!"


Quantico Monday, 1:10 PM

Scully stared at the open folders on her desk, but didn't see anything. The photos, the blood, the desecration of human beings that had loved and been loved... None of it touched her. Neither did the toneless text in the reports that came with the pictures. Years of training and experience had taught her to shield herself against the horrors that were presented to her on autopsy tables, in freezers, at crime scenes. Not feeling anything about the carnage in front of her was nothing new. At least, any other day it was nothing new. On those days she would seal off her feelings and look for the clues that were there in the violated bodies, the pleading faces, the empty eyes.

Now there was nothing. Nothing. No clues. No answers. No solutions. Just an inexorable sense of time moving much too slowly, and silence being far too loud. She'd always counted on her willpower, her ability to concentrate, to get her through the worst of times. Today, it was failing her, and if she hadn't been so worried about Fletcher and Mulder, she would've been angry with herself.

<Why hasn't one of them called? I know I heard Roy say _one_ of our agents had been shot. Not _both_ of them. It's got to be a madhouse, but there had to be _one_ moment where they could be alone, could get away, could get to a phone. Don't they know how worried I'd be? How worried I _am_?> She flipped through the file, still not seeing anything. <What if it's Fletcher? Oh, God, I don't know what I'd do if I lost her.> She put her hand to her mouth. <If it's her, I'll never forgive myself for not... Why didn't I get up with her this morning?...>

"Dana?"

Scully looked up from her desk to see Elly standing in the doorway. <Easy. It could be _good_ news...> "Yes?"

"Mulder's okay. It was just on CNN."

<Too ambiguous, Elly. Was Mulder shot and he's okay, or is Mulder okay because it was _Fletcher_ that was shot?> "What they'd say?"

"Nothing official -- they don't even have names. But they _did_ have a photo from the scene. Mulder was helping the paramedics carry Fletcher to the ambulance. He wasn't the one that was shot. It was Fletcher." Elly watched her new friend. <Funny. She doesn't look very relieved. If anything, she's finally starting to look a little worried.>

"Did they say how she is?" Scully asked, trying to sound casual even though inside she was shaking.

"Nothing's been released, but an eyewitness said it was a head shot."

<Oh, God, no!> Scully blinked once, twice. Her fingers clutched her pencil so hard she thought she'd snap it in half. Her stomach lurched, a wave of nausea threatening to overtake her. <Oh, Fletcher...>

"Roy said he'd call as soon as he got there," Elly added.

"Let me know if you hear anything else," Scully said, amazed at how calm she sounded.

"I will." She took a closer look at Scully. "Can I get you anything, Dana? You look awfully pale."

"I'm fine," Scully said, maybe a beat too quickly. "Thanks."

As soon as Elly left the room, Scully's face crumpled in anguish. She struggled for a moment to regain her composure. <I've got to get out of here. I can't let anyone see me like this.> She left the room at a fast trot and headed for the ladies' room, the only place she could be assured of any privacy. She locked herself in an empty stall and put her head in her hands. <A head shot? Could the news be any worse? Is she even _alive_? Is _that_ why Mulder hasn't called me?>

She stayed in the bathroom for twenty minutes, sobbing silently. Back in the office, Scully's cell phone rang and rang.


Cambridge County Hospital Monday, 1:30 PM

"Agent McHugh!"

McHugh turned towards the authoritative voice. <Oh, shit. The Eagle has landed.> He felt himself coming to attention, and wished he had someplace to stash the can of Dr. Pepper he'd just gotten from the vending machine.

Roy Tupper had made it through the cordon of press surrounding the building, and past the police who stood guard at the entrance as if the shooter would come through the doors any moment and start blasting. Two nurses were following him hectically, insisting he couldn't just barge into a hospital area, no matter _what_ his badge said. He ignored them with no trouble at all.

"Yessir?" McHugh didn't salute, but only because he told himself not to.

"Where are Mulder and Buchanan?"

"In there," he answered, gesturing with his head toward the Trauma area. "Agent Mulder just went in to see Agent Buchanan about half an hour ago."

Roy's eyes went to the swinging double doors. "How is she?"

"Lucky to be alive, from what the doctors have said."

Tupper nodded. You couldn't see it through his blue wool overcoat, but his shoulders relaxed momentarily. "Is Crocker handling the press?"

"Yes, but he's not telling them much. He's confirmed the shooting, but that was already public knowledge. He's holding back details, though, including Fletcher's name. He wanted to talk to you first."

"Get him for me. I'll meet with him after I speak to Fletcher and Mulder."

"Yessir." McHugh trotted off, glad to have something to do. The waiting had been getting to him, too.

Roy nodded his thanks, then went into Trauma. Another set of nurses tried to stop him, and met with the same results their predecessors had. One of them was good enough to direct him to Fletcher's room. When he got to the door, he had to give himself a second. <Come on. McHugh said she was all right. No, he didn't. He said Fletcher was lucky to be alive. Shit, Tupper, you're not going to find out _anything_ standing out here in the hall.> He squared his shoulders and knocked on the door.

"Fletcher, it's Roy," he called out, sticking his head into the room.

Fletcher disconnected her cell phone. She was baffled that Scully hadn't answered. "C'mon in, Roy. Join the party." She put the phone down and gave Mulder a look that said <Keep trying.> He nodded imperceptibly.

"I thought the party wasn't for another couple of weeks," Roy said, trying not to show how worried he was. He walked over to her bed and took her hand. "Hell of a start you're getting as second whip."

"That which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," she returned, trying to smile.

"Pump iron. It's safer." Roy's smile was thin. The banter was not doing much to relieve his anxiety. "How are you? Straight up."

"Straight up, I'm fine. Just some stitches, a little concussion and a sprained wrist. It looks a lot worse than it is. Really."

"I'll want to speak to the doctor."

<Of course you do.> It was a battle not to sigh. "He'll be back."

"I'll leave you two alone," Mulder said casually, heading for the door.

"Don't go far, Mulder. I need to talk with you, as well."

"I'm just going to find a cup of coffee." <And a quiet place to make a phone call.>


Quantico Monday, 1:40 PM

Scully's face was still damp as she tried to focus on her work. The moisture wasn't from tears -- not completely, anyway. When she was finally able to pull herself together, she'd splashed cold water on her face and dried it with paper towels. They were about as absorbent as used sandpaper, felt about the same, and it took a lot to do a little job. She thought about the towels in Fletcher's bathroom. They were bright white, thick terrycloth, and so nice to wrap yourself in after a long hot shower. <Don't go there,> she ordered herself. <You'll start all over again...>

When her cell phone rang, she jumped. She took a deep breath and answered it as calmly as she could. "Scully."

"It's me," Mulder said.

Scully's heart pounded in her chest. "How is she?" she asked, bracing herself for the worst. <I can do this... no, I can't... I don't want to end up burying...>

"Okay. It looks a lot worse than it is," he said, looking up at the TV and seeing the photographs. The doctor's lounge was deserted.

"You're not lying to me, are you, Mulder?"

"Scout's Honor. She's talking to Roy right now."

<Thank you, God,> Scully thought, tears springing to her eyes. "What does the doctor say?"

"I just talked to him. Fletcher's got to stay overnight. She's got a concussion, and she shouldn't go far from a bottle of Advil for a couple of days." The smell of scorched coffee wafted through the room. The pot was almost empty. Mulder had turned it off out of habit. <Better make a fresh pot. Got to back up my exit line...>

"Someone here said it was a head shot."

"It was. The bullet grazed the side of her head, by her temple. Took out a chunk of tissue, from what the docs say." His voice dropped. "She was lucky, Scully. Another millimeter..."

"Mulder..."

He stopped, wincing. "Too much information. Sorry."

"Is she really okay?" Her voice was incredibly small.

"Full of piss and vinegar, as usual," he assured her. "I was with her not five minutes ago. She even tried calling you herself, but she didn't get an answer."

<A watched phone never rings, but if you leave it behind when you go off to fall apart...> "Tell her I love her, Mulder."

"You can tell her yourself in a few minutes, when I get Roy out of the room."

<I'd rather tell her with a dozen roses and a hug.> "Are you coming back today?"

"No. I'll stay here until Fletcher's released."

"Thanks. You know I'd be there... I'd fly up there if I could..."

"She knows that, Scully." He heard her choke back a sob. "She's fine, Scully. Don't worry." He knew his words weren't offering her much comfort. "Is there anyone you can call?"

"Ummmmm... Yes, I should call Marva and Karrin, let them know," she said, completely missing the meaning of Mulder's question. "Maybe call her Reserve commander. I don't know about notifying anyone from her family. I guess the Bureau can handle that..."

"Scully?" Mulder's voice was gentle.

"Yes?" <I'm babbling. I know. I'm happy. She's alive!>

"I'm sorry I didn't call sooner. It just got so crazy, and I didn't know how Fletcher was..."

"It's okay, Mulder." She sniffed. "Just bring her home to me."

"That I can do."

-end-


<<Chapter 23>>

Doctor's Lounge, Cambridge County Hospital Monday, December 7th, 4:30 PM

"My kingdom for a microbrew," Mulder said to no one as he fired the empty Styrofoam cup into the wastebasket. That had been either his fifth or sixth cup, and his stomach was telling him to cut it the fuck out. He kept the shades drawn, doing his best to avoid the press that had managed to slip past the assortment of law enforcement officers prowling the corridors. He'd noticed that Roy had ordered a guard posted by the Trauma room, but wasn't sure if it was to keep the press out or for Fletcher's protection.

Roy had been a whirlwind -- meeting with the other officers, on the phone with the Bureau, setting up a press conference. Mulder had steered clear of it. There were only two things he really wanted to do - be with Fletcher or find Algernon - and he couldn't do either. The doctors wouldn't let him see Fletcher <Said she needed more tests. Right.> and Roy wouldn't let him work the crime scene.

He looked up when the door swung open. Roy strode into the room, expression hard as a rock. <Why do I feel like he's here to bust my balls?> Mulder's insides started to churn again.

"How's Fletcher?" he asked.

"They're moving her up to her room in a few minutes, if you want to go with her."

"I do," he said, getting up, eager to be doing _something_.

Roy held up a hand. "Wait a minute, Mulder."

"What?"

"We need to talk about what happened. I want to know how it went down."

"Can't it wait?" Mulder snapped.

"Better to get it over with now, while it's still fresh in your mind," Roy said gently.

<He's right, he's right.> "I don't _know_ what happened exactly," Mulder began, rubbing his palms on his thighs. "We'd just arrived. Fletcher spotted the note on the door and told me to get an evidence bag."

"Did you see anything else, hear anything?"

"No. Fletcher told me a little while ago that she thought she saw some sort of reflection on the hill when we first got out of the car. I didn't... or if I _did_ see it, I don't remember."

"What happened next?"

"I was in the car when I heard the shot," Mulder continued in his usual monotone. "I saw Fletcher grab her head and fall off the front steps and down into the bushes. I drew my weapon and went to check her out. No more shots were fired and I didn't see anyone else except the reporter and the photographer parked on the street."

"Did you see the note?"

"'Why? Because I can. Algernon,'" he said, his voice even flatter. "Red ink, block letters, just like the last one."

"Can you think of anything else?" Roy looked off in the far corner of the room. <I hate this part.> "Any way to have prevented it?"

Mulder didn't hesitate. "No. I don't know how he knew we were even _in town_, let alone which crime scene we'd be at."

"We've got a leak," Roy thought aloud.

"But how did he find out from the press?"

"I don't know. Crocker's trying to get those two reporters alone so he can question them. They'll scream about the right to free press, and how all sources are confidential, et cetera et cetera. The usual bullshit." Roy cleared his throat. "Mulder, make yourself available around five forty-five."

"Why?"

"We're having a press conference here, out near the main entrance. Fox and MSNBC have followed CNN's lead, so they'll be here along with the local crowd. You won't have to say anything," he added quickly. "I just want us to present a united front."

Mulder nodded and stood up. "I'm going to go see Fletcher."


Quantico Monday, 5:30 PM

"Why does he cut 'em open if he doesn't want to look around?" Elly stared at the husband's autopsy photo, taking another sip from her water bottle. Her expression lay somewhere between 'annoyed' and 'perplexed'.

"My thoughts exactly." Knowing that Fletcher was okay <Well, not okay, but not dead either>, Scully had thrown herself back into her work. <If I don't work, I'll go crazy. I've got to stop thinking about Fletcher. But it's so hard. It's so hard keeping it all inside.>

Gabe had postponed their three o'clock meeting and rescheduled it for early Tuesday morning. Elly, thankfully, had kept busy with her own work, and was too locked into the aborted-amateur-autopsy question to pursue anything else at the moment. <She's got a sharp eye,> Scully thought. <It wouldn't take her long to see through me. I don't really feel like having to explain anything to anyone.>

Gabe poked his head into the office. "I don't know if any of you are interested, but Roy's holding a press conference in fifteen minutes. I heard CNN will be carrying it."

"Thanks, Gabe. We'll be right there to watch," Elly replied.

<I suppose I'd better go. My absence would cause more talk than my presence,> Scully thought as she put the pictures back in the folder. <I don't know why I'm so suddenly worried about what _anyone_ else thinks.>

Elly waited by the door. "C'mon, Dana. I want to get a table near the band."

- - - - -

Most of the chairs in the cafeteria had been moved near the television. The front rows were filled, so Scully and Elly grabbed two seats by the vending machines. Gabe sat next to them, still chewing his unlit pipe. Scully idly wondered how many pipe stems he chewed through in a year. They looked up at the TV, which had been tuned to CNN all afternoon.

There were only a few microphones set up at the makeshift podium. Roy stepped up and a few cameras flashed. Mulder hovered in the background, trying to hide behind Dave and Bill. A state trooper standing beside Mulder glared at him and his inability to stop fidgeting.

Scully watched Mulder carefully. Knowing him as well as she did, she could tell by body language alone if he'd been lying about Fletcher's condition.

"I have a short announcement," Roy started, his voice rough. He licked his lips nervously. <Head of the department only a week and my second whip gets shot. Happy fucking holidays.> He cleared his throat. "At approximately ten fifty this morning, SAC Fletcher Buchanan of the FBI's Investigative Support Unit in Quantico was shot and wounded by person or persons unknown at..." He glanced down at his notes. "...575 Sanibel Lane, in the township of Kennedy. She was assisting the New Jersey State Police and local law enforcement in their investigation of a multiple homicide. Agent Buchanan was treated here at the Cambridge County Hospital for a minor gunshot wound to the head."

<How minor is it? How minor can _any_ gunshot wound to the head be?> Scully worried. She nervously raised one hand from her folded arms and brought it to her mouth. Beneath her fingers, she chewed her lip. <I know I'd feel a lot better if Fletcher were out there behind the podium with Mulder.>

Roy cleared his throat again. <Should have had them put a glass of water on the podium. Then again, I'm not going to stay up here for hours like a performing seal.> "Although she suffered a concussion and minor abrasions to the face, her condition is good. Her partner, Agent Fox Mulder, was uninjured. We appreciate the quick response by Kennedy Township EMS and state police officers, and the quality care provided by the staff here at Cambridge County. Both were instrumental in Agent Buchanan's present condition being as good as it is."

Roy looked off to his side, his head cocked for a question that couldn't be heard over the broadcast.

"Mulder. M-U-L-D-E-R." He cupped his ear, listened, then replied, "SAC. Special Agent in Charge." He listened again. "Buchanan. B-U-C-H-A-N-A-N."

"Barry Pearson, Daily News. Is this investigation linked to the multiple murder on Columbus Day in Blenheim, or the slaughter of two people in Townsend on Labor Day Weekend?"

"No comment." <He even _talks_ like a tabloid.>

"Margo Joseph, West Caldwell Journal. Was a note found at the scene?"

"No comment." <Damn. We don't want that released yet.>

"Another question, if I may, Mr. Tupper," she said before anyone else could ask their own question. "Who is Algernon?"

"No comment." Roy felt like his head was in a vise.

"Will you be answering _any_ of our questions?" she persisted.

"It is not the habit of our office to release any information that could jeopardize an ongoing investigation. That's all we have at this time. Thank you very much."

Ignoring the shouts of the reporters, he turned and headed back into the hospital, surrounded by his agents and other police officers and state troopers.

"Well, _that_ was enlightening," Elly said sarcastically. "I feel _so_ much better now."

"They can't give out _all_ the details," Gabe pointed out. "Algernon could have cable, too."

Scully got up and turned to the vending machines, searching her pockets for quarters. <I've got all the details _I_ need.>


Cambridge County Hospital Monday, 5:52 PM

Once inside, Roy grabbed hold of Mulder's upper arm. "We've got to meet," he whispered. "They know about Algernon."

Mulder nodded. "We should include Fletcher."

"Only if she's up to it."

"I don't want to face her if we _don't_ include her."

After a quick look over his shoulder, Roy nodded his assent. "Get Bill and Dave and meet me up in Fletcher's room."

"What about the locals?"

"Not now. I'll meet with them tomorrow."

