Firestorm

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Title: The Firestorm

Author: The IMTP Producers

Rating: PG

Category: X

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

Spoilers: Fire, VS9

Archive: Two weeks exclusively on VS9, then

Ephemeral. Others, please contact any of the

producers for permission.

Disclaimer: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to

Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. For the moment.<g> No

copyright infringement intended.

Summary: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” takes on

a whole new meaning when Skinner joins Mulder and

Scully on a case.

Feedback: A note in the IMTP VS9 guestbook would be

greatly appreciated!

Authors’ Notes: This special producers’ offering is a

team effort written by Vickie Moseley, Susan Proto,

Sally Bahnsen, Theresa Filardo and dtg. Many thanks

to Dawn for her spot-on beta delivered at light

speed, and to Suzanne and Michelle for their timely

suggestions. If you have even half as much fun

reading this as we did putting it together, it will

be time well spent!

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The Firestorm by The IMTP Producers

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Teaser

Clifford Heights, IL

Early June, 2002

Kara Brooks looked around her newly painted bedroom

and sighed. She’d just been moved from the only home

she’d ever known, and Kara was still having trouble

reconciling herself to it. She tried to imagine what

it was going to look like once she’d unpacked all of

her belongings. The robin’s egg blue was a soothing

shade that coordinated perfectly with the bright,

royal blue carpet. Kara loved the feeling of her toes

sinking into its plush, deep pile. But no matter how

lovely it might be, it still wasn’t “home”.

She stood up and opened another cardboard box. She

couldn’t believe how many boxes were scattered around

the room. “When the heck did I get all this junk

anyway?” she asked herself aloud. When she finished

digging out the top layer of crumpled newspapers, she

discovered the box of stuffed animals that had always

graced her bed. Her mother used to joke that there

was barely enough room for Kara amidst all of her

“loveys”. She wondered if she should bother taking

them out of the box. After all, she was a teenager

now, and she wasn’t sure it was still cool to have a

bevy of stuffed animals lodging on her bed.

She heard a knock on her door. “Kara, are you

hungry?” It was her dad.

“No,” she replied. “Not right now. Maybe later.”

“Okay, well, we’re gonna call in for a pizza in a

little while, okay?”

“Sure, Dad. Sounds great.” She knew her tone said

otherwise. Her dad must have heard it, too, because

he opened the door.

“Kara, are you okay, hon?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Just a lot to do here, that’s all.”

“Well, Bonnie and I offered to help -”

“Dad, I know. But I gotta go through this stuff

myself and decide where I want it all, ya know?”

“Yes, but if you’re going to sit in your room all day

getting bummed out over having to unpack

everything…” he began, but stopped when he saw her

withdraw even more. “Okay, okay. I’ll leave you alone

for now. But when the pizza comes, I expect you to

join the family, understand?”

She nodded and watched him finally leave, closing the

door behind him.

“Family?” Kara muttered aloud to herself. She’d never

heard him refer to them as a family. Sure, her dad

had invited her to join him and Bonnie for a meal,

but never to join ‘the family’. “Oh, yeah… we’re a

family,” she whispered to herself.

Now the question was, did she believe it?

She returned her attention to the box of gray, furry

elephants; brown-spotted puppies and soft, multi-

striped snakes. She smiled at the small, gray seal

pup that her mom had bought for her at the aquarium

gift shop on their last vacation together. It had

always been one of her favorites; it held a good

memory for her.

But now she had to decide what to do with all of the

junk in these boxes.

“God! I don’t want to do this now!” she cried out in

frustration.

Being thirteen years old and figuring out stuff was

hard enough without adding a new house, new school,

new friends, and a new stepmother into the mix. In

all honesty, Kara liked the house. Her room was

bigger than the one she’d had at the old house. And

she did get to paint it whatever color she’d wanted.

And she knew school wasn’t going to pose a problem.

Sure she was a freshman at Clifford Heights High

School, but she was taking all advanced courses and

she was sure that she’d be able to keep up with her

studies. That had never been a problem, even when

she’d had to get through the time her mom was in the

hospital. When she was dying. She’d still managed to

ace all of her classes.

Friends. Well, that was a bit more of a cause for

concern. Kara had always been seen as an egghead and

therefore not cool to hang around with. She’d managed

to nurture one friendship with Anna Lynn Collins, who

was as big a nerd as Kara. The two girls hung out

together and got along well. Best of all, no one

bothered them, for which Kara was very grateful. It

wasn’t uncommon for those who were deemed uncool to

be bullied by certain cliques at her old school. She

hoped to avoid that at Clifford Heights.

Okay, then there was the matter of her stepmother. It

wasn’t that Bonnie was a bad person; she was actually

a very nice person and her dad was obviously very

much in love with her. But she wasn’t her momma, a

fact that had been heavy on her mind for the last

year, ever since Bonnie had come into their lives.

From the time her dad had started dating Bonnie to

the moment they’d said their “I Do’s” at St. Mary’s

Church, Kara could not escape the thought that Bonnie

might actually take her momma’s place. It was crazy;

Kara knew it was crazy because she loved her mom and

always would. But Kara liked Bonnie; she liked having

a woman to talk to about…women things. She was more

than grateful for Bonnie’s assistance when

‘womanhood’ had hit with a vengeance that first time.

Kara still blushed with embarrassment at the idea of

asking her dad to buy her “personal care” products.

And now they were in the new house, and Kara had to

decide which of the things from her old life to

include in her new one. Hard decisions for a

thirteen-year-old. She wished her momma were here

now.

She left the box of stuffed animals and moved to

another box. Not finding what she was looking for,

she opened yet another carton, and then another.

“There you are,” she said, relieved. Kara pulled out

the carefully-wrapped item, and removed the

newspaper wrapping. She looked at the silver photo

frame and breathed warm air onto it. She buffed it

with her cotton sleeve and smiled as she saw its

shine reappear. Kara set the framed photo of Lisa

Brooks on her nightstand. “Welcome to your new home,

Momma.”

Then Kara scrunched up the strewn, crumpled

newsprint and jammed it into the wastebasket. She

looked over at her mom’s photo and stared at it.

And stared at it.

And stared.

Downstairs, Kevin and Bonnie Brooks were in the midst

of a somewhat heated and sadly familiar discussion.

“Kevin, I think you’re overreacting.”

“You didn’t know her before. She was never like

this.”

“Like what? A thirteen-year-old girl who’s going

through enough physical and emotional changes to send

any normal human being into a straight jacket?”

retorted Bonnie.

“No! It’s just that she’s never been this withdrawn

before.”

“Kev, she’s got a lot to deal with. She’s never

exactly been Miss Popularity, has she?”

“No, but–”

Bonnie cut him off. “Listen to me. She’s a good kid.

C’mon, how ridiculous is this? I’m supposed to be the

evil stepmother complaining about the stepchild, not

defending her! What’s wrong with this picture,

Kevin?”

He had to smile at that. “Okay, maybe I am being a

worrywart over nothing. You know what? I’m starving.

Let’s call for that pizza now, okay?”

Bonnie nodded and dialed the number on the pizza-

shaped refrigerator magnet that had come in their

“welcome” kit. After calling in the order, she said,

“Why don’t you go up and let Kara know I’m gonna have

dinner whipped up in about twenty minutes.”

Kevin laughed. “Emeril, eat your heart out!” He

turned and started up the stairs to his daughter’s

bedroom.

Kara was gazing so intently at her mother’s

photograph that when her door opened and her father

called out to her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

“Kara! What the hell are you doing?”

“What?” she asked, her voice filled with confusion.

“Jesus Christ, Kara! We just moved in for God’s

sake!”

“Daddy, what’s wrong?” she cried out as she saw him

rush over to the wastebasket.

The crumpled wads of newsprint were aflame in the

basket, sending glowing bits of paper floating lazily

to the carpet at her feet.

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

Act I

J. Edgar Hoover Building

Washington, D.C.

Six months later

Monday, 4:40 p.m.

One minute, forty-five seconds from portal to portal.

Down the hall to the elevator, up three floors, then

twenty-three paces to the A.D.’s office door. How

many trips did it take to start earning frequent-ass-

chewing miles? And what did it say about him that he

had this level of detail in his head?

“Mulder? If you go in there with that look on your

face, you’ll guarantee us an extra ten minutes on the

carpet.”

The picture that popped into his head had nothing to

do with their boss’s floor covering. Visions of a

recent Saturday afternoon in front of Scully’s

fireplace and a well-earned complement of rug burns

put a grin on his face. “Nothing like a few extra

minutes on the carpet with the one you love.”

The elevator doors opened onto a small crowd of their

fellow agents, cutting off her snappy comeback, but

Mulder saw the smile before she turned her face away.

Kimberly looked up and smiled as they entered. “He’s

waiting for you. Go right in.”

Scully and Mulder exchanged glances. Kimberly’s

greeting was generally a pretty fair indication of

her boss’s mood. Whatever he’d called them up here

for, it wasn’t something he’d been ranting about to

his assistant. That could mean that the report Mulder

had turned in Friday afternoon, the one Scully had

been so concerned about, had made it past the first

hurdle.

Mulder leaned down and put his lips close to his

partner’s ear. “You owe me a buck.” He gave her an I-

told-you-so wink and turned to Skinner’s door,

pushing it open as he knocked.

“Come in, agents.” Skinner glanced up quickly, then

returned his attention to the folder in front of him.

Mulder tried to assess the A.D.’s mood. ‘Awkward’ was

as close as he could come, and his burst of optimism

took a sudden downturn. Scully apparently felt it,

too, judging by the look she gave him as they took

their seats.

The man wasted no time getting to the point. “I’ll be

accompanying you on this next case. Let’s just get

that out of the way so we can move on.” He folded his

hands and looked directly at Mulder.

His statement was greeted with stunned silence.

Mulder was actually at a loss for words. His partner

was not.

“Sir, may I ask why?”

Skinner pinched the bridge of his nose with two

fingers, then readjusted his glasses and refolded his

hands. “Expenditure validation was, I believe, the

term that was used. What it boils down to is that

your creative record-keeping has finally surpassed my

tap dancing ability.” He turned his focus to Mulder.

“It was either agree to accompany you on the next

case personally, or allow your favorite bean counter

to go in my place. Which would you have preferred?”

Mulder found his voice. “And what is this supposed to

accomplish? Teach us not to have that second snifter

of brandy after dinner? What the hell do they think

we’re doing out there?” He was leaning forward, both

hands clenched around the arms of his chair.

Scully touched his arm. “Mulder–”

“We already have our names in the roach motel hall of

fame. I’ve replaced three cell phones out of my own

pocket this year alone, not to mention the suits that

haven’t survived their first trip into the field. I

know I don’t need to tell you of all people that what

we do is a little outside the norm. So, what’s this

really about? Another lame–”

Skinner held up one hand and Mulder stopped. “It’s a

formality. Let’s not read anymore into it. I’ll

verify that your expenses are valid, and that will be

the end of it.” He opened the case file and pulled

out a stack of photographs. “A postal employee in

Clifford Heights, Illinois is recovering from burns

suffered when his backpack caught–”

Mulder heard Skinner stop in mid-sentence, but his

focus was elsewhere. The silent debate he was engaged

in with his partner required his full attention.

“Agents?”

Scully’s eyes flashed a parting shot and she turned

to face their boss. “Yes, sir?”

“If I could have your full attention?” The corner of

his mouth was twitching in what, on anyone else,

Mulder would have seen as a smirk.

“Yes, sir.” They answered in unison, and this time

the smirk almost got away from Skinner, but the stern

mask quickly returned.

“The victim was burned over sixty percent of his

body by what at first appeared to be a letter bomb.

He insists that his entire pack burst into flame as

he was leaving the last house on his route. Not just

the contents, the canvas bag as well.”

Scully reached for the photographs and began to leaf

through the stack. “Why couldn’t it still have been a

letter bomb of some kind?” She leaned to her right

and held the photographs so Mulder could see them.

