Killing Me Softly
RATING: PG in places.
ARCHIVE: Two weeks VS14 exclusive
DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: F.B.I. agents are dying. Are they accidents or murder and what is the
connection between them and Fox Mulder?
February 21st, 1987
The ballpoint pen executed a perfect arc through the air before bouncing off the far wall and falling to the worn carpet of the large, nearly deserted room.
Muffled cursing, which grew in volume, could be heard as the lone occupant of the room searched fruitlessly for another pen to replace the one that had taken on new life as a projectile.
“Shit, shit, godammit!” The words echoed through the empty space as a desk drawer was violently yanked out and upended on the surface.
Long fingers scrabbled through the paper clips, rubber bands, Post-It notes, staples and enough rolls of tape to keep a professional gift wrapper happy for another five years.
“I don’t fucking believe this.” The same fingers were run through thick brown hair, leaving it standing up in places. Hazel eyes roamed around the room searching for a solution to his predicament.
He had investigated the only desk in the room, however, the two long tables stacked with reports and photos yielded no stray pens either.
A flash of inspiration hit and, stalking across the room, he wrenched the door open. His eyes alighted on the neat secretary’s desk outside.
It was the second drawer that delivered his salvation; a lone pencil, nicely sharpened, lay there ready for the taking. Holding it aloft like a trophy, Fox Mulder strode back through the door and happily settled down in front of his scribble-strewn legal pad.
He was hard at work, the pencil flying back and forth when the unthinkable happened.
The lead skittered across the paper leaving the word unfinished and his thoughts unwritten.
Mulder leaned his elbows on the desk. “I don’t damn well need this.” He groaned in frustration as he clenched his fingers in his hair, leaving it in even more of spiky disarray.
Making another foray to the secretary’s desk, he began rifling through the drawers again. As each subsequent recess generated no success, anger began to creep in.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, all I want is something to write with! A felt pen, hell, I’ll even settle for a crayon or a piece of chalk right now!”
Mulder jerked open his last chance and peered in. His hopes plummeted as his eyes were met with envelopes and notepads neatly stacked together. Lifting them up in vain expectation, a long slender package caught his eye and he reached in. With a thumbnail he slit the tape that sealed the box and lifted the flap.
“Yes!” He crowed in delight as twelve sharply pointed No. 2 pencils were revealed. He selected one perfect implement and resealed the box.
As he bent to replace the pack, a thought crossed his mind and, instead of returning the pack, he straightened, pushed the drawer shut with his foot and dropped the box into his coat pocket.
Contentedly whistling out of tune, he returned to the other room and lost himself in work.
* * *
Agent Daniel Ferguson’s heavy footfalls as he strode into the room failed to rouse the sleeping man sprawled across the desk.
He removed his coat and draped it over a nearby chair. Deciding to leave his co-worker for the time being, Ferguson moved instead to the table where the coffee was situated.
The pot was thick with the sludge of yesterday’s leftovers, so he grabbed it and left the room.
Fifteen minutes later, he returned and began the first of the many pots that would be consumed by the task force today.
Before long, the strong rich aroma of a fresh brew began wafting through the room. Ferguson poured two cups, one he took a sip from and the other he placed on the desk in front of Mulder and stood back to watch.
Mere seconds elapsed before his efforts produced a result.
The sleeping agent’s nose began to twitch and without opening his eyes, he reached out and unfailingly grabbed the handle of the mug.
Ferguson stifled a snort of laughter and took another sip of his own drink.
“Don’t laugh at me, Danny — at least not before I’ve had some coffee.” Mulder’s words were thick with drowsiness.
“If you had the brains that God gave a gnat, you wouldn’t be in this condition.” Ferguson retorted. He pulled a chair around and sat down. “I assume you that you didn’t leave again last night?”
Taking a deep swallow of the hot drink, Mulder finally opened his eyes. “Time sort of got away from me.”
“It has a habit of doing that where you’re concerned. I think that unless you want Madison to read you the riot act, you’d better get yourself cleaned up. You’ve got half an hour before the briefing starts, go down and grab a shower. Have you got a clean suit here?”
“Got a bag in the car; I think there’s a clean one left.” Mulder finished off his coffee and turned in search of more.
“Uh uh, Spooky.” Ferguson grabbed the still warm mug and lifted it over his head. “You’re cut off until you’ve had a shower.”
“You are an evil man.” Mulder stared at the other man with red-rimmed eyes. “But you’d make someone a wonderful wife; you’ve got the nagging bit down pat.”
“Get going now, before I go looking for Madison myself.”
* * *
The room was buzzing with half a dozen different voices when Mulder returned. The noise level dropped slightly as agents looked up to see who had arrived but resumed when they saw it was one of their own.
SAC Bernie Madison eyed the latest entrant; he had been concerned about the young agent’s propensity for putting in excessive hours and had made a decision to address Mulder on the issue.
Looking at Mulder now, however, no one could tell he had been working sixteen to twenty hour days for the last week. He looked refreshed, relaxed and his suit was cleanly pressed. He had obviously come straight from his hotel room.
Madison watched Mulder as he made a beeline for the coffee table, poured himself a cup and took a seat next to Danny Ferguson.
“Gosh, don’t you clean up well.” Ferguson smirked.
Mulder made a non-too subtle gesture with his fingers. “Haven’t missed anything have I?” He asked.
“Nope, you made it before Madison sent out a search party.”
Mulder shuffled the papers he had carried in and stacked them. He had spent most of last night working on an amended profile but he was still drawn back to one individual whom he’d identified as a primary suspect.
The voices died away as SAC Madison rose to his feet and cleared his throat. “Good morning gentlemen, I hope that today we will find the resolution that you have all been working toward.” He held his hand out to his left. “Carlson, we’ll start with you this morning.”
The agent read his updated findings. As soon as he had finished, another agent took his place and so it went around the table until it reached Mulder.
“Stephen Vance.” The two words were said with a surety born of cockiness and inexperience.
A chorus of groans met his announcement and various opinions were offered. Madison held up a hand to quiet the grumbling. “I thought he had been ruled out; doesn’t he have a water-tight alibi?”
“His mother has vouched that he was not in town that day. That doesn’t mean though…”
“Jeez, Mulder.” A voice cut across his explanation. “His mother is saying it wasn’t him. We haven’t got any witnesses who can verify it was Vance. Can’t you just accept that you’re wrong?”
“That’s enough, Sawyer.” Madison turned to look at his youngest agent. “Explain it to me Mulder; why are you fixated on Stephen Vance?”
His reasoning was so clear to him, but Mulder felt as though the rest of the task force was just barely tolerating him.
He spoke for a few minutes and finished up with a final comment.
“A mother will do just about anything to shield her children from danger and I think that is what’s happening here. I’m curious; was Mrs. Vance informed in what her son may be involved?”
Madison looked around the table waiting for an answer from one of the other men present. None were forthcoming.
“I’ll take that as a no, then.” Mulder turned to the SAC. “Sir, I’d like to interview Mrs. Vance again, this time giving her a little bit more information on the investigation.”
Agitated murmuring broke out around the table again. “Give me one good reason why.” Madison demanded.
“I think Mrs. Vance is lying for her son. He’s her only child and if he’s convicted of this crime he’ll be facing a lengthy jail term. Mrs. Vance is a single parent, Stephen is still lives at home, and I think she doesn’t want to take a chance that she’ll be alone.”
Madison pondered Mulder’s reasoning for a few moments before deciding. “All right, you’ve got eight hours; if by the end of the day, you haven’t managed to get her to recant, then you’ll move on and not touch on the subject again. Do I make myself clear?”
“As crystal, sir.” Mulder muttered.
“Ferguson, you go with him, keep him from being beaten to death by a irate parent.”
“Gee thanks.” Ferguson rolled his eyes as the rest of the agents at the table snickered in amusement.
Mulder was on his feet and eager to get going. “Come on, Danny.” He urged the other man.
“Are you in a hurry to be proven wrong or something?” Ferguson caught up to his young partner.
A stubborn look passed across Mulder’s face. “I’m not wrong.” He asserted.
“Everyone in there believes you are.”
“I’m not in there and I’d like to point out that neither are you.”
“I didn’t say I thought you were right though.”
Mulder stopped in his headlong rush and sighed. “Danny, I can’t explain it, I just get these feelings and I know they mean something. Right now I’ve got one that’s telling me Stephen Vance is up to his neck in this child pornography ring and if we don’t take him down, then there’s going to be a whole lot more very damaged kids out there.”
“Okay, but if you’re wrong, do I get to say I told you so?”
“Danny, if I’m wrong, you can take out a full page ad in the Michigan Daily News for all I care.” Mulder resumed walking towards the parking garage.
“Sounds reasonable.” Ferguson nodded before running to catch up with his partner. “Hey, I’m driving! You can sit and think what you’re going to tell this little old lady.”
* * *
A muffled voice called out in answer to Mulder’s knocking. “Coming!”
The door was opened by an elderly stoop-shouldered, gray-haired woman. She eyed them before speaking. “Yes?”
“Mrs. Vance, Mrs. Ida Vance?”
“Yes that’s me, who are you, what do you want?”
“My name is Mulder, Special Agent Fox Mulder, this is Special Agent Daniel Ferguson, and we’re with the F.B.I.”
Mrs. Vance tensed visibly and her knuckles went white on the doorframe. “I’ve already spoken to someone.”
“Yes we know, Mrs. Vance; we’d like to ask you some further questions if you have some time, ma’am.” Mulder was smiling kindly and using all the manners his parents had instilled into him.
“I’ve already told them everything I know.”
Mulder tried again. “We would really like to clear up a couple of issues. Would you mind terribly if we came in for a bit?”
“Stephen isn’t here.”
The old woman started to shut the door, but Mulder gently placed a hand over hers on the door frame. “That’s all right, we’d much rather talk with you, Mrs. Vance.”
A blush arose on Mrs. Vance’s cheeks at Mulder’s words. “I suppose so, then.” She opened the door and gestured for both men to enter.
She led the way into a small room crowded with furniture waving both men to a flowery couch. “Would either of you boys like some coffee?”
“No thank you, Ma’am.” Ferguson answered.
“Oh, very well.”
“Unless you are going to join us.” Mulder spoke up quickly.
“Well, I was going to make myself one, but it is so much nicer with company, don’t you think?”
“Indeed it is, Ma’am.” Mulder smiled at her. “Would you like some help?”
The old woman ducked her head shyly. “If you would be so kind as to lift a tray down from a shelf. Stephen forgets and he’s always putting things out of my reach.”
“It would be my pleasure, Mrs. Vance.” Mulder offered the woman his arm and walked her slowly into the kitchen.
Ferguson watched in amazement as Mulder charmed Mrs. Vance with his words and gestures. Mulder’s behavior was poles apart from what he had become used to over the last week.
He listened as his partner conversed with the suspect’s mother in the kitchen.
The conversation was littered with idle chatter but it was obviously what the elderly woman liked as she responded willingly.
Once the coffee was poured and they were all sitting down, Mulder steered the conversation to where he wanted it. Several oblique references to the case were made and with each one, Mrs. Vance’s complexion paled.
Suddenly, she climbed to her feet and motioned for the men to follow. She led them to a very cluttered.
Pointing to a cabinet secured with a padlock, she dropped her shoulders in defeat. “Mr. Mulder, I have always believed what Stephen told me. A mother likes to think that her child would never be deceitful, but the more I think about what you have told me and some of Stephen’s behavior over the past few months, the more uncertain I am.”
She fingered the lock and sighed. “My son always keeps this cabinet locked. Once I walked in here when he had it open, he shouted at me to leave him alone. You can open it if you like.”
Mulder’s fingers itched to do just that and he glanced at Ferguson who shook his head in negation. “I’m afraid we can’t do that Mrs. Vance, we need a warrant.”
“Oh, I see.” The old woman looked around the garage before walking to the far side, she returned with a hammer in her hand and swung at the padlock with feeble strength.
Mulder put a hand out in alarm. “Mrs. Vance! Stop before you hurt yourself!” His words had no effect. The woman continued with seemingly inadequate blows until finally the lock snapped and fell off.
Gingerly she opened one door and a sharp exclamation was cut off as her hand flew to her mouth. Her face turned an alarming shade of white and Ferguson sprinted forward in support as her legs threatened to collapse.
Mulder grabbed an old chair and held it as his partner assisted the elderly woman to sit. She turned her face away from the cabinet’s interior and spoke shakily. “I think you boys will find enough evidence in there for your case.”
Ferguson stepped up to the door and, using a pen, pushed it open. The shelves were filled with videotapes and photos, and more photos had been stuck to the inside of the doors. “Shit, Spooky, we’ve struck the mother-lode here.” He whispered.
Wide-eyed, obviously scared children in various forced poses and states of undress peered back at the two men from a multitude of photographs.
Mulder felt sick to his stomach as he ran his gaze over the contents, including stacks and stacks of more photos. He felt a feeble hand tug on his sleeve and he looked down into Mrs. Vance’s tearful gaze.
“Young man, would you mind terribly if I changed my story?”
He knelt on the floor beside her and gently held her hand. “I’m sorry you had to see this, Mrs. Vance.”
The woman closed her eyes and seemed to draw on some inner strength. “My husband and I always trusted our son, but it seems that our trust was sadly misplaced.” She opened her eyes and gazed solemnly at the young agent. “Ask your questions, Mr. Mulder; I can assure you having lied for my son once, I will never do it again.”
* * *
Mulder sat off to one side of the room watching as Danny Ferguson held center court. He did not feel like joining in with the other agents as they celebrated the close of another case.
The door opened to admit SAC Madison who made a beeline for the despondent agent.
“Stephen Vance was taken into custody half an hour ago. He was not the least bit happy.”
“Neither is his mother.” Mulder replied unhappily.
“Mulder, you’ve done your job and you’ve done it very well. Don’t take blame upon yourself for which you’re not responsible.”
“Sir, single-handedly I’ve wiped out a woman’s happiness, I’ve eroded the trust she had in her child and I’ve made sure she will spend the rest of her life alone.”
Madison crouched by him. “You did nothing of the sort. Stephen Vance did all that when he decided to get involved in that filth. All you did was take someone’s blinders off.”
“Maybe she’d have been happier if she had been left ignorant of what her son was doing.” Mulder muttered.
“Maybe she would, but at what cost to how many children?” Madison laid a hand on Mulder’s arm. “Weigh the results of your endeavors against the children who are going to stay innocent for just that much longer.”
He climbed to his feet. “We parents are quite a resilient bunch, you know. We have an amazing capacity to understand and forgive our children for their transgressions. No matter what they do, we still love them and I have the feeling that although Mrs. Vance will never forget what her son did, she just one day may forgive him.”
Mulder sighed sadly. “I wish I could say that about my parents.”
“What was that Agent?”
Realizing that he had said more than he intended, Mulder sat up in his chair. “Oh, nothing sir, just wool-gathering.”
“Well when you’ve finished, come on over and join in. You deserve to get recognition for your efforts.”
Mulder smiled at the other man. “Yes sir.”
* * *
May 21, 2007
Scully adjusted the lamp on her desk aiming the glare away from her eyes.
When only an average of two-thirds of the light fittings in the ceiling worked, it was an absolute necessity to have an additional source of illumination. She bent again to her task, drafting a rough copy of her report on their last case.
Sparing a moment to glance across at her partner, she noticed him delving deeply in one of the filing cabinet drawers, pulling out a file, giving it a cursory examination and thrusting it back into place again.
She cupped her chin in her hand and sighed quietly.
It had been sometime since they’d had a really decent case. The report she was writing now was from a case that should never have been sent their way. A first year rookie would have been able to do a better job than the Sheriff’s department in Greenwater, N.Y.
Talk about a waste of taxpayers’ money! Mulder had solved the case before they had left D.C. and was quite content to email his findings to the appropriate person.
Unfortunately, once the town’s mayor found out that one of the F.B.I.’s premier profilers had solved their nasty little case, nothing but an appearance of said profiler in the town square would appease him.
So, at the behest of Senator so-and-so who had the Director’s ear, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were pointed toward Greenwater with strict instructions for Mulder by A.D. Walter Skinner to be nice to the locals.
She had witnessed Mulder on his Sunday best behavior; he had answered all questions asked without letting on how inane he thought some of them were.
He had played nicely with the locals and even managed to earn himself several compliments on his attitude towards smaller towns and their law enforcement capabilities.
Scully had been amazed at his conduct; she had fully expected his temper to get the better of him, but it hadn’t.
Upon their return to D.C., they’d reported the successful conclusion of their efforts to Skinner.
He’d seemed almost as nonplussed as Scully over how well Mulder had comported himself and had received a fistful of messages from the Greenwater officials, complimenting him on the caliber of his agents.
Consequently, Scully was expecting a breakout of bratty child syndrome any time now. To further convince her of this theory, she had awoken to an empty bed, only to discover an empty apartment.
Mulder had gone to work without her.
She had arrived at work to find Mulder present and acutely busy in decorating the ceiling with pencils. He’d offered her his typed report without any comment and then busied himself searching the filing cabinets.
Picking up her pencil, Scully turned her attention back to her dull and unimaginative report.
As she pressed the tip to the paper, the lead gave way with a crack. She bit her lip wryly, remembering they’d been waiting interminably for Supply to send a new electric pencil sharpener, and opened a drawer in search of another. Surprisingly, for being so organized, her hunt left her empty-handed.
Giving the pencils in the ceiling a longing look, she pushed her chair back and took a breath. “Mulder…”
“Bottom drawer, Scully.”
“Of my desk, bottom drawer.” His nose buried in a file, Mulder didn’t turn to look at her.
“Oh, okay.” Scully gave herself a small shake, stepped over to Mulder’s hope-lessly untidy area, sat down and pulled open the bottom drawer.
Scully was surprised at the contents. “Mulder, five boxes? An obsession based on a previous shortage is one thing but this…”
The ringing of Mulder’s phone interrupted her. Scully looked across at her partner whose shrug gave her permission to answer it.
“X-Files Office, Agent…” She pulled the phone away from her ear, held it out to Mulder and said, “it’s for you, Mulder.”
He took the handset from her and answered, “Mulder.” A look of surprise crossed his face before being replaced by a wide smile. “Hey Ferguson, how’s it going?”
Scully watched the emotions play over his face as he listened to the caller.
“Sure, I remember him, why?” Mulder stood suddenly.
“What…are you sure? Yeah, I know, stupid question. God Danny, what hap-pened?” Mulder ran a hand through his hair as he began to pace the office. “I…it’s just so hard to believe. Yeah, sure, let me know the details, I’ll be there.”
