The Second to Last 7-Eleven

"Fucking Halifax couldn't have told you because he didn't KNOW and the carrier pigeons couldn't tell him because I BLEW HIM, fucking blew him, his thick neck and x-ray eyes and half his country and all his little hitchhiking friends and their oily little fingers and their foreign lies and I BLEW THEM across the parking lot and down the DRAIN and they never found his TEETH number one Halifax and the Twinkies and the STRAWS and they never WILL."

A match.

And a spark.

And the 7-Eleven collapsed and expanded and tore a hole in the sky.

The flames bent the world backwards and the shadows were red-on-black ghost snakes dancing up to fill the void that came after the explosion-burst-dissolve, the void only he could hear, the void that said "there is one less."

"Fucking Halifax."

Mulder's bikini ladies had scratch-off bathing suits and stupid come-fuck-me eyes. Scully scraped at a blonde's silver two-piece with her thumbnail, sloughing the bikini away like a cheap acid peel.

" pattern in the selection of targets, a bunch of convenience stores in southern Texas..."

The click-flash of the slide projector. A crater approximately the size of a 7-Eleven, topped with a warped piece of sheet metal that read ICE and had been folded in on itself like the trunk of a rear-ended car.

There were probably blank floppy disks somewhere in Mulder's desk, but Scully had found the bikini-babe playing cards instead and gotten distracted. They still had their swimsuits on, and Scully could only figure Mulder was saving them for a special occasion.

"...gas lines leading into the buildings were tampered with: gas, leak, spark, boom." He was dancing from foot to foot. "At the most recent scene, the clerk managed to escape the blast and ID a suspect..."


In the beginning, Scully had listened to Mulder's every word, desperate not to be left behind in even the smallest of details. She was seven years older now, seven years more tired, and she still listened, but maybe just to every other word and maybe she blocked out certain phrases like "tinfoil hat" and "goat-sucking" and "guided by extraterrestrial voices."

"...thirty-four-year-old Charles Hunter is being held for the crimes. He says aliens made him do it."

The blonde was now topless, making her less amusing. Scully turned her attention to Mulder. "Aliens?" she asked, flicking the remnants of silver bikini from her nail. "Mulder, weren't the aliens already here? I think they left after watching the Yankees win the World Series last year."

Mulder stalled out like an old motorboat. "Puh--"

Scully squeezed the card between two fingers and the blonde obligingly thrust her hips toward Mulder. "I am not investigating some nutjob who thinks aliens are here to steal his Slurpees."

Mulder fiddled with the slide remote. "I -- think I need to say something now." Another shot of minimart rubble. "Something witty and convincing."

"Doubtful," Scully said.

Mulder made a face at her and advanced the slide. Another destroyed minimart, this one with four green lawnchairs tossed across the parking lot like confetti. "Look, Scully, lawnchairs!"

"Great, Mulder, lawnchairs. I'm still not going."

"I could only be so lucky," he muttered. The slide projector clicked forward.

"Speaking of getting lucky," Scully said, flashing the queen of hearts at him.

"Scully, those are EVIDENCE!" Mulder shouted, lunging over the desk and grabbing for the cards.

"Evidence?" Pushing her chair out of reach, Scully spun sideways so she could leap free, but Mulder was already there when she did, blocking her like a point guard and backing her against the wall.

"Evidence of what? The level of your depravity?" she asked, looking for a way to dive past him.

He advanced, his fingers teasing her jacket. "You're just jealous. I saw you scraping off her bikini."

Ducking under his arm, she slipped the topless queen of hearts into the back pocket of his pants. "Come on, Mulder, I had to know if they were real."

Mulder pivoted on a wingtip and Scully tried to fake him as he turned to intercept her. Starting left, she collided with the cart, knocking the projector askew and throwing her off just enough to allow Mulder a handful of her sleeve and a moment near her ear. "I know jealousy when I see it, Scully."

"Jealousy? Mulder, you never even touched those women, but I get to wrestle with you in the dark." She twisted away from him and moved behind the cart, keeping her eyes locked on his. On opposite sides of the projector they paused, watching each other like street fighters. Scully feinted right, dancing the cards in front of Mulder. He stretched for them and the slide's image wavered across his chest, the color as pale as water, his white dress shirt washed with a familiar face, wearied and thin, with dirty brown hair and blue eyes. The eyes of a boy who had once spray-painted "FASCIST BASTARDS" across a wall in base housing.

"Charlie," she said.