- - - - -

Fletcher was bored and she had a pounding headache. The last place she wanted to be was in a hospital bed. <They won't even bring me my goddamned laptop. This sucks. How can I get any work done?> She picked up the remote and turned on the TV, flipping through the channels until she found ESPN. Chris Myers was talking to someone about the Yankees and their recent World Series victory. <No way. I'm not watching that. The Yankees.> She cringed. The Yankees were her least favorite team in her least favorite sport. She continued to channel surf. <I don't want to be here. I won't stay here. Not tonight. There's only one place I'm sleeping tonight, and it ain't here. I belong home in my own bed, with Scully next to me.>

Roy pushed the door open. "Feel up to some visitors, Fletcher?"

"As long as they're entertaining. I am _so_ bored. Even the home shopping networks are beginning to look good." She sat up, trying not to wince.

<And you're in a lot of pain, too. I can tell. You're not doing a very good job of hiding it.> He reconsidered. <Maybe this isn't such a good idea. She's supposed to be resting.>

"What's up, Roy? Something's bothering you."

"Mulder will be here in a few minutes. He's bringing Dave and Bill with him." He paused. "That reporter, the one at the scene..."

"What about her?"

"She was at the press conference. She asked me about Algernon."

Her face fell. "Shit. They must've seen the note on the door."

"And I'm sure they have a photograph of it, too, as well as other photographs."

"Meaning?"

"The only shots they showed on CNN were, uh, very 'ungraphic', considering the circumstances."

"I'm not following you, Roy."

"I had the photographer, Brian Hedges, checked out. Apparently he's a stringer for the New York tabloids. Be prepared to see your bloodied body displayed all over the place tomorrow."

"Fuck. He'll be selling his shots of the note, too."

"Won't be long," he agreed. "Plus I wouldn't bet against the reporter selling the story. This could get her out of small-town newspapers and into the big time."

"Goody for her." Fletcher flopped back down. "Jesus. No news _is_ good news."

Mulder appeared, Bill and Dave on his heels. The meeting could now begin in earnest.


Baltimore, MD Monday, 6:25 PM

Maggie Scully turned on the small color TV that sat on the kitchen counter. Her grandsons had given it to her last Christmas. It was cable-ready, though she didn't have cable in the kitchen. Still, it made for good company as she prepared her dinner. <A glass of wine would really taste good,> she thought, stopping to take out the bottle of chablis she kept in the fridge. She didn't really pay attention to the news until she heard "FBI" and "shooting" used in the same sentence. She turned the volume up as she poured herself a glass of wine.

The local NBC affiliate was showing a clip from MSNBC's coverage of some kind of press conference. She looked closer as she sipped her wine. <That looks like Fox in the background.> She automatically looked for Dana, but didn't see her. Her ears pricked up. <Wait a minute. Did that man say 'Buchanan'? Isn't that...>

The scene switched to the studio, where a man with perfect hair smiled reassuringly into the camera. "No further information on Agent Buchanan's injuries was released. It was said to be a minor gunshot wound to the head. New Jersey officials refuse to confirm or deny that the FBI agent was there to investigate a possible serial killer." He paused then began to give details on the latest story from Congress.

<It _was_ Dana's...'friend'. I should call Dana, see how she is.> She picked up her phone and dialed her daughter's apartment. After four rings, the answering machine clicked on.

"Dana, it's Mom. I just saw the news. The FBI agent who was wounded, the one that was shot, is that... is she your... friend? Call me, honey. I'm at home."


Cambridge County Hospital Monday, 7:35 PM

"I gotta get out here. I'm fine. I don't need to stay here. We both know where I need to be tonight."

"No doctor is going to release you," Mulder objected.

"Then I'll check out AMA."

"And how will you get home? I'm sure Roy won't approve of it, and without Roy, no chopper."

"Get me my cell phone. I'll get a seat on one of the Newark to DC shuttles."

"And then? How will you get home from the airport?"

"I'll rent a car and drive myself. Jesus, Mulder, a little _positive_ reinforcement would be nice right about now!"

Mulder knew Fletcher would do it. She was an even worse patient than he was. <She'll go ahead whether I help her or not.> "If you can get a doctor to release you, I'll talk to Roy."

- - - - -

Half an hour later, Fletcher was signing the papers that she was checking out against medical advice. Mulder had managed to talk Roy into having the chopper return them to Quantico. He would only agree if Mulder saw to it that Fletcher got home safely and if she promised to take a few days off. Fletcher wasn't happy about it, but she also knew it was the only way she'd get home.

"Now, where are my clothes?" she asked Mulder, getting out of the bed. <I can't wait to get out of this damn hospital gown.>

He found the paper sack that contained them. "Dave's making sure our bags will be on the chopper."

"Good." <We should keep an eye on Dave. We can always use some fresh blood in the department, and he's done a good job here.>

Fletcher pulled her clothes out of the bag. Her pants were in decent shape, but her jacket and shirt had been cut off of her. She held what was left of her tan corduroy blazer up in front of her, amazed that all the blood on it was hers. <So much for _this_ jacket. Shit. I didn't realize I bled that much. No wonder everyone was worried.> "Mulder, I need a favor."

"What?"

"I need you to use your boyish good looks and charm to get a nurse to give you a scrub shirt for me."

He grinned. "Consider it done." He left the room in search of a nurse. <I'm surprised Fletcher doesn't try to charm a nurse or two herself.> He went off in search of the cute brunette that had been in Fletcher's room several times. <Now what was her name?>

As soon as Mulder was gone, Fletcher sat back down. Her headache was worse and she felt dizzy. <Damn. I thought I was in better shape. Maybe this isn't a good idea. Maybe I should stay. No, I'll get better faster in my own bed.>


Fletcher's House Monday, 7:45 PM

Scully opened the liquor cabinet and poured herself a double scotch. <What a horrible day. I wish I could go to New Jersey, make sure Fletcher's okay.> She opened the refrigerator to see if there was anything she could pick at. <I'm not really hungry, but I never ate any lunch and breakfast was only toast and coffee.> Fletcher's phone rang and she waited for the answering machine to pick it up. She listened to see who was calling.

"Fletcher, Dana, it's Karrin. I just saw the news. I'm home right now. Dana, the number is..."

Scully picked up the phone. "I'm here."

"Dana, what happened? How's Fletcher?"

"It's not serious. Mulder called me. Apparently the bullet only grazed her temple."

"Goddess bless," Karrin sighed, echoing the bumper sticker on her Saab. "Is she home?"

"No, they're keeping her overnight. She's got a concussion, too."

"How are _you_?"

"I've been better," Scully said, surprised that tears filled her eyes again. She wiped the corner of her eye. "I was really worried. The news was so sporadic, so vague. For several hours, all I knew was that she'd been shot in the head."

She choked back a sob. She was relieved to finally be able to talk to someone about what _she'd_ gone through, what she'd been holding back for hours.

"How awful for you," Karrin said sympathetically. "Do you want us to come over? Marva should be home soon."

"No, I think I'll be okay. I'm just waiting for Mulder or Fletcher to call me."

"She'll be fine, Dana. You don't know how tough Fletcher is."

"I'm beginning to find out," she said, finally smiling for the first time in hours.

"I _was_ going to call you to see if you wanted to go shopping Sunday. I suppose that's out of the question now."

The change-of-subject caught Scully off guard. "It depends on how Fletcher is feeling."

"I've still got some shopping to do for Marva. Have you finished shopping for Fletcher?"

"I haven't even started," she said with a heavy sigh. "I've only shopped for my family so far."

"Just think about it. You can call me Saturday and let me know. Let me give you my numbers."

A few minutes later, with her cell phone ringing, Scully finished her call with Karrin. She reached into her coat pocket for her cellular. <Please let it be Fletcher.>

"Scully."

"Dana? It's Mom. I tried you at home, but you weren't taking your calls."

"I'm not home, Mom. I'm at Fletcher's house."

"Oh." Maggie was momentarily detracted from the reason of her call by Scully's words. "I saw the news, Dana. Was it..."

"Yes, it was Fletcher."

"Is she okay?"

"Yes, she'll be fine. I'm waiting for her call now."

<She sounds so cold, so detached,> Maggie thought. <Don't shut me out, Dana. I'm your mother. If Fletcher is as important to you as you say she is, you've got to be upset.>

"And you?"

"What about me?" Scully asked, almost suspicious.

"How are you?"

"I'm fine." <I'm worried about Fletcher,> she wanted to scream. <I thought I'd lost her for good. Is that what you want to hear?>

"You must've been worried."

"I was." <Oh, Mom, I wish you could understand how scared I was. I wish I could tell you how the thought of losing Fletcher terrified me so.>

<She's not going to say anything,> Maggie thought, hurt. <She doesn't trust me to understand. She still thinks I'm judging her.>

"Well, give her my best. Call me later, honey, and give me an update."

"I will, Mom." She softened her tone. "Thanks for calling. I love you."

On the other end of the line, Maggie smiled. "I love you, too, honey."

Scully set her phone down and picked up her drink.


Monday, 10:15 PM

Scully awoke with a start, certain that someone had just entered the house. She was on the couch, the TV still tuned to CNN. She quickly sat up, trying to remember where she set her gun down.

"Scully?"

<I don't think I've ever been so relieved to hear that voice,> she thought, sitting up. Mulder came in a moment later. His gray dress pants looked incongruous with the plain white t-shirt and the FBI windbreaker he'd obviously borrowed.

"Mulder, what are you doing here? I thought you were staying in New Jersey."

"I was, but I have something that I think you'll want to see."

"Mulder, I'm tired and this hasn't been a good day," she sighed, not wanting to play any guessing games with him.

"Does that mean you want me to go back?" Fletcher asked, stepping into the room from behind Mulder. She had a blue scrub shirt on over her slacks and she looked a fright. Mulder's trenchcoat was draped over her like a cloak. "Hey, Red." She held her arms out for Scully, wanting nothing more than to hold her for as long as it took.

"Fletcher!" Scully jumped up from the couch and practically flew into Fletcher's arms. She tried not to hug Fletcher too hard, but she couldn't help herself. She kept remembering how she'd felt earlier in the day, when she thought that she'd never hold her again.

"I am so glad to see you," she said into Fletcher's chest. "I was afraid... I thought you'd..."

"Shh, shh, shh. I'm okay."

"What are you doing here?" Scully leaned back, her hand reaching for the bandage on Fletcher's face. "I thought you were supposed to stay overnight."

"I checked myself out."

Scully's eyes went wide. <Oh shit,> Mulder thought. <I know that look. Time to make myself scarce before the bomb goes off.>

"I'm gonna get something to eat," he said as he left the room. Scully waited until he was gone before she spoke. Her tone was not approving.

"You checked yourself out? AMA?"

"I'm fine. I can get better a whole lot faster if I'm home, here with you. There was no way I was going to stay, anyway. Hospital food is bad for your health. "

"I swear, Fletcher..." It took almost a full minute of Scully searching Fletcher's eyes before she could speak again. <And you can be sure that I'll check your medical records tomorrow.> "If I wasn't so happy to see you, I'd be furious with you," she said, hugging her close once again. "I'm surprised they let you come home. You _really_ look like Frankenstein now!"

"Flatterer," Fletcher chuckled. "There _was_ some concern expressed, but I signed all the forms they could find. I still had to promise Roy that I'd take a few days off." Fletcher was still irked about that last part. <Algernon's re-writing the term 'escalate'.>

"And you should."

"Does that mean you'll stay home and play doctor with me?" Fletcher said, trying to leer.

"Now I _know_ you're okay," Scully said, gently swatting Fletcher on the ass.

- - - - -

"So, what exactly did the doctor say?" she asked Fletcher, as she put on her pajamas.

"Just a minor sprain and a mild concussion." Fletcher sat on the bed, enjoying the feel of having brushed teeth. Scully had helped her out of her clothes and into a pair of flannel pajamas.

"And the bullet wound?"

"Some stitches. I don't know how many."

"Did you bring your medical records with you?"

"They said they'd send them down to Quantico tomorrow," Fletcher replied, sliding under the covers.

Scully climbed in beside her and carefully took Fletcher in her arms.

"You don't know how good it feels to be home," Fletcher sighed, the left side of her face resting against Scully's breasts.

<So close... I came so close to losing her...> Scully thought, her hand stroking Fletcher's hair, her fingers brushing against the bandage.

"I was scared, Scully," Fletcher confessed, unable to look at her. "I came to in the ambulance once... and the look on Mulder's face... I thought I was dying... it hurt and there was so much blood..."

Scully kissed the top of Fletcher's head, her arm pulling her close. "I was so afraid of losing you, Fletcher... I don't know what I would've done..."

"All I could think about was getting home to you..." She rubbed her face against Scully's chest. "I've never been afraid of dying... but to not see you again..."

Her voice dried up. Fletcher had been shot before, had been _shot at_ before. The sensation had shocked her, angered her, even exhilarated her. But she had never cried. Now she did, her body quaking as her silent tears fell on Scully's pajama top. Scully reached down and unbuttoned the top, offering her breasts to Fletcher. It wasn't a sexual, passionate action. It was an act of comfort, though Scully wasn't sure if it was to comfort Fletcher or to comfort herself.

Fletcher pushed Scully's top aside, her right hand covering one breast, her mouth on the other.

"It's okay," Scully murmured, holding the back of Fletcher's head tenderly. "I'm here."

-end-


<<Chapter 24>>

57th Street and 8th Avenue Tuesday, December 8th, 7:22 AM

As usual, Dave McHugh kept an eye out for slick spots on the subway station's concrete steps. He also watched for any commuters ahead of him who might miss an icy patch because they were too busy talking to their cell phones. <One slip and you've got the domino theory in action, all the way back down to the turnstiles.>

He got up the stairs without incident, turning up his collar as he hit street level. There was no snow yet, but winter had truly arrived in New York City, making everyone hunch their shoulders just a little bit more. Steam poured from the manhole covers, enveloping the taxis in white shrouds as they dodged through morning. Every third taxi seemed to be honking at the pedestrians, who were exhibiting the Manhattanite sense of invulnerability by crossing either against the light or in the middle of the street -- usually both.

McHugh couldn't help but grin. <This is my place, and these are my people.> He loved New York, no matter how overused that phrase may have been. He'd grown up in Queens, gotten his Criminal Justice degree at Fordham, and he'd missed the Apple like fire the entire time he was stationed in Phoenix. Even his first serious post-adolescent relationship couldn't dull that ache. So when the chance to transfer to his hometown office came up, he'd jumped at it; the break-up was messy, but so was the relationship, when you got right down to it.

<Fuck it,> he thought philosophically as he fell in step with the rest of the crowd. <I'm home, I've got season tickets to the Mets next year, my favorite hangouts are still open for business, and I don't need a car because the subway can take me anywhere I want. Life is extra _primo_ good!> It was worth sharing a fourth-floor walk-up in Hell's Kitchen with his best friend from high school. It was worth putting up with Bill Crocker, an incurable Yankees fan who could be hell in a bucket until he had his third cup of coffee. (<Come on,> Dave told himself for the hundredth time. <Bill isn't _that_ bad, and he's been more of an education than all my instructors put together.> It was even worth dealing with the condescension of Hiram Keith, the New York SAC. Keith was an old-school taskmaster who saw Crocker and McHugh's work with ISU as "joining the circus", and had said on more than one occasion, "I'll take one Melvin Purvis over a dozen Fletcher Buchanans!"

<Yeah, well, I'll take one Fletcher over a dozen old farts like you, you pompous prick.> In his nastier moments, Dave swore the man had to be Jeff Spender's daddy. Spender had been an all-World jackass with a Gibralter-sized chip on his shoulder all the way through Quantico. The son of a bitch practically snickered when McHugh mentioned where he grew up. Another grin spread over his face when he remembered the mock award certificate Jeannie Spicer had made up on her computer and glued onto the door of Spender's dorm room: "MOST LIKELY TO BE KILLED BY FRIENDLY FIRE." <I'd love to know where Jeff is now, so I can be hundreds of miles away.>

"Well, well, well," a hearty voice boomed out. "Misss-terr Secret Agent Man!"

<If I ever go blind, I'll always know when I get to this newsstand.> "That's _Special_ Agent Man to you," McHugh shot back, automatically searching for quarters as he came up to the green wooden kiosk festooned with magazines. He nodded at the ageless black man who had been tending this corner since John Lindsay was mayor. "How's it goin', Jamal?"

"How's it _s'pose_ t'be goin'?" Jamal returned, ever irascible. He was bundled under two scarves, a Russian Army greatcoat, and an orange hunting cap with earflaps. "They ain't no b-ball, the Giants can't suck enough, an' Giuliani's tryin' t' shoot us all!"

"He'd never shoot _you_, Jamal," McHugh said wryly, scanning the stacks of papers for his daily addiction, the New York Post. "You're a beloved figure in the metropolitan area."

"Yeah, right," Jamal snorted. "When ah liquidate one'a mah noo'mruss truss funs an' ree-loh-cate tuh Palm Beach, you suckers'll drown yo-selves cryin' in sorrow!"