He wiped a hand across his mouth before dropping the phone back onto its cradle. He did a circuit of the office before stopping to look at his partner. “I can’t believe it.” He pressed both hands to his mouth.
Scully arose from his chair and rounded the desk. Placing a hand on his arm, she spoke gently. “What is it, Mulder?”
“An old case I was just thinking about, a child porn ring in Michigan. The phone call was from Agent Danny Ferguson. He just told me that the SAC from that case, Bernie Madison, is dead.”
“You knew him well?”
“No, I only worked with him on the one case, he was…he understood me more than he let on, I think.” His voice hoarsened by emotion; he drew in a deep breath. “I can’t believe I was just talking about the case and then, Danny calls, the timing is downright…”
Mulder rolled his eyes. “Uncanny, eerie, creepy, you name it.”
Scully soothingly stroked his arm. “How did he die, did Agent Ferguson say?”
“Yeah, an accident. He ate poisoned mushrooms.” He huffed out a bitter laugh. “Some accident, huh?”
“More common than you might think, Mulder.” She replied. “Amanitas are a family of fungi that have both edible and inedible. If you’re not sure about them, it’s very easy to make a mistake.”
“Remind me never to have ‘fungi’ on a pizza again.”
Scully frowned at him. “You never have ‘fungi’; they’re always on my half.”
“See, I knew there was a good reason for that. ‘Fungi’? Gah!”
“Hmm.” Scully changed the subject. Pressing a neatly-manicured nail against Mulder’s chest, she looked up at him. “Mulder.”
Her husky voice drew his attention. She licked her lips and slowly draw a pencil out of the box. Holding it by the end, she allowed it to slip through her fingers until she held just the very tip of the pointed lead.
Mulder ran a tongue over unexpectedly dry lips, his eyes fixed on the pencil. Slowly, he raised them until he was looking directly into her vivid blue gaze.
Suddenly, Scully moved swiftly, flicking her wrist and jerking her hand upwards.
Both of them slowly lifted their heads and looked up at the ceiling.
The pencil Scully had held was now stuck in solitary splendor in the ceiling above their heads.
Mulder opened his mouth to speak, then paused as if considering his response. He cleared his throat. “I’m…ah…impressed.” He admitted.
“*You’re* impressed.” Scully spoke softly, still staring at the ceiling. “I’m stunned.”
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
May 25, 2007
The atmosphere of boredom that had taken over their jobs lately had begun to bother Mulder and no doubt was having the same effect on Scully. His trip out of town to attend Madison’s funeral had only added to the burden he felt, and he was determined to break the cycle of tedium.
Pushing the front door closed with his foot, Mulder slumped against the doorway to the living room for a few seconds before trudging up the stairs and dumping the files he carried onto his desk in the office.
Passing by their bedroom, he looked into it for a moment, his exhausted body wanting desperately to curl up on crisp cotton sheets and luxurious satin comforter.
But other things took priority. Lifting the lid on the aquarium, he scattered food into the water. The occupants were clearly uninterested, telling him that Scully had already fed them.
He’d missed seeing her waiting for him as he came down the jet way, but knew she was having fun helping Tara take Matty camping with his cub scout troop.
There wasn’t much for him to do but try to make the best of her absence.
Shrugging off his trench coat, Mulder gauged the distance between his location and his coat rack down by the front door, deciding it was too far away.
Instead, he tossed it over the back of the futon, which doubled as a bed when Gibson crashed at their place for a night.
Weariness dogged his every movement, slowing his progress to the bedroom where he undressed and donned a well-worn pair of sweats and a t-shirt.
Barefoot, Mulder trudged back to the desk and picked up the first folder on the pile he had brought home. All were possible X-Files, so he was prepared to spend the remainder of his weekend finding them a case worthy of sinking their teeth into.
Mulder settled himself on the futon and propped his feet up. He laid the file in his lap and, taking up a pencil, began to read.
Hours later, he was on the second to last file; six he had dismissed completely and two he had separated into a ‘possibilities’ pile.
He opened the cover and made a quick lunge for the contents as they began to slide to the floor. He clenched his teeth around the pencil in his mouth as several sheets slid to the floor.
An aggravated sigh escaped him as he knelt on the rug and gathered the papers; one white corner peeped from under the couch.
Reaching in to grab the escapee, he was startled by a loud thud and much banging at the front door downstairs.
Mulder regained his feet and ran down the stairs, papers still clutched in one hand, pencil held firmly between his teeth.
He cocked his head to one side as smaller, more indistinct noises were heard made themselves heard from the front stoop. He grabbed the door knob and swung the door open.
The sudden movement startled the man who stood at his doorstep.
“Shit man, you tryin’ t’ gimme a heart attack or somethin’?” The words were growled around a mouthful of wood screws.
“Sorry.” Mulder apologized taking the pencil out of his mouth. “I heard noises.”
“…a course you heard a noise, I’m workin’ here!”
The man wore faded gray overalls and stringy unwashed gray hair poked out from under a dirty baseball cap that was pulled down low over his eyes. He held a screwdriver in one hand.
“I’m doin’ maintenance ’round here, I seen this loose molding here and was puttin’ a screw in it.” He gestured to the board next to Mulder’s door.
“Oh, okay, thanks. Did Mr. Timmons hire you?” Mulder asked.
“Yeah. Last week. Been going to all his properties, checking on things. You need anythin’ doin’ in there?” The man waved at the interior of the townhouse. “Stuck windows, faucets need replacin’, stuff like that?”
“Not that I can think of.”
The man grunted and swiped his hand against his pants before sticking it out in front of him. “Well, if you do, lemme know, name’s Ned.”
Mulder quickly swapped the paper in his hands and popped the pencil back into his mouth. He gave the man’s hand a brief shake before agreeing and closing the door.
Ned eyed the door for a few seconds before pushing his cap back. He took a screw out of his mouth and finished fastening the loose number onto the door.
His eyes narrowed in thought and he rubbed his hand over his bristly chin before dropping his tools into his toolbox and moving on down the steps.
* * *
May 30, 2007
“…Agent Mulder!” Halfway across the foyer, A.D. Skinner’s deep voice stopped the agent in his tracks.
Mulder turned and waited as his supervisor approached him. Skinner had a file in his hand and held it out to him.
“Sir?” Mulder queried.
“I was on my way to your office. I need you to take a look at this for me, agent.”
Mulder took the folder, his eyebrows rising in curiosity.
“SAC Forrest in Scranton sent it about a week ago, Mulder, but I knew you were unavailable at that time.” Skinner straightened his glasses before continuing. “They’re having trouble the profile and need a fresh perspective. Have a look and see what comes up. I don’t think there will be any need for you to head up there, though.”
Mulder nodded in acknowledgement. “I’ll get onto it right away, sir.”
“What are you and Agent Scully working on at the moment?”
Mulder hesitated before answering. “Actually sir, honestly, the well is dry right now. Scully’s been fine-tuning some paperwork and I’m keeping an eye out for any possible cases.”
“Scully has been doing the paperwork?”
“Yes sir. She seems to like that sort of thing and besides…”
“*All* the paperwork?” Skinner directed his gaze at his subordinate.
“Well, I have helped a little.”
“Please Mulder, don’t help too much. At least when Scully fills in the expense reports they make sense and I have a better chance of being able to read them without having to resort to using a handwriting analyst to translate.”
Mulder opened his mouth to counter Skinner’s accusation but closed it without saying anything when he saw the hint of amusement in his A.D.’s brown eyes.
Skinner’s amusement increased at the thought of actually rendering Mulder speechless.
He gestured to the file. “You can contact SAC Forrest directly if you need any clarification on any issues. He can put you in contact with the agent working the case.”
“Uh, yeah, I mean yes sir.”
“Good, carry on.” The A.D. turned on his heel and made his way back directly across the F.B.I. crest in the huge expanse of marble floor.
Mulder stared at the retreating figure before shaking his head at Skinner’s unexpected facetious banter.
He dropped his eyes to the file in his hands and shivered at the familiar feeling that swept over him at the thought of profiling.
Straightening his shoulders, Mulder shook the sensation off and headed back down to the office.
* * *
May 30, 2007
Scully looked up as her partner came through the door. He rounded his desk, sank into his chair and slapped the file onto the desk.
“What’s that, Mulder?” she asked when no information was forthcoming.
“Oh, I just ran into Skinner. He’s asked me to consult on a profile that the guys up in Scranton are having trouble with.”
“Is there a trip in the near future?”
“Skinner said he didn’t think there’d be any necessity, but I won’t really know until I give it a good read.”
“Okay.” Scully turned back to the report in front of her.
Privately, she was pleased that Mulder had something for that brilliant mind of his to latch onto, even if it was a profile. His antics lately had been totally distracting and several times she had come close to losing it with him.
She knew, categorically, what the trouble was: Mulder was bored, pure and simple. Without something to keep him stimulated, his behavior tended to degenerate to the level of a pre-schooler.
At the sound of him calling her name, Scully sighed in irritation and looked up.
Mulder was leaning back in his chair, one foot propped up against the desk, the other dangling inches off the floor. He had the file in his lap and was sucking on the end of a pencil.
“What?” Her reply was brusque.
“You like doing the paperwork don’t you?”
Scully shot him a disbelieving glare. “About as much as I like chasing flukemen and liver-eating mutants, Mulder. Why?”
“Oh, just something Skinner said.”
Narrowing her eyes, she waited for him to continue but he didn’t. Curiosity over his statement finally won and supporting her chin in her hand, she broke the silence. “What did Skinner say, Mulder?”
“Huh?” He dragged his interest away from his report. “Oh, Skinner, well he made a comment about how he prefers it when *you* do the reports. Something about not being able follow my math.”
“I’m not surprised, Mulder. Your mastery of addition and subtraction is feeble at the best of times.”
“Well, there you go then; it sounds to me like Skinner wants you to do the reports from now on.”
“*What?*” Scully’s eyes saucered in shock.
“You know, it kinda makes sense, too, when you think about it.” He tapped the pencil idly against his teeth. “*You* do the reports, Skinner doesn’t get stressed trying to make the numbers add up and we don’t suffer the fallout. I think it’s a darn good idea.”
“You would.” She snapped.
“It can only benefit us in the long run.”
“Don’t you mean benefit *you*, Mulder?”
“Well yeah, but it’ll benefit you too Scully. Indirectly.”
“Indirectly.” Scully pushed away from her desk and stood.
She walked around his desk and rested her hand on the shoe lodged against the scarred wood. “Please explain how *me* doing all the paperwork will benefit *me*?”
“Well…Skinner won’t be on our case over redoing reports. In fact, he’ll probably be thrilled to get information that’s clear and concise.”
Scully nodded. “Go on.”
“And, well, he won’t be stressed.”
“You’re repeating yourself.” Scully told him.
“I am? Oh, um…” Mulder’s explanation floundered for several seconds before he brightened visibly. “You’ll be less stressed too, Scully.”
“How did you come to *that* brilliant deduction, Mulder?”
“Because you won’t have to be on *my* back about finishing reports.” He concluded, smiling happily at his train of logic.
Internally, Mulder’s stomach plummeted when The Eyebrow went up.
“Uh huh.” The small hand resting upon his shoe suddenly swept his foot away from the desk. Mulder lost his balance and his chair’s legs came back down with an abrupt and shaky jolt, Mulder’s arms flailing frantically to keep his seat.
Once settled, Scully leaned over her partner, one hand on each armrest. “I’ll make a deal with you, Mulder.”
His interest was instantly stirred at her sudden proximity. “A deal? Please elucidate, my dear Dr. Scully.”
“For every case that we have where you don’t sustain *any* injuries of *any* sort, I will do *all* the travel reports.”
“Really. But understand Mulder, I mean anything, a headache, a cold, even a hangnail will render this deal null and void, and when you have recovered from said injury, *you* get to do the paperwork — all by yourself.”
Mulder smirked. “You’ve got a deal.”
“Are you sure?” Scully asked. “You know the propensity you have for acquiring injuries of any sort.”
“I haven’t been injured in months,” he claimed.
“Yes you have.” Scully frowned. “You fell down that sink hole at Wild Gardens in Florida just two months ago.”
“Ah, but I didn’t get *hurt*. You implied I was injured.”
“Oh, I see! Falling down a sinkhole and spending hours with two corpses is a fun day for you now, is that it?”
“You made the deal, you can’t go changing the rules to suit yourself, you know.” Mulder wagged his finger in her face.
“I’m not changing the rules, I’m just stating the facts.”
“The fact seems to me, Agent Scully, that you owe me one.”
Scully leaned even closer to her partner. “How do you work that out?”
“No injuries, I wrote up my share of reports!”
“Try again Mulder, the deal was only made today, that incident was two months ago.”
Mulder rubbed his chin. “All right; I’ll grant you that one.” He cocked an eyebrow. “All good deals need to be sealed with a promise, handshake, cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.”
Scully nodded thoughtfully. “I agree, what do you suggest?”
“Handshake; it seems a bit extreme to do the stick a needle in your eye thing.”
“We could always seal it with a kiss.” She proposed.
“Hmm, yeah I think that would be acceptable under the circumstances.” He sat up as Scully moved in. Just as their lips were about to touch, Mulder spoke. “You’re sure about this?”
Scully drew back slightly and eyed him. “About the kiss?”
“Yeah, I mean no, I mean the whole deal thing. I wouldn’t want to take advan-tage of you.”
“I’m a big girl now Mulder, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed Agent Scully, in fact I sometimes have trouble *not* noticing.”
“That’s very reassuring, Mulder; now be quiet and pucker up.”
“I’m puckering.” He mumbled as their lips met gently. The kiss deepened and Mulder’s hands came up to grasp Scully’s arms. Several seconds passed before the necessity to take a breath separated them.
Scully opened her eyes and licked her lips as she lifted her head. Reaching out, she cupped her hand against Mulder’s cheek for a moment before smiling. “Better start practicing your times tables.”
“You think? Personally I’m wondering what I’m going to do with all my free time while you’re busy writing up the reports.” Mulder said smugly.
“Need I point out the fact that on the last four, no five cases we’ve been on, you’ve managed to acquire an injury on almost each and every one?”
“I have not!” Mulder declared.
Holding up her hand, Scully ticked each case off on a finger. “Last fall, the knife wound received at the Presidential Wash-a-Teria, four weeks later the werewolf attack that left you with two dozen stitches, that little incident involving a ladder, Christmas decorations and a gallon sized Zip-Loc baggy full of ice chips…”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Most of those weren’t my fault, though — except maybe the ladder thing, but that wasn’t a case!”
“I didn’t say all of them were your fault, Mulder, but you must admit, more times than I care to consider — you’ve been hurt in one way or another.”
“So, starting today I am turning over a new leaf and promise not to get injured or ill.” Mulder crossed his heart solemnly with an X gesture.
“That would be absolutely wonderful — if only it were possible.” Scully told him, not at all convinced he could do it.
“Don’t you have any faith in me?” Mulder pouted.
“Of course I do.” She reassured him. “And I’m going to do everything in my power to help you avoid any mishaps and to prevent you from catching anything. To that end, you’re going to accompany me to Mom’s tonight for one of her hearty home-cooked meals.”
Anticipation lit up the colors in Mulder’s eyes. “Mmm, we haven’t eaten at your Mom’s meals in ages!” His enthusiasm quickly fled when he looked down at his file. “Oh I can’t, I need to get on to this for Skinner.”
“What if I make sure it’s an early night?”
Mulder was tempted. “Will it include dessert?” He asked hopefully.
“Of course! My Mother would never leave you without dessert.”
“Okay, I’m in, as long as you’re sure your Mom won’t mind us cutting out early?”
“I’ll call her and let her know we’re coming but that you’ve got work to finish.” Scully brushed her lips across Mulder’s forehead before returning to her own desk.
Mulder picked up his discarded pencil and, after giving his partner a fond glance, commenced reading through the file.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
His stomach was contentedly full from a wonderful meal, his heart was filled to overflowing with love for Scully and he was comfortably ensconced in their living room.
The recently purchased flat screen television, though muted, was turned to a classics movie channel and he had a cup of piping hot coffee on the table next to him.
Mulder squirmed until his shoulders were raised to his liking, then pulled his knees up and opened the file.
Time passed unnoticed as he read, occasionally pulling the pencil from his mouth to jot down a thought.
A yawn took him by surprise and he stretched his limbs in response.
A quick glance at his watch showed it to be well after midnight.
He had read through the file twice and was beginning to get a handle on the problem that the Scranton agents were experiencing.
Deciding to clear his mind for a moment, Mulder let the flickering images on the TV screen capture his attention. “The Maltese Falcon”; he hadn’t seen that movie in ages.
He let the movie draw him in. At a commercial break, for a second, he closed his eyes and dropped off to sleep instantly.
* * *
Mulder burst out of a strange dream as a vicious pain gripped his stomach. Clenching his arms protectively around his belly, he pulled his knees up to try and ease the cramping ache.
Biting down harshly on his lip, he felt perspiration breaking out across his forehead and clenched his eyes shut as wave after wave of agony rolled through him.
After what felt like hours, the pain seemed to ease and he was able to uncurl himself slightly.
Tentatively, he took a few slow breaths and then rolled to his side and sat up. Lifting his hand to wipe his forehead, he was alarmed to see his hand shaking.
Slowly, Mulder climbed to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands on his knees.
The pain that had almost incapacitated him had disappeared as swiftly as it had come, leaving him wondering what had brought it on to begin with.
Something he ate? Maggie Scully’s cooking had been wonderful, as usual, and he had not hadn’t eaten anything else during the day other than coffee and a pastry.
Careful, measured steps took him to the downstairs bathroom where he blinked in the harsh light.
His reflection in the mirror echoed his earlier illness. His face was pale with dark circles under both eyes.
Mulder opened the door behind the mirror and wondered again why Scully insisted on two fully-stocked medicine cabinets for just two people.
He tipped two Tylenol out of a bottle and swallowed them with a handful of water.
Mulder stumbled back to the couch and sat down to steady himself. Finally feeling sure his legs would carry him, he rose to his feet and staggered up the stair to their bed.
* * *
For the fifth time, Scully looked up at the closed office door wondering where Mulder was.
The ‘quick breakfast meeting’ of the Association of Medical Examiners that Skinner had suggested she attend had turned into a turf battle and taken much longer than she’d anticipated.
She’d arrived at the Hoover fully expecting a scolding from her partner over her tardiness. Surprisingly though, the office was dark when she opened the door.