“I can see why this would fall under Federal

jurisdiction, but why assign it to us? What makes it

an X file?” That was usually Scully’s line. He saw

her glance up at him, stifling the same smirk he’d

seen on Skinner a moment ago.

“The victim claims that the letters in his hand

ignited at the same time.”

Mulder looked up. “Spontaneous combustion with two

separate points of origin?”

“The initial forensic evidence would seem to bear him

out. There’s also the fact that the house he was

leaving when the incident occurred has had four

unexplained fires in the six months since the new

owners moved in. The only common factor in all of

these incidents, including the attack on the postal

employee, appears to be the owners’ thirteen-year-old

daughter, who seems to have been present each time.”

That got his attention. “Has the girl ever shown any

telekinetic ability before this?”

Scully dropped the photographs in her lap. “Who said

anything about telekinesis?”

“At the moment, it’s as plausible an explanation as

any. Unless you prefer spontaneous combustion?”

“Mulder, the evidence is inconclusive. That does not

automatically open the door to something paranormal.”

Skinner cleared his throat, and both agents turned to

face him. “We leave for Chicago tomorrow morning.

Clifford Heights is an hour’s drive south. I’ll pick

Scully up at 6:30. Mulder, we’ll be by for you at

7:00.”

Scully stood up and handed the photos back to him.

Mulder remained in his chair.

“Was there something you wanted to say, Agent

Mulder?”

“Sir, will this trip answer any questions regarding

the… legitimacy of our budget, or–”

“Or will I be tagging along on future assignments?”

Skinner’s jaw tightened, and Mulder could swear there

was another smirk in there somewhere. “Not if I can

help it.” He closed the folder and held it out to

Mulder. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Scully opened the door and turned to wait for her

partner. Mulder tucked the folder under his arm and

followed her out, closing the door behind him.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The Brooks Household

Monday, 4:54 p.m.

Kara sat in the center of her bed, waggling her

number two pencil between her fingers. If she moved

her hand up and down at just the right speed, the

stiff yellow piece of wood and graphite would begin

to look rubbery. After about five minutes of zoning

out on the “flaccid” pencil, she finally dropped it

onto her open textbook. It bounced once, then settled

into the crack between the pages.

Word problems. It wasn’t that she disliked Math. It

was just that the problems never seemed to relate to

anything useful. She stared at the open page which

displayed a color photo of an Amtrak train zooming

across the great plains somewhere in America. It was

always a train, wasn’t it? Who cared if two trains

raced from New York to Boston? If anyone really

wanted to get somewhere sooner, they should have

taken an earlier train.

She sighed heavily and noticed a smell just on the

farthest edges of her perception. It was not quite

sweet, and it carried a hint of garlic and herbs

along with it. Mmm… food. Her tummy reacted with an

elongated creaking sound. She glanced down at her

assignment: five more problems to go. Kara wondered

if she had time to finish those before…

“Kara?”

Nope.

“Kara, dear, would you be able to take a break and

set the table for me?” Bonnie called from downstairs.

“Be right down!” she groaned, loathing the choice

between pointless story problems and chores. She

didn’t like her options.

It was nice, though, to be able to reclaim the role

of “daughter” again. At least she was no longer the

one juggling both homework and cooking until her

father came home from work. Bonnie seemed to be

getting into the Holly Homemaker thing. “Let’s see

how long it takes her to get tired of it,” Kara

thought darkly.

As she hopped off the last step and rounded the

corner into the kitchen, Kara was hit with the full

olfactory onslaught of Bonnie’s experimentations. She

gasped at the hanging sting of onion acid in the air.

She had to smirk as she let her mind return for the

briefest moment to her homework upstairs. If Bonnie

were to use three more vegetables and two more cubes

of tofu in her “Bonnie’s Special Veggie Surprise”,

how much more time would I have to spend in the

bathroom from all the fiber intake?

“What’s that, K?” Bonnie asked. Kara hadn’t realized

she was muttering under her breath.

“Oh, smells great, Bonnie. Um, what did you want me

to do first?”

Her stepmother turned from the sink, wet hands

cupping a dripping mound of soaked beans. She blew a

stray clump of curly brown hair from her forehead and

pointed her chin in the direction of the hutch. “Why

don’t you start by setting the table? I think we’ll

eat in the kitchen tonight.”

Kara strolled over to the china closet and found her

Dad’s Aztec-patterned dinnerware, the ones he had

bought especially for his weird culinary excursions.

When he was feeling brave, he used to invite Bonnie

over to try out Emeril’s “hot dish of the week.” The

plates were his special guest-ware, because he wanted

the “perfect canvas” to present his masterpiece. They

seemed fitting, seeing as how Bonnie was in an

experimental mood.

She grabbed three plates, some napkins and

silverware, then carried everything over to the

kitchen table.

Bonnie glanced over her shoulder as she piled the

beans onto a bed of green leaf lettuce. “Oh, no,

dear, use the everyday Corelle dishes. This is

nothing fancy we have to bother over.”

Kara bit back an urge to argue. Did she want her to

help or not? What difference did it make which dishes

they used? She held the plates a moment longer,

feeling a little defiant, almost setting the table

her way anyway. Instead, she pursed her lips and

said, “Fine,” and carried the Aztec guest-ware back

where she found it.

It was a funny thing, Kara realized. They had never

used the everyday plates before the wedding. Since

Bonnie had been living with them and had settled

herself into their lives, it felt weirdly intimate —

like telling someone what kind of deodorant you use.

People weren’t supposed to know stuff like that. And

guests weren’t supposed to see the everyday dishes.

Now Bonnie was telling her, in her own house, to use

them… just like it was any normal weekday evening –

– nothing special. She wasn’t sure, but when Kara

thought about it, she almost enjoyed that idea.

She found the white Corelle plates in the cabinet

next to the refrigerator, and was about to pull one

down, when her finger snagged on a rough spot, right

on the edge of the plate. She jerked her hand back

from the sharp pinch, pulling down the plate in the

process. It crashed to the floor and seemed to

explode in a hundred pieces all over the linoleum.

Bonnie gasped, and Kara flinched, expecting the usual

barrage of anger thrown in her direction. Instead,

her step-mom rushed over to her; agitated, yes, but

more concerned than anything. “Kara, are you all

right? Let me see.”

She presented her cut finger like a little girl. She

half expected Bonnie to kiss it, the way she was

hovering.

“I’ll be right back with a Band-Aid and some

antiseptic. Run it under some water to clean it out.”

Kara did as she was told, a little shaken just from

the noise of the crashing plate. She noticed one of

the larger pieces of debris — the one that actually

had the chip that cut her. She remembered that

accident as well. She’d been washing the dishes for

her *real* mom, helping her because she *wanted* to.

The little bump against the porcelain sink had

sounded like she broke the whole plate. Her mother

instantly began yelling at her for her clumsiness.

Kara knew she’d had a bad day at the doctor’s. That

was the reason she was helping. She tried to remind

herself while her mother unloaded on her that it was

the stress talking, but she’d finished the chore in

miserable silence.

And now, the plate had actually broken but Bonnie was

showing nothing but concern for her, like her mom

used to before she’d gotten so sick. Before Kara had

had to grow up too early and become the caregiver.

Before everything–

Her stepmother returned and nursed her wound. “You

OK? You know, it can happen to anyone. Let’s clean

this up before your father gets home.”

Bonnie grabbed a dustpan and they were both sweeping

up the tiny pieces when a whiff of something foul-

smelling wafted past their noses.

“My tofu!” Bonnie yelled in distress, and dropped the

dustpan, scattering the pieces again.

At the same moment, Kara heard the front door open

and her father called into the house, “I’m back!” As

she bent down toward the mess on the floor, she heard

him walk through the dining room.

“Whew! I must have just saved this! Funny, nothing

seems to be burned…” Bonnie mused, but got cut off

by a very angry sounding man.

“What the hell!”

Suddenly a flurry of motion swept through the

kitchen. Kara vaguely processed the image of her

father diving across the kitchen for the fire

extinguisher and flying back into the dining room.

Bonnie followed after him, and Kara heard her scream.

A smoky smell filled the air, and it definitely

wasn’t Bonnie’s bad cooking.

Kara felt dread sink into the pit of her stomach, for

she knew it was happening again. She slowly got up

and inched around the corner of the doorway to peer

into the dining room. White foam splattered the

floral wallpaper and covered a smoldering rectangular

object on the wall. Her father put down the red tank

and wiped at the wall, revealing a singed wooden

frame, and a very charred, slightly melted image

behind the cracked glass.

She knew that photograph well: her father in a brand

new blue suit, his hands resting on the shoulders of

his two “best girls.” One wore her white chiffon gown

and held a large bouquet of daisies. The other in her

first formal gown, powder blue with short sleeves.

Kara loved that dress.

She could see the image of his and Bonnie’s wedding

day with her eyes closed, which was the *only* way

she’d ever be able to see it now, for it was forever

stained with burn marks from the flames that her

father had just extinguished.

He turned toward her slowly. “Kara, I don’t know what

you’re trying to do here, but it’s got to stop now!”

“Kevin, she was with me the whole– ” Bonnie stopped

in mid-sentence. She glanced quickly at her

stepdaughter. Kara could see her processing the

information behind saddened eyes. She hadn’t been

with her the whole time. So, she was taking her

father’s side!

Kevin Brooks slapped his hand against his thigh in

frustration, wiping sticky foam over his suit-pants.

“Her bedroom, the videotapes. . . now this?”

Kara was jolted by the anger in his voice. She opened

her mouth once, then ran upstairs, slammed the door

shut, and flung herself onto the bed.

