"Aliens," Mulder said, his voice hard, flat, and skeptical above all else. "You think this is aliens."

Scully nodded slightly. "The signs are all there, Mulder," she said cautiously. He hadn't blown up at her yet, but his expression hadn't softened either. He was staring at her with his eyes narrowed, as though he thought maybe this was a joke or she was insane after all. It wasn't encouraging.

After a long moment, Mulder shook his head. "I told you, Scully, what I believed after my sister was taken. I did my research. I remember all the signs." Mulder's tone remained less than friendly and Scully crossed her arms. Maybe telling him now hadn't been such a good idea after all. Still, she was ready to defend her case if need be. Mulder went on, his voice sharp but low enough that Grimes probably couldn't hear, though the officer was peering at them with interest from where he stood leaning against his patrol car. "Doesn't mean any of it was true then and it sure as hell doesn't mean it's true now. What is true is that people are getting killed I have a profile to write before another pair of bodies show up, so I don't have the time for this any more than I have the time for conspiracies or time travel or the X-files."

"You don't think this might be important?" Scully asked, struggling to keep her own temper in check. Somehow her hands had found their way to her hips as Mulder spoke, and she forced them down. She reminded herself that snapping at Mulder wouldn't do anyone any good, and responded in as even a tone as she could muster. This mattered too much to let her own feelings get in the way. A chill wind whipped around them as she replied. "If it is what I think it is, you aren't going to find anything," she said. "And there will be no helping these people."

Mulder only snorted. "See, I forgot how much easier it is to catch the bad guys when they can hop in their saucers and fly away. You're right. This helps a bunch. Thanks, Dana."

"Your source," Scully said, her own tone dangerous as frustration won out over her desire to keep from antagonizing her partner. Mulder had begun to turn away to survey the scene once more, but he pivoted back to her, his lips pressed tightly together, not bothering to hide his impatience or the little wobble at the end of his turn. "The man who came to visit you last night," Scully said. She took a deep breath and reminded herself to sound calm, for this might be her last chance to get her partner's attention, at least until they came across new evidence. "He works for the government. He must know what's going on."

Mulder shook his head, his dark eyes unreadable. "He said I wouldn't find anything and told me to talk to my father." He pulled his overcoat closer around his skinny frame and crossed his arms, and Scully wondered whether he was responding more to the wind or to the change in subject. Both seemed likely. "I don't see what he could do."

Scully took a deep breath, though it took nearly all her willpower to not let it out in a dramatic sigh. This was getting ridiculous, and she wondered if she'd seemed like this to him when they'd played this game with the roles reversed, her refusing to entertain whole swaths of possibility no matter how obvious they seemed. Still, she kept her tone carefully neutral, for she knew that to Mulder her words would be anything but. "Maybe you should talk to your father."

She could see a muscle in Mulder's jaw twitch before he spoke. "I don't talk to him," he snapped. "Now will you leave me alone? We don't have all day here."

This time Scully did sigh, closing her eyes for a brief moment. She had once felt she deserved a medal for dealing with her own Mulder's idiosyncrasies on a daily basis, but this Mulder...it was amazing he'd lasted in the Bureau as long as he had, seeing as that meant each of his partners had actually refrained from killing him at some point or other. "Mulder, you can't ignore this," Scully insisted. "All of this can't be a coincidence. This case... Mulder, these bodies might have been put here by aliens. Or they might have been put here by our own government. You can't ignore those possibilities."

"Can't I?" Mulder said. That strained snarl-like grin she'd seen the day before was plastered on his face again, and she could see his good hand curled into a fist in the crook of his elbow. "Look, Scully, if you want to spend your time searching this crime scene for Rigellian slime, you can go right ahead. I have a case to solve. It's my job to find the people responsible for this and I'm never going to do that if I don't finish writing this profile." His eyes were wide and not for the first time, Scully could sense the strain behind them, the belief that he really was all that stood between the UNSUB and the next victims. Never mind that there would be an "official" team of FBI criminalists following them to the scene or that a dozen agents had been put on this case in DC. Patterson had charged Mulder with finding the perpetrators- the human perpetrators - and any other outcome, both in Patterson's eyes and Mulder's, would be a failure. It was no wonder he wouldn't listen to her, when he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Still, she couldn't help but offer a parting thought as he began to glance around the scene again, his attention clearly fading from her. "But Mulder," she said, biting her lip, "what if this is why I'm here? What if it's all connected somehow?"

He looked her up and down, and then a sharp humorless laugh escaped him. "I don't know why you're here, Scully, but it can't be for this."

Scully stood blinking as he turned away and studied a nearby tree trunk a little too intently, for the moment able only to wonder if she really had sounded so obstinate, back in the days before the evidence that there was something else out there had grown so overwhelming that even she had been unable to deny it. She had told Mulder so many times that his theories were impossible, that searching for the paranormal was simply a waste of time. Had he felt the way she did now, powerless in the face of enduring disbelief? She tried to imagine what Mulder, her Mulder, would have done in this situation. He'd spent a career facing down worse skeptics than her, after all. Odd that she'd never really understood how hard it must have been. Even when she had found herself trying to convince her superiors, or local police departments, or any number of others of the existence of these conspiracies, she had done so with the knowledge that Mulder was standing with her. That she was not alone in her beliefs. Now, though...now she had to walk the path that he had, insisting on what sounded to others like wild fantasies and unbelievable stories. But walk it she would. At least, she supposed, Spooky was a better nickname than Ice Queen.