She had waited for half an hour before calling him at home but got their machine and assumed he was on his.
Finally, unable to wait any longer, she dialed his cell phone; Mulder responded after two rings.
“I’m here; give me five minutes.”
Sure enough, about five minutes later he walked in the door.
“Sorry.” He replied guiltily, not quite meeting her eyes. “I fell back to sleep after you left.”
Scully studied Mulder as he walked to his desk.
His suit and shirt were fresh, but his whole bearing had a somewhat worn around the edges appearance, as if he had spent the whole night working.
“Mulder, what time did you come to bed last night?”
Her question stopped him as he reached his desk. She could see his shoulders tighten before he turned around.
“Um, I didn’t look at the clock. Why?” He replied uneasily.
“Because you look like you’ve spent most of the night doing something other than sleeping.”
“Honestly Scully, it wasn’t that late. I was dead to the world long before sunup.”
“Did you go for a run this morning?”
“No, I told you, I fell back to sleep.”
She stood and moved to stand next to her partner. Reaching up, she placed her hand against his forehead.
Mercifully, she found no indication of fever; he just looked extremely tired.
“Come on, I’m not sick.” He brushed her hand gently away. “You’re looking too hard, Scully; we don’t even have a case yet.”
His comment made no sense and Scully frowned at his response. “What?”
“You’re already trying to get out of the paperwork, aren’t you?” He teased lightly.
“Actually, that thought hadn’t occurred to me. I was more concerned about your sudden preference for sleeping in — without me.”
“I drooled on your pillow, does that count?”
Scully backed away and returned to her own side of the office. “Great. Now I have to change the pillowcase when we get home tonight.”
“The thrill is gone, Scully. You think I have ‘cooties’,” he feigned dismay.
“I’ll just have to drool on your pillow tonight and we’ll see how you like it,” she replied smartly.
“Oooh, Scully. Could we change that to you drooling on *me*?” Mulder glanced down toward his belt, then back up at her, eyes twinkling.
Scully chuffed out a laugh at his nonsense. Sitting back down she gestured at the file he had brought with him. “How did it go with the profile.”
“I finally managed to make some sense of it last night,” he told her, “but I haven’t finished yet.”
“Okay, Mulder. I’ve got some errands to run, I’ll leave you to it.” She picked up several files and grabbed her purse before leaving the office.
Mulder waited until he heard the faint chime from the elevator doors closing before dropping his head onto his arms crossed on the desk.
He wondered whether he was doing the right thing by not telling Scully that he actually felt lousy.
He’d been astounded when he had woken this morning just after eight; he’d had no more strange pains but he felt completely wiped, like he’d been going constantly for days.
He had only a vague memory of Scully rousing and kissing him goodbye before she left for her meeting.
Maybe it was just a side effect of whatever he’d been dreaming, somehow transposing itself into genuine symptoms.
The more he thought about it, the more confident he became that was what had happened.
Finally, Mulder lifted his head and forced himself to concentrate on the work in front of him.
After some time, he began to make headway and managed to put the finishing touches to his amended version of the profile moments before Scully returned.
“Brought you some lunch.” She smiled, depositing a white bag on his desk.
Mulder glanced quickly at his watch, the time had somehow flown past without him noticing, indicating just how deeply he’d been focusing.
Removing his glasses, Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose before reaching for the bag and opening it and sniffing appreciatively at the aroma.
“Didn’t realize what the time was.” He said before taking a huge bite of his Philly cheesesteak.
“How’s it going?” Scully waved her free hand at his paper-covered desk.
“Just finished; Skinner put me on to the agent handling the case.”
“How much does your profile differ from theirs?” Scully leaned across his desk and swiped at his chin with a napkin.
“Not a great deal. I’m convinced the guy works in a blue-collar industry, not white and I think he’s slightly older than they’ve proposed. Apart from that, we match up pretty much the same.” Mulder answered around a mouthful of his lunch.
“I’m heading out to Quantico this afternoon, Mulder.” Scully told him. “I had a call about consulting on an autopsy.”
Mulder made a face at Scully’s conversation topic and decided to steer it to something more to his liking. “So, your movie or mine tonight, it is Friday after all.” He watched as a beaming smile lit up his partner’s face.
“So it is. How about we make it mine; which means you cook.”
“Suits me fine. Do you want to call me when you’re leaving Quantico? I can stick around here if you have to file anything before you go home.”
Scully finished her lunch and aimed her rolled up wrapper at the trashcan. “No, you might as well go home when you finish work. I don’t think I’ll be late.” She demurely peered at him over her shoulder. “If you start to miss me, you can run me a nice hot bath.”
Mulder swallowed his last bite of food and theatrically pressed the back of his hand to his forehead “Relegated to the role of bath boy, and at my age.” He declared in a put-upon tone.
Scully turned and gave him the benefit of a full wattage smile. “You do know that bath boys have certain privileges don’t you?”
“I *have* heard rumors. Are you telling me that I get to find out?” Mulder waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively.
“The truth is out there.” She batted her eyelashes at him and ducked out the door as he threw his lunch wrapper her direction.
Mulder grinned and grabbed the phone. Dialing the number for the Scranton field office, he waited to be connected to SAC Forrest.
Four rings later, a gruff voice sounded. “Forrest.”
“Sir, Agent Mulder from D.C. A.D. Skinner asked me to look at a profile for your office.”
“Yeah, you finished it?”
“Yes sir, I don’t know the name of the agent handling the case though.”
“You’re going to have to deal with me. What did you say your name was?” the SAC asked.
“Right, fax it through to this number then.” Forrest reeled it off.
“Sir, if it’s at all possible I’d like to speak to the agent handling the case; there’s a couple of details I’d like to go over with them.”
“That’s not possible Mulder; Agent Sawyer passed away three days ago.”
Mulder was shocked silent for several seconds as the news sank in. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir.”
“Yeah, so were Warren’s wife and kids.”
“Warren Sawyer?” Mulder blurted, shocked even further.
“Yeah, you knew him?”
“I worked with a Warren Sawyer a few years back; late forties, dark hair, had a slight limp?”
“That’s him, where’d you know him from, Mulder?”
“Michigan, I used to be in ISU.” Mulder told him.
“He transferred here about six years ago.”
“What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Respiratory failure, middle of the night.” Forrest said. “By the time the paramedics got him to the hospital it was too late.”
The two agents discussed the profile for a few more minutes and then Mulder again offered his condolences before ending the call.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
Only a single light was burning as Scully let herself in. Taking her coat off, she hung it in the closet, then moved into the living room where she stopped and smiled at the picture before her.
Mulder was sprawled in the recliner chair he’d claimed as his own shortly after they had bought it.
Citing the fact that her/their couch was too short for him, he was captivated with the way the chair could be adjusted and could easily accommodate the length of his rangy limbs.
She stood silently and observed her soundly sleeping partner.
As usual he’d extended the chair to its fullest, only this time he had slumped so far down that his ass was on the very edge of the seat and his shoeless feet were dangling in mid-air.
One hand was lying on top of an open folder that held several sheets of paper; the other was resting on his chest with his fingers curled around his glasses in a loose grip.
She crouched by his side, taking the opportunity to observe him in a state that he rarely achieved.
Tempted to leave him where he was, she realized that his head was twisted at an awkward angle and, if left to sleep that way, he was going to have an extremely sore neck in the morning.
A sore neck meant a grouchy Mulder.
Scully reached out, his hair-trigger responses firmly in mind, and gently brushed the hair carefully off his forehead.
She frowned as her fingers encountered the slight dampness of perspiration and so she laid two fingers lightly against his neck, relieved when a normal slow but steady beat was detected.
“…’m alive.” A rough, sleep-filled voice informed her.
“That’s good. I’d hate to think how I was going to get you out of that chair otherwise.”
Mulder shifted slightly, grimacing when he flexed the muscles in his neck. “Ow.” He complained, lifting his hand off the folder and rubbing the sore neck area.
Scully grabbed the folder, which, when released, had immediately begun sliding towards the floor.
She gave the folder a mildly curious glance as she placed it on the coffee table and turned her attention back to her partner who was executing a stretch that rivaled the best effort any feline could ever have produced.
Mulder’s eyes popped open and he peered blearily at the smiling visage beside him. “Whassa time?”
“Half past seven.”
“Oh.” He pushed himself further up in the chair.
Although Scully would never admit it to him, she fully enjoyed the moments after he had just woken.
His brilliant mind always took longer than his body to wake up and for the first few minutes he was incapable of uttering any more than the most basic responses.
She ran a single finger down the front of his shirt. “So, do you mind telling me why you are lolling around in luxury instead of keeping my bath water warm?”
Mulder blinked slowly, incomprehension on his face. Then, his sleepy countenance was graced by a slow smile. “Oh yeah.” He took a deep breath and reached for her fingers. “Your bath boy decided that you needed company tonight.”
A raised eyebrow met his statement. “Did he now?”
“Yup.” Mulder pushed the chair back to its upright position and climbed to his feet. He pointed her in the direction of her bedroom and headed off to run the bath.
Scully watched him as he walked away. His pants rode low on his hips, his sleeves were rolled up and the tail of his shirt hung out on one side. Even sleepy and rumpled he was delectable.
The water sounded in the pipes and she hurried up to their bedroom to undress. She slipped into a light robe and pinned her hair up just as Mulder called for her.
As Scully entered the bathroom, she noticed immediately the sweet smell of bath oils permeating the warm air. She also noticed that Mulder had shed his shirt and socks and stood next to the bath waiting for her.
“I approve of the topless look, bath boy.” She remarked, her eyes twinkling.
Mulder did not answer instead placing his hands on her shoulders he assisted her in removing her robe. Strong hands supported her as she stepped carefully into the steaming, fragranced water, lowered herself with his help and leaned back, a smile of ecstasy on her face.
The water was the perfect temperature and felt silky against her skin.
A low voice caught her attention. “If you like the bare-chested look, then you’re gonna love this.” Scully felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Scoot forward a bit.”
She did as instructed and felt the water move as Mulder climbed in behind her. She’d somehow missed him removing his pants and boxers, darn it. It was one of her favorite things to watch.
Strong arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her body back against his. His long legs stretched out to each side of hers and she leaned her head back on his shoulder and sighed in true contentment.
Warm lips brushed her ear as he spoke. “I’m going to smell all girly.”
“Mm…hmmm.” Scully hummed in agreement.
“I wouldn’t do it for anyone but you, Dana Katherine Scully.” He continued, lifting his hands from her waist.
He poured some bath gel on a cloth and slowly but reverently began to wash each shoulder, covering every square inch of creamy skin with gentle strokes.
One arm and then the other received the same attention, right down to individual fingers. He leaned away to gain access to her back. His slow movements pro-ducing a purr of quite erotic feminine satisfaction from her as he tended to every inch of her body, giving her the utmost pleasure possible
He nipped at the curve of her ear and whispered. “Oh God, you are so beautiful.” A bead of perspiration rolled down the side of her face; Mulder caught the drop on the tip of his finger and then swiped at it with his tongue, savoring the salty taste. Scully shivered in reaction.
Unwrapping his arms from around her now almost boneless body, Mulder lifted himself out of the tub.
Scully leaned back in the still warm water letting her mind float, tiny traces of pleasure still sparking across her skin.
A soft touch on her arm brought her out of her comforting haze and she looked up to see Mulder, a towel draped low around his hips, holding another in both hands.
“Your humble bath boy offers his assistance.” He bowed ever so slightly, looking at her from under his lashes.
Raising both eyebrows at his statement, Scully reluctantly climbed out of her warm cocoon. “Humble?” The word was laden with skepticism. “Somehow I am having trouble putting ‘Mulder’ and ‘humble’ together in my mind.”
Mulder stepped forward, enveloping her in the soft thick towel as she climbed out of the water. “Open your mind to extreme possibilities, mistress.” He whispered softly as he proceeded to meticulously dry her, paying attention to every crease, every finger and toe.
Scully hummed in satisfaction at Mulder’s actions, the lavish care being shown her was just the balm she needed after a singularly trying day.
All too soon, however, he finished, dropping the used towel and wrapping another tightly about her body.
A soft touch at her lower back prompted her to move into the bedroom where Mulder pulled the covers back on one side. He reached for her towel and she allowed it to drop away.
Scully raised her arms, locking them about his neck, and drew him down into another kiss. Dipping his head, Mulder sucked lightly at her bottom lip before abandoning it to nuzzle behind her ear, one of her most sensitive, erogenous areas.
His voice muffled from where he was lavishing attention caught her by surprise.
“What kept you so late tonight, mistress? Your bath boy was beginning to think you’d found greener pastures.”
Scully shivered as he bit gently on her ear lobe. “I got caught up with another case that came in just as I was about to leave.”
“Yeah, something interesting?”
“Out of the ordinary at any rate.”
Mulder moved until his full length was pressed up against her left side. Propping his head on his hand he began tracing idle patterns on the skin of her stomach with his fingers. “Talk to me.”
Scully’s voice hitched slightly at the feel of his fingers, but she proceeded anyway.
“Dr. Latham asked for my opinion on the victim of a single MVA. The deceased had suffered a heart attack while driving which caused him to run off the road.” Scully told him. “Only problem was there was no underlying reason for the heart attack. He was fit and healthy, non-smoker, forty-seven years old; his heart was probably equal to that of a thirty year old, and it was obvious he’d kept himself in good shape. No evidence of arteriosclerosis, in short…”
“Okay, so the guy was healthy. What has you puzzled?”
“In simple terms, this guy should not have had a heart attack, yet he did.” Scully lifted one hand, tangling her fingers in Mulder’s hair. “So, we went looking for what would have caused him to suffer a heart attack.”
“Did you find anything?”
“Yes, an overdose of Physostigmine.”
“Which is?” Mulder prompted.
“Physostigmine is a compound used in the treatment of glaucoma,” Scully explained. “It can also be used as a muscle injection to reverse the effects of toxic overdoses of some medicines.”
“Did this guy have glaucoma?” Mulder prompted.
“I take it he also wasn’t on any medication either.”
“You guessed it.”
“So, why did he have this physi…stuff in him then?”
“Physostigmine, and I don’t have a clue.” Scully actually seemed somewhat stunned at herself at having not found an answer.
“Foul play, do you think?”
“It’s a possibility Mulder, I left it in Dr. Latham’s hands. But regardless, it was a nasty way to die. I wonder what Mr. Harper’s history is?”
Mulder’s body stiffened, his hand stopping its gentle motions. “Harper? Scully what was his first name?”
“I’m not sure, I don’t think I even looked Mulder, why?” Her curiosity piqued, she frowned at her partner’s interest.
Mulder scrambled off the bed and, unconcerned about his nakedness, hurried down to the living room.
Seconds later he returned with the file he had been reading earlier.
“Mulder!” Scully’s plaintive voice sounded slightly aggrieved as he threw himself back on the bed and began shuffling through the papers inside the manila folder.
“Just a minute.” He found the information he was after and handed her a sheet of paper. “I’ve been working on this for a week or so.”
Resigned to the fact that Mulder’s interest was not where she wanted it, Scully eased herself up against the headboard and took the proffered page; six names were typed one under another.
“Recognize any?” Mulder asked.
“Yours of course.” She replied petulantly. “And the top one, Bernie Madison.” She placed the page on the bed beside her. “Mulder, what is this all about?”
“Two of those men are dead, with the possibility of a third.”
“And this concerns you how?” Scully queried.
“We were all on the task force that took down a kiddie porn ring.”
Scully huffed out an breath impatiently. “That doesn’t make it any clearer.”
“Doesn’t it sound a bit too coincidental, Scully?” He asked, his eyebrows rising in question.
“Mulder, people die all the time.”
“I know *that.*” He snapped, before lowering his eyes and biting his lower lip. “I’m sorry, Scully; I didn’t mean for it to come out like that.”
Scully reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, feeling the tense muscles under her fingers. “All right, Bernie Madison died from poisoned mushrooms wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Mulder told her.
“How?” Scully wanted to know.
“That’s fairly common, you know.” Scully stroked her fingers softly over his shoulder. “Besides, you have no way of knowing if the Mr. Harper I saw is the…” She glanced down at the names on the page beside her. “Andrew Harper that you know.”
“I know that.” Mulder’s reply was subdued. “It’s just that…oh, I don’t know, I’ve got one of those feelings, you know my ‘Spooky Radar.'”
“All too well.” Scully increased the pressure of her fingers. “Tell you what, on Monday I’ll check up on the name for you. For all we know Mr. Harper may turn out to be a Zachary.”
“Can you do it tomorrow?”
“It’s the weekend Mulder.” She reminded him.
“Yeah I know…”
“Monday.” Scully’s tone was firm.
“Please, it’s just a phone call.” Mulder adopted his best-kicked puppy look. “Scullee?”
“Oh for goodness sakes.” Her resolve crumbled under the onslaught of his pouty bottom lip. “All right — tomorrow, in the meantime…” She passed him the sheet from the folder. “You take this file back out there, because I don’t want work interrupting what I’ve got planned for you.” Scully grinned evilly at him.
* * *
A.D. Skinner’s Office
June 4, 2007
“I’m sorry Agent Mulder, without more evidence I can’t authorize the time or manpower.” Skinner pushed the manila folder back across the desk towards his agent.
“*More evidence?*” Mulder was incredulous. “Sir, three people from the same task force have died within a remarkably short space of time.” Mulder’s fists clenched in frustration.
“Could be classed as coincidence.” Skinner shrugged.
“With all due respect sir, that’s a cop-out. Three agents have died in suspicious circumstances and no one is willing to give it any time?”
“There’s the catch Mulder; your interpretation of ‘suspicious’ differs widely from everyone else.” Skinner told him. “I agree with you that Harper’s death is unexplained, but in Madison’s case, it was classed as an accident. Sawyer suffered from asthma, which is a primary cause of respiratory failure. I’m sure Agent Scully has explained that to you. There is no definitive connection between their deaths other than the fact that they all worked on the same case years ago, along with you.”
Skinner placed his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingertips. “I assume you have checked up on the other agents from the task force, Agent Mulder?”
Mulder’s jaw worked back and forth. “I’m in the process of doing so, sir. I know Agent Ferguson is still alive, he contacted me about Madison. But, I’m having trouble finding any information on Anthony Carlson. He retired five years ago and seems to have dropped out of sight.”
“I’m sure you have your sources working on that for you.” Skinner commented.
“Yes sir, I do.”
“I presume that you’ve also looked into why these agents are allegedly being targeted?”