Dave started to laugh, but it got caught somewhere between his throat and his mouth. He'd found the Post; the front-page photo showed Fletcher bleeding out onto the ground, her mouth open and her eyes closed. "SNEAK ATTACK!" the headline screamed. The Daily News sat next to it, with a full-page photo of the note Fletcher had found on the door. There was no headline. Algernon's chilling message was more than enough.

It was what was on the front page of New York's third tabloid, the Ledger -- the one tabloid Brian Hedges _hadn't_ sold anything to -- that had McHugh searching for his cell phone.


Fletcher's House Tuesday, 7:43 AM

When Mulder opened the door, Karrin was standing on the step with a briefcase in one hand and a Dunkin Donuts box in the other. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," she said, holding up the box.

"Bless you, my child," Mulder said gratefully, opening the door wide.

Karrin walked past him and went into the kitchen, smiling when she saw the coffeemaker was already fired up. <Glad I followed my instincts and didn't buy a cup when I got the donuts. Fletcher's coffee is better.> "How are you, Mulder?"

"Okay, I guess," he ventured, running fingers through his damp hair. He'd only just gotten out of the shower when Karrin rang the gate buzzer. "Trying to keep my head down."

"I'll bet." She got up on tiptoe and took a Peet's Coffee & Tea mug out of the cupboard. "Did he shoot at you, too?"

"No. He only fired once." Mulder's cup was on the kitchen table. He picked it up and took a sip, adding, "I was in the car, out of the line of fire."

Karrin gave him a searching look as she poured herself some coffee, reaching for the Equal with her free hand. "How do you feel about that?"

Mulder smiled into his coffee cup. "I thought _I_ was the psychologist."

"I'm not a psychologist," Karrin smiled. "I just play one on TV." She stirred the Equal into her coffee with a long-handled spoon she found by the sink. "The question stands."

He was slightly miffed at the question. <I know she's one of Fletcher's best friends, and she does seem genuinely concerned. I guess it's just too early in the morning to be analyzed.> "I'm not going through Survivor's Guilt, if that's what you're asking," he said evenly. "Fletcher survived, too. She's still alive. And I _have_ been shot at before. It's not a great sensation, but it's not a new one, either."

She nodded, sipping her coffee. She also took note of Mulder's tone, so she took a new tack. "How bad is this one? I mean, I know they're _all_ bad ones, but... Well, _how_ bad...?"

"Scale of one to ten?" She considered, then nodded. He thought a moment. "Eight-and-a-half. Easy to dance to, no melody."

"I don't know how you can joke about dealing with these animals," she said, shaking her head.

"You've _got_ to joke... a little bit, anyway. You don't, it eats you like an h'ors d'ouevre." He thought about Stu Hendricks, and how he looked like he'd aged about a hundred years since Mulder's last tour with ISU. <Thank God he got out. None of us wanted to find him unconscious on the floor of a motel room, like they found Douglas.>

Scully padded into the kitchen, rubbing the sand out of her eyes. Fletcher's bathrobe trailed on the floor as she walked. "Morning," she yawned.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Mulder grinned. "Coffee?"

"Gallons." Mulder nodded, moving to get her a cup. The first thing Scully saw when she opened her eyes was the Dunkin Donuts box. "Please tell me there's a jelly donut in there."

"With or without sugar?" Karrin asked. <She looks like she could go back to bed and stay there for the rest of the week.>

"Without?" Scully asked hopefully.

Karrin smiled. She walked over to the box and pulled out a large donut, entirely empty of sugar. "The ones with sugar are _so_ unhealthy for you."

Scully practically snatched it out of Karrin's hand. "If I weren't so madly in love, I'd kiss you."

"I'll keep that in mind," Karrin said, not sure whether to laugh or be shocked. She saw the look Mulder gave Dana; he looked like he didn't have any eyebrows, they were so close to his hairline. "How's the patient?"

"Stable, I guess," Scully said around a mouthful of donut. "No headaches, no dizziness, at least none she'll admit to. I've been waking her up every two hours or so. She's sleeping right now. I'd give her another half-hour before rousing her again, and she can probably do with another dose of meds. Tylenol with codeine, in the bathroom next to the sink." She gratefully accepted a cup of coffee from Mulder and washed the donut down. <Life's blood.>

Karrin nodded. "Did _you_ get any sleep?"

"I caught a few winks here and there," she returned, trying to sound casual.

"Jeez, Scully, I could have spelled you," Mulder pointed out. "I was just down the hall."

"You'd had a full day yourself, Mulder. You needed the rest more than I did. I was napping when you guys came in last night, remember?" <Besides, I _definitely_ didn't need you coming in to the bedroom with Fletcher sucking on my breast. Except for the times I woke her up, I don't think her mouth left my breast all night.>

"Dana, I've seen coma patients who look more awake than you," Karrin said compassionately. "Can't you call in sick, take the day yourself?"

"Uh unh." Scully shook her head. "We've _both_ got a nine o'clock meeting we can't miss. I'll just keep sucking down caffeine and see if I can sneak out early." She gave Karrin a grateful smile. "Thanks for coming in on such short notice."

Karrin waved her off. "I can only stay for the morning, but Marva's closing the store at lunchtime. She'll spell me this afternoon."

"Great." She glanced up at the clock. "I've got to jump in the shower. There're notes back at the office I've got to review."

Before she could leave, a cell phone chirped. Scully looked around to find where she'd put hers, but the noise was coming from Mulder's raincoat, which was draped over one of the kitchen chairs. He pulled it out and turned it on. "Mulder... Hey, Roy." He looked at the clock himself. <I guess he didn't get much sleep, either.> "Yeah, I'm at Fletcher's... She's sleeping now. She's stable," he added, giving Scully a wink as he listened. Then his face fell. "You're kidding."


Roy Tupper's Office, Quantico Tuesday 9:06 AM

"Unbelievable," Mulder said again. He just stared at the newspaper sitting in the middle of the conference table.

"Believe it. It's sitting right there." Crocker was tired and angry, and the combination offset the fear-charged adrenaline rush that came with his third helicopter flight in three days.

The New York Ledger was only nine months old. It was a liberal tabloid that tried to combine the best elements of the Post and the Village Voice. Most people thought it failed, and the paper was already deep in red ink. But today's edition was going to sell more than its usual market share, thanks to the headline that blared out from the front page: "'THERE WILL BE MORE': NOTES FROM A SERIAL KILLER." A box in the upper right hand corner of the page promoted an eyewitness account of Fletcher being shot, as reported by the Ledger's new star reporter, Margo Joseph.

"At least we know now how the press got to the crime scene when you did, Mulder," Tupper said gravely. "Algernon sent _her_ a letter, too." <And her editor shit-canned it because he thought it was a prank. Too bad she pulled it out of his trash can after that fucking photographer told her to.> He looked angry enough to bite the table in half, even if his suspicions about a leak in ISU had been quashed.

"What about the deal we made?" Scully asked, incredulous. "What happened to our seventy-two hours?" Elly sat next to her, sneaking peeks around the room. This was the biggest case she'd ever worked on, and being part of this meeting was akin to a week's vacation at Disney World, all rides included.

"It went up in smoke about five seconds after CNN started doing cut-ins from Cambridge County," Roy informed her, his tones clipped razor-cut short. "The editor said this was one of the biggest stories to hit the metropolitan area this year, and he was not about to fall behind his competitors just because he'd made us a promise." He put on a fairly convincing Australian accent. "'After all, mate, it's not like we put it in writing.'"

"He printed _everything_" McHugh objected. He seemed unaffected by the rough ride down from New York. "Including things we wanted held back! Can't we nail him for Obstruction? Aiding and Abetting? Maybe even Accessory?"

"I threatened him with everything but the electric chair. He had a one-word response."

"Which was?"

"'Nuts.'"

"World War Two buff," Mulder murmured, his smirk faint with fatigue.

"And a man of few words," Gabe added, desperately wanting to light up his pipe.

"The phone's already ringing off the hook in the New York office," Crocker told Roy. "The press liaison's hiding under the desk, and the Jersey State Police are pissed we didn't let them in on the note."

"They've got no room to complain," Tupper said bitterly. "They've been about as helpful as life jackets in the Sahara."

"True enough," Crocker agreed. <I'm not going to make him any less pissed with this next item.> "Keith wanted me to pass on a message to you. Quote, 'We are not amused,' unquote."

"Fuck Keith," Roy spat.

"Not on a bet," Crocker deadpanned. "But I can get behind the sentiment."

Tupper ignored him, shifting to address the room. "All right," he declared. "It's out, and there's nothing we can do about it. Our margin is down to hours." He took a deep breath. "The UNSUB also took a shot at one of us. That cuts _his_ margin down to nil." He tapped the table with the point of an index finger. "This bastard's pelt _will_ be drying on the smokehouse wall by the end of the week, or I will know the reason why! Are we clear on this point?" There were nods around the table. He let out the breath. "Okay, that's what we're going to do. How are we going to do it?"

"I'm afraid the autopsy results aren't much help," Scully said apologetically. "Except Fletcher was right: The killings _did_ happen later than the official time of death. I make the _actual_ time between two and three a.m.."

"Makes sense," Mulder nodded. "Less chance of a neighbor being awake, hearing any screams or shots, or seeing Algernon enter the house."

"And there were no other anomalies you could find?" Roy asked her.

"No... extracurricular activities?" Crocker added.

Scully shook her head at both questions. She was surprisingly alert, even though she'd had only one cup of coffee. "The Cambridge County coroner _did_ do a good job of cataloguing the victim's various organs, and their condition. Nothing was missing or mutilated. And according to his report, there were no fluids or damage that would suggest any kind of sexual activity, pre- or post-mortem."

"So why cut them open at all?" McHugh wanted to know.

"Algernon's already told us that," Mulder intoned. "Because he _can_. When he killed them, they weren't human any more. They were his playthings. Dolls. He could have done a lot more with them then just open them up. He didn't, but he _could_ have. By cutting them open and leaving them there, he's demonstrating the power he had over them."

"Hell of a demonstration," Bill muttered. Dave made a sound that might have been a chuckle. Elly shivered, unsettled by Mulder's matter-of-fact tone.

"I wish I could have seen the bodies myself," Scully continued. "If the coroner screwed up the time of death, he might have missed something else. Are the Kennedy victims still on ice?"

"We _wanted_ the county to hold them longer," Tupper groaned. "But the victims were Jewish. The wife's relatives went to court so they could inter the remains in accordance with their laws. They got supportive press and a sympathetic judge. Burial was on Friday."

"Can we get an exhumation order?" Mulder asked, ever hopeful.

"We could try," Crocker said. "But it's a crapshoot, depending on what judge _we_ get. And the victims' families will fight any order. The father of the bride's a state legislator, and his wife owns whatever land in New Jersey Christie Whitman's family _doesn't_ own. If that's not enough, she and Christie are old riding-school buddies." He looked like he'd drunk a glass of lemon juice, then ate the lemon the juice came from.

"So the latest bodies are out," Roy said, ending the conversation. He looked down the table at Elly. "You're sure about the results you found?"

"Definitely," she said immediately. "I put in a call to the Department of Public Works in D.C., and they confirmed those chemicals could only be found in a sewer." She looked at some handwritten notes. "I called Cambridge County DPW, too. They say the victims' house was on the county system, so they didn't have a septic tank in their back yard." Gabe smiled around his pipe, pleased she had shown so much initiative.

"There's no way the stuff could have come from a leaky pipe in the basement?" Dave asked. "Maybe stepped in it coming in, and stepped in it again going out?"

Mulder shook his head. "Basement was bone-dry. No leaks anywhere. Plus he only _went in_ through the basement. He probably made his exit through the back door. The knob was locked, but the door wasn't chained."

"There was no pathway near the window," Crocker said, thinking aloud. "So Algernon had to walk on grass to get there. Even if he walked through sewers on a regular basis, he wouldn't leave tracks _all_ the time."

"Which means his shoes must have been wet when he entered the basement," Mulder said, finishing Crocker's thought. "Very wet, since we found traces in other parts of the house."

Scully's eyebrow did its thing. "Are you saying this man went into the sewer and _waited_ for the right time to come out and kill?"

"Or he parked his car on another street, entered the sewers _there_, and made his way to the entrance nearest the victim's house."

"Pretty hard-core," Elly marveled, her stomach turning at the thought of walking through a sewer for more than five seconds.

"If that's the case," McHugh put in, "then he knew his way around the system. We're talking a county worker here, either present or past..."

"Shit!" Mulder exclaimed.

"You have something?" Roy asked, raising his own eyebrow at Mulder's outburst.

"At the second site, in Blenheim," Mulder said, eyes blazing. "There was a county public works truck about half a block away. The guy had cones up around a manhole cover. We drove right by him."

"Did you get a look at him?" Tupper was leaning forward like a skier about to take a jump. "Maybe a license number on the truck?"

Mulder shook his head, cursing himself. "Didn't even look. He was trying to clear a storm grate, or so I thought. I didn't pay any attention to him."

"That makes sense," Crocker said morosely. "Who looks at city or county workers?"

Scully felt her ears pin back. "That's how he cases his victims."

Everyone looked at her like she'd just given them the secret of life.

"Son of a bitch," Gabe breathed.

"He could stay in one spot all day," Crocker croaked, picking up on the thought. "He might even be doing his job, so he'd have a legitimate reason for being there."

"That's _perfect_," McHugh said, his excitement building. "It's like in New York when Con Ed's working on lines. Even if the techs are sitting around doing nothing, people just go right on by. You just figure they're on one of their ten union-mandated coffee breaks."

Tupper turned to Crocker. "You and Dave get back to Jersey. Check Cambridge County DPW to see who had trucks out Monday morning. Cross-reference any public-works activity in and around the crime scenes. Give special attention to the area that reporter's old newspaper appears. He wrote to her, so he must be familiar with her work. Coordinate with Mulder; he's running this investigation while Fletcher recovers."

"Fletcher's going to want to be kept in the loop," Mulder said uneasily.

"That's your job," Roy said quickly. "Pick her brain, if she's up to it, but make it clear to her: She's out of the game until a doctor says she's one hundred percent. If she has a problem with that, I'll explain it to her. And I _don't_ want to have to explain it to her." He stood, picking up the folders as he did. Everyone else stood, too. "Like I said, people: By the end of the week. I'll accept nothing less. Get to work."

-end-


<<Chapter 25>>

ISU, Quantico Tuesday, December 8th, 11:15 AM

Mulder poked his head in the lab, looking for Scully. Elly spotted him and waved him over. <Another semi-legend, and he's good looking, too.>

"Agent Klingler, right?" he said.

"Elly," she said with a smile. "Everybody calls me Elly. Are you looking for Dana?"

"Yeah. Is she around?"

"Through those doors and hang a left. First 'cell' on the right."

"Thanks."

"Anytime," she said, adding a little oomph to the smile.

Mulder wasn't sure, but it almost seemed like Elly was flirting with him. He'd been spending so much time with Scully and Fletcher that he'd almost forgotten what it was like to have a woman show an interest in him. He gave her one more glance before heading for Scully's office. <Maybe later. After this case is over. Maybe I'll ask her to lunch. Can't hurt.>

"Hey, Scully," he said as knocked softly on the doorframe.

"Come on in, Mulder."

He stepped inside and nearly banged into her desk. <'Cell' is right. Makes the basement seem like a two-room suite.> "Love what you've done with the place."

Scully snorted. "You should have seen it before I renovated."

"I'll bet. Did Bell Atlantic pull out the pay phone, or did you have to do it yourself?" Scully just gave him half a smile and took a sip of coffee. "Got a minute?"

"Sure," she said, pushing aside a pile of folders.

He closed the door behind him. "Have you called Fletcher yet?"

"No. I told Karrin I'd call at eleven-thirty."

"Tell her to keep Fletcher from watching the news or reading any newspapers. I'd rather she find out from us that she's front-page news."

"Understood." <If she hears about it on her own, she'll do something stupid. Like driving back to Jersey.> "When are you planning on telling her?"

"Tonight."

"That'll give her a little more time to recover, anyway," she agreed. Scully sighed, then yawned.

<She looks awful,> he thought. <Coming home last night may have been good for Fletcher, but I doubt it was good for Scully. She doesn't look like she slept at all.> "I hope you're not planning on working late," he said, concern in his voice.

"No, not unless something breaks with the case and Gabe asks me to stay."

"It's been awhile since you've had to be a doctor twenty four hours a day," he said with a wistful smile.

"Not since I shot you," she replied with a matching smile.

He reached for the door. "I shouldn't be too late tonight. Probably around seven, seven-thirty."

"Not so loud," she said, smiling through her fatigue. "You might start a rumor."

"You think?" he cracked, smirking over his shoulder as he walked out.

Once he was gone, Scully picked up the phone and called Karrin. It was answered on the first ring.

"Karrin, it's Dana," she said, thinking how odd it sounded to hear her call herself 'Dana' while at work, after years of saying 'Scully'.

"Hi, she's asleep."

"Has she been awake much?"

"Some. I just came downstairs to start something for lunch."

"How is she?"

"She's okay. Just a headache, which I've been treating with her pain meds. I'll tell you one thing; she must be feeling better. She's one of the worst patients I've ever had, and that includes the two year olds."