“It wasn’t me…” she whimpered into her pillow. She

stared blurry-eyed at her mother’s picture. “Momma, I

wish you were still here.”

~~~~~~~

Mulder’s Apartment

Monday, 10:35 p.m.

Mulder was attempting to stuff another pair of black

socks into the already straining-at-the-seams side

pocket of his two-suiter while juggling the phone

between his right shoulder and ear.

“I’m telling you, Scully, he made this whole thing

up,” he said with as much conviction as he could

muster while grunting at the uncooperative footwear.

“Why, Mulder? Why on earth would the man make up a

story like that? Besides, you know as well as I do

that Accounting has been on the warpath lately. I’m

surprised we haven’t been brought before the OPR on

some of your expense reports! So how can you say

Skinner is making this up? Do you think he’s just

bored behind that desk and wants to come out and

play?”

“I think he suspects something. I think he’s on to

us.”

There, it was out in the open. Mulder could

practically *feel* the little frown line forming

between her eyebrows.

“So why not just come out and ask?” she countered.

“Why all the game playing?”

“Because he wants to be sure,” Mulder shot back. At

that precise moment, the socks slipped into the

pocket and he was able to zip it shut. Another sign

that he was right about their boss and his sudden

interest in what went on out in the field. At least

to Mulder it was.

“I just think you’re being . . .”

“If you say ‘paranoid’ that’s TWO back rubs you owe

me,” he interjected before she could finish her

thought.

“I was going to say ‘overly concerned’,” she replied

dryly.

“Same thing. Two back rubs. Payable upon demand.”

“Sure, fine, whatever.” Her voice had the quality

that came from being strained through gritted teeth.

“I still think you’re making too much of this.”

“Then explain to me why I’m sleeping on my couch,

without my favorite ‘blanket’ and that same ‘blanket’

is going to be across town, sleeping in her awfully

big and cold bed tonight?”

“Because our boss is picking me up at 6:30 and you at

7:00,” she reminded him.

“I could have been out before he got there,” he shot

back.

Her snort was most unladylike. “Mulder, you have

never managed to wake up before 7:30 any time we’ve

slept together.”

“Face it, Scully. You’re thinking the same thing.

Skinner is going to be watching us like a hawk. We

have to be very careful.”

She sighed, and he knew she was about to change the

subject to something he wouldn’t like. “It’s fire,

Mulder,” she said quietly.

A shiver went down his spine. “I know.” He couldn’t

have said more if he’d tried.

“Are you OK with this? I mean, with Skinner there and

everything…”

“I managed to get Thor out of that building, Scully,”

he reminded her. It still caused a little pang in his

heart to think of the huge, loveable mutt, even if he

couldn’t recall all of their time together. Maybe

some memories were better left buried.

“When you found Thor, the fire was out, Mulder. This

time the fires seem to be ongoing. And spontaneous.

We won’t have any warning. I just don’t like the

thought of you–”

“If you’re there, I’ll be fine,” he said with more

confidence than he felt.

“I’ll be there, but Skinner will be, too. And he’ll

be watching,”

“See! You do think he’s up to something! You just

don’t want to admit it,” Mulder taunted.

“Whether he’s ‘up to something’ or not, we have to be

very careful. We’ve managed to keep this from him so

far, and I want it to stay that way.”

“I know, Scully. I know. I’ll promise to be on my

best behavior. I mean, how bad can it be? It’s not

like I have to room with the guy.”

She chuckled lightly into the phone. “He’d be asking

for another room the minute you started to snore,”

she teased.

“I do not snore!” he exclaimed, putting on his best

‘I’m offended’ voice.

“Yeah. Must be that other guy I sleep with,” she

teased.

“Scully, keep this up and I’m coming over…” They

both knew he was only half kidding.

“Sweet dreams, G-man. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Back at ya. Hey, and Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder?”

“If I do have to room with Skinner, would you shoot

me? I usually get private rooms in the hospital.”

“Good night, Mulder.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Act II

404 Millbrook Lane

Clifford Heights, IL

Tuesday, 12:20 p.m.

There were certain privileges that came with being an

Assistant Director in the FBI, Mulder knew. A big

office, a polished oak desk, a personal assistant

who could be summoned with the flick an intercom

switch.

And it apparently also included the power to

commandeer the front seat of a car and take over the

driving.

Sometimes protocol sucked, Mulder mused to himself

from his assigned spot in the back seat.

“Scully will be my navigator, Mulder,” Skinner had

announced. “It’s a documented fact that you couldn’t

navigate your way out of a paper bag.”

Squished into the tiny space behind his boss, long

legs alternately slung into the space behind Scully

and then back to his own side where his size-13 feet

were jammed underneath the seat in front. (It would

seem that being an Assistant Director didn’t extend

to having enough influence to obtain a bigger rental

car.) Mulder had even toyed with the idea of sticking

his toes up so they would form a hard lump underneath

his boss’s rear end, but he’d opted instead for the

more constructive activity of flipping through the

case file to familiarize himself with the police and

fire reports before they arrived at the Brooks’

residence.

Telekenisis. Mulder’s skin positively tingled with

the thought of pursuing such a possibility. It was

only the fact that Skinner was tagging along like a

bad impersonation of someone’s kid brother that had

thrown cold water on his excitement. Well, that and

the obvious problems inherent whenever Mulder and

fire came into close proximity. But he’d been okay

with that, knowing Scully would be at his side. *His*

side.

Currently ensconced in the Brooks living room, Mulder

glared silently at his boss.

It should have been him sitting beside Scully during

the long drive from Chicago, not Skinner. Just as it

should be him now, leaning back in the two-seater

couch, ankle crossed over knee and elbow brushing

against Scully’s as he conducted the interview. Not

Skinner! A.D. Skinner, the observer. Mr. “Its-just-a-

formality”.

If eyeballs were bullets, Skinner would be a dead

man.

Mulder forcibly reined in his hostility. No use

dwelling on what couldn’t be helped. Maybe if he just

ignored Skinner, pretended he wasn’t there, he might

be able to handle this unwanted invasion of his

investigative privacy without resorting to violence.

Sighing quietly to himself, Mulder sat up straight in

the chair and pulled a notebook and pen from his

pocket.

They had dispensed with the formalities earlier and

been led into a very comfortable living room

furnished in the American version of an English

country house: elegant dark oak tables, faux open

beam ceilings and floral print overstuffed furniture.

A large bowl of potpourri waged a futile battle to

hide the lingering smell of smoke and burnt timber

that hung in the air.

No matter how hard he tried not to stare, Mulder’s

gaze kept returning to the blackened hole in the wall

beside the dining room table. The affected area

looked as if an acetylene torch had been held against

it until the wallboard turned to charcoal. He

wondered what could have ignited that would allow the

damage to be so contained.

When Scully started to speak, Mulder turned his

attention back to the two people sitting diagonally

across from him. A man and woman who held their

bodies too rigid, whose strained expressions told him

that they would rather be doing anything else other

than sitting here talking to the FBI.

“Mr. Brooks, as my partner explained when we arrived,

we’re here investigating an incident that nearly

killed an employee of the U.S. Postal Service in your

front yard. Do you recall the incident?”

Kevin Brooks huffed a humorless laugh, “It’s not

something we’re likely to forget in a hurry. But as I

told the police, Bonnie and I were in the kitchen. We

had just sat down to lunch, so we really didn’t see

anything.” He leaned over and laid a reassuring hand

on his wife’s arm.

“Do you normally come home from work to eat lunch?”

Mulder asked, keeping his expression bland and non-

threatening.

“I work from home. My office is out back.”

“What do you do, Mr. Brooks?”

“I’m an electrical engineer.”

Mulder nodded thoughtfully, leaned back in his chair

and made a note in his book.

Scully picked up on Mulder’s cue and resumed her line

of questioning. “Did either of you hear anything?”

“Of course. The man was screaming for help not twenty

feet from our front door,” Kevin answered testily.

“What did you do?”

Kevin shrugged, “We went to see what the hell was

going on. When I opened the front door and saw that

man rolling on the ground with his clothes in flames,

I yelled out to Bonnie to call 911.”

“Did you do anything to help the victim?”

“I grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch and

tried to smother the flames.” Kevin’s brown eyes lost

focus, his expression dark and serious as his

thoughts seemed to turn inward, perhaps reliving the

horror of watching a man burning to death in front of

him.

“Mr. Brooks, where was your daughter at the time of

the incident?” Mulder asked.

Kevin Brooks snapped back to the present as if he had

been doused in icy water.

“What?” He couldn’t have sounded more outraged if

they’d asked him to consider selling his daughter

into the white slave trade.

“We have eye witness testimony that puts your

daughter at the scene just before the postal worker’s

bag ignited,” Mulder said, holding the man’s angry

gaze.

“What the hell has that got to do with anything? Just

what are you implying?”

Scully gave Mulder a look that told him she wondered

where he was going with this. When it became obvious

that he wasn’t going to answer the man’s question,

she said, “We’re interviewing all witnesses, Mr.

Brooks. We are not implying anything about your

daughter. If she is able to help…”

“Leave her out of this!” Kevin snapped.

Mulder saw Bonnie take her husband’s hand and entwine

her fingers with his, rubbing soothing circles over

the knuckles with her other hand. Scully was

watching, too, he noted. It was the same gesture she

often used to comfort him, and Mulder could see the

shared memories in her eyes. How at the end of the

day they would lay in each others arms, safe and

protected for a few short hours from a world that

sometimes felt as if all that existed in it were

unimaginable horrors. Mulder knew that his partner

wasn’t conscious of the angry look she was shooting

in Skinner’s direction. If it wasn’t for him, they

would be sharing a bed tonight as usual. She was as

upset about this as he was.

“Kara didn’t see anything. The police have already

questioned her. They’ve questioned us. *We* didn’t

see anything. I don’t understand why you’re here.

What do you want from us?” Bonnie turned pleading

eyes to her husband.

Mulder studied the couple for a second, trying to

make sense of the defensive stance they were taking.

He wondered what his boss was making of this and

glanced quickly at Skinner. He tried to gauge the

expression on his boss’s face, but the A.D. was

giving no indication of what was going on in his

head.

Scully spoke up again, her voice calm and soothing.

“Mrs. Brooks, we are simply trying to get to the

bottom of this. A man is in the hospital with burns

over sixty percent of his body. We need to find out

what caused this, and to do that we have to talk to

anyone who might have seen what happened.”

Breathing deeply, Bonnie Brooks nodded and gave

Kevin’s hand a gentle squeeze.

“I believe you’ve been the victims of several house

fires yourselves over the past few months.” Mulder

said, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward.

“Who told you that?” Kevin asked, slipping his hand

out from his wife’s grip and folding both arms across

his chest.

Scully flipped through her note pad, the pages

rustling loudly in the still room. “We have four

reports from the fire department documenting their

attendance at four separate fires here. The police

report also says that neighbors mentioned several

smaller outbreaks around the home. What do you think

is causing them, Mr. Brooks?”

Mulder didn’t miss the way Kevin dug his fingers into

the flesh of his upper arms, a small muscle twitching

along his jaw line. Nor did he miss the flash of fear

that sparked for just a second in Bonnie’s eyes.

“Mr. Brooks, can you think of anyone who might hold a

grudge against you, or your wife and daughter?” This

from Skinner.

Mulder had wondered when it would become too much for

Skinner to remain the silent observer.

“A grudge? You think someone is doing this

deliberately?” Kevin’s hostility receded a little,

genuine surprise coloring his words.

“It’s a possibility we need to consider,” Scully

said.

“What about your line of work?” Skinner asked, “Any

disgruntled clients, bad debts?”

One field trip in how many months and suddenly he

thinks he’s Magnum, PI. The A.D. was really starting

to get under Mulder’s skin. Not content to simply

take over the car, the driving, and his partner, now

the man was muscling in on his investigation. There’s

gotta be a way of ditching him, Mulder thought as he

stared daggers at his boss.

“No. No unhappy customers and no bad debtors.”

“Any problems with the neighbors?” Mulder asked,

determined to reel this investigation back into his

own lap.

“None. Mostly, we all keep to ourselves. We say hey

every now and then, and we talk about the weather,

but that’s about it.”

“Can you think of anyone that might want to hurt you,

Mrs. Brooks?” Scully asked.

“No, nobody. We’ve never had anything like this

happen before, it’s only since we moved here. The

first fire got started on the day we moved in. There

hadn’t been time to make enemies.”

“Is there a history of this happening with the

previous owners?” Scully asked.

“I wouldn’t think so. The house wasn’t in great shape

when we bought it, but there was no sign of fire

damage. We’ve pulled up carpets and put new ones

down, and painted the house inside and out. I’m sure

we would have seen *something*,” Bonnie answered.

Mulder scribbled in his notebook, then looked up and

asked, “How has your daughter settled into her new

neighborhood? Is there any possibility that these

fires might be directed at her?”

“Of course not. She’s thirteen, for God’s sake, what

the hell kind of a question is that?” Kevin’s eyes

burned and his nostrils flared as his anger started

to climb again.

Ignoring Kevin’s outburst, Mulder pressed on. “Any

problems at school? How are her grades?”

Kevin ran a hand over his face, sighing loudly before

answering. “Kara is a good kid. An ‘A’ student. When

her mother passed away nearly two years ago it was

really hard on her…”

“I…I’m sorry. Mrs. Brooks,” Mulder turned to

Bonnie, “you’re not Kara’s mother?”

Kevin answered for his wife, taking one of her hands

in both of his before doing so, “Bonnie and I married

seven months ago. When Lisa, Kara’s mom, died of

breast cancer, Kara took it pretty hard. It wasn’t

easy for either of us, but we got through it.

Together. Kara took on the role of homemaker. It

seemed to help her cope.” Kevin shook his head and

chuffed a soft laugh. “She would always make sure

there was a meal on the table at night, that I had

clean clothes to wear…she’s a good kid, Agent

Mulder. I can’t for the life of me imagine her making

enemies anywhere.”

“How did she react to you marrying again?”

“Kev, let me answer that.” Bonnie smiled at her

husband. “When Kev and I first started dating, I

could detect a note of resentment from her. But as

time went on and she realized I was in for the long

haul, she started to relax. We got along fine, we

*do* get along fine. I try to be there for her, and I

think she appreciates having another woman in the

house to talk to. I don’t try to take the place of

her mom; I couldn’t be what Lisa was to her, I know

that. We take one day at a time, and I really think

she is starting to accept me as part of the family.”

Scully asked, “Mr. Brooks, would you agree with

that?”

A slight hesitation, a quick lick of his lips, an

almost imperceptible twitch of his eyebrow, but

Mulder noted them all. “Kara likes Bonnie. We don’t

have anything to worry about there.”

“How do you account for the fact that Kara has been

the only one present at all the fires that have

broken out around your house?” Mulder asked, deciding

a change of tack was in order.

But before either of the Brooks could answer, there

was a soft popping sound followed by a hiss and a

crackle. A bright orange light ignited in Mulder’s

hand.

“Oh my God!” Scully and Skinner raced to where Mulder

was sitting. The A.D. began stamping his foot on the

flames as the small notebook Mulder had been holding

lay burning on the floor.

“Shit!” Mulder jumped to his feet, too, but his focus

was on his arm, frantically batting the flames

licking at the sleeve of his jacket.

“Here!” Bonnie helped Scully wrap a throw blanket

around Mulder’s hand and arm, effectively smothering

the flames.

“Get me some water, hurry.” Scully said to Bonnie,

not bothering with the niceties of “please and thank

you”.

“Mulder, sit down.” But Mulder had other ideas. He

stood, hunched over his injured left hand, cradling

it in his right and cursing softly.

“Sit, Mulder. Let me take a look.” A bucket appeared

at Scully’s side. She took it and carefully lowered

Mulder’s hand into the cool water over his hisses of

protest.

clip_image003

Mulder sat on the edge of the chair, right forearm

leaning on his knee and left hand submerged in the

bucket between his legs. His whole body felt as if

all its nerve endings were centered around his

burnt hand. It both throbbed and stung, intense heat

resonating from fingertips to wrist. The pain sent

his stomach into nauseous spasms.

“Agent Scully, is there anything I can do?” Skinner

was crouched beside her, eyebrows pulled into a tight

frown, voice strained with concern.

“Yes, help me remove his watch. Be careful of any

clothing that might be stuck to the skin. Don’t pull

on it if it is.”

Skinner gently pried Mulder’s watch loose, stifling a

gasp as a small strip of skin came away with it.

“Should I call 911?” Kevin Brooks asked, a slight

tremble to his voice.

“NO! No. It’s okay.” Mulder said, eyes darting

between Kevin and Scully.

But it was obvious he was anything but okay. His face

was pale, the features drawn and pinched, and his

lips were pressed so tightly together they almost

appeared bloodless. Scully reached up and pressed two

fingers to the pulse point in Mulder’s neck, frowning

at what she found.

“We need to get him to the Emergency Room.” Then

turning to the Brooks, who were helplessly looking

on, “Where’s the nearest hospital?”

“It’s Clifford County Medical Center. I’ll draw you a

map.” Kevin Brooks hurried off to find a pencil and

paper, obviously glad to have something constructive

to do.

“Bonnie, could you get me a clean sheet? An old one

will do. I need you to wet it with cold water. And I

need some ice in a plastic bag.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Bonnie’s apology followed

her out of the room as she left to find the sheet and

ice.

Scully turned back to Mulder, her expression deeply

concerned. He sat hunched forward in the chair, head

now propped on his right hand, teeth biting into the

fleshy area under his thumb.

Ignoring the fact that their boss was squatting right

beside her, Scully reached up and cupped Mulder’s

jaw. Gently stroking his cheek with her index finger.

“How are you holding up, partner?”

“‘m ‘kay.” But he couldn’t help a low groan as the

intense pain in his hand drove all pretense of being

“fine” right out of his head. “I think I need to get

out of here, Scully. I don’t feel so good.” Mulder

swallowed thickly as his stomach gave him a not-so-

gentle reminder that it wasn’t doing too well either.

“Here you go, Agent Scully.” Bonnie Brooks handed her

the wet sheet and a bag of ice.

“Thanks.”

Carefully, Scully pulled Mulder’s hand from the

bucket of water and wrapped it lightly in the cool,

wet sheet, wincing at the red, blistered skin

covering his fingers, palm and wrist. She laid the

bag of ice across the sheet.

Scully turned to Skinner, “Sir, can you help me get

him to the car?”

Skinner hooked his left arm under Mulder’s right and

helped him to his feet, stumbling slightly when

Mulder’s knees seemed to give a little. “Easy,

Mulder. I’ve got you.”

Scully supported his left arm, making sure the wet

sheet and ice didn’t slip and that his hand was

elevated above his heart.

“I’ll get the door.” Kevin went ahead of them, making

sure the path was clear.

Back in the living room, Bonnie stood alone. Arms

hugging her chest as she watched the three FBI agents

leave her home. Her eyes strayed to the ruined

notebook lying on the floor, reduced to nothing more

than a small pile of ash. She scanned the dining

room, eyes coming to rest on the blackened wall where

their wedding photo had hung. She thought of the

various other fires that had broken out around the

house during the past six months. “God, why is this

happening?” She pleaded quietly to herself.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs. A stifled sob,

then a blur of red and blue clothing whizzed through

the dining room and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Kara?” Bonnie called after her stepdaughter, but the

only answer she received was the creak of hinges and

the sound of the back door slamming shut.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Skinner had helped get Mulder out to the car, then

had stood back and watched while Scully helped her

partner situate himself in the front seat. He had

sensed their awkwardness; her need to touch him was

as obvious as his need to be touched. This was the

first opportunity they’d had to hold on to one

another legitimately in front of him. Helluv an

excuse, he thought to himself. The careful distance

the two of them continued to maintain in his presence

only reinforced his recent decision to have a talk

with them about their…situation.

After his agents drove off, the A.D. turned and

started to walk back to the house. A flash of color

drew his attention to a tree behind the house. There

was a tree house near the top, and he realized that

he’d just seen someone moving around in it.

Skinner moved to the large oak and called upward.

“Hello? Who’s up there?” He wasn’t surprised by the

lack of a response, but the idea of having to climb

up the somewhat rickety-looking ladder didn’t sit

well with him either.

“Kara? Is that you?” Once again, silence prevailed,

and Skinner played his trump card. “Kara, I know that

it’s you up there. If I have to, I’ll climb up to

speak with you, but I don’t know if your ladder is

going to hold me. So how about making it easy on the

old guy and come down here so we can chat?” He waited

a moment and added, “Honey, I just want to talk to

you. Please.”

The small, almost mousy-looking child peered out from

the treetop framework, and appeared to be debating

what to do next. Finally, as if deciding to face the

inevitable, she backed out of the doorway and climbed

down the ladder.

“Thank you, Kara, for coming down to speak with me.”

She remained mute, standing with her head down. “Do

you have any idea what’s going on?”

She shook her head without saying a word.

“Kara, I bet it’s pretty scary to have to move to a

new neighborhood after living all those years in your

old one. Probably a little frightening to have to

start a new school, too, I guess.” He waited for a

response, a small reaction at the very least, but got

nothing.

“Kara, I have to ask you– what’s going on? How come

there’s been all of these fires lately?”

At this the child looked up, and her eyes searched

his. Finally, she said, in a small, almost weary

voice, “I don’t know. I don’t know how they start or

why.”

“Is it possible, Kara, that you– ”

She cut him off immediately. “–No! I haven’t done

anything! It’s not my fault! It’s not– Oh, no!”

The young teenager’s eyes widened; fear evident all

over her face. Skinner’s eyes turned to what had

caught hers, and immediately jumped to his side as

heat and flames danced uncomfortably close to his

body.

“Jesus!” he yelled out, but once he was a safe

distance from the fire, he quickly ascertained the

situation.

A damned rose bush just burst into flames, he thought

incredulously.

He moved quickly to look for something to put the

fire out, and noticed a garden hose that lay near the

foundation of the building. He squeezed the trigger

nozzle, and was relieved to see water spout out. He

pulled the hose along with him and sprayed the bush,

effectively putting the fire out almost as quickly as

it had started.

Skinner took a deep breath and allowed his heart rate

to return to normal. Damnedest thing, he thought. At

that moment it dawned on him that he was standing out

there alone. “Kara? Where are you?” He received no

answer. “Damnedest thing.”

He looked up and once again perceived movement, only

this time it was by the back door. “Kara?” he called

out.

“Please don’t talk to my daughter without her

stepmother or me present, Mr. Skinner. You’ve upset

her greatly.” Kevin Brooks’ tone matched the stern

look on his face.

Skinner wondered, exactly when had Mr. Brooks

appeared at the back door?