“My main theory is that one or more of the members of the child pornography ring that we took down is after some form of revenge.” Mulder explained. “All the individuals involved in the ring have been released from prison and I also have my sources looking into their whereabouts.”
Skinner leaned back in his chair. “If your hypothesis is correct, Mulder, you *do* realize that makes you a target as well?”
Skinner touched the tips of his fingers together and sighed. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you the assistance you’re seeking, Mulder; however I don’t have a problem with you looking into this yourself, just as long as you remember where your priorities lie.”
Mulder picked up the file from Skinner’s desk. “Thank you for your time, sir.” He spun on his heel and left the office, closing the door quietly behind him.
Skinner took his glasses off and rubbed at the bridge of his nose.
He hoped to God that Mulder was truly off-base. A killer stalking and murdering F.B.I. agents was a scenario that he did not want to even remotely contemplate.
* * *
Mulder came through the door and slammed it behind him.
Startled, Scully looked up from the report she was reading and eyed her partner as he sank dejectedly into his chair.
“No go, huh?”
“Nope, he can’t or won’t see the connection.” Mulder lifted his briefcase off the floor and opened it, dropping the file inside.
Lifting a pencil from inside the case he absently placed it in his mouth and leaned back in his chair; staring off into the distance, his eyes focused on nothing.
“So, what now?” Scully asked.
Mulder turned and looked at her, taking the pencil from his mouth, he heaved a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ve got the guys looking into the whereabouts of Anthony Carlson.”
He paused and an unreadable expression crossed his face. “How morbid am I to be sitting here pinning my hopes on finding out that he’s dead? What does that say about me, Scully?”
“It says to me that you are an empathic man who is dealing with something that is entirely outside of his control.” Scully told him gently.
Mulder dry washed his face before running his hands through his hair leaving it standing up in spikes. “God, I hate waiting.”
“Spoken like a true man.” Scully smiled softly at him.
Mulder flicked his eyes across to his partner. “Excuse me, is that statement a crack at me?”
“Not necessarily, Mulder, just men in general.” Scully replied serenely.
“I’ll have you know I have the patience of a saint.”
“All right; here’s a test of your famous patience.” Scully narrowed her eyes. “There’s a new restaurant that has opened just off Wisconsin Avenue and I want to go there for dinner tonight. I’m not going to tell you what type of restaurant it is and I can guarantee that before the day is over you’ll ask.”
“Let’s make it interesting.” Mulder declared.
“How so?” Scully frowned in question.
“If I ask you outright what type of restaurant it is before the day is over, I’ll cook for the rest of the week, if I don’t then you cook.”
Scully considered his offer. “Sounds fair.” She agreed, silently congratulating herself at diverting his mind away from the agents’ deaths.
They worked in silence for an hour or two before Mulder leaned back in his chair twirling his pencil around in his mouth with his tongue.
“Hey Scully, did you know that in Thailand the mole cricket is considered a delicacy?” He watched her carefully.
“No Mulder, I had no idea.”
“Oh, just thought it might interest you, with your fondness for crickets and all.” Mulder grumbled.
“If I’m ever in Thailand, it might.”
“Hmm.” He went back to reading the information on a potential X-File.
Half an hour later the silence was broken again. “Scully?”
“I’ve heard that in Greek folklore, if men eat lettuce it’s supposed to cause impotence.”
“That’s interesting if you’re a Greek male.” She lifted her hand to rub at her nose effectively hiding the smile she was unable to restrain.
“Yeah I thought so, too. Kinda puts you off lettuce. Not that I’m Greek or anything…”
Peace descended again until Mulder once more lifted his head and stared in her direction. “This is interesting.”
“There’s a documented report of a creature, half wolf half child in the Koroglu Mountains.” He let his statement sit for a moment before adding helpfully. “That’s in Turkey.”
“Mulder, I refuse to go to Turkey. Let the Turkish authorities deal with it.”
She had to grant that he had effectively skirted asking outright about the restaurant’s cuisine; his resourcefulness was original for sure.
“Oh, for goodness sake Mulder, just ask me already!” She blurted in exasperation.
“Okay.” He shrugged. “Want some coffee?”
She hissed an exclamation under her breath and frowned at the totally ingenuous look upon his face.
Scully took a couple of deep breaths before answering. “Yes, actually, that would be nice.” She pushed away from her desk. “I’m just going to make a quick run to the bathroom.”
“Sure.” Mulder leaned back in his chair as Scully straightened her skirt. He didn’t smile but his eyes lightened in enjoyment as she shot him a glare before leaving the office.
The afternoon continued in the same vein; numerous times Scully had her concentration interrupted by Mulder’s continual references to absurd matters dealing with food from varying countries.
“Scully,” Mulder asked, “Have you wondered why the Scots eat haggis? I mean, sure it’s traditional, but why would anyone want to stuff a sheep’s stomach with…”
And so it went.
Finally, half an hour before they were due to finish work, Scully snapped.
“All right, I give up, you win, it’s an Indian restaurant, I’ll cook for the rest of the week, just please stop.”
Mulder raised one eyebrow and peered inquiringly at his aggravated partner. “Not like you to give up so easily, Scully.” He smirked. “No patience, huh?”
“There’s only so much I can stand and you have well and truly taxed my limit.” She retorted, shutting down her computer and standing up. “And because of that, you can make the reservations.”
Scully waved a finger admonishingly in his direction. “Fair warning though, if you utter one more bizarre remark about sardine flavored baby food from Japan, or Lucrezia Borgia pasta or sucking the juice out of the heads of crawfish for the ‘extra Cajun flavor,’ I’m walking out.”
Mulder mimed a cross over his heart. “I promise. What time do you want to eat?”
“Seven will do fine.” She brushed up against the arm of his chair and caressed the hair at the base of his neck. “Are you going to call now? I hear they fill up the dinner hour pretty early.”
“Shortly. I’m just going to call the Gunmen and see if they’ve come up with anything.” He reached for the phone.
Scully bent and placed a kiss at the side of his mouth. “Okay, I’ll see you later.”
Scully tossed him a fond glance but he was already dialing and didn’t see; she was gratified, however, to see his lips up in a faint smile and press his fingertips to the side of his mouth where she’d kissed him.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
“I’m heading upstairs, Mulder. Are you going to work in the office?” Scully asked as she followed him in the front door.
“No, I think I’m going to work down here tonight. Maybe catch the game I TiVOed.
“OK, but *do* come up. You look really tired.” She stood on the bottom step, making it all too easy to kiss her.
“Get going, Scully, before I change my mind and come to bed now,” he said with a playful swat on her behind.
His eyes followed her swaying backside all the way up the stairs before he grabbed his briefcase and reluctantly headed for the living room.
The light on the answering machine was blinking. Hitting playback, Mulder sat as he listened to Frohike explain that, so far, they had not had any luck in finding out anything about Anthony Carlson.
The message ended with a promise that they would keep looking, as several channels were untried.
Mulder picked up a pencil and opened the file on the task force agents and slipped the pencil between his lips before turning the top page over.
He grunted irritably as he reread the remarks he had written in the margin. “*I* can see it.” He spoke around the pencil. “Why can’t anyone else?”
A sudden look of disgust crossed his face and he pulled the pencil out of his mouth and examined it. The end, apart being wet with his saliva, had several teeth marks in it that had gone through the paint and into the wood below.
Screwing up his nose at it, he tossed it at the trash can, shrugging when it bounced off the edge and hit the floor.
Mulder grabbed a new pencil, retreated to the couch and started in on his notes.
Halfway through, he could feel a headache building behind his eyes.
When he had to squint to read the words, he knew he’d had enough.
Removing his glasses, Mulder pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ease the pounding that was rapidly building into a migraine.
He closed the file and got stiffly to his feet. However as he straightened a sudden cramping in his stomach bent him over again.
He thought of the unexplained pain he’d suffered several nights ago, Mulder carefully eased himself back down on his side. Wearily, he closed his eyes, willing the pain to subside.
He didn’t remember falling asleep but he was certainly aware of coming awake when his stomach rolled with dreadful nausea.
Mulder jerked upright, clapped his hand over his mouth and gagged.
Stumbling blindly to his feet, he ran to the first floor bathroom, falling to his knees as his stomach rebelled violently.
He retched continuously for the next several moments until he was bringing up nothing but bile.
Weakly, Mulder flushed the toilet before slumping back against the cool, tiled wall of the bathroom. His head pounded incessantly, his stomach ached and the vile taste in his mouth forced him to his knees where he cupped his hand under the faucet and drank deeply of the cool water.
As he tried to find the strength to climb to his feet, his stomach spasmed and once again he found himself bringing up every last drop of the water he’d just swallowed.
Sometime later he feebly lifted his head grunting as strained stomach muscles complained against the slightest movement.
Slowly, with great care, Mulder eased himself to his feet; he rinsed his mouth, careful not to swallow any water.
Locking trembling knees into place, he leaned heavily on the counter and peered at his reflection.
He was not a pretty sight; hair matted with sweat and stuck to his forehead, his face was so pale it was almost white. The huge dark circles under his eyes made him shudder.
Mulder knew he needed to lie down, so he cautiously turned, resting one hand on the wall for balance.
The distance from the bathroom and up the stairs to their bedroom seemed too far, so he decided to try for the couch.
One arm wrapped around his stomach and hunched over like an elderly man, Mulder slowly tracked one foot in front of the other.
Halfway across the floor, he felt his stomach turn over once more.
“No, not again.” He whispered despairingly, stopping and turning back to the bathroom.
He barely managed to cross the threshold before the spasms drove him to his knees. He crouched in misery, retching incessantly.
He had nothing left to bring up and the heaving made bile burn the back of his throat.
Eventually, he collapsed in an exhausted heap, his eyes watering, his nose running and his head throbbing in time with his pounding heart.
The floor was cold and Mulder shivered. But without any energy, he had no option but to lie in a miserable heap; his arms wrapped tightly around himself, his legs pulled up to his chest.
Despite the pounding migraine and the tremors rocking his body, exhaustion took him and Mulder dropped into an uneasy sleep sometime during the early morning hours.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
June 5, 2007
Prying open eyes sticky with the residue of tears and perspiration, it took Mulder a few minutes to get his bearings.
He had a view of old and worn black and white linoleum. He realized he was still lying on downstairs bathroom floor when he caught sight of the floor covering around the pedestal of the toilet.
Shakily, he lifted a hand to wipe at his eyes. They were dry and sore, like his throat.
He pressed both hands to the floor wincing as every muscle in his body, especially the ones across his stomach, protested at the movement.
Mulder was in desperate need of a drink. He swallowed several times, but there was nothing there.
Somehow, he found the strength to crawl the couple of feet between him and the counter, his head hanging and his breath coming in short pants.
Mulder levered himself up, resting his elbows on the counter. The faucet was dripping and he stared at each drop as it fell before he reached out and turned the tap.
The water was cool and tantalizing and, without thinking, he cupped his hands under the flow and brought them up to his mouth.
He repeated the motion again and again until he was satisfied. He rubbed a handful over his face before shutting the water off.
Fatigue overwhelmed him again and he slumped back down to the floor.
Mulder leaned against a cabinet, one cheek pressed to the cool surface, trying in vain to draw enough strength to make it out of the bathroom.
His brain felt like it was packed in cotton, but one thought kept whirling around in his head:
Years ago, he had been afflicted with it. Some bad salami on a pizza had nearly put him into the hospital.
The symptoms were the same; abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever.
It had to be the food from last night. His head jerked up causing him to wince from the sudden motion.
Scully! Was she in the same condition?
The thought propelled him out of the bathroom crawling across the floor on shaky hands and knees.
Midway through his journey, the stomach cramps set in again, growing stronger, and nausea returned.
He knew he’d never make it up the stairs to their bedroom so he fumbled for his cellphone, still in his pocket.
He listened to the ringing, both on his cell and in the room upstairs, trying to keep the nausea under control.
*Come on! Answer please,* he pleaded frantically to himself.
Worry hit him sharply when Scully didn’t answer. Then suddenly her voice sounded on the other end.
Relief surged through him and he blurted out her name. “Scully!”
Why did the phone always have to ring when she was in the shower, Scully thought crossly as she grabbed a large towel.
Wrapping it around herself, she hurried into the bedroom cursing whomever was calling at this time of the morning.
And where was Mulder?
Probably passed out on the recliner. She wasn’t too pleased with him for going MIA again.
“Scully.” She snapped.
The unmistakable tone of her partner’s voice gasping her name sounded on the line followed immediately by the sound of him being violently ill.
She heard a thud, as if he had dropped the phone. “Mulder?” She called out anxiously.
The only sound coming through the line was the agonized sound of gagging coupled with frantic gasps for breath.
Scully hurried to the top of the stairs where she could hear the same sounds coming from somewhere below.
“Mulder, if you can hear me, I’m on my way!” Scully dropped the phone and ran down the stairs.
She searched the living room, calling her partner’s name. She could hear whimpering as she approached the half bath.
As she rounded the table, she saw his crumpled form lying on the floor.
“Mulder!” She gasped running to and dropping by his side, her hand automatically going to his forehead to check for fever, the dry skin under her fingertips telling a story of fever and pain.
Mulder’s eyes were clenched shut and the skin around them was pinched and mottled with a plethora of broken capillaries that hinted at an extended period of vomiting.
“Mulder, I’m here.”
Her hand was cool on his forehead and Mulder sighed at the sensation. When it disappeared he whimpered at the loss until he felt a damp cloth wiping his face.
Mulder shivered as water ran down his cheek and under his shirt collar. His head was gently lifted and a cup pressed to his lips.
The first slide of water down his parched throat was sheer bliss, however Mulder soon regretted it when minutes later it forcibly made a return journey.
“All right, take it easy, Mulder; try to breathe through your nose, don’t pant.” Scully ran her eyes over him; his shirt was stained with perspiration and flecks of vomit.
“How long have you been feeling sick?” Scully asked trying to get some sort of timeline.
Mulder’s voice was thin and she had to lean closer to hear his words. “…this morning…early.”
“Did you eat anything after I went to bed?”
He shook his head “Musta been…dinner…Indian…was worried.”
“About the food?”
“No…you.” His eyes shot wide open as the nausea rose and he began to heave again.
Thankfully, this series of convulsions was short-lived and less than a minute later, Mulder lay on the floor gasping for breath.
His gray face and sunken eyes prompted Scully to reach for her phone. “Mulder, I’m calling the paramedics…”
A surprisingly strong hand reached out and grasped her wrist. “No…no hospital…”
“Don’t give me that!” She snapped, calming her tone almost immediately. “Mulder, you need more than I can do for you, an anti-emetic for a start, to stop the nausea, and an IV to ward off dehydration.”
A vicious cramp twisting through his stomach muscles made Mulder’s decision for him, leaving him curled in on himself, groaning in absolute agony.
Within a minute, Scully was connected to 911 and was relaying necessary details.
Mulder didn’t realize he’d closed his eyes until the feel of the damp cloth made him jump.
“Steady now, love.” Scully bid him as she wiped the cloth over his face, cleaning away saliva and vomit.
* * *
North East Georgetown Medical Center
Mulder restlessly scratched at the IV site attached to the back of his hand.
“Stop that!” Scully hissed, batting his fingers once again.
“It’s itchy.” He complained.
“I don’t care.” Scully replied. “You need it and it stays until the doctor says otherwise.”
He sighed and leaned back against the bed, turning to look at Scully. “How long do I have to stay here?”
“As long as it takes to get your fluid and electrolytes back up and results of your blood work.”
“I don’t think that doctor believed me when I said it was the Indian food.” Mulder scowled.
“You don’t think the phrase ‘lousy Indian cooking’ would have had anything to do with it, do you?” Scully folded her arms and glared at him.
“Well, it’s true isn’t it?”
“Mulder, have you ever heard of the word ‘tact’?”
“Maybe you should employ some occasionally.”
“I was just telling the truth, Scully. Is it my fault if Dr. Whatisname is so sensitive?”
“Dr. Jandhylah, and it’s not a case of being sensitive, it’s more a case of knowing when to keep your mouth shut.” Scully vividly remembered how the doctor had stiffened at Mulder’s accusation.
“It wasn’t intentional.”
“Oh please! You had an attitude as soon as you were aware enough to realize that the doctor treating you was Indian.”
Mulder pulled at the neck of his hospital gown. “If I say I’m sorry, will you stop being angry with me?” He pouted.
“Put that lip away, it’s not going to work.” Scully informed him firmly. “And I’m not angry, I’m disappointed. Besides, it’s not me you should apologize to. I know you’re sick and in pain, but that’s still no excuse for taking it out on an innocent person.”
He sighed and shifted position, wincing when the movement pulled at his extremely overworked stomach muscles. “You’re right, I’ll apologize as soon as he comes back.” He finished his statement with a wide yawn.
Scully rose from her seat and rubbed her hand up and down his arm. “Why don’t you try and get some more sleep; it’ll be a few more hours yet before they’ll let you go.” She moved closer and began running her fingers through his unruly hair.
Her action had an immediate soporific effect on Mulder and his eyes closed; slumping further down in the bed he turned on his side and curled his hands up under his chin. “Hmm, ‘s prob’ly a good idea.”
Scully deftly untangled the IV line with one hand while keeping up the soothing motion in his hair with the other. She listened as his breathing slowed and deepened.
A sigh broke the silence and then Mulder murmured. “I gotta numb ass.”
“Go to sleep.” Scully soothed, shaking her head in amusement at his muddled thought processes. “I’ll look after your ass when we get you home.”
“Yeah.” Mulder whispered as he dropped into a sound sleep.
* * *
“Dr. Scully?” The soft hesitant voice of Mulder’s admitting doctor turned her attention away from her slumbering partner.
Climbing to her feet, she brushed her disheveled hair out of her eyes. Dr. Jandhylah stood just inside the curtain, clutching a sheaf of papers. His deep brown eyes peered at her from behind frameless glasses and he gave her a small smile.
“I have the results from Mr. Mulder’s blood work.” He looked down at the papers in his hand.
“What type of bacteria was it?” Scully reached out for the report.
“There isn’t any.” The doctor replied bluntly.
“I beg your pardon?” Scully frowned. “Are you sure you ran the correct tests?”
An embarrassed blush rose in her cheeks. “I’m sorry, that was a stupid thing to say. I don’t understand, are you telling me he doesn’t have food poisoning?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“So what does he have?”
“Ah, now there we have a little mystery.” Jandhylah gestured for her to step outside so as to avoid waking her partner.
As Scully followed the doctor into the corridor, he began talking. “I’m sure you are familiar with the different types of bacteria that can cause food poisoning?”