Scully laughed. "You'll tell her I called?"

"Of course."

"Listen, you need to do something for us, and Marva has to do the same."

"What's that?"

"Don't let her watch any TV or read any newspapers."

"How come?"

"To make a long story short, Fletcher's in all the papers this morning, and the case is making headlines in New York. Mulder wants to talk to her about it tonight."

"It won't be easy. She keeps complaining about how bored she is. Maybe I should just overmedicate her - enough to keep her asleep, anyway." Karrin grinned, hoping that Scully knew she was kidding.

"Well, do your best," Scully replied, smiling. "I know she can be difficult."

"Maybe I can get her to watch a movie or something. If I keep control of the remote, and keep it on the movie channels or the sports channels, we should be all set. I really don't think she'll be able to stay awake for very long anyway."

"Good. She needs her rest."

"How 'bout you? How are you doing?"

"Hanging in there. As long as I keep going, I'll be okay. Once I stop, I'll drop." Scully looked at her watch. "What time is Marva due?"

"One-thirty. That'll give me plenty of time to get to the hospital."

"I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"You'd do the same for us, though I doubt we'd be getting shot."

"Hold that thought." Scully yawned again. "Tell Marva I'll call about three."

"Will do."

"Thanks again, Karrin."

"That's what friends are for."


Fletcher's House Tuesday, 1:30 PM

"How's our patient?" Marva asked, setting down an oversized tote bag on the kitchen table. She gave Karrin a quick peck on the cheek.

"Sleeping."

"How _is_ she - really?" Marva asked, her voice lower.

"Damn lucky to be alive. From what Dana told me this morning, Fletcher will have one heck of a scar. As it is, her eye's swollen shut and she's already got the makings of a pretty impressive black eye." Karrin stretched. "Dana called a few hours ago. She asked us to keep the TV off, at least off the news channels, no matter what Fletcher says. And absolutely no work."

"Surely Fletcher won't try to work today."

"I already sent her back to bed once."

"You're kidding!"

"Nope. I went downstairs to fix lunch and got on the phone with Dana. When I came back, Fletcher was in her office, firing up her PC. I read her the riot act and put her back to bed."

"She won't dare try that with me," Marva said sternly. "I'll handcuff her to the bed if she does."

"The idea is not to excite her, Marva," Karrin deadpanned.

"Don't make me tickle you."

Karrin held a hand to her head and mimed a swoon, earning a laugh. "She's due for a pain pill at four. Don't wake her up to give it to her. She's okay to sleep now. We don't have to keep waking her up every two hours." She put her coat on. "Oh, yeah, before I forget, Dana said she'd call around three. If Fletcher's up, you might want to have her talk to her."

"I will." Marva placed her hands on Karrin's hips. "What time will you be home?"

"After midnight. I got lucky. Jamie McGurk switched shifts with me, so I don't have to pull a twelve hour shift."

"Lucky you, lucky me," Marva replied, her voice husky. "I'll wait up for you."

"Extra lucky me."

After a lengthy kiss, Marva said goodbye to Karrin and headed upstairs to Fletcher's room. Fletcher was sound asleep, flat on her back. Even with Karrin's description of Fletcher's injuries, Marva was still shocked to see how badly Fletcher looked. <Glad I can't see the wound,> she thought, sitting down on the rocking chair. <I never was very good with the gory parts of life.>


ISU, Forensics Lab Tuesday, 2:55 PM

Scully closed her office door. She slowly looked around the room at the piles of folders that had begun to accumulate on her desk and shelves. Several autopsy X-rays were still hanging up, though she'd turned the exam lights off. <Maybe there was a reason that I never had my own desk when I was working the X-Files with Mulder. My space here is starting to look as bad as his.> She smiled as she picked up the phone and dialed Fletcher's number. <At least I can listen to Classical while I work; Mulder and I could never agree on music, either in the office or the car. And I definitely have to do some decorating. No UFO posters, though. Maybe a print or two from the National...>

"Buchanan residence."

"Marva, it's me."

"Hey, kid." <She sounds exhausted,> Marva thought.

"How's Fletcher?"

"A pain in the butt, which means she's much better."

"Is she awake?"

"Since about two o'clock."

"I'd love to talk to her."

"I bet you would," Marva said, smiling. She handed the phone to Fletcher, then left the room.

"Hey, Red," Fletcher said casually.

Scully almost sighed out loud as she felt some of the tension in her body ease. <It's so good to hear her voice.> "How do you feel?"

"Are you asking me as a doctor or as my lover?"

"Both."

"I'm fine. The headaches aren't as bad as they were this morning. I don't need to take the pain pills as often. I don't like them anyway. They mess up my brain."

"I hope you're getting plenty of rest."

"Too much of it," Fletcher grumbled. "It's all I've done. I'm tired of 'resting'."

"You need to. You know that. It's the best thing for you."

"Yeah, yeah, right," she complained.

"Fletcher..."

"Scully, you and I both know the only way I'll get any real rest is if you're here with me."

"Flattery will get you everywhere."

"Good." Fletcher attempted a grin. "What time are you coming home?"

<'Coming home.' I like the sound of that.> "I'm going to try to leave around six." There was a knock at her door. "I've got to go. Someone's at the door."

"Okay. I'll see you tonight."

"I love you."

"Love you, too."


Fletcher's House Tuesday, 6:30 PM

Scully trudged up the stairs after a quick check of the downstairs for Marva and Fletcher. Between her lack of sleep the night before and the high-octane day she'd just gone through, she was worn down to the nub. <I'm so tired. I just want to check on Fletcher, then get about twelve hours of sleep.>

Fletcher was awake and sitting up in bed. Marva was in the rocking chair and they were watching a movie. Fletcher spotted Scully and started to get up. Scully raised a hand. "Don't get up."

"Then come over here," Fletcher replied, moving over on the bed.

Scully kicked off her shoes and sat down beside Fletcher. "Hi, Marva," she said, tucking her feet up and leaning against Fletcher's pillows.

<She looks wiped out,> Marva thought. <Between no sleep and worrying about Fletcher... the poor woman looks ready to drop.> "Girlfriend, you are a wreck. Go change your clothes and I'll fix supper up for both of you."

"You don't have to do that, Marva."

"Sure, I do." She smiled, getting up from the rocker. "It's not every day that I get a chance to play in Fletcher's kitchen by myself."

"Marva, if anything is out of place..." Fletcher warned.

"Relax, Fletcher. I know my way around. Besides, I'll probably just do something simple, like grilled cheese and soup."

"Sounds wonderful," Scully sighed. "Do I have time to take a quick bath?"

"Sure."


Tuesday, 7:30 PM

Marva took her time preparing dinner, wanting to give them some time alone. <Dinner, a hot bath, and a strong drink and Dana will be out like a light.> She heard the front door open and looked up to see Mulder.

"Fox Mulder, how are you? Long time, no see." Marva said, hands on her hips.

"What do you say, Marva," he said, dropping his briefcase and a stack of newspapers on the kitchen table.

"You hungry?"

"Always," he replied, draping his coat over a kitchen chair.

"Knew that was a rhetorical question. I'm making some soup and sandwiches for dinner. Want some?"

"Sounds great, thanks." He opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer. "How's Fletcher feeling?"

"Better. Very bored." She pointed at the newspapers. "Can I look?"

"Sure. I've got to show them to Fletcher tonight."

Marva quickly scanned the articles, paying more attention to the photos. <God, how horrible. I can't believe Fletcher survived it. Poor Mulder. He was there; he saw all of that as it happened.>

"Has Dana seen these?"

"Just a glance during a meeting."

"Fletcher looks dead."

"I know," he said quietly, taking a long swallow. "I thought she _was_ dead when I first got to her."

"I'm glad you were there, Mulder."

Mulder's eyes opened wide. He and Marva had always grated on each other's nerves. <It's not that we dislike each other. It's more like we've competed for Fletcher's time and attention, like we've been vying to see who's the better friend.>

"I'm glad I was there. If she'd... if she'd died, and no one was with her... "

"But she didn't. And that's what's important," Marva said, giving his arm a quick squeeze as she returned to the stove. "Do me a favor? Go see if they're ready for dinner."

"Sure."

Mulder quickly trotted upstairs. He hesitated in the doorway, not really sure if he wanted to go into the room even though the door was wide open. Scully was lying on top of the covers, clad in her pajamas, Fletcher's robe wrapped around her. She was resting her head on Fletcher's chest, her hand on Fletcher's stomach, Fletcher's arm around her shoulders. Mulder had seen them kiss before, had seen them hug before. But there something about this scene -- the way they were looking at each other, holding each other -- that was far more intimate than anything he'd ever seen them do.

He tapped lightly on the door. "Marva wants to know if you're ready to eat, er, ready for dinner."

"Sure," Fletcher said, sitting up a little straighter. "Why don't we all have dinner up here? I could use the company. There're some TV trays in the den. Just bring a couple up."

"Okay." Mulder paused. "After dinner, Fletcher, I need to talk to you."

"About the case?"

"Yes."

"Sure."

- - - - -

Once they'd eaten their supper, and after Marva left, Mulder returned to Fletcher's bedroom, newspapers in hand.

"We having a current-events test tomorrow?" Fletcher asked.

"You might say that. Your name's up in lights."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"The story's out. Everyone knows that Algernon is behind the shooting and the killings. It's out now that we're after a serial killer."

"Goddamnit," Fletcher swore. Scully put her hand on Fletcher's arm to calm her down. Fletcher shrugged it off. "Let me see."

She quickly read through each paper, ignoring the photographs that she was in. When she got to the Ledger, and its verbatim reprint of Algernon's letters, she threw it across the room. "What were those stupid bastards thinking?! He's gonna eat this up with a knife and fork!"

"We do have a lead," Mulder said, handing Fletcher a folder. "Forensics got a hit on those samples from the second site."

"What?" She turned to Scully. "Why didn't you tell me about this?"

"We only just discovered it yesterday afternoon. And you really haven't been in any kind of condition to discuss anything until now." <Maybe not even now, but if we held this back from her any longer, she'd go rabid.>

Fletcher skimmed the folder's contents. "So, Doctor Scully, explain this all to me."

"Algernon has been spending considerable time in the sewers." Scully gave a brief synopsis of Elly's findings from DCPW, as well as some of the suppositions made at the meeting earlier in the day.

"Hmmmmm," Fletcher said, tapping her front teeth with a fingernail. "Let me think a minute. Algernon - lab rat... sewers... rats are in sewers... hmmmm... " She closed her eyes and thought. "His first or last name is Charles," she said softly. "Or possibly Cliff."

<I don't get it,> Scully thought. <Where is she getting the name from? How can she know that?>

"You're thinking about the movie," Mulder said, rocking in the chair.

"Yup. Cliff Robertson starred in the movie 'Charley'. The book was 'Flowers for Algernon.' Our Algernon is identifying with the book, but in a warped sort of way that only makes sense to-" She suddenly snapped her head up. "Mulder, do you remember the DPW truck that was parked when we were in Blenheim?"

"Crocker and McHugh are already following it up. They've got the task of checking all the records with the county."

"Is there anything else, any other leads?"

"Nope."

"Nothing else from the labs," Scully added. "They dug the bullet out of the front door, but the best Ballistics can say is it was fired from a high-powered hunting rifle, possibly a Remington bolt-action. The shell was too mashed up for any kind of solid match. We're also double and triple checking all the autopsy results. You were right, by the way. Time of death was after 2 AM."

"Had to be. Okay, you guys want to get me healthy? Keep me informed. I want an update, at least twice a day. And I want the paperwork every night for my review."

Scully and Mulder both knew not to argue with her. He nodded, stuffing the folder back into his briefcase.

"Well, I'm going to watch a little TV and have another beer," Mulder said, getting up and starting for the door. "'night."

He closed the door behind him, certain that they wanted some privacy.

"Fletcher, you really need to take it easy," Scully said, getting up from the bed and hanging up the robe on one of the bedposts.

"I feel fine. I'm not even getting headaches anymore," Fletcher lied.

<Uh huh. Tell me another one.> Scully got under the covers. <I don't care how tough you are, Fletcher. You were _shot_.> She reached up and turned the light off, then turned to face Fletcher in the dark. <I could sink into this mattress and never come up for air.>

"You must be exhausted," Fletcher said, moving into Scully's arms.

"I'm very tired," Scully admitted, kissing the top of Fletcher's head. "I'm glad to be home and in bed."

"I'm glad you're home, too," Fletcher replied, snuggling up next to Scully's breasts. She slowly unbuttoned the top few buttons of Scully's pajama top.

<I could - I _am_ going to fall asleep with her at my breast,> Scully thought, drifting off to sleep.

-end-


<<Chapter 26>>

Fletcher's House Thursday, December 10th, 12:30 PM

<I'm going 'home' for lunch,> Scully thought with a smile as she parked the car. <I haven't done that since I was in elementary school. And this is the second straight day. I could get used to this.>

It had been a crazy week in the labs and she was glad to have a reason to get away, even if only for an hour or so. <At least I'm staying put,> she thought as she unlocked the front door. <Mulder must not know if he's coming or going. He's flown back and forth to New Jersey at least once every day this week. And then he comes home and gets grilled by Fletcher. Poor guy. I haven't seen him this tired or this stressed in a long time. Maybe I should try to get Fletcher to lay off him tonight.>

She headed for the kitchen first, hoping that Fletcher wasn't upstairs working. The first day that she'd come home at noontime, she'd found Fletcher in her office. She'd been working on her computer all morning and by the time Scully had come home, Fletcher had fallen asleep at her desk. Scully had been nearly apoplectic when she saw her. This time, Fletcher was in the kitchen, sipping from a spoon as she bent over a huge pot bubbling on the stove.

<She must be feeling better,> Scully thought, noticing that Fletcher was wearing a pair of jeans and a sweater. <First time she's been out of sweats or pajamas since she's come home from New Jersey. She looks better, too. I'm glad she talked me into changing her bandage and putting on a fresh, smaller one.> Scully had been horrified the first time she saw the jagged line that the stitches had made. The dark line ran from the corner of Fletcher's eyebrow, across her temple, ending just above her ear. <At least the other cuts are healing quickly, and they won't leave any scars.> Fletcher's eye was no longer swollen shut, but the sclera was still bright red. And the 'shiner' that she sported had grown to a deep purple with a tinge of yellow around the edges. <All in all, I have to say I'm pretty amazed with her recuperative powers.>

Fletcher turned around, a big grin on her face. <Like the cat that swallowed the canary,> Scully thought. <She looks like she's up to something - something no good, I'm sure.>

"Hungry?" Fletcher asked, setting the spoon aside. "I've got some homemade vegetable soup and a fresh loaf of bread."

"You've been busy this morning."

"Sort of." She leaned over and kissed Scully as she stirred the soup. "Go look out on the patio."

"Now?"

"Yes. I was gonna wait until after dinner, but I wanted you to see it."

"What is it?"

"C'mon," Fletcher took Scully's hand and led her out to the patio. "The jacuzzi came today. I made arrangements to have it delivered while I was home." She slipped her arm around Scully's waist and kissed her on the neck. "I can't wait to try it out with you."

"You've got to be careful, Fletcher. It probably wouldn't be a good idea for you to be soaking in such hot water."

"I'll turn the heat down, I promise."

"It does look appealing." <After the week I've - we've - had, I don't think I'll want to get out of it.>

"When you come home tonight, I'll fix you a nice dinner, a good strong drink, and then we can go soak in it."

"Sounds wonderful." Scully smiled. "Though I am surprised at your sudden interest in domestic chores."

"I've been going stir crazy ever since they locked me out of the computers at work." Fletcher headed back to the kitchen to get their lunch. "I still can't believe Roy found out I was working from home." She looked at Scully with a suspicious eye. "I don't suppose you said something to him, did you?"

"Not me. I imagine he knows you well enough to know you'd try to work from home."

"True, true," she agreed. "Did I tell you I got the caterers all squared away for the party next week?" she said, setting a bowl of soup down in front of Scully. "And I'm all caught up on the RSVPs for the party."

"You _have_ been busy." Scully blew gently on her spoon full of soup.

"Just give me a phone and an email account and it's done."

"Mmmm. Good soup, Fletcher."

Fletcher nodded her thanks. "Enjoy these nice hot lunches while you can. I'm going back to work tomorrow."

Scully raised an eyebrow. "I don't think so, Fletcher."

"Only for a half day, Red. I've got to get some of my paperwork caught up."

"As a doctor -"

"Scully, I'm fine. Even my wrist is better," Fletcher flexed her hand and then made a fist several times. "Of course, we both know what the real test of my wrist is," she said, her voice lower, her hand dropping to Scully's thigh.

"Sounds like someone's feeling _much_ better." Scully removed Fletcher's hand. "Enough, 'Romeo'. I have to go back to work."

"I know, I know. And I've got a few errands to run today."

"Are you sure you feel up to driving?"

"I'm _fine_, Red. Having my own personal physician with me every night has been my miracle cure."

"Uh huh," Scully said, her voice heavy with her skepticism.