Mulder had busied himself near where the bodies had lain, crouching down to examine something in the soil beside two of the police markers. He'd grabbed a sketchbook from the evidence kit in the patrol car and placed it on the hard ground beside the markers, and he bent over it intermittently to scribble notes with his left hand. Scully walked around him, scanning the ground.

It was strange, how absurd she'd always thought it when Mulder insisted on driving around with a Geiger counter in the trunk. And stranger yet how much she'd give now to have one. There had to be some evidence of alien—or government, or both—interference.

Certain as she was, though, her search of the scene and nearby woods hadn't revealed any. There was no sand to have been congealed into glass, nor any other evidence of extreme heat aside from the singed pines above their heads. No black oil, no apparitions or mysterious barriers, no crops or trees or cows out of place. No physical evidence that anything out of the ordinary, except possibly a rogue lightning strike, had happened in the remote West Virginia mountains a few nights before.

Mulder had spent most of the time examining the ground, looking through bushes and under fallen logs and combing the half-frozen loam for evidence, jotting notes on his pad as he went. He'd made a few measurements and bagged a few samples of leaf and soil. The rest of the time he'd spent staring at the scene from different angles, only to close his eyes for a few moments, open them, and walk somewhere else to repeat the process. Maybe stop to look under a rock and bag another piece of potential evidence, or to maneuver the sketchbook against something so he could add another line or write another word. As the temperature dropped, Officer Grimes had moved inside his car and waited patiently. Scully thought she could see him reading a cheap paperback through the windows and couldn't help a pang of jealousy. Which was possibly a pang of hunger. They'd skipped lunch in hurrying out to the scene and the less she found, the more she looked forward to sitting down to dinner in a nice, warm restaurant.

It was starting to get dark, their breath misting in the cold air, when Mulder stood abruptly and walked over to her. His cheeks were red from the wind and the sketchbook dangled from his good hand. "I've seen enough," he said.

Scully didn't bother to be surprised by his sudden declaration. "Find anything?" she asked, rubbing her cold hands together and nodding toward the small collection of bagged evidence Mulder had been setting by the road.

His look at her was guarded, still in Spooky mode and no doubt distrustful of her overly innocent tone. But a second later, his shoulders sagged, the veneer of the untouchable profiler fading as the ever-present exhaustion showed though. "No," he admitted, his voice rough.

Scully bowed her head in acknowledgment of his perceived failure, which he would no doubt spend the rest of the night castigating himself for unless she did something about it. She met his eyes and let a little smile play on her face. "Come on, Mulder," she said, taking his good arm at the elbow. "Enough. I'll take you to dinner."

His eyes closed, briefly, at enough but for once he didn't argue. Considering how much her own stomach was rumbling, Scully supposed he had to be hungry too. After all she was fairly sure all Mulder had consumed since his stint at the hospital had been a bowl of canned chicken soup a few resentful sips of orange juice. A moment later Mulder crouched down to pick up his bagged evidence, balancing it on the wide side of the sketchbook, then followed her to the squad car.

Still, he wasn't about to let her get the last word. He caught her eye as they approached their respective car doors. "It can't be aliens," he said, opened his car door and swung himself inside. Scully sighed as she followed him, the relatively warm interior of the car greeting her. Some things never changed.

Officer Grimes greeted them affably as they settled into their seats, bookmarking an old spy novel and sliding it into the tray between the front seats. "Any luck?" he asked after a moment. "You've been out there a while."

Scully glanced at her watch reflexively, though the digital clock in the patrol car quite visibly read that it was 5:57. Then she looked down again, because her watch, which in her rush to get to Mulder that morning she'd checked plenty of times against the clocks in her apartment and his, read 6:06.

The image of a Mulder slightly older than this one, circling a scene confidently with stopwatch in hand as she offered sensible rebuttals to each claim he'd made, sprung unbidden into her mind. Yeah, it can play tricks on you, he'd said, showing her the difference. But not like this.

"Nine minutes," she murmured.

"Huh?" Grimes asked. She could feel Mulder's eyes on her as well.

"Nothing," she said after a moment, shaking her head. Surely the information would be of use later, but now, with Grimes in the car and doubtlessly Mulder still stinging from his lack of results, was not the time. She forced a bright smile instead. She had other important questions, after all. "So tell me, Dan," she regarded the officer, "do you know of any good restaurants in the area?"

They stopped to check into their hotel, a cheap but pleasantly rustic establishment about ten minutes out from the center of Ansted.

"We don't get many visitors this time of year," the concierge told them as she plucked a pair of keys from a rack on the far wall. She looked to be in her late fifties or sixties, a little heavy, and had thick glasses and a thicker Appalachian accent. "Mainly folks passing through on 77, figure they may's well stop at the Mystery Hole while they're near." She peered up at them, taking in their briefcases and by now rumpled suits. "What brings you folks out here?"