“Yes, I assumed it would be Clostridium Perfringens for it to affect only Mulder, I had no meat in my meal. A more remote possibility was Bacillus Cereus, although I had the rice, too.”
“That also was my first assumption, but as you can see here,” He handed Scully the relevant report, “Neither of those, or any others, have shown up in the tests.”
He pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I have also heard back from the health department, there have been no other instances reported and the restaurant has been cleared by their officer.”
She scanned the paper swiftly. “So, if it’s not food poisoning, is it some form of gastroenteritis?”
“A small but distinct possibility, although the absence of diarrhea is an intriguing aspect.”
Scully looked up at Jandhylah. “Well, I suppose that’s good news, in a way.”
“Being a doctor, I’m sure you are also aware of the varied reasons for stomach upsets.”
Scully smiled. “You can rule out indigestion, Mulder has a cast iron stomach.”
“It would appear so; his choice of meal is not something the faint-hearted would select.”
“Dr. Jandhylah, I apologize for my partner’s earlier statement.” She started.
Jandhylah held up a hand. “Please, Dr. Scully, it is quite understandable. Mr. Mulder was feeling quite out of sorts. The coincidence was perhaps slightly unfortunate. I did not take any offense, I can assure you.”
Scully looked back where Mulder lay, sound asleep. “How much longer will you keep him?”
“The dehydration is under control, as I hope is the nausea.” He gave her a questioning look. “He has had no more instances of vomiting?”
“Not since the anti-emetic was administered. I think his only complaint will be tiredness and sore stomach muscles.”
“He certainly gave them a good workout. In that case, once he wakes, I will have the nurse run through the standard checks. If everything is satisfactory, I will discharge him.” Jandhylah checked his watch. “Maybe you will beat the rush hour traffic.”
“That would be a blessing.” Scully smiled sincerely.
“Very well, I shall leave you then. Please contact the nurse as soon as Mr. Mulder is awake.”
Scully nodded and shook the doctor’s proffered hand.
Tucking her hair behind her ear, she slipped back into the ER cubicle. She took her position at Mulder’s side and gazed at him contemplatively.
She was close to nodding off when he stirred and opened red-rimmed eyes.
“Hey.” He swallowed thickly. “Can I have some water?”
Scully stood and brushed his cheek with the backs of her fingers. “How’s your stomach?”
Mulder thought before answering. “Sore, but I don’t feel nauseous at all.”
“Okay then, but just a sip to wet your mouth.” She reached for the jug beside the bed and poured a small amount into the cup. Holding it to his lips, she let him take a tiny swallow before pulling it away.
Mulder sighed and closed his eyes. “God, that’s good.”
“If that stays down, you can have some more.”
He glanced up at the IV bag above his head. “How much longer do I have to be connected to this?”
“Until it’s empty; not too long.” Scully and gave him a light kiss on the forehead. “I’ll be back; just going to tell the nurse you’re awake.”
“Okay.” Mulder shifted on the bed and watched as she walked away.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
“Gas, my ass.”
Scully smiled at his unintended rhyme.
“I’m more inclined to think it was a minor viral infection. Mimics the symptoms of food poisoning exactly; treatment is the same, plenty of fluids and rest.”
Mulder grimaced. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick before.”
“It’s not something you’d want a repeat performance of, Mulder.” Scully told him.
“That’s for sure.” Mulder leaned back in the recliner and pushed the footrest out. “Man, I’m wiped.”
“That’s why you need to rest.” Scully propped herself on the armrest and stroked his hair. “I thought something very light for dinner, some clear soup.”
Mulder closed his eyes and yawned. “Hmm, sounds good, can I have crackers?”
She nudged his shoulder. “Are you going to sleep?”
“Think so.” He replied drowsily.
“I want you to have a drink before you do.” She reached over him and picked up a bottle of bright lemon liquid and handed it to him. “You’ve got to keep the fluids up.”
He eyed the lurid color and pulled a face. “If I drink much more, I’m going to overflow. Didn’t they have any of the blue stuff?”
“It was a very popular convenience store, Mulder. They were all out of blue, so you have to make do with this. You need the electrolytes so don’t argue.” Scully crossed her arms and glared at him. “You know one of the possible side effects of dehydration is a kidney infection. Believe me, you don’t want that.”
Mulder lifted the bottle to his mouth and took a tentative sip; he shuddered in an exaggerated manner.
“Gah! That’s awful, why do they still make this flavor? Why can’t I have an iced tea?” He peered up at his partner hopefully, then dropped his shoulders as he noticed with both eyebrows raised and her lips pressed together in a thin line.
“Not going to work Mulder, drink it. And the reason you’re not getting iced tea, is you don’t need the caffeine on top of dehydration.”
He three big gulps, pulling a face with each one. When he had drained nearly half the bottle, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Oh god, no more.”
Peering at the label, he scowled. “Lemon flavor, what a load of crap.” Offering the bottle back to Scully he asked. “How’s that?”
“Good, keep it up and you’ll be back on your feet in no time.”
“What if I said I want to be back on my back?” A mischievous grin lit up his face.
“Oh you’ll get there, I promised you I’d look after your ass.” She returned his look before settling herself on the arm of the chair.
The expression on Mulder’s face was one of priceless incomprehension. “Huh?”
“In the hospital, you were worried about your ass.”
“You were quite concerned that it was numb.”
Mulder looked at her quizzically. “Scully, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Scully took his hand between hers and smiled at the confusion in his expression. “Don’t worry, all your secrets are safe.”
Intense hazel eyes fixed themselves on her face. “Did I make a fool of myself?” He asked apprehensively.
“Mulder with all the medication you had running through your system, nothing you said was taken seriously.” She pressed a gentle kiss against his lips. After a few seconds, she pulled back and laid her hand gently on his cheek. “I love you.” She whispered.
Mulder reached to brush the hair off her cheek, but as he leaned forward his stomach muscles objected and he winced, slumping back in the chair. The frustration of his body being under par showed in his eyes. “Damn, I want…”
“Sshh.” A finger was gently pressed against his lips. “The only thing you have to do is rest and regain your strength, I’ll be here.” She reached out and tangled her fingers in his hair smoothing the strands.
The tiredness Mulder had been valiantly keeping at bay finally settled over him and he closed his eyes in surrender.
Scully watched as his body settled more comfortably into the chair, muscles relaxing, hands uncurling and lying limply in his lap. She kept up the stroking for a little while as his breathing deepened into sound sleep, watching as his lips parted slightly and his head dropped to one side.
Carefully she slid off the arm of the chair, casting a fond look at her partner and headed off to the kitchen to start dinner.
* * *
Three days recovering from the mysterious viral infection had left Mulder feeling antsy and thoroughly sick of the sight of four walls.
Even though the majority of the time Scully had been there to keep him company, he had begun to feel an almost desperate longing to be outdoors.
By Thursday, he had managed to convince Scully that he was feeling well enough to go for a walk, though the short distance they’d gone exhausted him to the extent that he slept through the rest of the afternoon.
When Friday evening rolled around he was feeling almost normal again, the occasional twinge from his overused stomach muscles was the only sign that he had been ill.
When Maggie Scully had called late Friday night asking if Dana could run some errands with her Saturday, Mulder had assured his partner he’d be fine if left on his own for a day.
* * *
Saturday, June 9, 2007
His chest heaving and drops of perspiration running down his face, Mulder pushed the door shut behind him and slumped it.
Maybe going for a run hadn’t the brightest idea he’d ever had, but at the time it had made a lot of sense.
The fact that his strength and endurance were nowhere near back to normal had been slammed into him when he had nearly collapsed a mere quarter of the way through his normal run.
Gathering his energy, he pushed away from the door and trudged wearily to the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of water, twisted the cap off and gulped nearly half the contents before taking a breath.
Checking his watch, he decided he had enough time for a shower and, stripping off his sweaty clothing, made his way to the bathroom.
The hot water beating down on him cleared his head a little and, mentally, he began to work through the information he had connecting the three agents’ deaths.
It still seemed too contrived, too coincidental to be anything other than intentional; he just wished Scully and Skinner could see it, too.
Stepping out of the shower, Mulder felt the cooler air of the bathroom hit his overheated skin and for a moment his vision grayed out.
Blindly, he reached out to support himself and planted both hands on the counter. He dropped his head and took several deep breaths before raising his eyes to the mirror.
Wiping the steam away with his hand, he studied his reflection: the pallor of his face highlighted the shadows under his eyes making them look darker than usual. Straightening up, he gazed critically at himself.
The virus had stripped pounds from his lanky frame and the outline of his ribs was clearly visible, his stomach was flatter than normal and he looked badly in need of a good meal.
Mulder’s stomach did a slow lazy roll at the mere thought of food. He could handle another drink but swallowing something other than liquid was beyond him.
Even Scully’s culinary efforts, which were of a much greater standard than his own, had not been enough to tempt him into eating anymore than absolutely necessary.
He dried off, then walked back to the bedroom shivering as cold brushed over his naked body.
Mulder slumped lethargically on the edge of the bed gathering the energy to get dressed.
Finally, realizing his shivers were becoming worse, he pulled on a sweat suit and drifted back down to the living room.
The steady blinking of the answering machine’s light caught Mulder’s attention.
The message froze him in place as he listened to Frohike’s message urging him to check his email.
* * *
Mulder and Scully’s Townhouse
Scully let herself in and closed the door, the silence raised her hope that Mulder was getting some much-needed rest.
Her lips turned up in a smile as she discovered him stretched full-length on his recliner, his mouth open and snoring gently.
Soon, however, the smile turned into a frown when she noticed the state of the coffee table.
File folders were laying open, their contents mixed with numerous sheets of paper covered in Mulder’s distinctive handwriting.
Pencils littered the table, all bearing evidence of his frustration in their chewed ends.
Scully shook her head at his stubbornness as she picked a paper at random and read through his notes.
The connections he had made intrigued her and Scully found herself reaching for the file folder. She sat down between the table and the couch and flipped through the report, her eyes widening as she finally began to reach the same conclusion that Mulder had over a week ago.
A conclusion that meant Mulder was also undoubtedly a target.
Scully was deeply involved in reading when a touch on her shoulder made her jump. Turning, she saw Mulder sleepily blinking his eyes.
“You frightened me.” She accused lightly.
He tangled his fingers softly in her hair. His eyes flicked towards the papers in her hands. “What do you think?” He asked in a sleep-heavy voice.
“I think you’ve been working when you should have been resting.” Scully chided. As a frown began to grow on his face, she continued. “I also think you could be onto something.”
Mulder stared at her in surprise as he pushed himself upright. “You do? I thought you were convinced it was all a big coincidence.”
“I was — until I read this.” She waved the sheaf of papers in her hand. “Anthony Carlson makes the fourth agent from the task force, although he was the first one to die.”
“Yeah, three weeks before Bernie Madison.” Mulder nodded.
“His death was ruled as suicide, though.” Scully picked up another sheet of paper and read from it. “Victim was in a state of depression because of the break up of his twenty year marriage.”
“You didn’t read far enough.” Mulder countered, shuffling through the papers until he found what he was looking for. “His marriage may have broken up, but he’d just bought him and his girlfriend tickets on to a month-long Caribbean cruise. I don’t know about you Scully, but that doesn’t sound too depressing to me.”
Scully’s eyebrow rose. “No, I agree with you, Mulder. I can’t see anything depressing about a Caribbean cruise.” She sighed. “So what now, are you doing back to Skiner with this new information?”
“I’ve got to.”
“You couldn’t persuade him last time, Mulder. What makes you think this time will be different?”
“More facts.” He stood up, leaned over and, unerringly, from the mass of papers, picked up the one sheet he wanted. “Here.” Mulder shuffled papers aside before handing a manila folder to his partner.
Scully perused the contents. Mulder watched as she read through the top copy, then the next.
“That’s not possible.” She stated reaching for the third set of papers.
“What isn’t?” He asked leaning over her shoulder.
“This information, it doesn’t tally…” Her words trailed off and Mulder’s curiosity escalated.
Scully leaned forward and spread the reports out on the coffee table. “Okay, three out of four of these men died in circumstances which were ruled as accidental.”
“Yeah, but I don’t believe that for a minute…”
“I agree with you.”
“You do?” Mulder eased himself down onto the floor next to Scully. “Why?”
She tapped a fingernail on a sheet of paper. “Bernie Madison, cause of death was deemed to be poisonous mushrooms. The only problem with that is the type of mushroom.”
“I thought you said it was easy to make a mistake if you didn’t know what you were looking for.”
“I did.” Scully agreed. “The Amanitopsis is edible and it looks quite similar to the Amanita, but the Amanita or Death Cup, as it is more widely known, only grows from June until Fall. If you remember, Bernie died weeks ago and we had a very cold spring this year.”
Scully pointed to the next report. “Warren Sawyer, respiratory distress.”
“That was put down as a complication of asthma.”
“Might have been true except for trace elements of aconite.”
“Which is?” Mulder prompted.
“A plant, belongs to the crowfoot family, it has poisonous roots, leaves and seeds.” Scully told him. “A small amount of this plant can cause a severe reaction in an adult. With the added complication of asthma, Sawyer virtually had no chance.”
“So why didn’t the coroner pick up on this originally?” Mulder asked.
“Don’t know; one possibility is that aconite is used in liniments.”
“You don’t ingest liniments, Scully. Sounds more like it was easier to just blame it on a complication of asthma and have done with it.”
“Now, Mr. Carlson,” Scully continued, “Straightforward overdose of sleeping pills. Ruled as suicide, however as you said, strange action to take for a man going on a cruise.”
Mulder had been sucking on one of his well-chewed pencils as Scully spoke. He drew it out of his mouth and tapped it on the table.
“They were targeted.” Mulder pronounced.
“If that’s true, then what about your friend and, for that matter, yourself?” Scully asked. “Your hypothesis is that *all* the task force members have been singled out.”
“I spoke to Danny last week, warned him about my suspicions, told him to keep an eye out for anything or anyone unusual. Then I checked up earlier today, he’s still okay. He said there’s been nothing out of the ordinary going on and he hasn’t been sick at all.”
“So, that leaves you, Mulder.”
“And I’m fine.”
“Apart from a mysterious stomach virus.”
Hazel eyes, wide open in disbelief, came to rest on Scully’s face. “You think there’s a connection between me being sick and these deaths?”
“I don’t know.” Scully admitted.
“But…the hospital ran tests, wouldn’t something show up?”
“I would assume so.”
“You looked at all the results, Scully, what did you see?”
“Nothing.” She admitted. “Apart from a lowered blood sugar reading, to be expected with the amount of vomiting you did.” She toyed restlessly with the papers on the table. “In fact, your results were surprisingly normal for someone as sick as you were.”
“Betcha don’t get to use those words much in relation to me do you?” Mulder quipped.
“It’s part of your charm Mulder. You’re not as boringly pedestrian as the majority of the male population.”
“And that’s a good thing?” He asked, eyebrows raised.
“Oh, yes.” Scully pressed up against his warm, lithe body. “It’s a very good thing.”
* * *
Hoover Building Gymnasium
June 11, 2007
Wiping the slick perspiration from his face, Skinner dropped the towel and began his next round of stomach crunches. The gym was blessedly empty this morning and he felt comfortable enough to extend his workout a little longer than usual.
Ten minutes later, he finished and lay back, eyes closed. As he reached for the towel his fingers brushed against another person’s and his eyes jerked open to see Mulder staring back at him.
“Sorry sir, didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I didn’t hear you come in.” Skinner sat up, grabbed the towel and wiped it over his face and shoulders, then reached for his water bottle.
“You were occupied.” Mulder shrugged.
Skinner swallowed some water before cocking an eyebrow at his agent. “Is there something you wanted Mulder? I don’t normally see you here.”
“Yes sir, to both statements.”
“It’s too early to confuse me with Mulderspeak.” Skinner frowned as he drank some more water.
An infinitesimal quirking of his agent’s lips told Skinner that his comment had been taken as intended.
“You’re correct sir, I do need to see you about something and, yes, I don’t use the gym, I prefer to run outdoors.” Mulder followed his superior across the vast room until they stopped by the treadmills.
“All right, what is it that couldn’t wait until office hours?” Skinner programmed the apparatus and stepped up.
“I’ve uncovered more evidence pertaining to the case I was pursuing.” Mulder glanced at the settings on the computer.
Skinner gestured toward the adjacent treadmill. “Come on, you can talk and run at the same time can’t you, Mulder?”
Mulder looked down at his suit. “I’m not exactly dressed for the gym, sir.”
“So, go and change, I’m sure you have a sweat suit handy don’t you?”
“Well yes, but…”
“Mulder, you’re not going to stand there and watch. If you want to intrude on my personal time with work-related matters, the least you can do is join me.”
Reluctantly agreeing, Mulder moved to the locker room. A few minutes he returned dressed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Stooping to tuck in a wayward shoelace, Mulder indulged in some warm up stretches.
Skinner was pacing himself as he waited for the other man. “What distance do you run?” He asked.
“Most days I do a round trip of six miles, I try and do an eight minute mile.” Mulder replied.
“Not bad; I’m afraid I’m not quite in that league.” Skinner replied.
“That’s okay sir, I’ll give you a head start.” Mulder stepped up and adjusted the settings to his preference. Like Skinner, he started out at an easy walk and slowly built up to a steady jog.
“Now, what is it you wanted?” Skinner felt his heartbeat accelerate as he increased the speed on the treadmill.
“Agent Scully pointed out some anomalies in the autopsy reports on three of the deceased agents.”
“What sort of anomalies?”
“One of the deaths was supposedly caused by eating poisonous wild mushrooms, except that the mushrooms ingested don’t grow in the wild at this time of year.” Mulder told him.
Skinner mulled that over for a moment. “Go on.”
“Agent Sawyer’s death was put down to complications from asthma, however the autopsy report listed a substance that, combined with asthma, guaranteed Sawyer’s death.”
“The coroner didn’t pick up on this fact?”
“I pointed that out as well sir. Scully said it’s quite…possible that it was overlooked as the substance…is also used in some liniments.”
Skinner glanced over at his agent; almost unconsciously he had picked up on the subtle strain in Mulder’s breathing.
He noted the flush to the agent’s cheeks and the inordinate amount of perspiration coating Mulder’s face. “Agent Mulder, are you feeling all right?”
Hazel eyes widened in surprise at the question. “Yes sir, I’m just…a little out of…practice.”
“Very well, you were saying?”