~~~~~~~~~

Motel 6

Tuesday, 6:20 p.m.

After his aborted interview with the girl, Skinner

had attempted to get back on track with her father

and stepmother. The atmosphere had become decidedly

chilly and, although the Brooks grudgingly took him

through the house and described the fires they’d

experienced, it became abundantly clear that he had

worn out his welcome. He’d eventually decided that a

cooling off period was needed, and called a taxi to

take him back to wait for his agents. His cab pulled

up in front of the motel just in time to see Scully

kneeling next to the passenger side of the rental

car, talking softly with her partner. Skinner paid

his fare and moved quickly to join them. Scully

started to rise when she saw him, but he motioned for

her to stay where she was.

“You stay here and keep an eye on the patient,

Agent.” As he turned to go register their rooms, he

couldn’t help the small smile that found its way to

his face. This was not going to be easy on any of

them, he mused to himself, not easy at all.

“Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” she asked, once

Skinner was out of earshot.

“You know, Scully, you’d make a helluv an FBI agent,

what with your astute powers of observation,” he

replied with obvious weariness. “I still can’t

believe this happened.”

“At least it’s not your right hand.”

“God, Scully, it really does hurt like hell. You sure

the doc said it wasn’t too serious?”

“Just have to watch for infection, that’s all. So as

soon as we get you settled, you’re going to take your

nice little pink pills and lay down and rest for a

while.” Her expression brooked no nonsense. “No

arguments, Mulder.”

“Okay. Right now, the idea of a nap actually sounds

pretty good.”

She murmured some sounds of sympathy but quieted as

she saw Skinner leave the front entrance of the

motel. “Well, now the fun really begins, doesn’t it?”

she mused aloud.

Skinner returned to the car and climbed into the

driver’s seat. He handed Scully a keycard, then put

the car into gear and drove them around the back. As

he pulled into the parking space, he remarked, “I got

us a first floor, Mulder. Scully, yours is the corner

unit.”

“Corner?” asked Scully.

“Us?” piped up Mulder.

“Agents, I’m traveling with you so I can make

recommendations regarding cost-cutting measures on

your trips. Did you honestly think I was going to get

us three separate rooms? Besides,” he muttered,

almost as an afterthought, “I figured Mulder would

need a nursemaid to watch for a fever or something.”

Once Scully found her voice, she said, “Let’s get our

things inside,” and she got out of the car. Skinner

popped the trunk, and she hauled out her and Mulder’s

bags.

“I can carry my bag, Scully.” She handed it to him.

“Drop your things off and then come to my… our–”

Mulder hesitated and looked at his superior with a

hint of disbelief, and then continued “–room so we

can discuss Skinner’s findings.” He then turned to

his boss when he realized that he was essentially

giving the orders. “Um, assuming that’s okay with

you, sir.”

“Mulder, this is still your case to run.” He gestured

to both of them. “I’m here as a third wheel, an

observer. But I do have something to discuss with you

regarding the Brooks family. I think it might be very

relevant to the investigation.”

“Very well, sir. I’ll be there momentarily.” Scully

then looked briefly at Mulder, and silently urged him

to “hang in there”. He nodded slightly in response,

and she left to drop her bag off and freshen up.

Mulder then followed Skinner to their room. He

wondered how in hell he was going to deal with being

roomies with his boss; it was certainly a far cry

from rooming with his partner. They entered the

small, somewhat antiquated room and dropped their

bags on their respective beds. Both men sighed at the

short length of the full-sized beds, resigned to the

necessity of keeping expenses in line for their

friends in Accounting.

Mulder tried to unzip his suit bag but was having

difficulty manipulating the zipper with only one

hand. As he became more and more frustrated with his

limitations, he began muttering under his breath.

“You got a problem, agent?” asked Skinner.