"Closing in on the four o'clock hour on a sizzling Wednesday here at Corpus Christi's choice for today's hits...traffic, weather and another ten-song set are on the way. We've got Santana, Lit, and brand-new Chili Peppers in five, four, three, two..."

Musical riff and then, "C-101 ROCKS!"

The room was very concrete and very square, and the radio was very hissy, cutting through the Texas heat with some song by some noisy band Scully didn't recognize and didn't like.

The air conditioning was decidedly broken.

There was a box fan on the floor, stirring the muggy air only vaguely as if there were something else it would rather be doing. Four strips of CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape fluttered out of its face and swatted at each other like girls. On the desk, facing the pimply kid sitting there, was a second fan, the kind that was supposed to oscillate but wasn't. The kid was doing the jumble in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and had barely acknowledged Mulder and Scully when they'd come in asking for Captain Stachansky of Major Crimes.

"Mm," he'd said, pushing the intercom button. "Andi, they're here."

Fifteen minutes went by before a squat man emerged from the very concrete and very square corridor and approached Mulder and Scully, extending a beefy hand.

"Captain Stachansky," Mulder said, taking the hand and shaking it.

The man laughed.

"I'm Detective Delgado. Call me Ernie" -- this was more to Scully --"please."

"I'm Agent Scully," she said, tired. "This is my partner, Agent Mulder. We're here to see someone Captain Stachansky brought in." She paused. "A man named Charlie...Hunter."

"Ah, Twinkie. Yeah, Andi told me. You're SOL, though." And then, as if to explain to the slower Feds, "Shit Outta Luck."

Two more officers filed in from the corridor. The pointy officer, in wire-rimmed glasses and barely out of his twenties, nodded to Mulder and Scully before stepping back deferentially to let the woman through.

"Captain Andi Stachansky," she said. Handshakes all around. The pointy kid was a Rick Bennett, Delgado's partner. Delgado started talking about an old case, making a joke, maybe, and Scully resisted the urge to sock him. Her eyes drilled holes in the particleboard wall that was hung with a map stuck with pinflags.

There was a comic taped to the corner of the map and Scully had to squint to read it, but somehow Ziggy and his overflowing inbox was more compelling, more important than the joke the beefy man was telling with his beefy hand on the narrow shoulder of the smaller cop. The kid at the desk was still doing the jumble.

Where the hell was Charlie?

Scully cleared her throat and forced her eyes to focus on the captain, a dark woman with shoulderpads and a wide mouth that looked like it wanted to be smiling. Scully cleared her throat again, and Mulder leaped to her rescue.

"Excuse me," he said, cutting off Detective Delgado mid-punchline. "Can you tell us where Charles Hunter is being kept? We'd like to question him."

"So would we!" Delgado practically bellowed, as if it were the first time he'd thought of the idea. "Sonofabitch slipped us on his way to court this morning. Half the department's out on his ass. Nada."

"He's gone?" Scully repeated dumbly, blinking and wondering why her eyes were so dry.

"Ain't the first time he's slipped us, either," Delgado was still talking. "Bennett and I have been after this bastard for a month and a half now, ever since that navy man died in that first explosion. Twinkie's a tough one to nail, the cocksucker."

Charlie. Sonofabitch bastard cocksucker Charlie.

"Agents," Captain Stachansky began, and Delgado's mouth snapped shut to let her talk. "If you don't mind the question, what brings you to Corpus Christi now, instead of six weeks ago when Admiral Halifax was killed and we were knee-deep in government agents?"

"The suspect mentioned aliens," Mulder said, dodging the question. "Have you seen any evidence to prove or disprove his allegations?"

"Prove or disprove his allegations about aliens, Agent Mulder?" Stachansky echoed.

"Well, how about this," Mulder tried again. "Have there been any unusual occurrences around the time of the fires?"

She shrugged. "Aside from the fact that this guy seems to target convenience stores for no apparent reason, I can't think of anything unusual. But then, I've been with the force a long time. I've seen just about everything there is to torch get torched."

"So what's the next step?" Scully asked. "How do we find...Charlie?" She hated that she stumbled over the name, his name, her own brother whose name she'd called in a tinny sing-song across the grammar school cafeteria just to torment him. But he wasn't Charlie Scully -- not here, anyway. He was some other guy, some starter-of-fires and fearer-of-aliens. A far cry from the kid who was busted in high school for stealing the principal's Buick and taking it to Reno for the weekend. Or maybe -- though she hated to admit it -- not so far a cry.

"As Detective Delgado," Stachansky gestured with a chin at the older fellow, "said the uniforms are out looking for him now. We know his patterns -- it shouldn't be too hard to nail him this time. He won't leave the area."

