A quick update? Crazy, I know!

As I mentioned in the last note, this chapter marks the first appearance of new material (but I won't say just where it starts). Enjoy.

March 3, 2000

11:21 AM

Mulder returned to the hospital after a night of fruitless searching and collapsed into the chair by Scully's bedside. She lay still and unmoving, and the image invoked a horrible deja vu. At least when it had been cancer they'd known where to start. He looked up to the nurse who had accompanied him into the room. She nurse gazed at him sympathetically and Mulder supposed he looked as tired as he felt. The woman was a forty-something motherly blonde, and for some reason her presence made Mulder want to put his head in his hands and cry.

"Has there been any progress?" he asked softly. The only other noise in the room came from a beeping monitor behind Scully's bed.

The nurse shook her head, her pity almost tangible in the stillness. "I'm sorry," she said slowly. "She speaks every once in a while, a few words, but she hasn't awoken yet and her brain activity is still erratic. We're still waiting on a few test results, but she doesn't appear to have made any progress since yesterday morning."

"She speaks?" Mulder asked. "What does she say?" Maybe it would be a clue. Maybe she knew something.

Or maybe she was just babbling incoherently. Erratic brain activity. Whatever that meant.

"Only a few words, fragments of sentences," the nurse answered, "and sometimes names."

"Names?" Mulder demanded, standing up abruptly. "What names?"

The nurse seemed affronted, or maybe a little scared. Mulder immediately felt bad. Before he could apologize, though, the nurse said, "Yours. She also asked for her parents. She spoke to a 'Patterson' and a…La-something. I don't know. There may have been others. I haven't been in with her all night."

"How often does she speak? Enough that you hear it just checking on her? Why isn't she speaking now?" Mulder was aware that he was staring intensely at the nurse, and that it might have been unnerving. He didn't care. Names from Mulder's past didn't make sense, and what didn't make sense was almost always important. He moved in closer to her. "What else did she say?"

"She spoke at about five this morning. The nurse who came in before me said that she'd asked for her parents around 2 AM." She smiled sweetly then, like an old nun. "Of course, you're welcome to wait with her. I'd say she's likely to talk again."

Mulder swallowed his frustration as best he could and nodded, stepping back slightly. The nurse was doing the best she could. He had to remember that. It wasn't her fault he'd missed the only possible clue to her condition because he was busy searching for people and information that probably didn't exist. "Thank you," he managed. The nurse smiled and left them alone.

He sat heavily in one of the plastic chairs by Scully's bedside. She looked so small, so frail, so pale. She didn't move except to breathe. Her eyes were closed. Patterson and a La-something. Lamana. Why would she be talking about Patterson and Lamana? It didn't make sense no matter how he turned it over in his mind.

"Oh, Scully," he murmured. The hand closest to him on the bedspread was limp but he picked it up and held it between his anyway. She didn't stir. He remembered holding a vigil over her bedside five years ago, and speaking to her as if she could hear him, as if anything he said could make a difference. He'd believed that she wasn't ready to go. He still believed it. He had no choice but to believe that. Her hand was small and soft, and warm in his grasp. He had spent too many days and nights by her bedside. It didn't get easier. The steady beeping of the medical equipment was insistent and he felt the need to break the silence with something more. The mystery could wait. Right now it was just him and her.

"Scully," he said after a few moments had passed, "I don't know where you are right now or how you got there. But Scully—" he meant to tell her that he believed she didn't want to be there, in hopes that the same magic would work this time, that she would come out of this as fiery and alive as before, "I need you. I love you, and I can't do this without you. Scully, please. Come back."

He stopped then, the plaintive sound of his own words finally reaching his brain. He was the most selfish man in the world. What had ever happened to "I believe you want to come back"? Once he'd wanted her to be alive and awake for her own sake. Now all he could think about was how he would crumble without her. Maybe he'd never said it in so many words, but the truth was staring him right in the face. He wanted her, he needed her, he loved her.

"Scully," he said again, voice catching, and squeezed her hand as if somehow that would let her know he was waiting. "Scully, I love you. Come back to me, Scully. Come back."

Scully didn't respond, but his cell phone rang. He started, then swore, absurdly angry for a moment that anyone would dare to intrude on such a private moment. But of course whoever was on the other end didn't have a clue, and he set Scully's hand down on her blanket and fished the phone out of his pocket. Maybe it was the Lone Gunmen with some answers.

"Mulder," he answered.