"A little TLC - isn't that what the doctor ordered?"

Scully pretended to be annoyed with Fletcher, but secretly she was pleased to see her doing so well.


Thursday, 5:48 PM

Fletcher parked the Cherokee in the garage. <Good. Neither one of them's home yet. I've got time to hide their Christmas presents.> She carried two large bags into the house. A small box was safely hidden in her coat pocket. She was feeling rather smug at having finished her gift buying for her two current housemates. <First time I've enjoyed Christmas shopping in a _long_ time. Feels pretty good, too, to have someone special to shop for,> she thought, grinning. <Guess there's something to be said for having a few days off after all.>

She placed the bags in the closet in her office, setting the small box in her desk drawer. She locked the desk, then the office. <There. Even Mulder can't snoop around in here.> She looked at her watch as she headed back down the stairs. <Hmmm. I wonder what time they'll be home? I suppose I could call... Nah, I'll just start dinner.>

The phone was ringing in the kitchen. She picked it up on the third ring. "Buchanan."

"Fletcher, it's me."

"Hey, Mulder. How goes the paper chase?"

"We could be in for a marathon. Cambridge County's one of the largest counties in New Jersey, with the tax base to match. As such, they've got a Public Works department about the size of the British Navy."

"I don't suppose any of their employees own hunting rifles."

"You want all of them, or just the ones that are registered?"

<What I figured.> "And nothing's coming up? Employee records, work orders, time cards..."

"All that and a hernia belt to help you lift it all. Unfortunately, none of it helps us. According to everything we've seen so far, there was no Public Works activity -- including any sewer work -- anywhere near the crime scenes. Nothing official, anyway. Algernon could have been assigned one place but found an hour here and there to cruise for victims. We canvassed the neighborhoods, but it's like Crocker says: These people are invisible until they tie up the traffic. Algernon could have set up shop on someone's front lawn and the residents wouldn't know until they found out their grass had died."

"Swell," Fletcher grumped. <The newspaper was a dead end, too. Algernon could have picked it up anywhere, including outside the county.> "When should we expect you?"

"Don't," Mulder sighed. "I need a break from the chopper, and Dillard wants to do some maintenance anyway. I'm checking into a motel. I should be in the office by ten-thirty."

"I'll see you then. I'm going in tomorrow."

"Does Scully know?"

"Yeah, Scully knows. She's not happy about it, but I told her I'd only go in for half a day."

"Okay." He sounded doubtful, but Fletcher didn't comment. "If anything comes up before then, I'll call."

"Good. Thanks."


Thursday, 6:50 PM

Scully walked through the front door, cutting through the dining room. She stopped to admire Fletcher's handiwork. Fletcher had set the table in the dining room with her 'good' china and she'd dimmed the lights on the chandelier. Whatever was cooking on the stove made Scully's mouth water in an instant.

Fletcher was standing in front of the stove, humming. Scully stopped to watch her. <It's too bad it took a gunshot to give her some time off. She's certainly needed it. She's like a different person, more like the Fletcher I first met three months ago.>

She walked up to Fletcher, slipping her arms around her waist, her face pressing against Fletcher's back. Fletcher set her spoon down and turned around. "Hey, there," she said softly, her hands on Scully's hips.

"The dining room looks great."

"Thanks." She bent her head and kissed Scully gently on the lips. "How was your afternoon?"

"Okay. Nothing new for you from the lab, unfortunately."

"Nothing from Jersey, either. Mulder's head's getting sore from running into so many dead ends. What would you like to drink - wine or scotch?"

"Wine, thanks."

"Why don't you go give your feet a rest? I'll bring you a glass."

Scully went into the den, noticing that Fletcher had built a fire. <First fire for us,> Scully thought sitting down on the couch. <She's really pulling out all the stops.>

Fletcher came into the room minutes later, a glass of wine in her hand. She gave the glass to Scully, then took Scully's free hand in hers. Scully gave Fletcher's hand a squeeze as she took a sip from her glass.

"Dinner should be ready in about ten minutes," Fletcher said, sitting down beside her.

"You're too good to me, Fletcher," Scully said, kicking off her shoes and putting her feet up on the coffee table.

"Well, my intentions aren't all that honorable," she confessed, her grin threatening to run away with wickedness.

"Whatever do you mean?" Scully asked, eyes wide with feigned innocence.

"I have ulterior motives." She brought Scully's hand to her mouth and kissed it.

"And they are?"

"Can't you tell I'm trying to seduce you?"

"Gosh, I thought you were trying to cut down the heating bill." Scully let go of Fletcher's hand, her fingers brushing against Fletcher's lips. Her voice dropped with longing and love. "Don't you know that all you have to do is ask?"

"It's more romantic this way." She kissed Scully lightly on the lips, then got up from the couch. "I've got to check on dinner."

- - - - -

Fletcher's robe was at least two sizes too big for Scully, but she tried to wear it whenever she got a chance. <I can smell her wherever I go,> she thought. She had her hands stuffed in the robe's pockets as she followed Fletcher outside to the patio. Fletcher was wearing an old tattered flannel robe that looked like it would come apart if you washed it any other way but by hand. Scully shivered in the cool night air while Fletcher fiddled with the light switches. Then she flipped the cover back and said, "Tah Dahhhhhhhh!"

An unearthly blue glow emanated from the bubbling water. Steam rose off the surface into the cool night air, making it look like a modern-day witch's cauldron. Fletcher untied her robe and tossed it on the chair. Scully shyly followed Fletcher's lead. She was a little uncomfortable being completely naked out on the patio, even though she knew no one could see them.

Fletcher sighed loudly as she slowly eased her body into the water. "Oh, man, is it hot, but it feels _sooo_ good."

Scully cautiously stepped in, almost wincing at how scorching the water felt. She lowered her body in, sitting beside Fletcher. "Mmmmmmmmmmm," she hummed, feeling the tension slowly ebb from her body.

"Good, huh?" Fletcher asked.

"Divine." Scully took a deep breath, then exhaled loudly. "I haven't been in a jacuzzi in so long."

"When was the last time?"

Scully thought about it. "You know, I can't even remember. Maybe not since spring break at Maryland. They had one at the gym I used to go to, but it was always chock-full. The wait was longer for that than it was for the Life-Cycles."

Fletcher sank down so that the water was almost touching her chin. Wisps of steam came off her face. "I bet it's really beautiful in here when the snow falls."

"You'd go out here when it's snowing?"

"Sure. They do it in Colorado all the time." She slid along the bottom so that she was sitting between Scully's legs. She leaned back against Scully's chest. "Hey, Red."

"Mm hmm?"

"Have I told you today how much I love you?"

"Yes, but you can tell me again," Scully said, her arms around her neck. "I'll never get tired of hearing you say it." Fletcher turned her head and Scully leaned over to kiss her. "I'm glad you're feeling better, Fletcher."

"In a little while, I'll show you just how much better I'm feeling," she said, her hand sliding up Scully's thigh.

Scully kissed Fletcher again, her hand finding Fletcher's breast, then her nipple. She rolled Fletcher's nipple between her fingers as she kissed her deeply with her tongue. <I love her so much,> Scully thought, her fingers tweaking, pinching one nipple, then the other. <It's only been five days since we last made love... it seems so much longer...>

Fletcher suddenly broke off the kiss and turned around. She knelt between Scully's legs, her body leaning into her. Scully raised her legs, wrapping them around Fletcher's waist. The hot water sloshed up between them as Fletcher repeatedly pressed her body into Scully's.

"Fletcher..." Scully tilted her head back, her neck exposed to Fletcher's kisses.

"What?" Fletcher asked, her lips sliding across Scully's wet shoulders.

"We'll drown each other," Scully said with a smile, gently pushing Fletcher back.

"I want you so bad," Fletcher said hoarsely.

"Not here, Fletcher."

"Must you always be so prudent, Doctor Scully?"

"Mulder might show up at any time..."

"Not any time _tonight_," Fletcher told her. "He's giving his inner ear a rest, spending the night in Jersey."

"Lucky us." Scully giggled as she kissed Fletcher. "I hope he found a motel with in-room movies. Otherwise, he'll be a bear to deal with in the morning."

"You're bad," Fletcher laughed, giving her a light swat on the arm.

"Just bad _enough_," Scully purred. She got out of the water and reached for her robe. The sensation of leaving the steaming water and returning to the cold air made her a little lightheaded. She belted her robe, then picked up Fletcher's.

Fletcher stepped out of the jacuzzi and quickly put on her robe. She tinkered with the controls, then put the cover back on. Once she was done, she turned her attention back to Scully.

"Let's go to bed, Fletcher," Scully said, taking Fletcher's hand.

"Uh uh." Fletcher shook her head. "I can't wait that long."

<Come to think of it, neither can I,> Scully thought headily, the wetness between her legs no longer from the water.

Fletcher closed the patio door behind them, then turned the light off as she backed Scully into the room. She pushed the coffee table out of the way as she eased Scully to the floor near the fireplace. She followed Scully down to the floor, grabbing a few pillows off the loveseat as she did.

"I love you, Red," she said, looking down at Scully as she knelt, straddling Scully's thigh.

"I love you, too." She reached up and untied Fletcher's robe. <I could never get tired of her body,> Scully thought, her hands running up Fletcher's sides, then across her stomach. She watched Fletcher's torso tremble beneath her touch. She gently raked her fingernails down Fletcher's abdomen, then tangled her fingers in the wet curly hair.

Fletcher's eyes were locked on Scully, her breaths shallow and quick. Her chest rose and fell with every breath and Scully watched the hard little nipples rise and fall with them. Scully suddenly sat up, her lips clamping down on one of Fletcher's nipples.

"Scully... " Fletcher groaned.

Scully's fingers slid lower and she rolled Fletcher's hard clit between them. <Oh, God, I need to be in her, need to feel her... > Scully thought, moaning loudly. She plunged one, then two fingers up into Fletcher. She pumped her fingers wildly, her other hand on Fletcher's hip, steadying her.

"Oh, goddess... oh, Scully... it's... Just like that... Oh... Oh, yeah... that's it... don't stop... don't stop, Sculleeeeeeeeeeee..."

"Yes, yes..." Scully urged. <Here it comes... God, look at her face, it's so wonderful...>

Fletcher cried out, collapsing against Scully. Scully slowly lay back, gently cradling Fletcher in her arms as the tremors came out of Fletcher and into her.

"Damn..." Fletcher groaned against Scully's neck. "Too fast..."

"S'okay," Scully whispered, kissing Fletcher's temple. "I like that I can make it happen that fast."

"You do make it happen," Fletcher sighed, catching her breath. <That's _not_ what I had planned for tonight. And I certainly didn't expect to come _that_ fast. God, you'd think it was weeks since we've touched instead of a few days.>

Fletcher shifted her body off of Scully and laid beside her. Looking into Scully's eyes, she untied the robe and opened it. The small gold cross and chain shimmered with the light from the fire. She slowly pushed the robe open further, uncovering Scully's breasts. "So beautiful..." she whispered, her fingers trailing up and down Scully's body, then drawing small circles around her nipples.

Scully placed her hand on the back of Fletcher's neck and drew her to her. She kissed Fletcher tenderly, affectionately. Fletcher responded by lowering her face to Scully's breasts. She loved the contrast between the soft breasts and the hard nipples. She began to lovingly suck one breast, then the other, her tongue flicking at the very tip. She could feel Scully's fingers stroking her hair, her neck and her shoulders.

"Nice... nice," Scully breathed.

"Mmmmm," Fletcher mumbled in agreement. <Yes, it is so nice... _they_ are _so_ nice... I could stay here all night... and would, but I think Scully might have something to say about that...> She smiled to herself.

Fletcher's hand slid down Scully's side to her hip, then the soft curve of her ass. She gently pulled Scully close, positioning her hip between Scully's legs. Scully began a slow grind against the hard hipbone and Fletcher could feel a matching wetness between her own legs. She moved her hand to the small of Scully's back, keeping her tight over her hip.

Slowly, almost painfully slow to Scully, Fletcher began to kiss and lick her way down Scully's body. She replaced the hard, constant pressure of her hipbone on Scully's clit with a light touch of her tongue.

"Yesssssssss," Scully hissed. She reached for Fletcher's hands and laced her fingers through hers.

Fletcher's tongue was so light, so gentle on her clit Scully wasn't even sure at first if Fletcher was even touching it. But her body could feel it and it responded. Her hips began rocking, her pelvis tilted up and she spread her legs even further apart. No matter how much she moved beneath Fletcher, no matter how hard she squeezed her fingers, she couldn't get Fletcher to change the pace, touch her any harder.

And yet, Scully could feel the tension building in her pelvis and spreading up. <Please Fletcher...> The gentle touches suddenly stopped and were replaced with bold, firm strokes. She raised her knees, trying to urge Fletcher down further. She let go of Fletcher's hands and pressed on her head.

<I know what you want, Red... I know what you need... but not yet... > Fletcher thought, her lips surrounding Scully clit. She squeezed Scully's thigh, her knee, her ass, then her thigh once again. She pressed two fingers against Scully's wet opening, but didn't go inside of her.

"Fletcher..." Scully moaned. "Please..."

Fletcher slowly inserted the tips of two fingers and held them motionless. Scully squirmed, trying to force her fingers in further. She grabbed Fletcher's wrist, pushing them in as deep as they could go. Fletcher pulled them partially out, knowing that it was driving Scully crazy with desire, then drove them back in quickly.

"Oh, God..." Scully cried out. "Again... don't stop..."

Fletcher sucked hard on Scully's clit, her fingers pistoning furiously. Scully's hips moved wildly, her hands clutching Fletcher's shoulders. The stillness of the room was shattered by Scully's cries as she came.

Fletcher moved up, her mouth smothering Scully's with deep kisses. Her fingers still stirred within Scully, their movements matching the action of her tongue. Her hips pounded a steady cadence against Scully's and soon Scully's body shook with another orgasm.

"Oh, God, Fletcher..." she gasped, breaking the kiss off.

"I love you, Scully." Fletcher held her tight against her body. "I love you so much."

"So good, Fletcher... so good..."

Fletcher lifted her head up and looked down at her. "So, Doctor Scully, does this mean I pass my back-to-work physical?" she asked with a smile.

"With flying colors," Scully smiled back.

-end-


<<Chapter 27>>

Quantico Friday, December 11th, 9:00 AM

Fletcher tried not to notice the stares as she walked down the hallway. She still wasn't sure which was worse, having the bandage or not having the bandage. After Scully had left earlier, she'd taken the bandage off. <She'll probably be pissed, but it's so _white_ and it stands out so fucking much. It just draws more attention to me.>

She nodded her thanks to those who welcomed her back, not stopping to chat with anyone. She looked at her watch. <I think Scully said she had a meeting with Gabe this morning. This would be a good time to hit the lab.>

- - - - -

There were a few unfamiliar faces in the lab. <Geez, how long has it been since I've been down here? I used to know everybody. Damn. Being on the road last month really put me out of touch with the department.> She spotted Barry Vickers talking to a short dark-haired woman Fletcher didn't recognize. Barry had been at Quantico almost as long as Fletcher had. "Yo, Barry," she called out.

Barry smiled when he saw her. "Fletcher, welcome back. What brings you down here? Looking for Gabe?"

"Actually, Barry, I was wondering if you could help me out." Fletcher suddenly noticed that the woman was trying hard not to gawk. Fletcher stuck out her hand. "Hi. I'm Fletcher Buchanan. You must be new here, relatively speaking."

"Elly Klingler," she almost stuttered, shaking Fletcher's hand.

"You're the one who came up with the sewer angle on Algernon," she smiled. "Good work, that was a huge help."

"Th-thank you," Elly managed.

<Geez, I think I just made her come.> "Hope Barry isn't giving you a hard time."

"No, no, not at all." If the woman shook her head any faster, it might have come off.

"What can I do for you, Fletcher?" Barry asked.

"How are you with stitches?"

"I've sewn up a few autopsies."

"Ever take any out?" Fletcher asked, pointing to her wound.

He looked carefully at the sutures and whistled. "Christ, Fletcher, how many did they put in?"

"I'm not sure," she replied, shrugging. "Maybe thirty."

"I don't think I'm any good at taking them _out_."

"Know anybody down here who can?"

He cocked his head. "Why don't you have your doctor do it?

"I don't want to wait."

The look on his face was full of disapproval. "I should've known what you were up to as soon as I saw you down here, 'slumming it'."

"You know me, Barry." She grinned her most charming, crooked grin. "I'm such a people-user."

"Hah." He shook his head. "Sorry, Fletcher. This is the pathology lab, not the infirmary, and we're not covered by the Bureau HMO. Go get it done by a real doctor."

"Well, you can't blame a girl for trying," she sighed. <It would have been nice to go into my office without scaring the shit out of Shirley.>

"Go on," he said, waving her away. "Out, before Gabe or Roy finds out the real reason you were down here."

<Or Scully, for that matter,> Fletcher thought.


ISU Office Suites Friday, 9:26 AM

"Fletcher, what are you doing here? I didn't expect to see you until next week. How are you?" said a middle-aged, slightly plump woman with 'big' hair, looking every bit a typical secretary.