Mulder stopped momentarily and then looked at the

Assistant Director. He nodded and simply pointed to

his “problem”. Skinner nodded and quickly unzipped

the suit bag so Mulder could hang his extra suits up

in the closet. He then pulled out the underwear that

was at the bottom of the bag and placed them in a

drawer. The shaving kit bag was moved to the bathroom

vanity.

“How’s the hand, Mulder?” asked Skinner.

“Throbs a bit,” he answered honestly.

“You scheduled to take anything for it yet?”

Mulder checked his watch and shook his head. “Got

another hour or so before I’m due, unfortunately.

Don’t worry; I’ll survive.”

Skinner shook his head slightly and muttered

something about “having enough practice at it” when

he heard a knock at the door. He walked over and let

Scully into the room.

“Sorry I took so long. I had to call the front desk.

Our lovely accommodations include my very own petting

zoo,” she said irritably.

“Petting zoo?” both men echoed.

“There was a mouse in the bathroom. She and her

family will be removed while they find me another

room. They’re checking to see what’s available,” she

explained.

“Hard to believe that they have to ‘check’ what’s

available in this rat trap…um, no pun intended,”

commented Skinner. Mulder and Scully both smiled at

the remark; even Skinner broke into something akin to

a grin.

“Well, sir, why don’t you fill us in on your

information?” suggested Scully.

Skinner nodded. “Well, something rather odd happened

while you were at the ER,” he began, somewhat

hesitantly. He then filled them in on the incident,

doing his best not to color the facts with opinion.

The reaction was immediate.

“Are you all right, sir?” asked Scully, assuming her

physician’s demeanor.

“Yes, Scully, I’m fine.”

“Do you think the girl is somehow responsible?” she

asked.

“No,” replied Skinner quickly. “No, actually, I

don’t. She just looked too surprised for me to

believe that she actually had a hand in setting that

bush on fire.”

“But there’s precedent for just this type of

behavior, sir. Remember Cecil L’ively?” Scully began,

then noted Mulder’s slight shudder at the memory she

had just evoked. She touched his arm in gently. “I’m

sorry, Mulder.”

“It’s okay, Scully. But to be honest, I don’t think

it’s the same thing.”

“Mulder, she’s got to be the one setting the fires.

She’s always present,” Scully insisted.

“No, Scully, I don’t think it’s her,” interjected

Skinner.

“Then who?”

“The father. He’s an electrical engineer, people. And

he works at home. He very well may have a hand in

this. I’m not sure how, but the man’s background

suggests that he could have the expertise to rig up

some kind of incendiary device.”

“But why? I mean, I can understand a disturbed

teenager seeking the attention. She just lost her

mother and her father remarried, all within the last

two years. What possible reason could the father

have?”

“I suspect it goes back to the mother’s illness.

There would have been large medical bills to pay.

Since the man is self-employed, it’s possible that

his insurance was inadequate to meet all of those

bills.”

“He’s doing it for the insurance?” she asked. “I

don’t know, sir. I find it hard to believe that the

man would go to the trouble of selling his old house,

buying a new one, and then constantly setting fire to

it. It seems to me that’s an awful lot of effort for

comparatively little return.”

“He most likely sold the old house to help pay off

the medical bills. Their former house was apparently

a real showcase, Scully.”

Mulder was observing the exchange silently, but with

obvious interest.

“I’m reasonably certain that you have a theory, Agent

Mulder. Would you care to share it with us?” asked

Skinner.

Mulder looked a little surprised at being addressed

directly. “Sorry. To be honest, I don’t think it’s

either one of them.”

“Mulder? How can you say that?” asked Scully. “If

this isn’t a repeat of Cecil L’ively, I don’t know

what is.”

“I don’t think you can discount the father as a

possible suspect either,” offered Skinner.

“I understand what you’re both saying, and I haven’t

rejected anyone at this point. It’s just that it

doesn’t add up when I put either of those two into

the equation,” explained Mulder.

“So? Who do you think it is? Surely not the mother?”

asked Scully.

“Depends which one you mean, Scully.” Mulder watched

as two pairs of eyes rolled simultaneously, just as

he’d anticipated they would. “Let’s just wait and

see, okay?” he countered. “I think I’m ready for a

pain pill, and taking that catnap sounds like a

really good idea,” he announced with a yawn. The

trauma to his hand was catching up with him.

“I guess I should go see if they found me another

room… though I should really check your hand out to

make sure there’s no infection, Mulder.” She was

aiming for her cool, professional tone and not quite

making it.

“Why don’t *I* go and see if they’ve found you a room

Agent Scully? In the meantime, you can check

Mulder’s hand,” offered the AD.

“Oh, thank you, sir. That would make a lot of sense.

Thank you. Thank you very much,” she said, though she

realized it was probably one or two times too many.

Skinner looked at her with a curious expression,

shrugged his shoulders slightly, and left to go to

the front office. As soon as the door closed, Scully

immediately moved to Mulder’s side. “You know, this

is going to drive me crazy.”

“You? I’m the one who’s rooming with him, Scully.

Besides, you promised to shoot me if I had to room

with him, remember?” Mulder smiled and tried to

stifle a yawn, but he wasn’t successful.

“Doesn’t look like I’d be getting any tonight

anyway,” she said with a grin, but when she leaned in

to kiss him, she brushed against his injured hand.

“Damn,” he hissed.

“Oh, Mulder, I’m sorry. I’ll get you a pain pill.”

She rose, got the painkillers and some water. “Take a

nap. You’ll feel better when you wake up.” She

quickly planted a kiss upon his lips and was about to

get up when she felt herself grabbed and dragged down

on top of him.

“Mulder, your hand!”

“I’ve got my hand way over there, Scully,” he said,

indicating the protective posture he had assumed.

“And if Skinner walks in on us?”

“Well, then maybe he’ll realize we’d appreciate it if

he took the other room and left you in here with me,”

he retorted with a small chuckle.

“Oh, yeah. I’m sure that would be the first thing

Skinner would offer to do– after he drummed our

sorry asses out of the FBI, that is.”

“Well, at least I wouldn’t have to play ‘musical

roommates’ any longer,” proclaimed Mulder.

“Oh, stop whining and get some rest. If any one of

us is in the ballpark with respect to a possible

suspect, I have a feeling that means we’ll be paying

another visit to the Brooks’ home all too soon.”

~~~~~~~

The pale blue wall silhouetted Kara’s shadow as she

lay in bed, huddled under the multicolored afghan her

mother had made for her so long ago. It had been

knitted from all of the remnants of her past

projects, and it served as a reminder of all the

sweaters and blankets her mom made for her and her

dad. “Momma,” she murmured in her sleep. Tears ran

down the teenager’s cheeks as she dreamed of times

long passed.

Gentle fingers tried to wipe away evidence of sadness

on the child’s face without waking her, but Kara woke

up with a start. “Who’s there?” Kara looked around,

but saw no one. She felt her heart race at the

possibilities, and sat up straight in her bed.

“Please, if anyone is here, answer me!” She paused

momentarily and then called out, “Bonnie?”

Suddenly, a gust of wind swept through the room

accompanied by a brilliant flash of light. “Who’s

there? Please, who’s there?” she pleaded with a

trembling voice.

clip_image005

Kara felt a light probing touch on her face, the

tears that continued to fall seemingly absorbed by

something unseen. She thought she should feel afraid,

but the gentle touch was actually very soothing. Kara

closed her eyes and allowed herself to be washed in

the comfort of it, unlike anything she had

experienced since–

“Momma?” she whispered aloud.

Kara felt warmth pressing against her forehead…a

kiss.

“Momma, I miss you so much. I want to be with you,

Momma. Please, take me with you.”

Kara felt a sudden chill and she cried out, “Don’t

leave me! I’ll stay here, but don’t leave me yet!”

The chill was instantly replaced by a sweet warmth,

as if loving arms were embracing her. Kara nuzzled

into that warmth and fell peacefully asleep.

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

Act III

Motel 6

Tuesday, 11:00 p.m.

“Agent, is that absolutely necessary?” Skinner lifted

his face from the pillow and waved in the general

direction of the television.

Mulder immediately muted the sound. “Sorry. It’s the

only way I can sleep. Do you want me to turn it off?”

Skinner rolled to his side and propped himself up on

one elbow. He gave Mulder a speculative look. “If you

can live without the sound, I can live with the

light.” He punched the pillow into shape, stretched

out on his stomach, and buried his face in the crook

of his arm. “Get some sleep.”

“Yes, sir.” Mulder settled back against the headboard

and tried, without much success, to find a position

for his hand that didn’t make it throb like a

toothache. As pathetic as it sounded, all he wanted

to do was sneak down to Scully’s room so she could

fuss over him. He pushed the thought away and

concentrated on the silent flickering screen.

An hour later, his erstwhile roommate was snoring

softly, and Mulder was ready to climb the walls. He

glanced balefully at the brown plastic bottle on the

nightstand. Childproof caps. He couldn’t get a pill

out if his life depended on it.

But Scully could open the bottle for him. What better

excuse for a trip down the hall? Except that it

wasn’t a hall, it was an outside walkway. And he

couldn’t get his shoes on without help, let alone tie

the laces. He considered the possibilities for all of

twenty seconds before climbing carefully out of bed.

He was almost to the door before he remembered the

pill bottle, and crept quietly back to get it. His

hand had just touched the doorknob for the second

time when Skinner’s voice froze him in his tracks.

“Where are you going?”

He felt like a teenager sneaking out of the house

after curfew. “I, um– I need some ice. For my hand.”

It was the best he could come up with on such short

notice.

Skinner sat up and squinted at him, then grabbed his

glasses from the nightstand and looked again. “You

won’t get much ice in that little bottle.”

When had the man developed this propensity for

smirking? It was beginning to get on his nerves. “Oh.

Right. Guess I was half asleep.” He headed for the

dresser and exchanged the pill bottle for the ice

bucket.

“You’re going outside in your bare feet?”

While Mulder was casting around for a suitable

response, Skinner reached for his shoes and began

putting them on. “I’ll get it.”

“No, no– that’s not necessary, I’ll just–”

“Sit down, Mulder. I said I’ll get it.” And with

that, he took the ice bucket and was gone.

*Great*

Skinner reappeared a few moments later with a full

load of ice. He put it down on the dresser, picked up

one of the unused pillows and stripped off the

pillowcase. “Can you take the bandages off yourself

or do you need some help?” He snagged the plastic

laundry bag from the closet and began to fill it with

ice.

“I’ll just hold the ice against it like this. It’ll

be fine.”

“You’ll get the bandages wet.”

For the next few minutes, Mulder sat in embarrassed

silence while his boss gently unwrapped his hand and

placed the makeshift ice pack against it.

“Do you want a pain pill?” Skinner jerked his head

toward the plastic bottle now on the dresser.

Ah, the damn bottle that started all this. “No, this

is fine. Really.” Oddly enough, the ice *was*

helping.

That earned him another speculative look. “If you

change your mind, wake me up. We’ll redo the bandage

in the morning.” He put his glasses back on the

nightstand and got back under the covers.

“Thank you, sir.” He was beginning to feel more than

a little ashamed of the dark thoughts he’d been

sending Skinner’s way all afternoon. “I’ll be fine.

Scully can put a new bandage on tomorrow.”

The A.D. raised his head and gave Mulder a look that

was once again too close to a smirk for comfort. “I’m

sure she can.” He rolled over with his back to his

‘patient’. “Good night, Mulder.”

“Good night, sir.” If he didn’t known better, he’d

have to wonder if the man might not be on to their

little secret. Yes, it was going to be an interesting

couple of days…

~~~~~

Wednesday, 8:40 a.m.

They were on their way back to Clifford County

Medical Center, this time to interview George

Bostleman, the injured mail carrier. The man’s

physician had refused their request to see him

yesterday, citing traumatic shock. The police

interview had done enough damage, he’d said. The

F.B.I. would have to wait until Bostleman was

stronger. Otherwise, they would have been here

yesterday rather than in the Brooks’ living room

getting Mulder’s hand barbequed.