It wasn't the Lone Gunmen. "How's she doing?" Skinner asked.

Mulder sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No change."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Skinner said. Though the gruffness didn't leave his voice, he sounded sorry. He'd been in to visit earlier in the morning, when Mulder had been gone.

"So am I," Mulder said. "But that's not why you called."

"No," Skinner admitted. "Another body turned up, matches the description of the other four. Grandson found him, looks like he's been dead a few days."

Impossible to believe it had been only two days ago that Scully had autopsied four bodies, all dead in their small town homes with no apparent cause. And yet... "Where?" he asked.

Skinner paused, reading something. "West Virginia," he said.


11:25 AM

Scully glanced over at Mulder again, then back at the road. He was asleep, amazing considering he'd downed a large coffee, black, less than four hours ago. He was still sitting almost straight up, leaning against the backrest without falling to either side. A veritable balancing act. His face looked serious, set. His legs were spread as far as the space in the little rental car would allow and his arms rested at his sides. Scully wondered briefly why he wasn't wearing his sling, if he planned to, and where he might have left it if he didn't. The file and notepad in his lap each remained precariously perched across one thin thigh, where they'd been since he'd dozed off two hours ago. She was just waiting for him to shift and send the contents of the folder spilling out over the rental car floor. His seatbelt dangled unused at his right.

She thought, as she glanced down at the directions Patterson had faxed them, that Mulder must have really needed the sleep. He'd turned his head a little and grunted as she stopped the car outside of the FBI field office, opened her door, and climbed out. That was it. He'd still been asleep when she got back fifteen minutes later, and hadn't even stirred as she'd started driving again.

Maybe she'd told him too much. Certainly, he needed to know about the conspiracy and his father's involvement…but she had laid out a story that would be difficult for any emotionally healthy person to process. And Mulder could hardly claim to be that.

Well, she thought, setting her jaw and staring out into the uneventful highway, what's done is done. There was no use in torturing herself over it now, regretting too much or feeling guilty. That was Mulder's usual path, and she'd seen the consequences. Now, she just had to make sure that Mulder got through it all in one piece.

Her mind set, she yawned, surprising herself. Her night of too little sleep was catching up with her too, though of course she would never let on to Mulder that that was the case. More coffee might be in order before long, though. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and wished turning the radio on wouldn't likely wake up her partner. They were still near to four hours out from Ansted, which a cursory glance at the map told her was about as middle-of-nowhere a town as a town could be. Still, there was something strangely familiar about it, and the familiarity niggled at her mind as she stared out across the highway, largely empty at this time of day save for tractor trailers and the occasional passenger car or pickup truck. Did she remember this case, perhaps some aspect of it that might be jogged in her memory as they drew nearer to the little town? Or was it something else? Had she read about this case, too, so many years ago? She found herself chewing on her lip as she tried to strain her memory, but it was almost as if the association was a fuzzy strand from another life. But her own? Or someone else's? Maybe she was finally losing her mind.

She shook her head slightly at the futility of it and wished Mulder would wake up. She had no illusions at this point that he could help her, really, but with nothing to watch outside the window but trees and rolling hills that all looked suspiciously similar, she couldn't help but want the company.

Mulder slept on.

The town of Ansted was nestled in mountains in the dense trees and mountains of the Hawk's Nest State Park. It was hardly the most remote location Scully had ever traveled to with Mulder, but as the highway narrowed to wind up and around the mountains in a series of twists and hairpin turns, rutted thoroughly with potholes, she couldn't help but muse that maybe they should have brought survival gear in addition to the suits in their overnight bags. Just a little trip into the forest, Scully. Whatever was going on, someone had apparently made an effort to do it out of anyone's way. Which, Scully supposed as she slammed the brakes in time to guide the car around yet another narrow turn, was probably important…so of course Mulder had probably thought of it already.

Unfortunately, though his file folder and legal pad had long since slipped from his knees to rest slackly between his shins and the passenger door, Mulder remained dead to the world. He'd murmured a few times in his sleep, tossed a little, and even cried out when the car had rumbled over a pothole and jarred his wrist, but otherwise the movement had done nothing to jolt him from his slumber. His head lolled against the passenger window and Scully remembered their first case together, and her long-ago disbelief that a man who seemed to have so much boundless energy could fall asleep on a crowded plane, of all places. She wanted to believe now that his willingness to let her drive was a sign of some kind of trust, of some sense that she did belong by his side, but she had a feeling the truth was considerably more pedestrian. Mulder had to be exhausted.