"Just fine, Shirley, thanks," she said to the Administrative Assistant that she'd 'inherited' with her promotion and her office.

"I've got so many messages for you. They're mostly get well wishes," she said, a stack of pink slips of paper in her hand. She followed Fletcher into her office.

Fletcher stopped when she flipped on the light. She was surprised to find a large flower arrangement on her desk. It was huge, taking up most of the space on her desk. "Where'd these come from?" she asked Shirley.

"They came to the main gate yesterday morning. Security checked them over and sent them down."

"Who are they from?" She moved around her desk, looking for a card.

"I don't know. The card was sealed. It's right there, in the middle."

<I don't think they're from Scully. They're a little too ostentatious for her.> She smiled. <She'd send something small and tasteful.> She plucked the envelope out of the arrangement and pulled out the note. It was a computer printout on FTD letterhead. What she read turned her blood cold.

"Shirley, get Roy on the phone for me."

Shirley opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, but stopped when she saw the color drain from Fletcher's face. "Right away."

Fletcher sank into her chair, fingering the card over and over. <It's not block letters and it's not red ink, but it's got to be him. It's _got_ to be.>

"Fletcher," Shirley said over the intercom. "Roy's on line one."

"Thanks." She snatched up the phone and hit the extension. "Roy?"

"Fletcher, when did you get in?" His tone said she shouldn't be in at all.

"Just a few minutes ago. You need to come down to my office."

"Can it wait? I've got a meeting in ten..."

"Now, Roy."

There was silence, and then he said, "I'm on my way."

Fletcher looked through the message slips while she waited, her face frozen, barely concealing her anger. She wanted nothing more than to dropkick the flowers across the room and tear up the card. <I know I'd feel better if I could, but I know I can't.>

"Fletcher, what's wrong?" Roy asked, striding into her office.

"How do you like my flowers?" she asked cryptically.

"You called me to your office about _flowers_?" Roy was puzzled, and wondered if Fletcher was suffering some sort of after-effects from her injuries.

"You'll never guess who they're from." She handed him the note. He read it in silence, swallowing back the bile that rose to his throat.

"MY APOLOGIES. I NEVER MEANT TO HURT YOU. I WAS ONLY TRYING TO GET YOUR ATTENTION. GET WELL SOON. ALGERNON."

"He's a nervy SOB, isn't he?" Roy commented.

Fletcher was so angry she couldn't talk. When she finally did, she spoke through clenched teeth, her voice cold, her face white with rage. "I want that bastard's balls hanging from my rear-view mirror!"

"Fletcher," Roy began.

"I want the staff of the guardhouse in here. Now. I want to know who delivered them, what florist shop they're from -"

"I'll put an agent on it..."

"The hell you will! I'm going out myself after I tear some..."

Roy's eyes grew dark. "That's not in the equation, Fletcher."

"Damnit, Roy, I'm _fine_! My doctor gave me a full physical yesterday!" <He doesn't have to know _which_ doctor, or _how_ she gave me the physical...>

His expression said he clearly wasn't buying it. "Then you won't mind one of _our_ doctors checking you out later this morning?"

"Don't be treating me like an invalid, Roy. It's only stitches, for chrissakes."

"It's still a _bullet_ wound. And you know you shouldn't even be back to work until you've been cleared by the department shrink."

Alarm bells went off in Fletcher's head. "I don't need a shrink, Roy."

"It's _policy_, Fletcher. And to put it bluntly, the only reason I don't run your ass out of here without a psych evaluation is because we need you _now_."

She relaxed, if only a little. "Thanks."

"You'll still have to see one. Later. When it's not quite so hectic."

"Right," she said sarcastically. "Just schedule the appointment for 2010. I might have some free time then."

"Fletcher..."

"I hear you, Roy. It's just not a good time right now."

"Yeah, well, _now_ you're going to go see the docs. And when I hear - from _them_ - that they've checked you out, and you can work to a _minimum_ level, I'll plug you back in." Fletcher started to object, but he pointed at her and said, "Don't make me make it an order, Fletcher. This is non-negotiable."

She rubbed her eyes like she was tired. She got up and started out the door. "I want the complete skinny on the flowers on my desk this afternoon."

"You'll have it," he assured her, watching her go. <God, I hate playing 'Bad Cop'.>


ISU Forensics Labs Friday, 9:54 AM

Scully left the meeting with Gabe. He'd assigned her to overview several other cases since they hadn't found anything new on the Algernon cases. She was pleased that Gabe had assigned Elly to work with her. She'd heard that Gabe was a shrewd assessor of talent, and now she was seeing it first hand.

"You missed the excitement," Elly said when Scully returned to the lab.

"What?"

"The legend herself was down here."

"Who?"

"Fletcher Buchanan." Elly finished off her second can of diet coke, an addiction she couldn't explain or break.

<Fletcher was here? What for? Surely she'd go straight to Gabe for any information.>

"Really?" Scully tried to sound as nonplussed as possible.

"Yeah. I can see why everybody talks about her. She even introduced herself to me, lowly little lab rat that I am."

"Elly..." Scully rolled her eyes.

"C'mon, Dana, it's not every day one of the mighty comes down to our department."

"What did she want?" Her voice sounded bored, though she was very curious as to Fletcher's visit.

"She tried to talk Barry into taking her stitches out. And you should've seen the stitches. The line must be at least four inches long. And she didn't even want to go to the doctor to have them out. It was so cool! She's tough as nails," she said admiringly.

"And just about as smart," Scully muttered, stewing inside. <Did she think I wouldn't find out? What a stupid thing to do!>

"Huh?"

"Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud." <Fletcher, you can be so... so juvenile.>


Flower Power Boswell, New Jersey Friday, 10:49 AM

"You didn't take _any_ I.D.?" Crocker asked, slightly incredulous. "These days, you have to show I.D. to buy air."

"It was a cash sale," the girl behind the counter repeated. "I didn't _need_ to see any I.D.. Besides, we don't sell liquor or guns here. We sell flowers."

"Don't people have to give an address and phone number when you place an order, in case the delivery gets screwed up?" McHugh asked.

"Yehhhhhs." She tapped the fax paper on the counter with a painted fingernail. The color was not found in nature. Neither was the color of her hair. "That's what _that_ is."

"Oh, sure," Crocker said wryly. "The address is the mailing address for Giants Stadium. The phone number is the request line for a Classic ROck station in Teaneck."

"Oh." The girl lost a little of her attitude. "Well, we don't usually check that stuff. Like he said, we only call the sender if something goes wrong. We don't even contact the sender to confirm delivery unless he or she asks us to."

<'It's not my job.' Right.> Crocker glanced down at the name on the order form. <'Benjamin Willard.' Smartass.> "And you don't remember _anything_ about this guy?"

"We're already in the Christmas season," the girl complained. "Since Black Friday, we've had triple the orders we usually get. That means three times the people, and not all of them call the order in. I wish they did. I've got finals next week, and I haven't been able to study at _all_!" She nodded at a stack of thick textbooks next to a chair by the phone.

"Sure," Dave said, taking his best 'Understanding Guy' stance. "But I'll bet not all of them paid cash." He tapped the time code on the paper. "Or came in at 12:24 yesterday afternoon."

"Actually, _most_ of them came in around that time," she said, her petulance returning. "That's when most of the peons have their lunch." She made a face. "_I_ don't get to go to lunch 'til after one. If it weren't for granola bars, I'd never make it."

"It's a hard-knock life," Crocker cracked.

She either missed the reference, or thought laughing at an old man's jokes was uncool. "What'd this guy do, anyway? Send flowers to the wrong girl?"

"You could say that," McHugh said, smiling tightly. "Thanks for your help."

The temperature had dropped a little more since they'd been in the shop. Crocker fished out his gloves as they stepped out onto the sidewalk. "Well, that was a waste of time."

"Not really," McHugh corrected him, tightening his scarf around his neck. "I figured out what to send my mom for her birthday."

Bill shook his head. "Don't they have enough flowers down in Vero Beach?"

"Well, I can't send her what she _really_ wants_," Dave chuckled. "Carnegie Deli doesn't deliver that far out of town, and the assisted community probably has pastrami sensors set up around the grounds."

"I know where I'm _not_ retiring. Speaking of pastrami, you want to grab some lunch?"

"Gotta find an ATM," McHugh winced. "I haven't cashed my paycheck yet."

"There you go." Bill pointed at the Citizen's Bank across the way.

McHugh shook his head. "I go over there, I pay a cover charge. Don't worry, I saw a branch of my bank about five blocks from here." He started towards the car, but stopped when he noticed Bill wasn't following him. Dave looked back. "What?"

"I'm just thinking." Bill was still looking across the street. "What do all ATMs have in common?"

Dave walked back to his partner. <Okay, I'll play the game.> "They all try to rip you off with as many fees as possible?"

Bill looked at him and smiled. "They all have security cameras."

McHugh did a double take. <Fuck _me_!> He pulled the order form out of his pocket. "And _we_ have a time stamp."

"So we do."

They went across the street at a trot.


Cambridge County DPW Depot 3 Tuesday, 11:56 PM

"You guys have gotta be fuckin' kidding me."

"Do I _look_ like I'm telling a joke, Mr. Hadsell?" Crocker asked the dispatcher. Crocker thought the man looked like a frog, which brought him even further down in standing. Crocker hated frogs from the moment he had to open one up in his junior high school science class.

"But look at this shit," Hadsell whined. "I took better pictures on my honeymoon. And I was half in the bag for most of that!"

<It must be magic being married to you,> McHugh thought to himself. "I'm afraid these are the best we could do. We appreciate any help you can give us." He couldn't help but grimace at the collection of vidcaps that were spread out on Hadsell's cluttered desk. <You could enter these in a modern-art contest. The definition couldn't be much worse.>

"Look, guys, have a heart," Hadsell implored, glancing through the pictures as he spoke. "I've given you a shitload'a help _already_! You made me go through three months of logbooks the other day. Now you got me lookin' at _this_ shit! I got three people out sick, branches down all over 'cause of the windstorm we had last night, and if that ain't enough-" He paused. "Whoa, hold on."

McHugh leaned forward in his chair. "You got something?"

"Well..." Hadsell held one of the vidcaps away from him, squinting like he was nearsighted. "Well, the picture sucks, so I can't be sure..."

"But...?" Crocker said, urging him to go on.

"Well, this guy _looks_ like Charley..." He wrinkled his nose. "'Scuse me, _Charles_ Tolliver."

<Charley.> "He particular about that?" McHugh asked.

"Yeah," Hadsell snorted. "Pretty fuckin' prissy for a sewer rat."

"Sewer rat?" Dave exchanged a look with Bill.

"Yeah. Anything that's blocked up, backed up, or floodin' somebody's bathtub, Charles is the man in charge. He does other stuff - runs a plow in the winter, does branch detail like everyone else - but mostly he's runnin' round underground. Wish the snooty little fucker would stay down there. I don't trust anyone who doesn't watch football at _all_." He looked up at the two federal agents. "Why? What's he done?"

"We just need to ask him some questions," Crocker said neutrally. "Is he working today?"

Hadsell turned to a rack of clipboards and pulled the nearest one off a hook. "He's goin' round clearin' the grates. Usual drill every winter. Fall leaves clog 'em up, nothin' drains when there's a thaw, streets get flooded..." He ran his finger down a row, then pushed his chair over to the radio set. "He's over in Ramsey, in the Knolls. Ritzy neighborhood, always complainin' they never get the service they pay for..." He picked up the microphone and pressed the red button on the base. "Central to 205, come in, over." He waited. Nothing but static came from the speaker. "Central to 205, come on back, over." He waited some more. Still more static. Hadsell glanced up at the clock on the wall. "He's probably takin' a lunch break. Ought to be back on the air any time. Want me to keep calling?"

"No, that's okay," Crocker said easily. "We got to catch some lunch ourselves. Just give us a description of his vehicle. Maybe we'll run into him."

Hadsell did so, convinced he was going to be interviewed on 'America's Most Wanted' by the end of the week, at the latest. <Better clean the place up a little.>

"Is Tolliver's car parked out there?" McHugh asked, looking out the grime-covered window.

Hadsell lifted up out of his chair for a moment. "Yeah. The gray Honda Prelude with the busted taillight."

Dave and Bill passed another look. "Thanks," Dave told him. "Oh, and do you have his home address around?" <What the hell, may as well get a warrant for the house _and_ the car.>

-end-


<<Chapter 28>>

Quantico Friday, 12:29 PM

<Half a day pissed away,> Fletcher fumed as she marched down the hall, a piece of FBI letterhead clutched in her right hand. <Stupid goddamn doctors! They're poking and prodding while Algernon's sending me mash notes! I didn't have a headache when I walked into Medical, but I sure have one now.> She walked into Roy's outer office and headed for the closed door, ignoring Janet, his personal assistant. <They damn well better have _all_ the details on those flowers, or there's gonna be a shooting in Virginia tonight!>

She knocked once and opened the door. Roy and Mulder were standing on either side of the conference table, staring down at the speakerphone in the middle of the table. Both of them had their hands on the table, and they looked extremely tense.

Fletcher held up the piece of paper. "I got a note from my doctor, Mister-"

Roy held up a hand, giving her a withering look. "Bill, would you repeat that? Fletcher just walked in."

Crocker's voice crackled out of the speaker. "The guy's name is Charles Tolliver. T-O-Double L-I-V-E-R. He's got an address in Boswell, and unless he does back roads, he'd have to drive by the florist shop on his way to work. The New York office is doing a background check right now."

<Sacred shit,> Fletcher thought wildly, her headache easing as adrenaline coursed through her. "You sure about this guy, Bill?"

"The dispatcher at DPW I.D.'ed him off of a picture we got from an ATM security camera across from the florist," he replied. "The clerk at the florist remembered him when we showed her the picture. Apparently he'd been more of a pain in the ass then most of her customers that day."

"How so?" Fletcher walked up next to Mulder.

"It seems Algernon wanted to send a handwritten note along with the flowers, and was real adamant about it. She had to explain to him twice that they couldn't send personal messages with out-of-town orders, that he could only send a message on the order form. He copied his note onto the form. Block letters, just like his other notes. She made him copy it again. The first time he used a red pen, and red ink wouldn't show up on the fax."

<Consistency is the hobgoblin of easy catches.> "Get that note bagged and down here yesterday," Fletcher instructed him. <No way do the locals handle this!>

"You know where Algernon is right now?" Mulder asked.

"Supposedly he's cleaning sewer grates in some suburb called Ramsey." Fletcher and Mulder shared a look as Bill went on. "No answer on his radio, so the dispatcher thinks Algernon's on a lunch break. State Police put out a BOLO on his truck, and they're working on warrants for his house and car..."

Fletcher cut him off. "Does either Ramsey or Boswell have an airport?" <No sense going to Newark if we don't have to...>

"Boswell's got a small field for private planes about a mile out of town."

"We're on the way," Fletcher barked. "We'll call back with an ETA. Meet us when we land. And let us know as soon as you get that background check."

"You got it." The line clicked dead.

"Fletcher," Roy started.

She slapped the paper she'd been holding down on the desk. "Cleared for duty, pending a psych evaluation. Which _you_ said could wait til _after_ we nail this cocksucker. You want to call the doc? He was heading out to lunch when I left. I'll be glad to wait, but that's an hour we lose, and Algernon gains. Your call, Roy."

"This machine doesn't stop because you're hurt, Fletcher," Roy snapped. "Mulder can ride in a helicopter by himself. He's a big boy now."

Fletcher's eyes flashed. It was her turn to put her hands on the table. "Roy, I know enough about closure to know I need to see this one through. I need to be there when they shut him down. The Jersey cops might catch him, but they don't _know_ him. I _do_. And they _might_ let him get away!" Her voice dropped as she leaned forward. "God damn you, Roy, do not make me beg. Because that'll just piss us _both_ off."

The staredown lasted at least ten seconds. Mulder wanted to say something, but knew to keep his mouth shut. Finally Roy said, "You'd better have your affairs in order, Fletcher." He held up the medical evaluation. "Because if I find out you are sandbagging me on this, I will personally order Sandy Dillard to throw your ass out of her helicopter. In mid-air, preferably at a height above one thousand feet. Do I make myself clear?"

She willed herself not to smile. "Do you want me to call the helipad?"

"I'll do that myself. Go. Bring me back a scalp."

- - - - -

ulder and Fletcher didn't speak until they were in the elevator, and Mulder wouldn't have spoken at all if the car hadn't been empty. "You never told me you wanted to be a daredevil."

"What the fuck does that mean?" she said evenly, staring straight ahead.

"That was a hell of a high-wire act you did in there."

"Thanks. There'll be a midnight matinee this weekend." <Jesus, this elevator is slow!>

"He had every right to keep you behind."

"I would have resigned on the spot."

"And that's the problem, Fletcher..."

"Why?" she demanded. "Because I could star in an all-girl revival of 'Scarface'?"

"Because you're coming dangerously close to losing your objectivity!"