“Ah…where was I…oh yeah, Agent Carlson…he allegedly committed…suicide…over his marriage break-up. What people didn’t…realize was…shit…” A sudden stumble made Mulder fling out one hand to the treadmill’s railing. He corrected his movement, somehow managing not to trip himself up.
“Mulder, perhaps you should ease up a little.”
“I’m fine…sir.” The words were spat out through gritted teeth.
Skinner eyed his agent warily but did not comment.
After a few minutes, where the silence was punctuated only by the sound of feet pounding the track, Skinner spoke again. “You were saying about Agent…Carlson…was it?”
“Yes, the police report…listed suicide, an alleged overdose of sleeping pills…as I pointed out…to Scully, why would he take an overdose…when he had just paid for…a month long…South Pacific cruise for himself and…his girlfriend?
“I’ve said all along…there was something not…quite right about…these deaths…now I…have the proof.” Mulder’s breathing was noticeably strained and his flushed face was dripping with perspiration.
Skinner glanced down at the distance readout on the control panel; he was surprised to see they had run the equivalent of nearly three miles.
Casually, he reached out and turned the speed down. “That’s enough for me.” He panted. “I can’t believe you do this every day.”
“Helps me…to think.”
“Well, I’m thinking that’s enough for one day,” Skinner said. “Come on, I’ll treat you to breakfast and you can tell me more about this case.”
“No one’s going to mind if you don’t go the distance, Agent.”
Skinner noted that Mulder was steadying himself as he ran with one hand on the railing and his breathing was little more than gasping wheezes.
He decided on another, more personal approach. “I don’t know about you, Mulder, but I’m hungry.”
Chest heaving with exertion, Mulder panted. “You…go ahead…I’ll catch…up. I’m…nearly…done.”
Deciding to take a stand before his agent ran himself into a heart attack, Skinner reached over and attempted to dial down the speed of Mulder’s treadmill. “Enough!” He barked.
His hand was brushed away with a gasping growl. “I…haven’t…finished.”
“Yes you have, Agent Mulder. Ease off *now* — before I haul you off.” The A.D. threatened.
Mulder’s eyes widened at the prospect and he reached out to the controls. Just as his fingers touched the switch, the blood suddenly drained from his face.
Then, as if he was a marionette whose strings had unexpectedly been cut, his knees folded underneath him, pitching him forward far enough for his chin to crack painfully against the panel, forcing a muffled exclamation past his lips.
Mulder’s long-limbed body was propelled off the track, landing in a tangle on the floor, knocked unconscious.
Skinner slapped at the switch and cursed loudly. Crouching next to the fallen man, he quickly assessed that Mulder was still breathing, albeit shallowly.
However, blood pooled slickly on the floor from the deep gash under his chin.
Thanking his fortune that two weeks previously he’d completed a first aid refresher course, Skinner arranged the limp form into the recovery position then grabbed his phone from his bag.
“Shit, Mulder.” He said softly. “Scully’s going to kill you — and then she’s going to come after me.”
* * *
North East Georgetown Medical Center
June 11, 2007
The hurried tap of footsteps drew Skinner’s attention away from his clasped hands and down the hall. Flame colored hair announced her presence as did the noticeable increase of energy in the air as she drew closer.
“Where is he?” Scully had no time for pleasantries.
“In there.” Skinner jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the closed doors behind him.
Neatly skirting his bulk, she slipped around him and was pushing at the doors before Skinner grabbed her arm. “You can’t go in there!”
“I have to.” She brushed his hand away, her eyes boring through the doors.
“No, you have to let the doctors do their job.”
Scully lifted her head and pinned Skinner with ice-blue eyes. “I *am* a doctor.” She said quietly.
“I know.” He guided her over to the couch on an adjacent wall. “But you’re also too close.”
Sitting down next to her supervisor, Scully closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “I don’t understand, he was fine when he left this morning.”
Skinner’s tone was remorseful. “I’m afraid it was my fault.”
“Your fault?” Scully echoed in confusion. “Why?”
“If I hadn’t badgered him into joining me, he wouldn’t have collapsed.”
“Sir, as much as you may think that, there’s no way that you could’ve made Mulder do something he didn’t want to. Stubborn should have been his middle name.”
“I just didn’t realize that he would keep going like he did. I knew I should have made him stop earlier.”
“What was he doing?” Scully asked softly.
“Treadmill. I could see he was having trouble, so I called it quits after three miles, but he wouldn’t stop.” Skinner replayed the events in his mind. “I threatened to haul him off. That seemed to make an impression, but it was only seconds later that he collapsed.”
The doors that Scully had barely taken her eyes off since arriving suddenly opened, cutting Skinner’s account short.
Both of them stood up to meet the harried-looking doctor who entered the waiting room.
“Are you here for Fox Mulder?” He asked.
Scully stepped forward. “I’m Dana Scully, Agent Mulder’s next of kin and partner. I’m also a medical doctor. Can we see him?”
“In a minute, I just need a couple of things cleared up.”
“Like what, Doctor…?” Skinner’s deep voice sounded.
“Sorry, Kent. Joshua Kent. First, Mr. Mulder is dehydrated; we’ve put him on a drip to assist with that. Second, I’ve put eight stitches in the gash under his chin.”
Scully flashed a reproachful look at Skinner.
Kent continued. “Now third, and most important, Mr. Mulder is severely anemic.” He fixed his eyes on Scully. “Any idea why?”
“Anemic…no, he’s just come through a viral infection, but his blood work checked out.”
“When was this?”
Scully counted the days back. “A week ago. He was brought here with severe vomiting, first thought to be food poisoning, but that turned out not to be the case.”
“Do you remember who was the attending physician?”
“I remember his face, he was Indian, Dr…”
Kent smiled. “That’s okay, Dr. Jandhylah is well-known, one of our best attendings. I’ll look up the report; save us all a lot of trouble.”
“That doesn’t clear up why he’s got anemia, however.” Skinner broke in.
“Quite correct sir, and you are?”
“Assistant Director Walter Skinner, Agents Mulder and Scully’s supervisor.”
“Please, Dr. Kent.” Scully broke in. “Can we see him?”
Dr. Kent considered them both, then nodded.
“A nurse will be in soon; we need a complete blood workup to be done to find out what type of anemia he has and why.” Kent told them. “There’s still a couple of other tests to run, but I’m sure you’ll understand if you’re asked to leave.”
He turned and led the way back through the double doors, finally stopping outside a curtained alcove. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Skinner pulled the curtain back and ushered Scully in ahead of him. In the center of the room, surrounded by monitors and equipment, Mulder lay on a bed, the head slightly raised.
He was attached to a heart monitor that was signaling an unusually rapid heartbeat. Mulder’s chin was covered in gauze almost the color of his complexion.
Scully’s exclamation when she saw him alerted Mulder to their presence. His eyes slid open and settled on his partner. “Hey.” He smiled, taking a shallow breath.
Scully moved to stand next to the bed, took his hand in hers then pressed a gentle kiss to his lips. “How are you feeling?”
“Very tired and suffering from a major case of embarrassment.” His gaze traveled across to Skinner. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Skinner shrugged off the apology. “I’m as much to blame. I shouldn’t have coerced you into running in the first place.”
Mulder returned his attention to Scully. “They haven’t told me what’s wrong and, apart from jabbing me with a needle…” He offered the inside of his arm as proof. “And hooking me up to that,” He tipped his head in the direction of the IV. “No one has said anything.”
Scully sat forward on the chair Skinner had procured from somewhere. “Someone will be in shortly, Mulder. They need to take some blood for further tests.”
“More! Why can’t they do the tests with what they already took? Jeez, Scully! Do they think I’ve got an endless supply of the stuff?” Mulder sounded aggrieved.
“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty left over.” Scully soothed, running her thumb over the back of his hand.
“Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t feeling up to scratch?” Skinner directed his question at Mulder.
“You didn’t let on to me either.” Scully admonished him.
Mulder shifted and turned onto his side facing them. “Honestly, I thought I was okay.”
“Mulder, you’re dehydrated again; that means your fluid intake hasn’t been sufficient.” Scully stopped and frowned thoughtfully. “Have you been throwing up again?”
Mulder shook his head. “No, Scully, I haven’t.”
“I don’t understand it.” She caught sight of her partner’s somewhat guilty face. “Mulder?”
“I wasn’t lying before when I said I hadn’t been throwing up.” He considered his words carefully before continuing. “I went for a run on Friday when you were out with your Mom, or at least I tried to.” Their silence urged him on. “I felt really good and I was going a bit stir-crazy.” He shrugged. “I…um…was only able to do a short distance.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because I was so tired of being sick and I wanted to do normal stuff and I…” His words degenerated into mumbling.
“What? I didn’t hear that bit.” Scully leaned forward.
“I said I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Oh, Mulder.” She sighed in exasperation. “Isn’t that what partners are for?”
The curtains behind them were pushed back and a nurse wheeling a tray walked in. “Sorry to interrupt.” She smiled brightly. “I need to borrow some of Mr. Mulder’s blood.”
Mulder eyed her. “Does that mean you’re going to give it back when you’ve finished with it?”
Skinner snorted and Scully aimed a smack at his arm. “Mulder!” She scolded.
“Depends on whether you behave yourself or not.” The nurse held the IV tube up and out of the way. “Can you roll back over here for me?”
Skinner decided it was a good time to take his leave. “Keep me apprised,” he instructed Scully gripping her shoulder reassuringly. “And you,” he pointed at Mulder. “Behave.”
They all watched him leave, then the nurse turned a smile upon her patient.
“Something tells me he’s been down this road before.” She fiddled with her equipment for a moment. “I’m Jess by the way.”
Scully returned the smile. “I’m Dana, he’s Mulder.”
Jess glanced at his chart. “Mulder huh, not…”
“No, not.” Mulder declared.
“Okay, well let me get this fixed up.”
Mulder turned his head away and concentrated on Scully as Jess went about her task. “So, is it the same thing, the viral infection?”
“Doesn’t look like it. The doctor I spoke to had some concerns about anemia, that’s why Jess is taking more blood.”
“Anemia?” A frown wrinkled Mulder’s forehead. “That’s a lack of red blood cells, right?”
“A decrease in the quantity of hemoglobin or number of red blood cells.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Mulder noticed Jess nodding her head in agreement.
“Red blood cells carry oxygen, Mulder.” Scully lightly traced her finger over his cheek touching the nasal cannula. “Because your RBCs have been reduced, you’re not getting enough oxygen, that’s why you’re hooked up to this.”
“So how did I get it?”
“It depends on the type of anemia you have. There are several, some more serious than others.”
“There, all done.” Jess announced.
“How long before you get the results?” Scully asked her.
“No idea. These are going straight to the lab stat. I’m sure Dr. Kent will be in as soon as he knows something.”
Jess discarded the needle and gloves in the proper containers. “You be good.” She grinned at Mulder as she slid the curtain shut behind her.
Silence interspersed with the sound of Mulder’s shallow breaths filled the treatment room. “I want to go home.” He announced suddenly.
Scully turned to him, her eyebrows arched. “Why do we go through the same song and dance routine every time? Just in case you hadn’t noticed, you’re hooked up to an IV.”
“Oh, I noticed all right, I’m the one who got jabbed after all.”
“Good, I’m glad you were paying attention.” She eased herself up onto the edge of the bed and began working her fingers through his thick, glossy hair. “Why don’t you get some rest?”
Within minutes, Mulder was yawning, his eyes growing heavier. “That’s fighting dirty.” He mumbled. “You know doing that is guaranteed to put me to sleep.”
“I’ve always said, if you’re on to a good thing, stick to it.” Scully smiled as she continued with her gentle caresses.
* * *
North East Georgetown Medical Center
“Acquired hemolytic anemia.” Scully lifted her shoulder to hold the phone in place as she leafed through the papers in her hand. “Could be several days. He was started on a course of medication this afternoon. We’ll know in the next day or two if it’s having any effect.”
A small smile lightened her eyes at what she heard next. “Yes sir, I will.” She hung the phone up and returned to Mulder’s room.
His eyes were glued to the television, but turned to see who entered the room. He smiled before looking back at the TV. “Hey Scully, did you ever get to watch this show?” He gestured with his IV free arm.
Glancing up at the small screen, she was surprised to see huge creatures lumbering around. “Dinosaurs, Mulder?”
“It’s a series, some really interesting facts, too.” His eyes brightened with mirth. “Did you know that the Diplodocus was constantly passing wind?”
Scully tilted her head to one side and stared at him in bemusement. “No, Mulder, I didn’t know that; in fact I don’t think I have ever given the intricacies of a dinosaur’s digestive system much thought at all.”
“See what you’re missing out on?” He waved at the TV again.
“I’m sure I’ll live.”
The door opened again, this time admitting Dr. Kent. “Agent Scully, Mulder.” He nodded as he crossed to Mulder’s side and took his pulse. After a moment he grunted in approval and made a notation on the chart. “So you’ve had your first course of iron tablets?”
“Yeah.” Mulder responded. “How long will I have to take them?”
“Ideally, at least three months. The tablets will replace the iron stores in your blood, which means that your bone marrow will start making red blood cells with a normal amount of hemoglobin. The reason for the three-month timeline is to give enough time for the supplies of iron in your body to build back up as well.”
Kent tapped his finger against his chin. “Your hemoglobin levels are way too low for my peace of mind. I hope to see an increase in the readings in the next two or three days. Once that happens, you’ll be fine to go home.”
“And if it doesn’t happen?” Mulder inquired.
“There are other avenues open to us, I hope we won’t have to go there, of course, but you shouldn’t worry; anemia is extremely treatable.”
“What are the other avenues?”
Scully laid a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “You don’t need to worry Mulder; everything is going to work out fine.”
Mulder twisted around and gazed into sincere blue eyes. “I just want to know what my options are.”
Kent cleared his throat. “Okay, we’ve ruled out medication and infection as the causes of your anemia. Also, you don’t have a stomach ulcer, bowel or colon cancer or piles.”
Mulder screwed up his face at the topic.
“There are a couple of other alternatives: a poor diet, which I am informed has not been the case, except for the last couple of days.” He frowned at his patient. “Another is an overactive spleen. This condition is called hypersplenism; basically it means that your own spleen is destroying your red blood cells. This is fixed quite easily by removing your spleen.”
Mulder shook his head adamantly. “Oh no. No, no, no, I’m rather attached to my spleen, thank you very much. Don’t know what it does, but I think I’d rather keep it.”
“You may not have a choice.” Kent informed him. “Hemolytic anemia is seldom fatal in and of itself, but if left untreated, complications could possibly arise ranging from liver problems to heart failure.”
The doctor folded his arms and stared at Mulder. “I’m not telling you any of this to frighten you, but to make certain that you are fully cognizant of all possible outcomes.”
“So I take it that’s the worst case scenario?” Mulder asked.
“Preferably, we don’t even want to go there, Mulder. But if it were a choice between liver damage and the removal of basically a superfluous organ, that’s the path I’d choose.”
Mulder considered Kent’s words for a few moments; he slid his gaze across to Scully who was standing with her hand resting on his forearm. “Okay.” He said finally. “But only if absolutely necessary.”
“Of course, I don’t perform surgery unless it is absolutely essential.” Kent smiled reassuringly, said goodbye and headed for the door.
“Doctor Kent?” Mulder’s voice stopped him mid-stride. He turned around and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
“Can I have Agent Scully bring me something to work on?”
“Mulder, no.” Scully told him.
Kent moved back into the room, his eyes moving from patient to partner, noting the defiant expression on one and the reluctant countenance on the other. “What sort of work?” He asked carefully.
“Just some notes I’m trying to sort out.” Mulder replied vaguely.
“Does it involve getting out of bed?”
Kent eyed Scully. “You’re not happy with this request, Agent Scully?”
“I’d rather see Mulder rest.” She replied.
“And I’d rather keep my mind occupied.” Mulder retorted.
Kent considered his options. Mulder’s illness wasn’t life-threatening, at least not yet.
Also, it did make sense for him to keep himself busy. The doctor himself would detest lying in bed with nothing to do but watch television for days on end.
Finally he made his decision. “I’ll give conditional approval with the stipulation that you don’t spend all your waking hours on this work, Agent Mulder.”
He gave Mulder an uncompromising look. “Plenty of rest, fluids, food and more rest.” Kent frowned at the triumphant look that Mulder shot Scully. “Just remember, what I give I can just as easily take away.” He reminded the smirking man.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t overdo things, Doctor.” Scully assured him. “I know how to handle him.”
“You sure do.” Mulder piped up cheerfully.
“Mulder!” Scully’s eyes flashed and Kent made decision never to get on her wrong side if he could avoid it.
She gave her partner a firm admonition to behave and then accompanied Kent from the room.
Once the door had closed behind them, Kent turned to her with a twinkle in his eyes. “You’ve certainly got your hands full.” He quipped.
Scully nodded. “Permanently.”
Both their eyes widened at the same time as they realized the dual meaning of the doctor’s words. “Oh excuse me.” Kent said in embarrassment.
Scully’s expression lightened with amusement and she shook her head. “I understand completely.” Extending her hand, she gave another warm smile as Kent shook it.
“I don’t envy you in the least, Agent Scully. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Kent returned to his duties and Scully to Mulder’s side.
* * *
North East Georgetown Medical Center
June 12, 2007
“Put it down.”
Unsure if her instruction went unheard or was just plain ignored, Scully reached out and whipped the report out of Mulder’s hand.
“What…Scully, give it back!” He protested glaring at her.
“After lunch.” She turned and placed the report well out of his reach and then collected all the other sheets of paper on the bed. She brushed a strand of hair off her face and returned to his side.
Mulder sighed deeply. “I’m not hungry.”
“I don’t care, you need to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” Mulder repeated peevishly.
“Why, Mulder?” She asked gently.
“I don’t know, my stomach feels funny.”
Scully was alarmed. “When did this start?”
Scully thought back to what he’d eaten that morning: toast and jelly, cereal and a small carton of milk. There was nothing that should upset his stomach so she had to look elsewhere for the cause.
“Uh, Mulder, delicate issue I know, but when you go to the bathroom, are your…um…is anything a strange color?”
Mulder blanched at the question and nodded. “What does it mean?”
“It could mean that the iron tablets are too strong. Dr. Kent needs to know, he might need to prescribe a lighter dose.”
Mulder dropped his pencil to the bed tray and leaned back. “I’m tired.” He announced rubbing at his eyes.
A hand gently stroked the side of his face. “Close your eyes for a bit then, Mulder.”
He did as told and Scully watched Mulder’s eyes slowly slipped shut, however less than a minute later, they popped open again.
“I can’t.” He sighed.