"What makes you say that?" Scully asked.

"He claims he's still got 'work to do,' here. I promise you, this guy's not leaving town."

She looked from Mulder to Scully. "You two look beat," she said. "How about you go check in at your hotel and I'll buzz you if we get something?"

"We're at the Coastal Bend Lodge," Mulder said, handing her his card.

"The one uptown, or the one downtown?" Stachansky asked.

"Oh, or the one by the water?" Delgado put in.

The boys on the radio were moaning about botched orgasms, as far as Scully could tell, and she looked over at Mulder, who was looking at the cop. "Call my cellular," he said. "Number's on the card."

Mulder turned to leave, reaching out a hand to steer Scully by the small of her back. She took a step sideways to free herself and walked past him out the door into the heat of Texas.

"Scully." Mulder jogged a bit to chase her stride to the car. "Scully."

"Mulder, that's my brother they're talking about 'nailing,' all right? So forgive me if I'm not in the mood to make nice with the friendly natives."

"I didn't say a word," Mulder played innocent, grinning.

"You were thinking it," she said flatly.

"Actually, I was thinking it's hotter'n hell out here and wishing I'd packed my Speedos."

Scully pressed her palms against the car and peered up toward the sun, eyes closed. The heat painted her face, rubbery like a peel-off mask, and black-red spots, the echo of capillaries, danced under her eyelids. She exhaled through her nose.

"I want to find him, Mulder," she said, looking at her partner through the floating sunspot bubbles.

Mulder backed into the car, leaning against it and kicking one ankle across the other. He put sunglasses on before he spoke again. "Were you close?"

Scully shuffled and sighed. "We used to be. He and Missy were closer than he and I were. Are. Are."

"Are," Mulder confirmed, nodding. "How come?"

"Oh, Charlie was a pain in the ass," Scully tried to laugh, but it came out like a huff and she talked past it. "Ran away from home six or seven times, sometimes for weeks. Smoked pot in the basement, cut school all the time and we'd have to cover for him to Dad. I think after a certain point I just got sick of it. Figured he could fuck up his own life, but I didn't want to deal with it anymore." She swallowed, parched. "Missy was better about it than I was. She bailed him out thousands of times. She always stayed in touch with him, too, even after the rest of us had given up."

"But he didn't come to her funeral. How come?" Mulder asked gently.

Scully concentrated on not crying. "He and Mom had been out of touch for almost a year before that. I'd gotten maybe a postcard in that time. I think he was just afraid of us, afraid of getting into all of that again."

"Okay," Mulder said.

"I want to see his file, Mulder," she said abruptly, turning on her heel and heading back toward the station.

She was intercepted by Stachansky, leading Delgado and Bennett doublespeed. "Another one," Stachansky said. "7-Eleven downtown. You can follow us."

Scully nodded and returned to the rental, where Mulder had already started the engine. The prowler was out of the lot and down the street by the time Scully closed her door, and Mulder took off after it, successfully missing the driveway and bumping them over the curb.

Charlie. Sonofabitch bastard cocksucker Charlie.

Downtown wasn't as far away as she wanted it to be. The fire took up the sky and there wasn't time for her to recover, to remember how to fake a smile and "Special Agent Dana Scully" because the air turned heavy and burnt and the last quarter mile was crawled through sawhorses and police officers and emergency personnel and people staring and pointing and bleeding.

It was four hundred kinds of hot on 8th Street. The kind of hot that slowed time, that made every blink last an hour, every movement stand out in jerky strobe, a progression of still frames that somehow came together as his hand, unnaturally large, moving to shield his eyes from the ash that swirled in the air like postcards from a dying volcano.

Mulder would have preferred 10th Street or 25th Street or Miracle on 34th Street, but he was stuck standing on 8th Street across from the 7-Eleven that was spitting and cackling like an enormous melting witch. Stachansky and Delgado shared the curb with him while he tried to pretend he was just fine with all this, that he wasn't dizzy from the heat, that his mind wasn't chanting firefirefire like a stick-wielding primitive that wanted to run away and hide under a prehistoric fern. The only reason he was having any success with his act was that Stachansky and Delgado weren't paying any attention to him. Bennett was off pushing his pointy nose along the gutter like a beagle snuffling for an imaginary hot dog, and Scully was down the street, crouched near a boy who held a handful of gauze to his bleeding forehead and spoke to his knees.

"Maybe the guy had a bad experience with Slim Jims," Delgado offered, patting himself down and coming up with a pack of cigarettes and a lighter that wouldn't spark.