"Business," Scully said, deciding against a more descriptive answer. We're here to examine some dead bodies and the ground they were found on may have been accurate, but she could see no reason to burden the old woman with the details. In any case, she was starving, and was ready to put the case behind them for a few hours.

Mulder, of course, had no such compunctions. "We're investigating the deaths of Regina Albertson and and Fred Dingman," he said, lounging against the counter with a forced smile. Scully resisted the urge to roll her eyes at her partner's attempt at charm. His natural good looks shone through despite his haggard gauntness, but the woman was clearly old enough to be his mother. But then, Scully supposed mournfully, she should have known that Mulder would somehow manage to put something else between them and dinner.

Unsurprisingly, the concierge reacted somewhat differently to Mulder's grin, her lips parting in a return smile that revealed quite a few missing teeth. "Strangest thing I ever heard of," the woman told Mulder, who nodded for her to go on. "Fred's been a bit off for a time, I suppose. Known each other since we was young, you know. Went to the school just over the ridge."

Mulder cast a meaningful glance at Scully before focusing his attention on the woman once more. "A bit off how?" he asked.

"Oh, you know," she waved a hand in a vague gesture, their keys apparently forgotten. "Fred's been bagging groceries and sweeping the floors up at the Go Mart for nigh on forty years now."

"What's so unusual about that?" Scully asked, giving Mulder a meaningful look of her own. Though in this case, the meaning was let's hurry up Mulder, I'm hungry.

"Well," the old woman lowered her voice and leaned in toward them, though it was obvious there was no one else in the cramped lobby. "It was his habits. He'd not show up for days at a time, see, and come back full of all sorts of strange ramblings of where he'd been. Only we all knew his truck'd never left the driveway, and chalked it up to whatever kept him out of the service."

This time, Scully's glance at Mulder was urgent, wondering if the full meaning of the woman's story had sunk in for him as well. It was yet another piece in what was becoming an increasingly obvious puzzle. She'd have to find out if Regina Albertson had also been known for her strange "habits," and she'd have bet money the young woman's history would be just as full of unexplained disappearances.

Mulder, however, seemed oblivious to the subtext. Though whether that was a result of his skepticism or the fact that he seemed to have started swaying slightly on his feet, Scully wasn't sure. Her enthusiasm for new evidence dampened considerably by the concern her partner might pass out where he stood, she opened her mouth to request the room keys one more time, ready to escort Mulder to his room. But Mulder spoke first.

"Where did Fred say he went?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't know," the concierge said. "Here and there. Never did talk with him much myself once we were grown."

"What about Regina?" Mulder asked quickly. He was still lounging against the desk and Scully realized with a new jolt of worry that it was perhaps more for support than for show. She rested a hand on his elbow, but his attention was fixed on the old woman.

"Regina," the woman said, and paused long enough that Scully wondered if she should just drag Mulder away without waiting for the rest of the answer. "Doc Albertson's oldest," she finished after a moment. "Can't say I've heard much of her since she went off to college. Girl was a right troublemaker in her day, though. Drinking and drugs and boyfriends, partying day and night, if you can believe all you hear."

"I'm sure you can," Scully interrupted, not bothering to curb the sarcasm in her voice. She was hungry, damn it, and what had started off as relevant information was clearly degenerating into small town gossip. "Now, could we have our keys? We both have busy nights ahead of us."

The cutting looks she received from both Mulder and the old woman were well worth having her room key in her hand and starting toward her room, suitcase in tow. She and Mulder would be across the hall from each other, their rooms at the end of the hotel's single wing.

"You shouldn't have done that," he said as soon as they were out of earshot of the concierge. "She had valuable information."

"And she'll be there when we get back," Scully reminded him. In fact, the woman had informed them that she would be on duty until midnight, and in sending them off had sounded hopeful that Mulder would return to chat. Then she sighed. She had wondered what kind of a life Mulder might have led as a profiler, and now it seemed she had her answer. He hadn't had one. "Hasn't anyone else ever tried to make you pause?" she asked after a moment, looking up at him. "You're running yourself to the ground, Mulder. You can't go on like this."

"Can't I?" he asked for the second time that evening, shifting his suitcase in his good hand as the little wheels on the bottom caught on a snag in the faded green and blue carpet. The fluorescent lights lining the hallway illuminated the bruise on his pale, hollow face, and this time it sounded to Scully like he was really asking. Can't I?

She shook her head slightly. "I don't know, Mulder."

He snorted, and she looked up at him again, surprised to see him smirking.

"What is it?" she asked.

They stopped in the space between their doors. "Well, to answer your first question," Mulder said, setting his suitcase down to maneuver his room key into the lock, "my partners have tried to slow me down. You're just the first one who doesn't take fuck off for an answer." His door swung open with a creak.

Scully raised her chin. "Should I?"

Mulder looked her up and down, then actually let his face relax into a smile. "No," he said.

Scully opened her own door, letting it swing inward with the key still in the lock. "I'll meet you in the lobby in ten minutes," she told him as he disappeared into his room, but couldn't help the smile that crept over her own face as she turned and went inside.