"You don't want to work with me, Spooky?" Fletcher asked sharply. "Fine! Do us both a favor and stay off my helicopter! Because I'm going, I'm gonna put that sons'a'bitch's head on a spike, and that's the name of that tune!"

Mulder reached out and hit the 'Elevator Stop' button. The car lurched to a halt. Somewhere at the top of the shaft, an alarm bell rang. Fletcher's head snapped around. "What the hell-"

Mulder backed Fletcher up against the wall, then braced his hands on either side of Fletcher's head. Fletcher was caught so unawares, she didn't even think about kicking him in the balls. The look he was giving her would have forestalled that move anyway. <So this is what it's like to look into a cobra's eyes,> she thought.

"You are my oldest friend," he said coldly, "and one of the best partners I've ever had. I love you like a brother, and I'll back you up no matter what the situation. But that also gives me the right to tell you when you're wrong, when you're pushing, and when you're going too far."

Fletcher tried to speak, but Mulder cut her off, taking his voice up a notch. "You're also in love with the only other person besides you that I trust. That makes me even _more_ responsible for you. Because if you die, or if you hurt yourself, or somebody else, because you're not thinking clearly, not only would _I_ never forgive myself, Scully would never forgive me either!" He leaned forward until their noses almost touched. "And what's more, she'd never forgive _you_!"

He stepped away from her and started the elevator again. Fletcher stayed pinned to the wall. "I don't need Fletcher, Warrior Princess, here," he said to the elevator doors. He was back to his usual monotone. "I need Fletcher Buchanan, all-World profiler. I'll be proud to work with either of them, but I need the second one more." He looked at her out of the corner of her eye. "Do I still have to get my own helicopter?"

Fletcher's eyes were on the floor. Her back was off the wall, but she had lost all her fury. "No," she said quietly.

He still couldn't look at her directly. "Do I still have to worry?"

She took a breath and squared her shoulders. "No." Then she gave him a quick smile. "But thanks for worrying anyway."


State Route 17 Ramsey, New Jersey Friday, 12:46 PM

<Well, _that_ was one I'd never heard before,> State Trooper Gene Lyon chuckled to himself as he pulled away from the black Trans Am. <I've never had someone try to get out of a ticket because they were late getting home from their radio show! I loved the look on his face when I said I listened to Howard Stern.> His grin widened and his stomach rumbled as he saw Diane's Diner coming into sight. He picked up the handset. "Six William Eighteen to Control."

"Control," the dispatcher said laconically. "Go, Six William Eighteen."

<He wants to be an air-traffic controller when he grows up.> "I'm ten-ten at 1375 Route 17. I'll be on my chest mic. Over."

"Copy, Six William Eighteen. Have a good one."

Lyon clicked the 'Send' button twice and replaced the mic, slowing down and signaling well before the diner's parking lot. Route 17, the Highway to Hell, led the state in high-speed rear-enders, and just because his cruiser had multiple lights on the roof didn't mean whoever was behind him was paying attention. His stomach grumbled again, already anticipating Diane's famous chili.

This was Lyon's favorite diner of all the eating establishments on his tour. It was still in original condition -- none of that fake "old" diner chrome or brick facade hiding the boxcar -- and it was cheaper than Burger King, as long as you stuck to the specials. He turned the Crown Victoria off the four-lane highway and searched for a parking space. <Hope they haven't thrown out the papers from the breakfast crowd,> he thought. <It'd be nice to read some _good_ news about the Giants for a...>

The canary yellow Cambridge County Public Works truck was parked nose-out in the spot to the left of the entrance. Like most DPW vehicles, it looked the worse for wear, though this one was no more than two years old. Lyon checked the plate against the number on his scratch pad. He checked again to make sure he hadn't transposed any numbers. <Hi there, stranger.>

Lyon didn't hit his brakes. Instead he kept his momentum going, aiming the cruiser for a recently vacated parking slot next to the guardrail. His breathing was calm, but he could feel his pulse race as he keyed his microphone. "Six William Eighteen to Control."

"Go, Eighteen."

"I've located that Cambridge County DPW vehicle we had a broadcast on. It's in the parking lot of 1375 Route 17. No sign of a driver. Request instructions, over."

"Six William Eighteen, wait one."

<Hurry up and wait,> Lyon fumed, backing the Crown Vic into the spot. <Just like in the Corps.> He knew he shouldn't be upset. The BOLO had said 'Subject should be considered Armed and Dangerous.' Diane's parking lot was chock full, just like it was every workday at lunch time. There was no way a dispatcher was going to send one cop into a situation like that. <Dead people in diners are not the best way to get your face on the six o'clock news.>

When the dispatcher came back on, he didn't sound as laconic. "Six William Eighteen, you are to keep the subject under surveillance. Do not attempt to approach or apprehend. Notify Control the moment the subject leaves his present location. Copy?"

"Copy," Lyon said immediately. "Will advise. Six William Eighteen." <They're playing it safe.> His stomach protested the strategy. <Nothing we can do,> he sighed. His travel mug was empty, but there was still ice in the Coke he'd picked up at White Castle. He sucked some cold water through the straw and settled down to wait.


Boswell Municipal Airport Friday, 1:38 PM

Crocker had the engine running the minute he spotted the chopper coming in from the south. He got out and waited by the car as Dillard set the Jet Ranger down by the row of one- and two-engine prop planes. <I'm keeping my head right on my shoulders. You can't hear anything over the damn prop wash, anyway.> Mulder and Fletcher got out of the helicopter and duck-walked towards him, returning to full height when they had cleared the blades. They wanted to keep their heads on, too.

"What have you got?" Fletcher called as they came up to the Crown Vic.

"Lots. A trooper spotted him about half an hour ago, taking a lunch break in a diner on Route 17. He left there fifteen minutes ago and drove back to the neighborhood he's supposed to be working." They all got in the car, Fletcher and Mulder in the back. Crocker hit the gas as soon as the doors were closed, turning on the blue flashers for good measure.

"Does the trooper still have him under surveillance?" Fletcher said as she put on her seat belt.

"It's a suburban neighborhood," Crocker explained, "and the place Algernon's working is at the end of a cul-de-sac. The trooper's driving a bubblegum machine, not your most subtle form of surveillance vehicle. The investigative unit's routing plainclothes cars to take over. Til then the guy cruises like he's doing neighborhood watch."

"Fabulous," Fletcher grunted. "It'll tip Algernon for sure."

"He ought to be able to get away with it, for a while anyway. Ramsey doesn't even have a police force. The State boys and the county sheriff's department split the duty."

"A henhouse with a part-time watch dog," Mulder remarked. "I'm surprised Algernon didn't start there."

"Give thanks for small favors," Fletcher returned. "What do we know about our subject?" <Not _Unknown_ Subject. We know who you are, you rat bastard.>

"Charles Michael Tolliver, 37," Crocker read from a notebook, keeping half an eye on the road. "Born and raised in Boswell, and a graduate of the high school. Single white male, never married. No criminal record, no juvie record; the best we could find were a couple of parking tickets in Newark, both of which he paid. Before he joined up with the county, he worked in his dad's business. Plumbing contractor -- pretty big one, too, business went back a couple of generations. The secretary at the depot says Tolliver was studying to be an architect at Rutgers, but his old man pulled him out of school when his mom died and put him to work."

Fletcher looked at Mulder. "Great losses. Great disappointments."

He nodded. "And a complete lack of control."

"It gets better," Crocker went on. "The business went south in '96, after they lost some major long-term contracts. Their competitors undercut them big-time, so they got cut out of the development boom. Dad killed himself a few months later - garden hose in the tailpipe, classic American suicide. Algernon had to sell everything just to keep the bill collectors and Uncle Sam happy."

Mulder whistled. "This guy needs a forklift to carry around all his emotional baggage."

"What's the word on those warrants?" Fletcher wanted to know.

"Dave just called. They got 'em. He's going back to the depot to work the car with one CSU team. We're meeting the other one at Tolliver's house."

"How far away?"

"Ten minutes," he told her.

"Can you make it five?"

"Okay," he chuckled. "But you pay for the broken windows when I go through the sound barrier."


7 Spencer Avenue Boswell, New Jersey Friday, 1:49 PM

Their timing was perfect. An unmarked Caprice and two black vans were pulling up to the one-story house just as Crocker turned onto the street. One van held a Crime Scene Unit team, while four armed-and-armored troopers jumped out of the other. "Look, ma," Mulder said lifelessly. "The circus is in town."

"Great," Fletcher groaned.

"These guys think 'low-profile' means a side shot of Gary Coleman," Crocker snorted. The line didn't get laughs, but Mulder and Fletcher did smile grimly.

Two men with well-trimmed mustaches and matching looks of disdain watched the FBI agents pull up. "Buchanan," the taller detective called as Fletcher got out of the Crown Vic. "Good to see you're up and around."

"Good to be seen," she returned coolly. <Boy, he sure sounds sincere. Fuck you very much, Sergeant Corcoran. Don't you go changin'.> She looked around, as if bewildered. "What's the matter? Couldn't you get a brass band to go with this parade?"

"Procedure," Corcoran said shortly, sizing up the house as he stepped onto the sidewalk. The building itself was in good condition, but the bushes were overgrown and badly in need of trimming. It was a 'shotgun house' - that is, if you opened the door and fired a shotgun, the buckshot would pass through every room in the house and go out the back door.

"The man's armed and dangerous," the other detective maintained as he followed Corcoran. "Surely you can appreciate that."

"I can appreciate that, Detective Witter," Fletcher told him as she led her fellow agents up the cracked path. "I can also appreciate that the suspect is in another town entirely, being watched by your own people."

"_We_ never ruled out the possibility of an accomplice," Corcoran said placidly. He had a walkie-talkie in his left hand.

"Besides," Witter added, "the dispatcher could have given us the wrong license number, and we're watching the wrong truck."

"And his car at the depot?" Crocker asked, sarcasm heavy in his voice. "What's that, a decoy?"

"Could be. This guy hasn't gotten away with this shit by being stupid."

Mulder started to protest, but Fletcher held up a hand. "Don't bother," she said quietly. "It'd be like explaining the Theory of Gravity to a rhinoceros. It loses something in the translation."

Two SWAT troopers moved around the federal agents and took station around the doorway, while the other two ran down one side of the house. Everyone waited until Corcoran's radio crackled, "Unit One."

"Go, One," Corcoran said into the radio.

"Residence is dark. No movement detected."

"'Cause no one's hohh-ohhhm," Crocker sang under his breath.

Corcoran ignored him. "Do it," he said shortly. The lead SWAT trooper opened the storm door and got down on his knees, fishing a set of lock picks out of his vest. He had the door open in a few seconds.

"Watch for trip wires," Mulder said, only half-seriously. <Don't joke. Those three brothers weren't rocket scientists, and they had more booby traps than a Viet Cong tunnel.>

The SWAT leader checked the doorway with a flashlight, then said into his throat mic, "Going in." He leapt through the door, Witter and his partner close behind. Corcoran drew his service weapon and gave the federal agents a sardonic look. "Care to join us?"

Fletcher's cell phone went off before anyone could respond. "Go ahead on," she told Mulder and Crocker. "I'll be along." They nodded and went up the steps, drawing their weapons out of habit. She pulled out her cellular and switched it on. "Buchanan."

"McHugh," Dave's voice answered. "CSU's making a second trip with their fine tooth comb. They've found traces of those sewer chemicals on the floor mats, but no blood, no weapons. Not in the interior, not in the trunk. They Luminoled everything but the engine block. No soap."

<This day just keeps getting better and better.> Fletcher's scar was starting to throb. "Got any theories, Dave?"

There was a pause. McHugh was surprised Fletcher had asked. Surprised and pleased. "Well, the car's pretty damn clean. Nothing in the ashtrays, no fast-food bags or sesame seeds on the floor, so he may have detailed it recently. That wouldn't stop Luminol from picking up blood traces, though. He _could_ have covered the seats and the mats with plastic -- like maybe with garbage bags, or those clear plastic bags you get from the dry cleaner? He could toss 'em in the garbage when he was done and nobody would be the wiser."

"Makes sense to me," she agreed. <I definitely have to talk to Roy about you.> "Okay, keep at it. You find anything, let me know."

"Right."

All the lights were on when Fletcher walked into the house. The SWAT troopers were standing in a group, looking like attack dogs with nothing left to kill. Witter was opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen while Corcoran looked through an antique sideboard that sat in a corner of the front living area. <Guess Algernon didn't sell all his dad's stuff.> The dining set and living room furniture was 70s Modern, chrome and glass, horribly outdated, severely out of place in the ancient little house. She gave Corcoran another look. <At least he's wearing gloves.>

She walked through the house slowly, nostrils flared like she smelled something very far away. <This is his home. He lives here. Sleeps here. Plans here. Maybe sitting on the couch? No, he'd do it at the dining table, under that awful Tiffany lamp repro. If the sideboard's any indication, he was used to a lot better than this. Better than walking through shit for a living, that's for sure. My, but you're an angry little man, aren't you, Algernon?>

Witter walked into the living room, a small picture frame in his hand. He thrust it at Fletcher. "This your guy?"

Fletcher took the picture and looked, her blood chilling. It was an old picture, turning brown at the edges with the color starting to fade. A man and a boy were standing on either side of an old Jeep Wagoneer. An eight-point buck was tied to the fender, staring sightlessly at the camera. The man looked triumphant, while the boy seemed to be straining to smile. The bolt-action rifle in the man's free hand had a telescopic sight, and the barrel shone like it had been polished and polished.

"Fletcher!"

Mulder's voice came from the back of the house. Fletcher started towards the kitchen but was held up by Corcoran, who didn't want to be left out of anything. She pushed past him and Witter and walked into the bedroom. "What have you got?"

The bedroom was lit by a weak overhead light, with bed sheets covering the windows. The doors of the closet were folded to either side, revealing Charles Tolliver's meager wardrobe. Mulder and Crocker were standing in front of the closet, both of them looking down. Mulder nodded at what he was looking at. "Think Algernon knows a lot of amputees?"

Fletcher looked down. Nine left shoes, of various sizes and types, were laid out in a neat row.


Hiawatha Drive, The Knolls Ramsey, New Jersey Friday, 3:22 PM

<That's the last one,> he thought, putting the snake away. <And I've still got one hour of daylight left.> Not that he needed it. He'd found the perfect place that morning. Center hall Colonial, well-manicured front lawn, in-ground swimming pool in the back, tasteful landscaping, red-and-green Christmas flag flying from a pole attached to the garage. No activity from inside, so both parents must work. He knew they were parents. This was not a single-family neighborhood. Everyone had kids, and Ramsey had a great school system, not to mention one of the best high schools in the state. <A great place to raise a family. Dad would have loved it.>

He'd just started the truck when all hell broke loose. Two black sedans and a large van roared into the cul-de-sac, while two more sedans blocked the entrance. People came pouring out of the vehicles, all of them holding guns, all of them pointing at him.

"Tolliver!" An amplified voice boomed at him from one of the cars. "Charles Michael Tolliver! This is the New Jersey State Police! Do not move! Turn off the engine! Keep your hands on the steering wheel, and you will not be harmed!"

Algernon did not move at all, not physically anyway. His mind moved like lightning. <How can I turn off the engine with my hands on the wheel?> he wanted to laugh, but this was not funny. If he floored it, he could plow through a few of those bulletproof boobs before they got off a round. <Maybe even get past the first cars if he went up on that lawn over there. It's that last wall. I could drive around it if I stay on the grass, but they'd have time to take aim.> There was the gun, snug in the small of his back. He was pitifully armed when compared to the force in front of him, but there was enough to take a few people with him. <Or, at least, make my own exit.>

<No. Let them come into the maze. Let's see how fast they can get to the other end.> Moving deliberately, he turned the engine off. Three seconds later he was pulled out of the truck and handcuffed.

"Charles Michael Tolliver, you're under arrest for murder! You have the right to remain silent..."

-end-


<<Chapter 29>>

New Jersey State Police, Troop D Headquarters Friday, 8:04 PM

Fletcher stood looking through the two-way mirror. Her arms were folded across her chest as she stared intently at Charles Tolliver. He was sitting calmly, having refused to answer any questions that Corcoran and Witter threw at him. They'd become frustrated with his stonewalling and had left the room.

Mulder and McHugh flanked her. McHugh's eyes darted back and forth from Fletcher to Tolliver. He wanted to know what she was thinking. Mulder was thinking the same thing, but for different reasons. He hoped that Fletcher was still in control of herself, wasn't planning anything stupid. <I don't want to see her back to where she was two years ago - teaching and not profiling. The powers that be wouldn't be a forgiving a second time.>

She was oblivious to the arguments raging behind her. The District Attorney, the State Police and police officers from four towns were fighting over who was going to have credit for the arrest, who had jurisdiction. It had been going on for hours. Mulder had called Roy less than an hour after the arrest and urged him to come up.

When the noise became too great, too much of a distraction, Fletcher turned and began to stare down each participant. Unable to meet her eyes for long, each man looked away, his voice trailing off. Everyone in the room knew what her stake in it was.

"Has he asked for a lawyer yet?" she asked Corcoran.