Breakfast had consisted of burned coffee and stale

bagels with a strangely reticent Skinner. He’d

insisted that they handle the interview without him,

claiming to have a number of phone calls to return.

Scully had found his behavior very puzzling until

Mulder shared last night’s events with her after they

got in the car.

“Mulder, are you out of your mind?” She gave him a

look that said she’d already answered her own

question. “What were you thinking?”

“Obviously, I *wasn’t*.”

The contrition in his voice was sincere, and she

turned back to him with a much softer expression. “I

wanted to see you, too, Mulder. But it was a foolish

risk. That’s why we need to make a new rule–” at his

knowing grin, she continued, “–and *stick* to it

this time. No fraternizing in the field.” She pulled

into a parking space and shut off the engine.

“But look at the money we could save by just getting

one room.” Mulder added his patented eyebrow waggle,

and wisely prepared to duck.

She shot him a look. “Let’s stick to business for the

remainder of this trip, shall we?” But her eyes were

twinkling.

Mr. Bostleman was sitting propped in his hospital

bed, his blistered face, and arms glistening with

ointment. His attention was focused on the

television, and he didn’t look at his visitors until

Mulder spoke.

“Mr. Bostleman? I’m Special Agent Mulder with the

Federal Bureau of Investigation. This is my partner,

Special Agent Scully. We have a few questions, if you

feel up to it.”

“Oh, I’m up to it, all right. The cops in this town

seem to think I’m imagining things. I’m hoping for a

slightly more open mind from the Feds.”

Mulder glanced quickly at Scully . The corners of her

mouth twitched dangerously for an instant before

her cool, professional mask returned. “Yes, Mr.

Bostleman, I think you’ll find Agent Mulder in

particular to be quite open minded.” When she looked

back at Mulder, her eyes were positively dancing with

amusement.

“Uh, yes, Mr. Bostleman. What is it that the police

think you’re imagining?” Mulder shot back a look that

he hoped would convey just how amusing he thought

this all was. Scully’s expression remained impassive,

but the merriment in her eyes actually kicked up a

notch.

“Well, to start with: they don’t believe there’s

anything unusual going on in that house. Hell, any

fool in town can tell you these new people are very

strange.” At the “any fool in town” comment, the

postman made a sweeping gesture and winced as the

movement stretched the burned skin. “Their neighbors

told me that there have been a half-dozen unexplained

fires since the Brooks moved in.”

Scully called him on that one. “Our information makes

it four fires, Mr. Bostleman, not six.”

“Four, six, what’s the difference? Besides, they

haven’t called the fire department every time, if

that’s where you’re getting your *information*.” He

almost sneered the last word.

Buddy, you do *not* want to get into a verbal

fencing match with this woman, Mulder thought. “So,

what is it that you think is causing the fires?”

The man turned his attention back to Mulder. “I think

these people are in deep financial difficulty and

they’re making it look like there’s a poltergeist or

something in the house. Setting little fires so that

when the big one finally *happens*, they won’t be

under suspicion. They got a pretty large insurance

windfall coming if they torch the place, but only if

no one suspects them of arson.”

“What makes you think the Brooks are in financial

trouble?” Mulder had been resting his hand in his

overcoat pocket, but hanging down like that was

making it throb again. He quickly tucked it into his

jacket in a Napoleonic pose.

“Hey, what happened to your hand? Was it *another*

fire?” He gave Scully a triumphant glance before

eyeing Mulder carefully. “Did you get that in the

house?”

Mulder ignored the question. “I asked why you think

the Brooks have money problems.”

Bostleman shrugged as much as his injuries permitted.

“It’s not hard to figure out when you deliver them a

mitt-full of bills every day of the week. And not

just bills, *past due* bills. Lots of them, from

two hospitals and a shitload of credit card

companies, not to mention three or four collection

agencies. My sister-in-law, Ruthie, works at the

Publix supermarket. Said Mrs. Brooks was in there a

few weeks ago trying to charge her groceries with a

Visa Gold card. Not only got declined, but the credit

card company made Ruthie take the card away from

her.”

“That doesn’t necessarily add up to arson.”

“No, ma’am, it doesn’t. But there’s just an… *aura*

around that house. I can feel it whenever I’m there.”

Predictably, Mulder jumped in. “An aura? Is this

something you see, or just a general feeling?”

Scully shot him a *don’t go there* look. “Mr.

Bostleman, can you tell us what happened when you

were injured?”

“Not much to tell. I dropped off their day’s crop of

bills and picked up a couple of outgoing pieces.

Before I made it ten feet from the mailbox, every

piece of mail I had on me went up in flames. I

dropped the pack and ran, but the letters in my hands

set my coat on fire. By the time I got it off and

rolled on the ground, everything above my waist

looked like this.” He raised his arms slowly and

gestured at his torso and face.

“Was there anything unusual about the mail you picked

up from the Brooks?”

“No, ma’am. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a few

letter-size envelopes. No wires, no suspicious white

powder. Nothing. The daughter was at the door to get

the mail from me. She handed me the outgoing mail and

shut the door. Didn’t even come out when I started

screaming my head off.”

“This *feeling* you said you had about the house.”

Two pairs of eyes turned to Mulder. “Can you describe

it?”

Another careful shrug. “Creepy. Like someone’s

standing behind you but you can’t turn around fast

enough to catch them there.”

Scully nodded and wrote a few lines in her notepad.

“Thank you, Mr. Bostleman. That’s all the questions I

have for now.” She looked over at Mulder. “Agent

Mulder?”

“Not at this time.” He placed a business card on

Bostleman’s tray table. “If you think of anything

else, call the number on the card.”

They were halfway out the door when Bostleman called

out, the strain of his injuries finally apparent in

his subdued voice. “I’ll give you the same advice I

gave the police: Believe me, don’t believe me–

that’s up to you. But watch yourself.” His burst of

adrenaline depleted, Bostleman closed his eyes and

sagged back against the pillows, asleep before his

visitors could respond.

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

Clifford Heights Police Station

Wednesday, 12:15 p.m.

Scully’s cell phone had rung as she and Mulder were

getting back into the car after their interview with

Mr. Bostleman. It was Skinner, wanting to rejoin the

party. He had made no progress trying to work from

his motel room and suggested they try the local

police department’s resources. The Chief of Police

had been more than accommodating, handing over his

own conference room, barely bigger than a supply

closet, but equipped with a fax machine and modem.

Scully glanced at her partner sitting next to her

when she heard the growl. Mulder’s famous stomach.

Better than an alarm clock when it came to

determining lunch time. But as she looked at his

unconcerned face, glasses perched on his nose, going

over the credit reports on Kevin Brooks, her ears

heard the sound again, coming from a different

direction. She looked across the small conference

room table and just caught the embarrassed look on

their boss’s face.

“Sorry,” Skinner mumbled.

Mulder was too engrossed to hear anything, but Scully

shot a quick look at the clock on the wall, noting it

was a quarter past 12. That made it an hour past

lunch to their East Coast appetites.

“Mulder, I think it’s time we feed the A.D.,” Scully

said calmly, but her eyes were sparkling with her

amusement.

“Hmm?” came the reply for her partner. He still

hadn’t bothered to look up. From the moment they had

arrived at the police station, Mulder had been buried

in every scrap of paper he could find about the

Brooks family and the other fires. He’d been calling,

faxing and downloading local newspaper accounts for

over two hours and even her stomach was starting to

protest a lack of real food.

“I’m hungry. Let’s stop this and get some lunch,” she

said slowly, as if trying to talk her partner off a

ledge.

He finally looked up, seemed confused that she’d

interrupted him. This time, he noticed when his

stomach made the now familiar sound.

“Let’s get some lunch,” he declared, as if he were

the first one to think of it.

“Great idea,” Skinner said dryly.

“Yeah, wish I’d thought of it,” Scully shot back,

smiling when her boss tried hard not to chuckle.

They walked out of the police station, which was

situated just off the main street of beautiful

downtown Clifford Heights, and headed for the car.

Mulder turned abruptly in the other direction.

“Where’s he . . .” Skinner started to ask, but Scully

was way ahead of him. She looked in the direction

Mulder was heading and groaned loudly.

“Mulder. No!” she cried out and ran after him,

catching up to him in just a few steps.

“Scully, it’s right here. We don’t have to drive;

we’ll be able to get back inside and get some work

done. We can even get the stuff to go and get back at

it,” he reasoned, not slowing his pace one bit.

“Mulder, I will not have greasy wrappers littering

the same table top I’m trying to write notes on,”

Scully shot back. Then she tried to touch his hand,

but remembered the bandages and let her arm drop to

her side. “Please. Can’t we try to find someplace–

*anyplace* else?”

“You rode through this one-horse town just like the

rest of us, Scully. There is no ‘anyplace else’ here.

Unless you want a stale sandwich from the same gas

station we got our stale bagels from this morning?”

By this time Skinner had caught up with them and even

figured out their destination. “Hey, look! They have

99-cent Whoppers!”

“And Two for Two fries,” Mulder pointed out

enthusiastically.

Scully looked for any chance of escape, but realized

she was doomed. “Sure, fine, whatever,” she sighed

and trod grudgingly toward Clifford Heights newest

eating establishment–a shiny new Burger King.

She watched in horror as Mulder ordered a Whopper and

two fries. Skinner ordered just one Whopper, but

added cheese. It appeared to be an unspoken agreement

between the two of them that they’d split the two

fries between them. It was her turn. “Grilled chicken

sandwich, no mayo, and a glass of water, please.”

The waitress, an older woman at least 70 if a day,

winked at her. “Keep that girlish figure, honey.

Their eyes start to wander before you know it.” The

older woman nodded in the direction of Mulder and

Skinner. “And you’re one lucky little lady with those

two!”

“Don’t I know it,” Scully said with less enthusiasm

than the comment would normally warrant.

By the time she sat down, after getting her water,

Mulder was struggling to figure out a way to pick up

his sandwich without the mayonnaise-slick tomato and

lettuce squirting out the bottom. He was just about

to get ketchup all over his bandage when she pulled

the sandwich away from him, dug her pocketknife out

of her purse, and cut the sandwich into more

manageable quarters. He smiled his thanks and went

back to eating.

“So, what have we got?” Skinner asked, breaking the

silence.

“This isn’t the first occurrence of unexplained fires

breaking out in Illinois,” Scully started, putting

her sandwich down and taking out her notebook.

“Alton, Illinois, late 1920s. A young girl’s family

was terrorized by unexplained fires that broke out

almost constantly. The girl was thirteen years old,

was emotionally disturbed by family accounts. When

she passed puberty, the fires stopped. No reason was

ever found.”

“I think I saw those movies,” Mulder said with a grin

as he popped a few more fries into his mouth.

“They’re heeeeere,” he mimicked.

Scully shot him a look. “We still don’t know all the

chemical changes a body goes through when it reaches

puberty, Mulder,” she chided. “I would think that was

the one explanation you’d jump at.”

“Close, Scully, but I really don’t think it’s like

the Alton case. In that case the girl had been

’emotionally disturbed’, as you put it, for years.

And the fires were usually small in nature, although

you are right; they were going on almost continually

during the year it happened. As a matter of fact, the

family started placing buckets of water every few

steps around the house to put them out as they broke

out. The fire department just threw up it’s hands

after a few months.”

“So why is this different?” Scully asked, sipping

from her water.

“It just doesn’t feel like it’s that easy,” Mulder

said with a shrug.

“I think I’m beginning to agree with you, Agent

Mulder,” Skinner said, with an almost surprised look

on his face.

“But sir, I thought you were going with the father

setting the arson fires, using his electrical skills

to set them off?” Scully turned to him with a raised

eyebrow.

“How could he have started Mulder’s notebook on

fire?” Skinner countered. “That’s been bothering me

since it happened. Kevin Brooks had no access to that

notebook. It was in Mulder’s pocket or in his hands

the entire time, and the analysis of the remains

showed no sign of accelerant.”

“But why not think it’s Kara, as Scully just

explained?” Mulder asked, holding back a grin. C’mon,

Walt, you can do it, he mentally encouraged.