“I keep thinking about this case.” He waved his hand at the papers on the bedside table. “Things need checking up on and I can’t do it lying here.” Mulder sighed in irritation.
“Let me do it then.” Scully suggested.
“You’d do that?”
“Of course, you do realize that I’m quite capable of investigating things without you.”
A crooked grin lit Mulder’s face. “Yeah, but I much prefer it when we investigate things together.”
Scully sighed. “Switch that innuendo gland off and tell me what needs doing.”
Mulder spent the next few minutes informing Scully of his thoughts up to date, his earnest and repeated appeal for a telephone in the room so he would be able to do the checking himself was resolutely ignored.
“I know you, Mulder; as soon as an idea occurred to you, you’d be on the phone regardless of what time it was. You’d never get any rest.”
Mulder had the grace to look abashed. “I can’t just switch my brain off.”
“And I’m not asking you to. But you need to learn to let other people help.” Scully leaned over and pressed a kiss against his forehead. “It’ll be lunch time soon. Do you want me to stay?”
Mulder shook his head.
“All right then, I’ll go make these phone calls for you.” Scully paused as she reached for the door handle. “Try to eat your lunch, okay?”
Mulder nodded. “Say hi to Danny for me.”
* * *
North East Georgetown Medical Center
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Scully walked swiftly down the hall towards Mulder’s room.
Deep in thought, she barely noticed before colliding with a nurse. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.” Scully regarded the slender dark-haired woman. “Jess?”
“Hello, Dr. Scully.”
“I didn’t realize you worked this floor.”
“Moonlighting.” Jess explained. “Money’s too good.” She nodded towards Mulder’s room. “He’s been very good up to a point, didn’t eat much of his lunch though. Last time I looked, he was sound asleep.”
Scully nodded. “Did Dr. Kent adjust his iron?”
“I’m sure I saw something…” She flicked through the patient charts. “Yes, here it is.”
Scully took the chart, scanning the notes. She saw Dr. Kent’s entry ordering the lower dose.
Thanking Jess, she handed the chart back and headed to Mulder’s room.
Quietly opening the door, she found Mulder was still sound asleep, his head turned away to the window. Scully took the opportunity to observe him.
In spite of his markedly improved color, he still wore the nasal cannula. The smudges under his eyes were not as obvious as they had been.
Scully settled into a chair to gather her thoughts. She’d been shaken upon receiving the latest information and had wasted no time in returning to the hospital.
Passing the news to Skinner had been her first thought, apart from getting back to Mulder’s side.
Skinner, like her, had at last seen the undeniable connection and had been on the telephone making arrangements for Mulder’s protection when she left.
Mulder had been right all along.
Scully sat silently staring at her hands until a tired voice lifted her head.
“Must be some profound thoughts you’re having there.”
Scully reached out and clasped his hand. “Sleep well?”
“I slept.” He answered. “Did you bring me something to eat?”
“What was wrong with your lunch?”
“If that’s what you want to call it.” Mulder pushed himself upright. “It had vegetables in it.”
“Haven’t you learned by now, Mulder, that hospitals work on the theory that if it tastes good, then it can’t be good for you?”
“If I had my way, I’d put your Mom in charge of the kitchen.” Mulder stated.
Scully smiled weakly. “I’m sure she’d be impressed with that.”
“I know I would be.” Mulder gave her a searching look. “So what did you find out?”
Scully took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then blew it out slowly, unable to look directly at him. “I’ve been trying to think of the best way to tell you.”
Mulder stared at her, a sudden fear prickling down his spine. “What…tell me what?”
Scully felt tears forming and forced herself to look up at him.
“I made the calls, as you asked, Mulder. I couldn’t contact Agent Ferguson, he…” Her words faltered and she looked away from Mulder’s expectant expression.
“No, Scully…please…” Eyes wide, he fixed them on her face.
“I’m so sorry, Mulder.”
“No, no…” As the consequence of Scully’s words sank in, Mulder felt his chest constrict.
The feeling of being unable to breathe caused the rate of his inhalations to increase as he gulped rapid, shallow breaths one after another.
Scully got to her feet and laid a hand against his cheek. “Easy does it, Mulder.”
“I told him…Scully, I…told…” Panting now, his face covered in perspiration.
“I know.” She soothed.
Suddenly light-headed, Mulder lifted his shaking hand and stared at it as his fingers began to tingle. “I can’t…”
Swiftly Scully lowered the bed and pulled the nasal cannula away from his face. She heard the door open behind her and footsteps hurrying across the room.
“Dr. Scully?” Jess’s questioning tone reached her ears.
Scully pressed one hand to Mulder’s chest and another against his stomach.
“It’s okay, Jess; he just got some upsetting news.” She concentrated on trying to calm Mulder down. “Slow your breathing down, Mulder; you’re hyperventilating.”
Jess reached behind the bed and uncurled a small device attached to a slender line and slipped the pulse oxymeter onto Mulder’s index finger.
Moving around to the far side of the bed, she placed both hands over his legs. “Mulder I want you to raise your knees.”
His panicked eyes settled on Jess’ face for a moment before flicking back to Scully, but it was enough. Slowly, with Jess guiding him, his feet slid up the bed.
“Good, that’s good.” Scully pressed her hand firmly against his belly. “Mulder, I want you to breathe and try to push my hand up.”
A frown appeared between his brows as Mulder tried to comply. Scully and Jess watched as her hand rose a fraction and then descended. “Yes, that’s good, now again.”
This time, he managed to lift her hand higher. Scully turned her brilliant smile on him. “Okay, again, Mulder. But I want you to breathe in through your nose and then out through your mouth.”
Both women watched the figures on the oxymeter as Mulder’s oxygen saturation climbed back toward acceptable levels.
As his pounding heartbeat began to slow, moving back towards normal, Mulder felt the tightness in his chest start to ease.
He concentrated on Scully’s face, watching as each time her hand lifted, her lips curved upwards.
“You’ve got it now, Mulder.” Jess told him. “I’ll leave you to it.”
Keeping her eyes fixed on Mulder’s, Scully nodded her appreciation. “Thanks for the help, Jess.”
Jess nodded, smiled at them and headed for the door.
As soon as the door snicked closed, Mulder spoke in almost a whisper. “Sorry, Scully.”
“Don’t be, it wasn’t your fault. If anything, I should apologize. I knew you’d be upset.”
“I had to know.” Mulder assured her hoarsely. He lowered his legs and Scully sat back, moving her hand away. “No, stay please.” He appealed.
A bright smile lit her face as she replaced her hand, this time burrowing under the sheets until the flimsy gown Mulder wore was the only barrier.
“What happened to me back there?” Mulder asked.
Scully rubbed her hand gently back and forth across his stomach. “That was a cross between a panic attack and hyperventilation.”
He shook his head. “I gathered that, I meant to Danny.”
Scully dropped her eyes as her fingers stilled. “He was poisoned Mulder, someone contaminated every food item in his house with nitrobenzine.”
“Oh, God.” Mulder’s eyes slid closed then jerked back open. “Was…did he suffer?”
The truth wouldn’t help, so Scully skirted it. “It would have been quick. Nitrobenzine paralyzes the central nervous system; he’d have been unconscious in minutes.”
Mulder started to sit up only to have Scully press him back. “Stay still, Mulder.” She used the bed control and raised the head. “You need to relax, you’ve just had a bad shock. Let yourself rest.”
Mulder’s hands twitched as he fiddled with the oxymeter. “What about the guys, Scully? Did you talk to them?”
“Yes, Frohike is after some loose ends. He said he’d have something soon.”
“I’ve gotta find this guy Scully, he’s not gonna get away with this.” He tightened his fingers on the sheet.
“You will, Mulder — but *not* at the expense of your own health.” Scully reminded him.
Mulder’s breath hitched and he bit his bottom lip. He blinked furiously as a tear slid down his cheek. “I’m the only one left, it’s up to me.”
“Hush now.” Scully pulled him into her arms rubbing soothing circles on his back as he valiantly attempted to keep the tears at bay. “Together, we’ll work on this together, you’ll see, Mulder.”
Eventually Mulder pulled back, staring at her with reddened eyes. “You and me against the world, huh?”
“You, me, Skinner, the guys, my Mom.”
Mulder chuckled weakly. “Yeah.” He reached up and ran a finger across her cheek. “Together.”
* * *
June 13, 2007
Mulder closed the file and heaved a disgusted sigh. “Damn it! This is going nowhere!”
Scully looked up from her reading. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m going around in circles, Scully! There’s not enough information here to do anything with.” He threw the file at the tray table and watched it slide off the side, spilling paper and photos all over the floor.
Scully glanced at the mess before eyeing her partner. “Did that make you feel better?” She bent down to collect the documents.
“Yes, no, oh I don’t know.”
“Talk to me, Mulder.” Scully lifted herself onto the bed and took his hand in hers. She could feel his tension in the tightness of his muscles and gently she began stroking random patterns over his skin.
“I can’t seem to get a feel for this guy,” he sighed. “Usually, by now, things have started to fall into place, but for some reason I can’t get a handle on this one.”
“You need to take your current health situation into consideration.” Scully reminded him.
“I would if it was an issue, but I’ve been in poorer health and still managed before.” He rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Did Frohike give any idea when he’d have that stuff?”
“No, he just said soon.”
The knock on the door caught their attention. “Come in.” Scully called.
A bespectacled face peered around the side of the door. “Hey, how’s my favorite Fibbies doin’?”
A grin lifted the corners of Mulder’s mouth. “We were just talking about you. Were your ears burning?”
Frohike closed the door and leered at Scully. “Depends on what you were saying about me and who was sayin’ it.”
Scully smiled gently at him. “In your dreams.”
“Can’t fault a guy for tryin’.”
“What have you got for me?” Mulder saw the package clutched in his friend’s hand.
Frohike held the package out. “The whereabouts of all the people involved in the porno ring, their prison records, parole details, bank accounts,” he announced, handing the package to Mulder.
Scully frowned. “That’s illegal.”
“I didn’t hear that.” Frohike told her.
Mulder was eagerly devouring the information, his eyes scanning the words faster than Scully believed possible.
Suddenly, he looked up, his mouth a grim line and swallowed convulsively. “Scul…” In a quick movement, Mulder shoved the papers off the bed a split second before he began to vomit.
“Damn!” Scully spun on her heel, placing one hand on Mulder’s back for support as the spasms shook his body. “Call the nurse, Frohike!”
Distantly, she heard Frohike calling for help, but her attention was on her partner whose body seemed determined to rid itself of every morsel of food he’d ever eaten.
* * *
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Whispers floated at the edge of his consciousness, voices, formless and anonymous tickled his curiosity, he wanted to know who was talking but he was too far away and down too deep to do anything about it…
* * *
As awareness crept around, Mulder could make out words and recognize the voices. Scully’s comforting pitch…the doctor’s assertive tone and…Skinner…he would recognize that distinctive rumble anywhere.
“…lead to internal bleeding…liver failure…” Dr. Kent’s tone was solemn. “I’ve already…”
“…transplant…?” That was Skinner.
“…in my opinion…” Ah there she was, Scully riding to his rescue.
“Mmm…” His throat was dry, his mouth foul.
There was silence for a few seconds and then he felt a gentle touch.
“Mulder, are you awake?”
He didn’t have the strength to answer the question, but he closed his fingers around hers.
Her hand was deliciously warm against his, a shiver raced through his body as Mulder suddenly realized he was freezing.
Weakly, he turned his head on the pillow. “C…c…col…ddd.” He managed to rasp through tightly clenched teeth.
“Yes, I know.”
The warmth from her hand traveled up his arm and all Mulder wanted to do was curl around the source of the heat. If only he could figure out how to move.
Sorting out the dilemma took the meager amount of energy he possessed and he never even noticed when the world slipped away again.
Scully’s eyes never left her partner’s face as she stepped back and sank into a chair. A hand clasped her shoulder.
“Sleep is the best thing for him.” Dr. Kent’s voice drew her attention.
“This doesn’t make sense. It’s like a domino effect. As soon as we get one condition under control, something else crops up.” Scully commented, extraordinarily upset at the turn of events.
Dr. Kent stood at the foot of the bed, arms crossed. “We’ve ruled out any external factors and his blood tests show no foreign substances.”
Scully looked up. “Everything points toward lupus, but it’s not possible to have such a rapid onset.”
“What is lupus? I’ve heard of it before.” Skinner moved over from the door.
“It’s a condition where the body becomes allergic to itself, the immune system attacks healthy cells and destroys them.” Scully answered.
“And Mulder could have this?”
“SLE.” Kent nodded hesitantly. “It’s possible, I suppose. Rapid onset is quite unusual, but everything points to it. ” He reached for the chart and rapidly wrote some instructions. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I’ve organized the tests.” He left the room in silence behind him.
Scully returned her attention to Mulder as Skinner sank into the chair next to her.
“SLE? What does that mean?”
“Systemic lupus erythematosus.” Scully explained. “It’s an autoimmune disease commonly known as Lupus.”
“Autoimmune? Is it contagious?” Skinner asked.
“It’s not a communicable condition, sir.” She brushed the hair out of Mulder’s eyes. “It’s a condition that affects more women than men, and it can affect any tissue or organ. No two people will ever experience the same manifestations of the disease.” She pressed her hand over Mulder’s.
“So, what’s the cure?”
Stricken blue eyes looked up at him. “There is no cure, sir; it can be managed but not cured.”
“And this condition could cause all these symptoms Mulder’s been experiencing?” Skinner’s brow furrowed.
“Yes, joint or muscle pain, low grade fever, nausea, vomiting and tiredness. All of which Mulder has experienced in the last week or so.” Scully paused. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before, it’s so obvious.”
“How do you find out if Mulder actually has it?” Skinner asked gently.
“Lupus is diagnosed by its clinical features and a high presence of certain anti-bodies in the blood.”
“So, will there be a light at the end of the tunnel if it turns out that he does have lupus?” Skinner regarded his agent.
“Mulder may not think so.” Scully replied. “And, it will no doubt aggravate him terribly to find out that he won’t be able to take his health for granted as he is used to doing. But, with a bit of planning and thought, he shouldn’t have any undue problems.”
“I hope Mulder appreciates all you do for him.”
Scully’s eyes shone. “Oh, he does sir. I have no doubt about that at all.”
* * *
North-East Georgetown Medical Center
Monday, June 18, 2007
“Come on, you’ve barely made a dent in this.” Scully held up a spoonful of pureed apple.
Mulder turned his head away from it. “I can feed myself you know, Scully; been doing it for a long time.”
“That’s the problem Mulder,” she sighed. “You’re *not* feeding yourself.”
“Because I’m not hungry.”
Scully placed the bowl back on the tray table, pushing it away. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Take me home?” He answered hopefully.
“Oh, funny man.”
Mulder crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “Jeez Scully, I’ve been here for what…six days?”
“Seven days, and apart from a bang on the chin and one instance of tossing my cookies, there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mulder,” Scully explained patiently. “A healthy adult male in his thirties does not just ‘toss his cookies,’ as you put it, for no reason.” Scully mirrored his stance, crossing her own arms. “Besides, that one instance knocked you around enough that you were unconscious for over twenty-four hours.”
“It was probably Frohike’s aftershave that set me off.”
Scully frowned at him as she fussed with the sheet. “I wish it was that easy. Dr. Kent said he’d be by this afternoon with the results of some tests he ran.”
“Tests, what kind of tests?”
“A whole alphabet of tests.” The doctor’s voice announced his arrival. He placed the folder he was carrying on the table and did a rapid check of Mulder’s vitals. “How’re you feeling?”
“I’m fed up and bored out of my head.” Mulder eyed the doctor.
“Hmm, sorry to hear that, because you’re going to be with us for a bit longer.”
“You’re really milking my insurance company, aren’t you?”
“Mulder!” Scully rebuked.
Kent took Mulder’s attitude with good grace. “Contrary to what you might think, we’re not keeping you here because you’ve got a good health plan.”
“Well, there’s got to be some other reason why you won’t let me go home, because I don’t feel sick.”
“Regardless of how you feel right now, Mulder, you *are* sick.”
“Excuse me?” Mulder glared at him. “You want to explain that?”
Scully laid a calming hand on Mulder’s shoulder.
Kent pulled up a chair and laid the folder he carried on the edge of Mulder’s bed. “I had several tests run. Our first diagnosis was Lupus.”
Mulder paled and reached for Scully’s hand.
“That explained why you were experiencing such a great range of symptoms.” Kent continued. “But, the test for Lupus revealed none of the distinguishing anti-bodies.”
The doctor turned to another sheet in the file.
“The main issue is that your liver is struggling, and we haven’t been able to find the exact cause yet. It’s possible it’s related to the anemia, but, we don’t know what is causing the anemia.”
Mulder dropped his head back against the pillow in despondency. “So, regardless of how I feel right now, I’m stuck here for the duration.”
“You’re better off being here than out in the field somewhere, Mulder.” Scully soothed. “If something else was to go wrong, at least you’re in the right place.”
Kent closed the file and returned the chair to its place by the wall. “I’m sending a nurse in to draw some more blood, Mulder. I’m also going to consult with a colleague, to see if looking at this puzzle from a fresh perspective might come up with something new.”
Mulder shrugged. “Sure, why not. I just hope that you do find something before you drain me dry.”
Kent turned as he reached the door and grinned at the comment. “No fear of that, if it looks like your tank is getting a little low, we’ll just top you off again.”
* * *
North-East Georgetown Medical Center
Tuesday June 19, 2007
Skinner arrived at the hospital in response to Scully’s early morning call.
As he exited the elevator, he saw Scully pacing back and forth in front of Mulder’s room. She held her tightly clenched hands in front of her and her lips were moving soundlessly.
“Scully?” He called softly so as not to startle her.
She turned to look at him. “Oh, sir. Thank you for coming.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Skinner drew his agent over to a couch and watched as she sank against the cushions.
Taking a deep breath, Scully turned worried eyes up to her superior and friend. “I’m sorry for disturbing you so early, I just…I couldn’t think…”
Skinner laid his hands over the top of her smaller, trembling ones. “You know the saying about a trouble shared, Agent?”
A watery smile graced Scully’s tired eyes. “Yes sir, thank you.” She sighed and straightened. “Mulder suffered another complication early this morning, he experienced a major bleed and went into hypovolemic shock.”
Skinner drew in a sharp breath. “How is he?”
“He’s on a ventilator and transfusions. The doctor was ‘cautiously optimistic.'”
Catching a movement from the corner of his eye, Skinner looked up to see a nurse gesturing to them from the door of Mulder’s room.