"He says he doesn't need one. He didn't do anything." Corcoran looked like he smelled something awful. "It's a good thing Tolliver _hasn't_ lawyered up. CSU hasn't found any weapons in the house, and that gun he was carrying is only a .25. Way too small to be the one we're looking for. The most we've got on him is Concealed Weapons, and any first-year P.D. could plead that down to zip."

"Did you tell him about the sneakers?"

"Says he found them in gutters while he was working," Witter answered. "Says he collects 'em."

"That's a good one," McHugh hooted.

"Yeah, well, just because the sneaks match up doesn't _add_ up to anything," Corcoran shot back. "His lawyer could say there's no way having the sneakers puts Tolliver in the house. _Any_ house. And he'd be right."

"Do you want a confession?" Fletcher offered.

"Got any other brilliant observations?" Witter cracked.

"Hey," McHugh started. Roy gave him a hard stare, so he didn't continue.

"And I suppose you can get one?" Corcoran said sarcastically. Fletcher didn't reply. She just returned to watching Algernon. "Hey, don't turn away from me," he snapped. "I asked you a question! Who the fuck are you that makes you think you can get a confession?"

Mulder felt himself growing angrier by the second. He didn't know how Fletcher could remain so calm. He was about to serve Corcoran an extra large piece of his mind when Roy stepped in front of the snarling State Police investigator. "I'll tell you who she is, Sergeant," he said evenly. "Fletcher Buchanan has put more serial killers behind bars and on death row than anyone else has in the country. She's gotten more confessions from cold-blooded murderers, on her own, than your entire squad has gotten from all their cases put together. So when she asks you if you want a confession, she's not just doing it to push your buttons. She knows what she's doing." He dropped his voice so that only Corcoran could hear him. "And if you'd put your ego aside and get your head out of your ass, you'd find that out for yourself. You might even learn a thing or two."

Corcoran looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel. "You can't talk to me like that!"

"I believe I just did," Roy returned quietly. There was no menace in his voice, not much inflection of any kind. But something in Tupper's steady gaze made Corcoran think twice about going to war.

"Fuck this noise," she said to Mulder. "I'm going."

"I'll go with you."

"Not this time, Mulder. I'm flying solo this time." She saw the look that crossed his face. "Relax. I won't hurt him."

"I'll be right out here."

"I know," she replied, giving him a pat on the shoulder.

Fletcher opened the door and casually walked toward the plain wooden table where Algernon sat. The closer she got, the wider his eyes opened. For the first time since he'd been arrested, Charles Tolliver was nervous, even a little scared.

Before she sat down, Fletcher offered her hand.

"Mr. Tolliver, I'm Special Agent Fletcher Buchanan," she said, her voice soft, her tone courteous. He wiped his suddenly sweaty palm on his pant leg before nervously shaking her hand. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if I may."

He nodded. "Sure," he croaked.

She started to sit down, then paused. "Can I get you anything?"

"That other detective, he offered me cigarettes and coffee."

"Pretty rude of him, wasn't it? You don't smoke, and you prefer tea." She turned her head slightly, just enough so that he could see the black line on her head. He'd already been staring at the purple and black discoloration above and below her eye.

He had other things on his mind at the moment, though. "Why... why, yes. Yes, I do. But how...?"

"You're a man of culture, Mr. Tolliver," she said, her voice calm and soothing. "Anyone can see that." She gestured towards the mirror. "Would you like a cup of hot tea?"

"Please."

Fletcher nodded and headed for the door. "No sugar, no milk, right?" He nodded, amazed that she knew even that much. "I'd offer you a lemon, but I don't think they have any around this place." She poked her head out of the door. "Dave, could I have two cups of tea in here? No milk, no sugar, and an empty cup, okay?"

McHugh blinked twice before saying, "Umm, sure, Fletcher, coming right up." Mulder didn't say anything. He watched her with the same kind of concentration a baseball manager had watching a pitcher warm-up --wondering if the pitcher has the stuff today, wondering if it was a good call to choose that particular pitcher for this situation.

She waited by the door for Dave's return. <I've got to do this right. Threats won't work with him, and even if we have a ton of evidence, I don't want him to plead insanity. He's got to confess. And forget about showing him the crime scene photos. He'll just get off on that.>

- - - - -

The empty cup sat between them as the tea steeped. Tolliver nodded approvingly when she took her tea bag out without squeezing it and deposited it into the empty cup. <She knows that squeezing the tea bag is wrong, that it releases all the tannic acid. Finally, someone with a little breeding and class.>

Fletcher took a sip and sighed. "Mmmmm, that's good. I don't drink near as much of this as I should."

"It's a very relaxing drink," he agreed, feeling a little more at ease. "I always have a cup at the end of the day."

She nodded, smiled. "Mr. Tolliver - may I call you Charles?"

"Please do."

"Charles, why did you shoot me?"

"I wasn't shooting at _you_," he said, his face red with embarrassment. "I thought I explained that. I didn't mean to hurt you. It was an accident."

<Good one, Fletcher,> Roy thought as he watched the interview. <We've got him on that one at least.> Mulder stood beside him, nodding, as if sharing Roy's thoughts.

"Yes, you did explain it," Fletcher said, nodding sympathetically. She patted the table once. "Oh, before I forget, thank you for the flowers."

Tolliver brightened a little. "I hope you liked the arrangement."

"It took up most of my desk," Fletcher replied, trying to make that sound like a positive trait.

Now he frowned. "A bouquet of carnations in a glass vase shouldn't have taken up that much room."

Fletcher raised her eyebrows. "Actually, it was more like a large arrangement of orchids, irises, lilies. A few pussywillows for contrast..."

Tolliver's frown deepened. He looked away. "They got it wrong. They got my order wrong." He sighed hard. "I was _very_ explicit about what arrangement I wanted."

"Maybe they didn't take you seriously," Fletcher said, her head cocked as she looked at him.

"They usually don't," he said shortly.

"So it was a mistake?"

"Of course it was a mistake! I specifically told that silly twit I wanted..."

"I meant you shooting at me, Charles."

He wasn't relaxed any more. He shifted in his chair, dropping his eyes to the table. "I was aiming for the door, just above your shoulder. I was just trying to get your attention. You just moved at the wrong time." Tolliver's voice bordered on a whine.

"Now why would you want to get my attention? Didn't you think you already had it?"

Charles looked at his cup of tea. He couldn't meet her gaze, didn't want to look at those unreal blue eyes. <Like ice. They look like chips of blue ice. Colder than anything I've ever seen.>

"Would you rather talk about something else?" she asked. He nodded, still looking down. "Charles, look at me."

He did as ordered, staring at Fletcher's eyes once again. "What do _you_ want to talk about?" he asked, feeling as if he'd been hypnotized by her eyes.

Her eyes seem to change color, looking darker and more lifeless than before. Her voice dropped so that only he could hear her voice. "Columbus Day," she whispered.

His grip on the white styrofoam cup increased, bending, but not breaking it. His eyes locked on hers, he nodded, unable to speak.

She shut her eyes for a moment, then opened them. They could have belonged to a doll, or a shark, they were so empty. "You came in through the basement window. It was dusty and you were afraid you'd sneeze. Up the stairs, two at a time." She stopped and looked at him. "Light on your feet, weren't you, Charles? All those dance lessons as a boy paid off."

<How does she know?> he thought, speechless. <She wasn't there. No way. She couldn't know that. Mom's dead. So's Dad. And even if he were alive, he'd never admit that any son of _his_ ever took...>

"Through the kitchen," Fletcher continued. "Don't touch anything. Don't leave a fingerprint. Down the hall. The carpet is soft under your feet, makes you want to walk barefoot on it. Another time, maybe. You've got work to do." She softly coughed once. "It was easy, wasn't it? The father never even knew you were there. Asleep one minute, dead with a bullet in his head the next minute. The mother, she was a little tougher to put down. Even after you slit her throat, she still ran to protect her children."

"How do you know?" he asked, his voice barely audible.

Fletcher didn't even hear him. Her eyes were open, but not seeing anything. To Tolliver, they seemed to be looking right into his brain, reading his thoughts, revealing his memories.

"You were on the boy so fast, I don't even think you really even saw him," Fletcher murmured. "A few quick thrusts with the knife and it was over."

She shut her eyes again, leaving them closed for a minute. Tolliver didn't move from the edge of seat. He leaned forward, waiting to hear what she was going to say next.

"The shoes, the Y-incisions, they didn't mean anything, did they?" she said, sounding like she was talking about the weather. "You did it just to throw us off track, just because you could."

"Yes," he said as he nodded his head.

"Just leading us deeper into your maze." That sentence fragment made him jump. "That's what gets you through it when you're down there, isn't it? Down in the sewer. You're not Charles Tolliver then. You're Algernon, running the maze, smarter than anyone, and no one is like you, no one understands..."

"No," he whispered. "No one. No one except you." <I don't like this... she knows too much... Please... please... don't remember the girl...>

"And the little girl..." she said, as if reading his mind. She suddenly took his wrist and stared at him, her eyes dark. "Who's Ann Marie?" she asked sharply, squeezing hard.

"No..." His voice became a moan. "Nohhhhh, you _can't_ know about her! There's no _way_ you could..."

"She looked like Ann Marie, didn't she?" Fletcher pressed.

- - - - -

From behind the mirror, Mulder and Roy exchanged looks. "Who's Ann Marie?" Roy asked. "Is there anything in the files?"

"I'm looking, I'm looking," Dave said, flipping through the three-inch-thick stack of paper in the folder. "I don't see anything. No relatives, no victims with that name."

"What about neighbors, friends?" Mulder queried.

"No."

"Get somebody on it, now," Tupper ordered. <Dammit, Fletcher, what are you trying to pull?>

- - - - -

"I didn't want to kill her, but she saw me... I couldn't leave her alive... I couldn't leave her without any family left..."

"She looked up at you, those big brown eyes... she was too frightened to run, too frightened to scream... and you killed her, even though she looked just like Ann Marie."

Tolliver wrenched his wrist free from Fletcher's grip. He backed away, standing up and knocking his chair over. The handcuff on his right wrist kept him from getting away.

"You were there," he said, panicked. "You _had_ to be! You must have _watched_ me do it! How else could you know? And why didn't you stop me?!" Fletcher remained seated, not saying a word. Tolliver look wildly around the room. "Get me out of here! She's not human! I'm telling you, she's not human! She's an alien! I _told_ you all! I told that writer to tell the world! She's a goddamn alien, and she's reading my mind!"

"Tell them what you did, Charles," Fletcher said quietly, not looking at him anymore.

"I did it!" he screamed. "Do you hear? I killed them! I killed them all, all of them! I stabbed them, I shot that man, I cut them all open! Every one of them!" Tears started streaming down his face. "Even the girl, even though she..." He dropped to his knees and started pounding on the table with his free hand. "Get me out of here! Please, please! Get me away from her before she says anything else!"

Corcoran and Witter rushed into the room. With hardly a glance at Fletcher, they uncuffed him from the table and dragged him out of the room.

Fletcher sighed heavily, her head bowed. Mulder waited until they carted Tolliver down the hall before he went into the room, closing the door behind him. He turned off the tape recorder that sat on the table. He picked up the chair that Tolliver had knocked to the floor, then sat down in it opposite of Fletcher. He waited patiently for her to realize he was there. He knew it could be a long wait, if past experiences were any guide.

- - - - -

"Yeah, Sondra, that's right," McHugh was saying into his cell phone. "Ann Marie... No, I _don't_ have a last name... Look, just have Records start a search of the Jersey newspapers. Disappearances, unexplained murders, anything really hinky. Start about twenty years ago and work back. Come to think of it, have 'em check the News and the Post, too... Yeah, I _know_ that complicates it... No, skip the Times. Their reporters catch cold if they cross the GW Bridge..."

Tupper hadn't moved from his spot. He watched Mulder watch Fletcher, wanting to go in, and knowing he shouldn't. <Maybe Algernon was right,> he mused. <God knows I don't have a better explanation for what I just saw.>

He took off his glasses and cleaned them with his pocket-handkerchief. <Well, if she _is_ from another planet, at least she's on _our_ side!>

- - - -

Several long minutes later, Fletcher lifted her head and was startled to see Mulder sitting in front of her. She looked dazed, as if she had just woken from a long nap.

"Mulder?"

"He confessed, Fletcher. I don't know what you said to him, and I don't know if I want to."

She looked around the room. <Interrogation room. Where? New Jersey. State Police barracks. Algernon. Ann Marie...> "Where is he now?"

"Holding cell downstairs. Corcoran's setting up a suicide watch." He cleared his throat. "Fletcher, I was wondering - "

"Not now, Mulder," she said flatly. "I want to go home. I'm tired."


Friday, 11:58 PM

Mulder followed Fletcher in his own car. She hadn't said anything on the flight back. She hadn't said one word since she said she wanted to go home. Mulder's mind was filled with dozens of questions, but he hadn't asked one. <I don't even know if she could answer any of them. I wonder if she even remembers talking to Algernon,> he thought as he parked his car beside hers. <I forgot how hard it is for her when she gets too far into a case.>

He saw Scully's car and was glad to see it. <I don't know who'll be happier to see whom.> He smiled to himself. <The house is dark, though. She must already be in bed.>

"Do you want a drink?" she asked, flipping on the kitchen light and setting her briefcase and coat on the table.

"I'll just a have a beer, then I'm going to bed."

"I'm just going to have a quick one," she said, taking out a beer for Mulder and the bottle of vodka for herself. "I've got Reserves tomorrow."

"Don't you think that you should maybe call in sick?" he nodded at her scar. "They'll probably just take one look at you..."

"I'd have to be bleeding from this scar before Admiral Vickers would give a weekend pass. 'sides, there's a major briefing on Kosovo tomorrow. Can't miss it." She poured herself a double, picked up her glass, then put it down hard, spilling vodka on the counter. "Damn. I almost forgot. I'm having dinner with Scully and her mother tomorrow night."

"Really?" Mulder was surprised. <Scully never mentioned this. Jesus, she must be stressing hard, and Algernon's lousy marksmanship didn't help matters.>

"Yeah, I guess her mom wants to get to know me a little better." Her attempt at a wry smile ended up looking more like a grimace.

"Don't worry," Mulder said lightly. "She gives all prospective son-in-laws the once-over."

"How would you like us to have matching scars?" Fletcher asked, hefting the vodka bottle like she was going to throw it.

"Oooooh, Fletcher," he purred. "Hit me, hurt me, make me write bad checks!" Fletcher laughed once, put the bottle down, and took a decent slug of vodka. Mulder reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "It won't be that bad."

"I dunno, Mulder," Fletcher said quietly. "Scully says she's trying to understand, but... Well, I just remember the look on her mom's face when she realized whose boots she'd seen."

"She's also had a week to get used to the idea," Mulder pointed out.

"Some people _never_ get used to the idea, Mulder," Fletcher said into her glass.

"No," Mulder reluctantly agreed. "They don't." <And I hope Scully's mom isn't one of them. Scully's lost two family members already. Losing any more, in any way...> He dismissed the thought. "But Maggie's always wanted Scully to be happy. And frankly, Fletcher, when the two of you are together, we've got to attach lead weights to Scully's ankles to stop her from jumping for joy."

"Says you." Fletcher gave him the evil eye, though it came with a smile.

"Yeah, says me." He smiled back. "I think Maggie will see what the two of you have for what it is. She may not understand it, but I think she'll respect it. And in the end, I think she'll be happy for Scully."

Fletcher turned to look out at the night. "I hope you're right, Mulder."

<I hope I'm right, too.> "I'm taking my beer and going to bed."

"Will you be around this weekend?"

"Nah, I think I'm going to stay at my apartment. The Gunmen got an extra ticket to the Caps game, and Byers has volunteered to play Designated Driver." <Besides, between the last five days and dinner tomorrow night, you and Scully will need the space.>

"Okay. I'll see you Monday at work, then."

"'night, Fletcher." He started out of the kitchen.

"G'night. And Mulder?"

He turned. "Hm?"

She raised her glass to him. "Great job."

He saluted her with his bottle. "You too."

- - - - -

Twenty minutes and another drink later, Fletcher dragged herself upstairs. She was tired and she couldn't wait to cuddle up next to Scully. She stumbled through the dark room, failing in her attempt to not wake up Scully.

"Fletcher?"

"It's me, Red."

"What time is it?"

"After midnight."

"What happened? I heard that they caught Algernon."

"It's over. He confessed."

Fletcher went into the bathroom, stopping the conversation. It didn't take her long to get ready for bed. She needed a shower, but she was sure if she took one, she'd fall asleep and drown.

"How are you?" Scully asked when Fletcher returned.

"Okay. Tired," Fletcher said, slipping beneath the covers.

"Come here," Scully said, her arms open, reaching for Fletcher.

"I feel like I've been gone for days." <It feels so good to have her hold me. She brings the light back into my life. I don't just love her. I _need_ her.> "Scully, I..."

"Ssh. Go to sleep."

<I will, as long as you keep holding me,> Fletcher thought contentedly as she drifted off.

-end-