The captain grinned. "You're projecting, Delgado."

"Leave my unholy love of beef products out of this." The detective shook his lighter like it might dislodge some butane from a fourth dimension if he just tilted it at the right angle.

"Why don't you go talk to some people?" Stachansky suggested, pulling the Bic away from her detective. "You know, do your job?"

"'Do your job,' she says," Delgado grumbled, putting away his cigarettes and finding a pen to chew on and perhaps also to write with. "If this is Twinkie, no one saw him."

"Someone saw him, they just don't know it yet," Stachansky said, unzipping the camera case at her feet.

Flipping open his notebook, Delgado heaved himself down the sidewalk like a schooner setting sail, and lumbered over to where the onlookers looked on, their bodies pressed up against the sawhorses and police tape as if this were the Academy Awards instead of a crime scene.

Mulder shuffled back and forth on the curb, his legs aching, his mouth dry, his back itchy with sweat. Scully was closer now, nodding, pointing behind her as she talked with a man wearing a blue t-shirt.

"Matches," Bennett said, popping up next to Mulder, his pointy face waiting for praise. "Found them down the street. They smell like sulfur." He raised the evidence bag to his nose, inhaling phantom vapors.

"Of course they smell like sulfur, they're matches," Mulder snapped, pulling the bag from Bennett's hand.

The matchbook was cheap cardboard stamped with a smudge that might have said "The Blind Armadillo." On the back the name "Barry" was written in pencil.

"My partner and I can go check this out for you," Mulder offered, passing the plastic bag to the captain.

She stood, balancing a small video camera on her hip. "Agent Mulder, I am still not entirely clear why you and your partner are here at all."

Scully was standing next to the car, her hair flat and sweaty, her expression even flatter. He wished he could take her home. "We just want to talk to Charles Hunter, Captain Stachansky."

Stachansky pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. Her eyes were a staring brown color. "Delgado and Bennett will be there when they get there. Don't wait up for them."

Mulder couldn't tell if that was an answer. He took a step to the side, strangely unwilling to turn his back on her.

She powered up the camera and caught him in the viewfinder. "Agent Mulder," she said in a twangy Tom Brokaw, "you said you saw E.T. and Charles Hunter walk out of the 7-Eleven just prior to the blast?"

"Yeah, they were with Elvis," Mulder said, stepping off the curb and walking toward the car.

There was the Texas of the wide highways and the horn-riddles of motorcycle gangs, the Texas of airport hubs. There was also the Texas of tumbleweeds and saguaros and the sweet-bitter smell of oil butterflies pecking at the earth, America with its amber waves of grain.

And then there was the flannel-shirted Texas with the pool balls clacking, beards and beer and paneled soft-wood walls with the lacquer peeling from the heat even in the sticky dim of red-shrouded lamps. That was the Texas that hummed to a jukebox, the Texas that slowed to a melting drawl. The Texas of the Blind Armadillo.

Two or three feet of cinderblock wall created a unique ecosystem inside the bar, the heat from outside carried in on silty beads of sweat and the tacky rubber soles of shoes.

Mulder's eyes wouldn't adjust, and he followed the clack of Scully's heels past the square tables protected by wood-esque stickerpaper. She navigated the dark and led him to a booth in the back, where she slid in on the sweaty bench and let her head sink forward with a sigh.

He slipped in across from her as Bruce Springsteen sang about "taking turns dancing with Maria as the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'..."

"You holding up all right?" he asked, knowing the words were ridiculous as they tumbled out.

"I'm fine, Mulder," she said. "Have we eaten today?"

"Are you hungry?" He felt around inside her words, looking for anything in there that might give him the chance to help her.

"Uh uh," she shook her head. "Not at all. I just couldn't remember. That's why I asked."

"Not since the flight," he said. "You had a very charming fruit plate. With melons. Which, as I recall, you pushed around a little but didn't eat."

"I'm fine, Mulder," she said again. "What are we doing here?"

"Oh, I don't know." He shrugged. "Figured I'd see if anyone was watching the game."

"I can't arrest him," Scully wasn't listening. "I'm telling you that now; I won't be able to do it. I don't even think I'll be able to watch."

"You probably won't have to." Mulder was agreeable. "I'm sure the cops will find him before we do."

"Was that supposed to be reassuring?" Scully exhaled through her nose, smiling weakly. "You'd never have made the pep squad."

"We'll drink, is what we'll do," Mulder said. "We'll sit it out here for as long as you like, and then we'll go back to the hotel."