It was past three in the afternoon by the time she pulled up to Ansted's police department, which occupied one of the five buildings that seemed to comprise the main street. Mindful of his violent awakening the night before, Scully reached out and touched Mulder's sleeve gently. His arm was thin beneath the suit jacket, the muscles wiry, and she couldn't help but sigh slightly as she let go of his arm. This wasn't her Mulder. He shifted at her touch but didn't wake.

"Mulder," she tried instead.

He came awake with a start, and glared at her uncomprehendingly for a long second before reaching up to scrub at his face with his good hand. "We're here?" he asked sleepily, with a glance around that ended at the case file resting against his leg on the car floor. His face hardened. "Come on. Patterson said they'd be waiting for us."

"Do you need a moment?" Scully asked.

The deadpan stare he returned was answer enough. "Let's go," he said.

Scully nodded and shoved her door open.

Main Street was a little more than two blocks long, fading into residential streets on either side of the row of buildings that housed the police department. Ringed on all sides by verdant mountains, it had the air of a town untouched by development or time. Scully waited as Mulder stood laboriously, and pretended not to notice the way he wavered slightly or clung to the car door for a few seconds before slamming it shut. His face was pinched with effort and Scully resisted the urge to offer him help, Tylenol, comfort, anything. She would keep playing along, for now.

They were met inside by one of the Ansted Police Department's two fulltime officers, a bearlike man with a thick black moustache and a belly that was just beginning to sag over the belt of his trousers.

He smiled as they entered. "Mulder and Scully?" he asked genially.

"That's us," Mulder said, flashing his badge, and Scully was surprised to see him return the smile. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure she'd seen him smile yet. Had she not known him so well, she would have suspected a miraculous recovery—but this was Mulder, and hiding his weakness was an instinct that came as naturally to him as breathing did to most other people. She supposed it was something, at least, that he wasn't keeping up the façade with her. Not that she'd given him much of a chance to.

"Officer Dan Grimes, call me Dan," he said, apparently noticing the cast on Mulder's wrist but reaching out to shake Scully's hand before turning back to Mulder. "So this is a serial case, is it?"

"That's what it looks like," Mulder allowed.

"Oddest thing," Officer Grimes mused. "Two folks reported missing, never spent a lick of time together, then they show up dead in the middle of the woods. Weren't camping or anything. Glad it's you two have to make sense of it, not me."

Scully didn't miss the flicker of impatience that crossed Mulder's face, though whether it was at the other man's manner or at the prospect of making sense of the case Scully couldn't have said. "Have your people examined the scene yet?" he asked.

Grimes laughed. "My people? It's just me and Rob, here." He nodded to the empty desk on the other side of the room. "We removed the bodies and cordoned off the scene but otherwise it's all yours." Mulder nodded in apparent approval. "I can take you out there if you'd like."

"We'd appreciate that," Scully said.

Grimes led them out to the squad car, a dusty Crown Vic with ANSTED POLICE emblazoned on the side. Scully took the passenger seat. Tinny country music began playing at a low volume from the FM radio as soon as Grimes started the ignition, and he let it on. As Grimes pulled onto the street, Mulder positioned himself in the middle of the back seat and leaned forward to speak through the grate. The position was so familiar that Scully couldn't help but glance back, almost expecting to see the eager face of her partner, full of ideas about the paranormal angle of their latest case. But if anything, the tightness of pain and exhaustion had returned to this Mulder's thin face, even more so than when he had stepped out of her car a few minutes before.

"Where are the bodies?" Mulder asked.

"Local morgue," Grimes responded, glancing back at him in the rearview mirror. "We left those for your people too."

"I'd like to examine them myself," Scully said. She still had a medical degree, at the very least, and this was one area she could be of help to Mulder.

"I'll have 'em ready," Grimes shrugged. Then his eyes narrowed. "So you two are agents, or profilers, or doctors, or what?"

Scully opened her mouth, trying to formulate an answer that didn't sound insane.

"We're just here to solve this case," Mulder said, and Scully nodded, feeling strangely satisfied. Grimes drove on.

4:17 PM

The roads leading to the crime scene were narrow, steep, and winding, and often walled on one side by mountain, the other side a sheer drop. There was little of interest forking off of any of them, save a campground or two—though Grimes claimed neither had been camping, or particularly interested in doing so—a handful of country restaurants, and an attraction tantalizingly named the Mystery Hole. According to Grimes, the Ansted police rarely came out this far, as the usual complaints—drunks, disorderly conduct, and dogs—tended to be concentrated where there were people, and they were typically happy enough to leave the speeding tickets to the state and park police. The bodies had been found in relatively good condition the night before.