Skinner was quiet for a moment, thinking. Finally he

looked over at Mulder. “Her eyes. I looked at that

little girl when the rose bush caught fire and there

was fear in her eyes. She didn’t know what started

that fire, and she was afraid of it.”

“It could still be puberty,” Scully countered.

“Remember what it was like as a teenager. Your body

betraying you at every turn. You wake up one morning

and your face is broken out, your hair won’t comb

right, your feet are too big and you stumble a lot,

your legs are suddenly too long for your body . . .”

“I feel like that every morning, Scully,” Mulder

interjected. She rewarded him with a smirk. “I think

you’re on to something, sir. I don’t think it was

Kara.”

“Then who?” Scully asked, sitting back and crossing

her arms, ready to duke it out, if necessary.

“Kara’s mom,” Mulder said, wiping some ketchup off

his tie one-handed.

“Bonnie?” Scully asked, her forehead knotted in

confusion.

“No, Lisa. Kara’s natural mother.”

“Back from the dead?” Scully asked with a smirk.

“Not everyone has all the loose threads tied up when

they die, Scully. We’ve seen this before, at an Air

Force Base not that far from here.”

“Mulder, that was a murder victim. And I’m still not

entirely convinced that the ghost of Rebecca Barnes

helped solve that case. Besides, there is no murder

here. Lisa Brooks died of cancer.”

“Maybe she still has issues,” Mulder said with a

shrug.

Skinner looked from one agent to the other. “Well, I

think until we have some way to prove that, we better

get back to checking out the evidence we can prove,”

he said, picking up his tray and carrying it to the

trash.

“What? No dessert?” Mulder whined, but picked up his

tray and followed suit.

~~~~~~~~~

The Brooks Household

Wednesday, 6:05 p.m.

“I really love this arrangement you made today in

school, K.,” Bonnie commented as she admired the pine

needle and orchid centerpiece.

Kara shook a colander full of fresh string beans

above the sink, and shut off the faucet. She tore off

two paper towels, brought everything over to the

table and sat next to her stepmother.

“Thanks. It was a Japanese flower-arrangement

workshop. We have workshops like that all week before

this weekend’s ‘International Picnic.'” The two began

taking string beans one by one from the colander,

snapping the ends off onto the paper towels and

tossing the results into a glass bowl.

“So what kind of food should we bring to the picnic?”

Bonnie asked, trying to jump-start a new project with

her stepdaughter. Perhaps taking more of an interest

in her social activities would bring them closer.

“Don’t want a hibachi,” the girl said with some

solemnity weighing her voice down.

“No fires, that’s for sure,” Bonnie said warily. “We

don’t want to have to bring buckets of water with us.

Unless you want to show off with a wet t-shirt

contest!”

The girl gasped and blushed bright red. “You! You,

wouldn’t…” then she saw that Bonnie’s face was beet

red as well, trying to hold back her giggles. The two

of them broke out into a laughing fit instantly. “I

have… nothing to show… for it anyway,” Kara

continued between deep breaths and laughter.

“Oh, you’ll get there,” Bonnie encouraged in a more

serious tone. “Don’t worry, you’re perfectly normal,

K. I didn’t start ‘blooming’ until I was seventeen.”

They resumed snapping the string beans, giggles

breaking out every so often.

“So, really, Kara. What should we bring for the

picnic? A new recipe?”

“Actually, we had to sign up for a country to

contribute to. There will be several tables there in

the field, something like food-stands for different

ethnic foods.”

“Did you choose Germany, for your Dad’s origin?”

“No, USA.”

“Well, that’s not very international…”

“No, but our family right now is from the US. I mean,

you, me and Dad,” she mumbled quietly, a little

embarrassed at revealing such a personal feeling

toward Bonnie. She really didn’t do that too often.

When she looked up from her pile of green pointy ends

she saw that Bonnie still had some tears from the

laughing fits, making her eyes glassy. Wait a

minute… that wasn’t the laughing doing that.

“That’s really nice to hear, Kara. I think it’s a

wonderful idea.”

Kara responded with a wide grin, and grabbed another

handful of beans.

Bonnie cleared her throat and shook her curly locks

slightly before she changed the subject back. “So,

you have anything in mind? We’re committed to

bringing something now, since you had to sign up.”

“I figured we could make something that reminds me of

home. Momma used to make this spicy fried chicken.”

Bonnie shifted slightly in her seat. “Is that

healthy?” she said, a little strained.

“C’mon, how often do we go to a picnic? Besides, we

always used to have that at big family events. I’m

sure Dad still has the recipe,” Kara prodded.

The older woman nodded her head.

It was quiet for a while as they finished up the

vegetables. Kara could feel a little creeping

sensation up her spine. There was suddenly some kind

of tension in the air. Had she said the wrong thing

by praising Momma’s recipe? But it was true; she did

feel like Bonnie was family. Even with all the

longing she had felt for her mother popping up here

and there. She couldn’t forget her, and she would

never stop loving her, but Bonnie really cared for

her, too. And she really liked the feeling of having

a mom again, in the flesh.

She thought back to that moment in her room when her

momma’s kiss and hug felt so real. She was so sure it

wasn’t a dream. But how could she tell? Dreams felt

real sometimes, and it did happen in her room, while

she was falling asleep.

It really wasn’t a choice she was making. She just

needed someone to talk to. Bonnie was taking that

role for her now. She had to tell her how she felt.

And the tension felt as if it were growing thicker

with every second she let pass by.

“Bonnie?” Kara gently began. Her stepmother looked up

at her, waiting for her to continue. “Do you think

it’s okay to call you something else? I mean,

‘Bonnie’ sounds like I’m talking to a friend, which

is okay…”

“I am your friend, K,” Bonnie responded, and put down

the last of her string beans to cover Kara’s hand.

“Yes, but…” Kara fought to keep her emotions in

check. “You’ve really, um, gone out of your way to

take care of me and… it’s not like I want to forget

her… EVER… but…” Bonnie’s grasp loosened a

little. Kara continued, “…I used to call her

‘Momma.’ I was thinking, maybe, if it’s okay with

you, that I could call you ‘Ma.’ You know, something

a little shorter.”

“Oh, Kara, of course you may!” Bonnie got up from her

seat and embraced her stepdaughter tightly. They both

held onto each other that way for a while. It was

comforting, it was warm and nice…

…And it was ruined when the orchid centerpiece on

the table suddenly burst into flame! Bonnie pushed

Kara away from the table and grabbed one of the fire

extinguishers they now kept in strategic places all

over the house.

The flames ate at the stems of the flowers, making

them seem to melt. Kara panicked as her mind began to

replay all of the fires she had seen in the last

months. It was like a slide show, flashing before her

eyes. So many of them… and all of them trying to

burn out symbols of the new life she and her father,

and now Bonnie, all shared together.

The tension in the room seemed to double. Kara was a

little surprised. She’d gone through so many

spontaneous fires lately that she was almost numb to

them. Sure, the initial shock was intense, but it

felt like there was something else — a lingering

spirit about the room…

A spirit…

Kara raced up to her room and slammed the door, the

sound of Bonnie calling after her muffled behind the

wood panel. She sat on her bed and waited. And

waited.

Anger and distress and sadness were building up

inside her — a jumble of emotions as she waited for

that presence to appear. And it did, but very

cautiously, like it was standing in the corner,

watching her.

“Momma.” the girl said with a quavering voice.

“Momma, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I still love you!

Please, Momma, let us be a family. I still love–”

her words cracked in her throat, tears inched down

her cheeks.

“Momma, please…”

*****

Act IV

Brooks Household, Kitchen

Wednesday, 6:28 p.m.

Bonnie unwrapped another disposable sponge and filled

the cleaning bucket with water. Dealing with the

foamy mess of a newly-extinguished fire had become

disturbingly routine.

She began by removing the remains of Kara’s Japanese

centerpiece, now nothing more than a melted plastic

pot with some sticks jutting out from the burnt foam

block.

As she started to wipe the mess off the table, she

heard the front door close. Kevin was home. She could

hear him pause in the entrance hall and curse under

his breath. He recognized the smell that accompanied

another combustible outbreak, as they all had learned

to do. Next she heard the keys in the glass bowl,

then the heavy, exhausted footsteps through the

dining room. She continued her work.

“I can’t believe this,” he grumbled in frustration.

“She’s doing it for attention, you know. That’s got

to be it!” His voice became louder as he went on.

“Kevin, just stop it!” Bonnie snapped, splashing the

soaked sponge into the cloudy water.

“I don’t know what to do anymore, Bonnie! I’ve been a

good father to her! This is just revenge for the fact

that we moved away. I have no other ideas!”

“Well, you can start by talking instead of yelling!”

“I AM NOT YELL – – ” Kevin gritted his teeth, then

lowered his voice. “One of these days someone is

going to get killed. There’s only one thing left to

do.” He went over to the wall-mounted phone in the

kitchen and began dialing.

“Who are you calling?”

“The FBI agents.”

“Kevin, your own daughter!?”

“She has to be stopped! I can’t do anything anymore.

She just won’t–”

A shrieking scream cut through their argument. It

stopped Kevin’s heart. He let the receiver drop and

it swung by its cord as the two parents raced to the

second floor.

An orange glow filled the staircase and smoke hid the

ceiling from view, as if a bad storm were brewing

inside the house. It was, and the heat of the storm

was centered around Kara’s bedroom door. Kevin pulled

the sleeve of his sweater around his fist and banged

on the door.

“Kara, open the door, baby! Kara, we have to get you

out of there!”

All they could hear was Kara hiccupping and sobbing

inside. Every few seconds a high-pitched squeal would

escape. Kevin banged on the door harder with

increasing urgency, but it was no use. The strength

of the door was otherworldly, and he could do nothing

to save his baby girl.

He coughed and shouted in frustration. Bonnie pulled

at his arm to get him downstairs, away from the

danger.

“We have to call for help or she’ll die in there!”

“No! I have to save her! I’m her father!”

“And now, I’m her mother. I’m calling for help.” She

left his side and ran down the stairs, covering her

mouth against the thickening smoke as she went.

When she got downstairs, the phone was still dangling

from its cord, and she heard a faint voice calling

from the receiver.

“Mr. and Mrs. Brooks? Kara? Hello? Can anyone hear

me? Hello. . .?”

Bonnie grabbed the phone, “Hello?”

“Mrs. Brooks, thank God!”

“Agent Scully, please hurry, there’s a fire! Bigger

than before and we can’t get to Kara! She’s trapped!”

“We’re already on our way.”

Bonnie hung up the phone. It probably wouldn’t matter

in a few minutes. She stumbled over to the staircase

again, crouching below the growing clouds of smoke.

She called up the stairs, into the obscurity, “Kevin!

We have to try from the outside! The agents are on

the way!”

It took a moment before her husband’s heavy footsteps

tramped down the stairs. He sought her hand and they

rushed out to the front yard together.

~~~~~~~

Wednesday, 6:40 p.m.

Clifford Heights wasn’t a particularly large town, so

the three agents arrived at the house in record time,

even managing to beat the volunteer fire department

to the scene. Skinner pulled haphazardly to the curb

and jumped out of the car.

Mulder had to reach awkwardly across his body with

his right hand in order to open the passenger door,

so Scully climbed quickly out of the front seat to

help him. Both agents then made a dash for the

Brooks’ front door.

Skinner was banging his fist urgently against the

wood. Just as Mulder and Scully joined him, Bonnie

Brooks opened the door, crying hysterically.

“She’s in her room. We can’t get her out! We can’t

get her out!”

“Where the hell is the fire department?” asked

Scully.

“We called; they said they’d get here as soon as they

could. Another emergency across town… Oh, God! Help

me, get her out, please!” she cried.

“Do you have a ladder?” Skinner had grabbed Bonnie

gently but firmly by the shoulders, speaking intently

into her face.

“We can’t get her out!” she cried again, oblivious to

the A.D.’s question.

“Mrs. Brooks! A ladder– do you have a ladder?” He

shook her slightly and her eyes snapped into focus.