He squeezed Scully’s hand to draw her attention and smiled as she flew to her feet.
They entered the room together. Scully, in an anxious hurry, moved straight to Mulder’s bedside. Skinner cast a glance at the new equipment that surrounded the bed before moving to stand by Scully’s side.
“How is he?” She turned to Dr. Kent who stood at the foot of the bed.
“As stable as can be expected after losing so much blood.” The man responded. “It made a huge difference that you were here at the time.” He closed the chart he had been writing in and placed both hands on the file.
The unsettling sounds of the ventilator and the various monitors drew Skinner’s attention back to the man in the bed.
Mulder’s eyelashes provided the only color in his almost ashen face. Even his lips looked bloodless around the ventilator tube.
Without ceasing her light caress of her partner’s whiskered cheek, Scully turned to the doctor. “Now what?”
“This complication has unfortunately weakened Mulder’s liver even further.” Kent sighed. “Our only option is to put him on the waiting list for a transplant.”
Skinner’s head lifted at the comment. “How long?” He asked.
“At any given time there is upwards of one thousand people on the list, but that doesn’t mean that Mulder will have to wait that long. Blood type and compatibility could move him higher in a very short time.”
“Did your colleague have any success with a diagnosis?” Scully asked as she stroked Mulder’s hair.
“No, I’m afraid he’s as stumped as we are.” Kent thrust his hands into his pockets.
“This just doesn’t make any sense.” Scully ruminated in a low voice. “There *has* to be something that we’re not seeing.”
“I’m sure I’m stating the obvious here,” Skinner broke into her musings. “But what about poison?”
Scully turned toward her boss. “We thought of that but his blood work is clear and he hasn’t eaten anything from home for the last week…” Her words trailed off.
“It’s not something he’s eaten.” She said slowly.
“What’s not?” Skinner frowned.
“But you just said that his blood work was clear.”
“Yes, I did.” Scully almost whispered.
Skinner’s eyes swept from the doctor to Scully to Mulder and back again. “I don’t understand.”
“I see where you’re going.” Dr. Kent folded his arms and tapped his fingers against his lips.
“Would one of you please like to fill me in?” Skinner finally asked.
Scully grabbed her purse. “Certainly, sir. Do you mind if I do it on the way?”
“On the way to where?” Skinner was seriously out of his depth.
“Our townhouse sir, where hopefully I’ll find what I’m looking for.” She looked down at her partner and tenderly kissed his cheek before scooping up her coat.
Skinner followed suit, sparing a glance at his agent and then the doctor, as Scully strode out of the room. “Is he going to be all right?” He asked.
“I’m beginning to think so.” Kent replied.
Skinner caught up with his diminutive agent as she hurried past the nurses’ station. It never failed to amaze him how fast she could move for someone so small.
“What’s going on?” Skinner asked.
She looked up at him as they entered the parking garage. “What you said back in Mulder’s room, it got me thinking.”
Skinner looked puzzled. “All I asked about was poison. It stood to reason, considering the other agents.”
“Yes sir, and it was just the catalyst I needed.” They reached her car, and after deactivating the lock, they got in.
“We’d discarded the poison angle because nothing had shown up in the tests, but we didn’t look far enough into it.” Scully continued.
“But if there was nothing in Mulder’s system,” Skinner wondered, “Why are you suddenly revisiting the theory again?”
Scully pulled out into traffic and said, “There are many substances that don’t show up in regular tests. I think that because Mulder’s symptoms were such that we couldn’t pin down as being definitively caused by poison, we looked in another direction. The *wrong* direction.”
“And what made you turn back, Scully?”
Scully continued to stare at the road. “When I realized that there was a distinct possibility that whatever has made Mulder so sick was not ingested, but it still could be within the environment of the townhouse.”
“Are you saying that your home is poisoning him?” Skinner’s eyes went wide behind his glasses.
“Not exactly sir, but you’re on the right track. Something in our home, whether it be a gas or an item he has come into contact with, could be the reason behind his illness. We just have to find it.”
Skinner frowned. “But you said he’s been in the hospital for a week, wouldn’t this substance have left his system by now? And why wouldn’t it have show up in any tests?”
Scully spared her boss a glance as she drove toward Alexandria. “That’s what we’re going to find out.”
* * *
3605 N. Street N.W.
Scully had collected a veritable array of items that she thought could have been contaminated: toothpaste, shampoo, shaving cream, even the cleaning goods from under the sink.
Skinner stalked around the living room, his sharp eyes peering everywhere.
He stopped at the coffee table Mulder had been using as a desk and eyed the mess. His attention caught on papers lying flat.
He reached out a gloved hand, lifting the papers to find a couple of pencils underneath.
Replacing the papers, Skinner moved away only to stop in mid-stride and return to the table. “Scully?”
“Yes sir?” She hurried into the room balancing a half-filled box on one hip.
Directing her attention to the desk, Skinner lifted the papers again.
As soon as she realized the significance of what Skinner was pointing out, Scully let the box slide to the floor. “Oh my God!”
She reached out and lifted two very well-chewed pencils that had been hidden from sight, holding them carefully.
Skinner eyed his agent. “Could they be the cause?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me, sir.” She placed the pencils in an evidence bag and turned her attention back to the table. “If they *have* been tampered with, it will go a long way to explain why Mulder wasn’t getting any better.”
Scully began to go through the paraphernalia covering the table, unearthing another two pencils in the process.
Pulling open the table’s single drawer, Scully found an open box. She counted them and saw several were missing.
Skinner dropped to one knee and reached behind the trash can. He held out another pencil, paint missing on one end and teeth marks.
A distressed whimper left Scully’s lips as she took in the state of the pencil in Skinner’s hand.
One after another, images flashed through her mind: the pencils in the ceiling, Mulder twirling them in his fingers, watching him concentrate on a report with a pencil clamped firmly between his teeth.
Even lying in his hospital bed, trying to construct a profile of the unsub who was responsible for the poisonings, he had been chewing on a pencil.
“Could it be lead poisoning?” Skinner inquired.
Scully almost laughed in hysteria at her boss’ statement, but caught herself in time. Instead, she placed the last pencil into the bag. “I have a fear that it’s something more insidious than that.”
“What about this other stuff?” Skinner pointed to the box that Scully had abandoned.
“If I’m right, and I have a very Mulder-like feeling about it, I think we’ll find exactly what we were looking for right here,” she said holding up the evidence bag of pencils.
She looked up at Skinner. “Sir, we have to find out from Mr. Timmons, our landlord, who would have had access to this townhouse. It doesn’t matter if Mulder knew about it or not.”
She held the up the bag. “I’ve got to get back to the hospital. Mulder’s been working on a profile and his briefcase probably has more pencils in it. I also need to get these to the lab, to find out if our suspicions are correct.” A chagrined expression crossed her face. “I don’t want to leave you stranded here.”
Exasperation colored Skinner’s voice. “I know how to dial for a cab, Agent.”
A fleeting smile graced her face. “Of course, sir.” She handed over Mulder’s apartment key and headed for the door. “Wish me luck.”
“And God speed, Scully.”
* * *
“I’m not in the habit of letting just anyone into my tenants’ homes, you know.” Jake Timmons had been shocked to hear of Mulder’s illness and hospitalization, and even more so when Skinner had mentioned their suspicions.
“Sir, it is imperative however that I find out just who has had recent access to Agent Mulder’s home.” Skinner told him.
“No one that I can say.” The man sucked his bottom lip between his teeth, thinking. “No wait!” He turned away from the door and rummaged on a table behind himself. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of this before!”
He held out a piece of paper. “Mr. Mulder put in a request with Ned last week to have some faucet washers replaced. I’m pretty sure Ned did them right away.”
“Who is this Ned?” Skinner felt his heart rate increase slightly.
“Ned? He’s a good guy; does some light maintenance around the place.” Timmons explained.
“Do you happen to know where Ned might be at this moment?” Skinner clenched his fists at his sides.
* * *
North-East Georgetown Medical Center
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Outside Mulder’s Room
“Say that again.” Skinner requested, shaking his head.
“1 methylnaphthalene.” Scully replied.
“The stuff you use to get rid of moths?” Skinner’s eyebrows rose.
“2 methylnaphthalene is the common crystalline form that is used in moth repellent, moth balls and air freshening blocks; 1 methylnaphthalene is the liquid form.” Scully looked at Dr. Kent for confirmation.
“That’s correct.” The doctor nodded. “The liquid is odorless, colorless and tasteless and is as highly toxic as the crystalline form.”
“And it’s what was on the pencils that Mulder has been chewing on.” Scully continued. “That’s why his symptoms continued and got worse, even after he came into hospital.
Skinner shook his head. “So what’s the cure?” He looked hopefully at both doctors. “There is a cure, isn’t there?”
“Yes sir.” Scully smiled. “And it’s wonderfully simple.”
“What is it?”
“Food.” Dr. Kent stated simply.
Skinner blinked. “Excuse me, did you just say *food*?”
“Yes, I did.” The doctor smiled.
Scully felt her superior’s confusion and took pity on him. “Sir, when a person ingests or inhales a small quantity of naphthalene, it is stored in their body fat. It can make children quite sick but that has to do with their body size. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because an active person like Mulder burns proteins and carbohydrates for energy, and the naphthalene would stay stored in his body fat. But, because he had been sick and, as a consequence, had not been eating and exercising as much as usual, he began to lose weight, his body began to burn the fat, thus releasing the toxin into his system.” She paused for a moment considering her words.
“And unknowingly, he was continually dosing himself with more poison by chewing on the pencils, creating a vicious circle; he felt sicker, wouldn’t eat, his body used up more of his fat reserves which in turn released more naphthalene.”
“And it explains the constant nausea, the hemolytic anemia, even as far as the imminent liver failure.” Kent explained.
“So you cure Mulder by feeding him.” Skinner stated, looking back and forth between them.
“That’s right, sir, lots and lots of calories. But the catch is in *what* we feed him,” Scully announced.
“I don’t understand.” Skinner admitted.
“You’ve been in the hospital yourself, sir, you know that while the food is nutritious, it’s not always to a patient’s tastes. We have to feed Mulder what he likes and will eat without any problem.”
“Fast food?” Skinner asked in disbelief.
“Well, there is that.” Scully agreed. “But I’m going to bring in a secret weapon.”
At Skinner’s puzzled look, she elaborated. “My Mother.”
* * *
North-East Georgetown Medical Center
Friday June 22, 2007
An enticing aroma gently filtered through his consciousness and Mulder turned his head toward the source.
Opening his eyes, he stared at Scully who was setting food out on the tray table. “I’m delirious.” He moaned. “I swear I can smell your Mom’s meatloaf.”
“That’s probably because you can.” Scully raised the head of the bed. “Now take it easy, Mulder; you’ve been out of it for awhile.”
“I have?” Mulder looked around him, finally noticing the two new IVs he sported, as well as other equipment that had not been in the room the last time he’d been awake.
“Yes, you gave me quite a scare.” Scully placed another pillow behind Mulder.
“Just let me finish this, Mulder, and I’ll explain.” Scully continued dishing food from containers onto a plate for him.
Grateful that the smell of the food had not aggravated the constant low-level nausea he had been experiencing, Mulder pushed himself more upright. “Okay, my next question is, *why* can I smell your Mom’s meatloaf?”
“Because you like it.” Scully pushed the table to him.
Pulling it over his lap, Mulder hurriedly unwrapped his silverware. “You didn’t take my suggestion to heart did you and get your Mom a job in the hospital’s kitchen, did you?”
A fond glance preceded Scully’s answer. “No, Mulder, my Mom isn’t working in the kitchen, but she is going to be supplying your meals for awhile.”
Mulder was too busy shoveling food in his mouth to ask why, but his raised eyebrows asked the question for him.
“We found out what was causing all the different problems you’ve been having.” Scully reached over and placed a napkin on his chest.
“And…?” He asked around a mouthful of food.
“There are certain things that children learn not to put in their mouths, pens and pencils for one.”
“I don’t get it.” Mulder frowned.
“Your oral fixation with your pencils…”
“But I’ve been chewing on pencils for years.” Mulder broke in. “How come they’ve only just recently started making me sick?”
“It’s not the pencils themselves, but what’s *on* them.” Scully held up her hand to forestall his questions as Mulder opened his mouth again. “Just eat your food, Mulder, and let me finish.”
“You were right; you were a target of the unsub. Those pencils that you enjoy so much had been soaked in a liquid solution of naphthalene.”
Mulder stopped chewing and swallowed hurriedly. A look of revulsion crossed his face. “Who?” He asked.
“Do you remember seeing a handyman/maintenance guy at our townhouse?” Scully asked, then motioned toward his plate. “Come on, don’t let it get cold.”
“Um, yeah, there was a guy … he was fixing the loose trim by the front door.” Mulder forked up another mouthful of meatloaf.
“Did you ask him to fix a couple of leaky faucets?”
Mulder shook his head at the question. “No, he did ask if I had anything that needed doing, but I told him no.”
“Positive.” Mulder took another healthy bite of Maggie’s cooking.
“Did you recognize the person?” Scully asked.
His brow furrowed in concentration, Mulder shrugged. “No, should I have?”
“We think that he’s the unsub.”
Mulder’s fork clattered to the plate, food instantly forgotten, and he shoved the table away. “Where are my clothes, Scully?” He edged his legs over the side of the bed.
“Mulder, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Scully held onto his arm as he struggled to climb to his feet.
“Scully, if he’s the unsub…?”
“Agent Mulder!” A stern voice drew both agents’ attention to the doorway where Skinner stood, a forbidding frown on his face.
“Sir, Scully just told me that you think you know where the unsub is.” Mulder continued to try and move his partner aside.
“You are staying right where you are, Agent.”
“But nothing! Agent Scully and I have the matter under control.” Skinner told him. “You will best aid the situation by finishing the meal that Mrs. Scully went to so much trouble preparing for you.”
“He’s right, Mulder.” Scully ran her fingers up and down his arm. “You’re not in any condition to go running off anywhere.” She stroked down over his hand where one of the IVs was situated. “Besides, did you forget this?”
Mulder looked down at the tube running along his arm and then turned beseeching eyes on his partner. “Scully, you don’t understand! This guy has killed five men, one of whom I considered a good friend.”
“I *do* understand, Mulder, and so does Skinner. But until we find the guy, there’s nothing that any of us can do.” She eased him back into the bed, folded the bed covers neatly over his legs and pulled the tray back up. “You better finish eating. You don’t want my Mom to think you don’t appreciate her cooking, do you?”
Retrieving his utensils, Mulder grudgingly resumed his meal. “I’ll always appreciate your Mom, Scully, and not just because of her cooking.” He reached out a hand and took hers. “Mainly because she’s part of the reason that you’re here.”
Scully blushed at the compliment and bent to press her lips to Mulder’s forehead.
Skinner turned to open the door. “I’m gratified to see that you are feeling so much better, Agent Mulder, and seeing that such is the case, I’ll head back to the office. I’ll inform you, Agent Scully, as soon as I hear anything.”
“Yes sir, thank you, sir.” Scully turned to see the door close behind Skinner, but not before she heard a snort of laughter.
Placing both hands on her hips, Scully glared at her chuckling partner. “Just wait until I get you home, Mister.
“Bring it on.” Mulder leered.
* * *
Tuesday July 3, 2007
Mulder settled into a chair on the other side of the square table. For a few minutes, he stared at the disheveled man before speaking. “Why, Stephen?’ He asked.
“Don’t call me that! Stephen Vance is dead.” The words came as an angry growl.
“What do you mean?” Mulder puzzled.
“You should know, you and your friends, you killed him.”
“How did we kill him? Can you explain it to me?”
“Why the fuck should I do anything for you?” The man lurched to his feet, his teeth bared in an angry grimace.
Mulder stayed in place watching calmly as Vance was forced back into his seat by the muscular deputy guarding him.
“I want to understand why you killed five good men.”
An ugly laugh erupted from the man’s mouth. “Nearly made it six didn’t I? Damn pity I didn’t, that’s what I think.”
Steepling his fingers, Mulder regarded the prisoner. “You’ve admitted to killing five men and attempting murder on a sixth. You’re going back to jail for a very long time.”
“Yeah well, there’s nobody who cares what happens to me.”
“Your mother died?” Mulder asked. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Oh sure you are.” Vance sneered. “You and the others, you really feel for everyone don’t you? You ruin people’s lives and go on to the next poor sap.”
“We did our jobs.” Mulder replied softly. “And that was all.”
“You ruined my life, you ruined my Mother’s life.”
“And how many children’s lives did you destroy?” Mulder’s eyes narrowed.
“I don’t give a fuck about the little bastards! All I care about is that my Mother wouldn’t acknowledge me! As far as she was concerned, she never had a son!” Vance snarled.
“She never forgave me!” Vance reared up again. “I had to fuckin’ read about her death in a six month old newspaper! She didn’t even leave instructions to anyone to let me know she’d died!”
Once more, the stern-faced deputy forced the irate man back into his seat, only this time Vance broke down and dropped his head onto his arms. “She never forgave me.” He repeated. “Not after you poisoned her mind against me.”
Lifting his head, he stared at Mulder. “That’s why I did what I did. *You* used *words* as your poison, I just went one better and used the real thing.”
Shakily, and without another word, Mulder climbed to his feet and exited the room.
He closed the door behind him and, leaning against the wall, Mulder bowed his head.
A light touch that he identified immediately drew a sigh from deep within. “He’s right you know.” He mumbled.
“About what?” Scully asked.
“I ruined his life.”
“Mulder, you did nothing of the sort. Stephen Vance managed that all by himself the minute he began exploiting those poor children.” Scully rationalized.
“Yeah, but I was the one who wanted to go and see his mother. I effectively destroyed that relationship.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “I seem to be good at that sort of thing.”
“Mulder, not all parents are the same.”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Vance wouldn’t forgive her son and refused to speak to him. My mother never forgave me and killed herself.” He shrugged.
“Mulder, Mrs. Vance had her reasons, not any of which can be placed upon your shoulders. As for your mother…” She let her words trail into silence.
“Yeah, my mother had her reasons, too.”
“And you can’t blame yourself for those, either.” Drawing her partner into a loving embrace, Scully ran her hands up and down his back, feeling the tightly clenched muscles. “Come on, you need to get out of here. I have plans for you tonight.”
“The humble bath boy is making a return engagement?” he asked hopefully.
“No,” she replied, almost smirking as his face fell. “I was thinking we might find you a humble bath ‘girl’.”
His eyes lightened with merriment. “Well then, bring it on.”
* * *