Mulder scanned the steep landscapes with an ease born of practice, picking out half a dozen good dumping spots with each turn the car made. Any of those spots, this far out of Ansted were certainly isolated enough to make sense as a dumping site for any sort of offender who didn't driving a few miles with bodies in the trunk. Even the radio reception faltered as they neared the site, crackling so badly that Grimes turned off his Kenny Rogers with a sigh.

As they pulled over to the shoulder beside a nondescript clearing surrounded by yellow police tape, Mulder felt whatever hopes he'd harbored of making sense of the action slip away. Police markers showed that the bodies had occupied what was roughly the center of the clearing, and had been laid out next to each other in plain view of the road.

"Bodies were there, see," Grimes gestured to the markers as they all got out of the car. "Photos are getting developed as we speak, so you can see how they looked when we found 'em."

"Who found them?" Scully asked. Mulder was already walking toward the tape, trying to vizualize the scene as it would have appeared to the UNSUB, in the dark or with a flashlight...or had he come here an earlier day to scope it out? His head was pounding in time to his wrist but somehow, out here, it receded to the background, along with the early March chill and the way the world lurched a little when he moved too fast.

"Rob Taylor," Grimes answered somewhere behind him. "Other officer in the department. Got a call someone was setting off fireworks or something, drove out here to tell 'em to knock it off, found this instead."

"Fireworks?" Scully asked.

Grimes' answer faded to the background as well. Mulder was the UNSUB, looking for a place to lay the bodies of twenty-year-old Regina Albertson and, home for spring break from WVU, and Fred Dingman, a sixty-year-old man who'd been working at a nearby grocery ever since his pacemaker had disqualified him from service in the armed forces...and with that his trance broke. It was hard to imagine who would kill either of those people in cold blood, let alone murder them together with no apparent instrument or motive, then dump the bodies in plain sight on a road ill-traveled enough to make an intentional display impractical. If it hadn't been for a couple of hicks celebrating the fourth of July early, it was more than likely that the scene would have been disturbed by animals, the bodies moved or eaten.

And that wasn't even taking into account the fact that someone, or multiple someones, had done this in multiple towns in multiple states, all in the space of a few weeks. There was always the possibility of related suicides, but so far no one had turned up any connection between the cases and it was hard to fathom what cult such a diverse group of people could have belonged to. Also hard to kill yourself without leaving any evidence of how. All the information he had on this was a tangled mess, and he was no closer to unraveling it enough to save whoever the next victims were going be than he was to finding Samantha or going to the moon or finally getting a night's sleep.

His head throbbed and he closed his eyes against the deluge of thoughts, the pain, the frustration and all the rest. The blood roared in his ears and he supposed this would be a bad time to pass out. He found it hard to care. The scene had been his last hope for getting the handle he so desperately needed on this case, the hook, whatever the hell it was that always guided his next move. But if he couldn't find anything here...

There was a touch as his elbow, and he opened his eyes, immediately squinting against the light and the extra stab of pain that accompanied it.

"Mulder," Scully said.

He just looked at her, but the expected Are you okay or otherwise frustrating inquiry into his health—which was the least of his worries now—didn't come.

"Do you see the tree line?" Scully asked.

Not exactly what he'd been expecting. He followed her gaze upward to where the tallest pines met the pale sky. "What about it?"

"The trees are singed," Scully said gravely, as though this were the most important thing she could have noticed. Mulder shook his head, not following. He wondered if she'd cracked, or if this new insanity was just more of the same nonsense she'd spewed earlier. Only now she was staring at him intently, eyes wide and urgent. "Mulder, does that not mean anything to you?"

He couldn't imagine where she was going with this. "Lightning?" he guessed.

The sound Scully made was somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and startled him enough that he drew back. He saw Grimes giving them a quizzical look from where he stood leaning against the car. "Sorry," Scully said. "It's just...if you knew...if you knew what I said to you the first time you..." Then she seemed to catch herself, took a deep, bracing breath, met his eyes and said, "Fireworks. Lights in the sky. Singed treetops. Radio interference. Bodies showing up in strange places for no reason." She paused, and swallowed, her eyes shining. "Mulder, I know what this is."