“Ladder? Yes, yes, out back.” She brushed by Skinner

and rushed out to the backyard, pointing frantically

at the rickety treehouse ladder. “This is all we

have. Will it do?”

Skinner gave the ladder a swift appraisal and hoisted

it over his head. “Show me Kara’s window!” Whether

the thing would support him or not was a question

that would be answered soon enough.

Bonnie pointed to a window on the side of the house,

and Skinner sprinted for it with the panicked woman

right on his heels.

Meanwhile, Mulder and Scully had dashed into the

house, where they immediately heard Kevin Brooks’

screams coming from the second floor.

Scully spotted a fire extinguisher on the coffee

table to her left and grabbed it before heading up

the stairs with Mulder right behind her.

“Kara! Kara, please, sweetheart, open the door!

Daddy’s not angry! Please, just open the door!” They

found Kevin Brooks screaming desperately toward

Kara’s door as the flames danced around it, blocking

his path. Scully pointed the extinguisher nozzle and

sprayed the foamy white substance along the floor and

at the door, emptying the container in moments. The

fire raged on unabated.

“Is the door stuck? Is that why she’s not coming

out?” Scully shouted above the roar of the flames.

“I don’t know! A few minutes ago I was able to get

over to it, but I couldn’t turn the handle. It felt

like it was jammed or maybe locked. I don’t know! But

now I can’t get near it because the whole damn

hallway is on fire!” he cried out in frustration.

Brooks turned back towards the door and pleaded with

his daughter. “Kara, please, open the door!”

Scully turned to ask Mulder where the hell the fire

department was, but he was nowhere in sight. “Mulder!

Where are you?”

Their situation was all too similar to the L’ively

case, and she wondered for an instant if Mulder was

reliving the fear he’d felt that night. She could

only imagine what he must be feeling.

Then suddenly he reappeared, awkwardly hauling a

wastebasket filled with water that spilled over the

lip with every step. “Move away, Scully. Let me try

this.” His grip was precarious, trying to spare his

injured hand, but he managed to toss the contents

toward the bedroom door.

Miraculously, it made a path large enough for him to

pass through, which he quickly did before Scully or

Brooks could react. He pushed against the door once

with little success and then, bracing himself, plowed

his way through on the second try.

He was momentarily relieved to find the room filled

with smoke but free of flames, until he tried to take

a breath to call for the child and the acrid fumes

seared his throat. He choked and immediately got down

on his knees, balancing on his right hand. It was

impossible to crawl and cover his mouth at the same

time, so he opted for forward movement and tried to

take shallow breaths.

“Kara? Kara, it’s okay. Where are you?” Mulder called

out, trying to keep his voice as gentle as possible.

The smoke was overwhelming and blinding. He had to

find the child quickly, or they’d both be dead in

minutes.

Images of the hotel fire years ago flashed through

his mind as he crept through the choking darkness. He

hadn’t made it to the children that time, though the

arsonist had. And this was far worse than that night

had been.

“Kara, please, say something so I can figure out

where you are!” he called out again.

“Here,” she whimpered.

“Again, Kara. Where are you?”

“Here. I’m over here,” she cried out a little more

loudly, then began to cough helplessly.

Mulder crawled toward the sound of the child’s voice,

eyes streaming from the smoke. He could hear Scully

calling frantically from the hall, but he couldn’t

draw in enough air to make his voice carry that far.

He crawled around the end of the bed and bumped

directly into the girl crouched low on the floor.

“Kara! Grab onto my coat and stay low. We’re going to

get out of here. Do you know where the window is?” He

peered through the thick smoke, searching for the

light.

“I think it’s that way, but I can’t see!” She pointed

over his shoulder.

Mulder could now hear sirens in the distance but the

sound of shattering glass was even more welcomed, as

was the resulting draft, which made it easier to

breathe, but not to see.

“Kara! Kara, are you in there?” It was Skinner’s

voice, and Mulder crawled toward it, dragging Kara

with him.

“Sir! I’ve got her. We’re coming!”

Within a few feet, Mulder’s hand encountered broken

glass from the window and he turned to Kara. “Stand

up, Kara. We’re here.” They came slowly to their feet

and Mulder reached toward the draft with his right

hand. He stepped forward and felt a strong hand grasp

his.

“Okay, Kara, time to get you out of here,” Mulder

said to the child. “Here she is, sir.”

Skinner reached in and lifted the child up over the

small, jagged pieces of glass that remained in the

window frame. He began the slow descent, using one

hand to hold onto the ladder, and the other to

support Kara as she followed him down the ladder.

Mulder looked at the ladder and tried to figure out

how the hell he was going to manage this. His hand

was throbbing again, and he knew he’d need the

support of both his hands to get himself safely onto

the ladder. Once he got to the point where he could

start descending, he’d be okay. It was maneuvering

himself out of the window that gave him cause to

grimace.

“Well, here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself. He

pushed one leg out the window and began to turn. “Oh,

damn!” he cried out. He’d grabbed onto the ledge of

the window with both hands for support, and the pain

shot through the injured hand from the impact. At

that point he realized the damn thing was going to

hurt no matter what he did, so he gritted his teeth

and forced himself out the window and onto the

ladder. Once outside, he managed to descend without a

problem.

Once Mulder reached the ground, he turned to find the

area surrounded by volunteer firemen and a squad car.

Bonnie was standing, holding her stepdaughter, while

Kevin was speaking with a member of the local PD.

Skinner stood nearby as Kevin answered the questions

posed by the cop. Scully saw Mulder and rushed toward

him.

“Are you okay?” she asked anxiously.

“Yeah,” he replied and immediately began coughing

uncontrollably.

“Oh, yeah. You’re fine.” She gathered him in her arms

and began gently leading him toward the rescue

vehicles.

One of the EMTs met them and sat Mulder on the bed of

his rig. He placed an oxygen mask over Mulder’s face

and instructed him to take deep breaths. He felt

better almost immediately and tried to remove the

mask.

“Oh no you don’t, Mulder. Leave it on for a few

minutes, or you will find yourself making yet another

trip to the emergency room,” admonished Scully.

He nodded in response and then, rather than attempt

to speak through the mask, merely pointed toward the

Brooks family.

“Kara’s fine, Mulder, though she’s obviously upset.

But physically, she’s fine.”

Just as Scully gave Mulder her assessment of the

situation, as if on cue, Kara screamed loudly, “No,

please, let me go!” She twisted out of Bonnie’s

embrace and ran directly into the house, leaving her

stepmother frozen with shock.

Almost instantly the flames that had mere seconds ago

threatened to engulf the structure simply winked out,

leaving only puffs of smoke wafting from the doors

and windows. The firemen stared open-mouthed. A fire

that extinguished itself was completely impossible.

And so they stared.

Bonnie recovered almost immediately and ran after the

teenager. Kevin and Skinner both tried to stop her,

but Bonnie would have none of it. She escaped their

grasps and ran into the house. As she entered the

front door, she heard Kara coming down the stairs.

“Kara?”

“I’m sorry. I had to get it.”

“Get what, sweetheart?”

“My momma’s picture. I couldn’t leave it up there. I

had to get it.” She paused and looked around her, as

if just now realizing where she was. “Jeez…pretty

stupid of me, huh?” she asked breathlessly.

“No. Not stupid, Kara. Maybe a little impulsive, but

not stupid.” Bonnie reached out, and Kara tentatively

placed the silver-framed photo into her stepmother’s

hand. Bonnie used the hem of her tee-shirt to

carefully wipe the frame, polishing it to its former

gleam.

“It looks none the worse for the wear, does it?”

Bonnie asked as she handed it back to the teenager.

Kara agreed, and fingered the frame with tenderness.

“Maybe we should get ourselves back outside into the

fresh air. It’s a bit of a mess in here, isn’t it?”

Kara looked around her again, nodded, but then said,

“But it’ll be okay, won’t it Bonnie? We’ll be able to

come back and live here, right?”

Bonnie’s expression couldn’t hide the surprise at

hearing her stepdaughter’s words. “You want to come

back here?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah. I like it here, Ma,” she replied shyly.

“I don’t understand…with all of this craziness

going on…” She hesitated.

“It wasn’t me; it was my momma. She was the one that

wasn’t sure. She was the one who thought I’d

forgotten her. But she does understand now. It’s

okay. She knows I really do love her, and that you

and Dad are both okay with that.” Kara finally

managed a small smile.

“Oh, Kara, it really is, you know. Neither your dad

nor I would ever want you to forget about her.”

Bonnie reached over to embrace Kara. “And you’re

right, kiddo, for a place that was up in flames just

a little while ago, it doesn’t look like it’s in too

bad shape. I think with a lot of elbow grease, this

place is going to become our home again.” The two of

them walked out the front door arm in arm.

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

Epilogue

Motel 6

Thursday, 9:12 a.m.

“Is this everything?” Scully dropped a stack of

shirts onto the bed next to Mulder’s open suitcase.

“Scully, you don’t have to do this. I can–” Then he

proceeded to prove otherwise by dropping the shaving

kit he had been balancing on his one good hand.

She flashed him an indulgent smile. “So I see. Would

you rather have Skinner pack for you?” Mulder winced

at the prospect, and Scully nodded in agreement.

“That’s what I thought.”

He retrieved the shaving kit from the floor and

placed it on the bed. “First aid in the middle of the

night and tying my shoes for me was weird enough. I

drew the line at zipping my pants, although he did

offer.”

Scully’s expression was priceless. Then she began to

giggle, which never failed to get Mulder going right

along with her. They were soon holding each other up,

tears running down faces crinkled with mirth.

“Agents?”

They hadn’t even heard the door open. Skinner was

back from checking them out of the motel. He stood

just inside the door with his hand on the knob,

seemingly frozen by the vision before him. The solemn

X-Files division, dissolving into mild hysterics.

They straightened up immediately.

“Yes, sir.” Scully found her voice first. “I was just

helping Mulder pack.” She sidestepped so he could see

the suitcase and clothing on the bed, then turned

back to complete her task.

Mulder busied himself with opening drawers and closet

doors, checking for anything left behind. Skinner

watched from the door.

“I can finish that for you, Agent Scully. Don’t you

have to pack your own things?”

Mulder wasn’t sure he could maintain a straight face,

so he carefully avoided meeting Scully’s eyes. She

shook her head, apparently feeling the same urge to

snicker that was tickling his own throat.

“It’s no trouble. I’ll just be another minute.” She

literally stuffed the last items into the case and

zipped it shut, with a little assistance from

Mulder’s good hand. “There.”

She seemed to be avoiding eye contact with Skinner,

too. “I’ll meet you at the car.” She nearly ran from

the room, leaving Mulder struggling to keep his

expression neutral.

Skinner stepped quickly out of the way to let her

pass. When she was out of earshot, he turned back to

Mulder. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in asking

what that was all about?”

Mulder could feel the flush in his face. “It was…

we were just–”

His boss held up one hand and shook his head. “That’s

okay. I’m sorry I asked,” but there was a glint of

amusement in his eyes.

In desperate need of a diversion, Mulder gestured

toward the pile of sooty gabardine in the corner. “I

don’t think this is quite what accounting had in mind

when they sent you out here, sir. I would have only

wrecked *one* suit.”

Skinner gave him a rueful smile. “They wanted me to

‘validate the expenditures’. I think I’ve done that.”

His expression sobered. “Mulder, is this the way it

always is? Leaving a case with so many questions

unanswered?”

“You don’t buy my theory?”

“That the fires were caused by Kara Brooks’ dead

mother? That there won’t be any more now because Kara

has convinced a ghost that she’s still loved? I guess

I’d have to say that I don’t accept that as the most

logical answer.”

Mulder smiled. “You sound just like someone else I

know.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” He picked up his

own packed suitcase and grabbed Mulder’s from the

bed.

“Sir, you don’t have to do that. I–”

“At ease, agent. You can get the door.” He shouldered

his way past Mulder and headed for the door. “And you

can write the expense report for this trip.”

“Two suits and a toasted notebook? Piece o’ cake.”

~~~

END

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