This time it was a better smile. "Why are you being so nice to me, Mulder?"

"Nice? Eight seconds ago I was the world's worst cheerleader." Mulder cocked his head to the side.

"Don't argue or I'll take it back," she said.

Mulder hoisted himself to his feet and squirmed out of the booth. "I'll be right back," he said.

The bartender, announced by an embroidered bustline as "Dandee," arched her neck and presented cleavage to Mulder. Her face was tight, shiny, smooth with preserved youth, but the crepe-flesh of her breasts told him she was at least forty.

"What can I getcha?" she twanged, looking at him sideways.

"Two of whatever's cold," he said, pressing sweaty handprints on the bar surface. "And something like a bucket-o-wings or a barrel-o-chicken, if you've got it."

"Mexican or domestic?" she asked, digging around in the cooler with blue-veined hands.

"When in Texas," Mulder nodded. "Mexican's fine."

She popped up with two drippy Corona longnecks and handed the bottles to Mulder.

"That's five for the beer and three for the wings, which I'll bring to your table if you show me where you're at." She held out a palm. Mulder handed her a crumpled ten and turned his back before she could even pretend to give him the change.

And now his eyes were adjusted and he could see the vague shape of the top of Scully's head over the booth, and something about it made him think of The Clash. Not "Rock the Casbah," because that was when they sold out, but early Clash, the kind of music you danced to and weren't embarrassed about.

It would bring a smile to her face -- or at least it would make her hide a smile. And that was good enough for Mulder, who walked to the jukebox, Corona necks crossed between the fingers of his right hand.

The Clash wasn't an option. Sex Pistols wasn't either. No Velvet Underground, and no Stones but "Ruby Tuesday," which Mulder suspected was the Muzak version. He dug in his pocket for quarters, popped one in to the machine and, for no good reason, selected J. Geils' Band, "Centerfold."

Letting the bottles clink and feeling somewhat triumphant, he headed for the table.

He clacked his tongue and waved the two bottles at Scully like Charlie Chaplin dinner-roll feet, doing a little box step to the music. "Hey, Scully," he said in his best drawl, "You know what they say about guys with long necks, doncha?"

And then he saw him, sitting where Mulder had been sitting before, across from Scully. The top of his sandy-blond head, scrawny body all elbows and knees. Scully's eyes were infant-wide staring at him, at Charlie, and she didn't even look up when Mulder arrived.

He thanked his dumb luck for that.

She seemed to notice him when he set the beer bottles on the table and she opened her mouth like she wanted to say something, but closed it again. He slipped in beside her in the booth and looked at Charlie.

"Dana, who's this guy?" Charlie asked, clipped, staring past Mulder at something off and to the left on the padded pleather booth. "Do we trust him? Will he help us?"

Scully let her hands ride across the tabletop and, pressed together at the wrists, they spread open like a Venus flytrap and closed around Charlie's hands. "Charlie," she said. "Why are you doing this?"

"Dana!" Charlie's spine straightened as if he were stricken with inspiration or struck by lightning. "We don't have time! We've got to do this, Dana, NOW. I knew you'd believe me. I knew you'd help me. Come on!" He started to rise but Scully clutched his hands and kept him in his seat.

"Can you explain to us about the 7-Elevens?" Mulder didn't let himself look at Scully, knowing that the ache in her eyes would prevent him from being professional and he'd be no use to anyone.

"7-Elevens!" Charlie hollered and someone missed a pool shot when he turned to look. "Number one! Fucking Halifax from a galaxy far, far away. Home of the Twinkies, watering hole of the wapiti, take-me-to-your-leader and I'll give you a Fruit Roll-Up, you fucking bastard plutocrats! That's why they come, you know." His eyelashes were matted and splayed, spreading his eyes wide like stars. He laughed like a ventriloquist, his lips pursed. "They're the god damned sticky-floored ice-cream socials of the solar system; they're the fucking hubs and they huddle there, sucking at their salt-licks with black fishy fishy clouds in their eyes!" He waggled his fingers like he was playing the synthesizer in midair, and ooo-ed the theme to Star Trek.

Mulder watched the man who looked so much like his partner. He'd never met Charlie, but somehow he'd expected him to be like Scully's other brother, Bill, all gruff disdain and Christian morals. Either that, or like Melissa with the knowing smile of the simple and the blessed, looking at him as if to say "only one of us really knows true peace." But even for the wild passion in his expression and the tight-hewn jaw and shoulders of someone always on guard, Charlie looked like Dana Scully even more than the others. Something about his posture -- his eyes, even crazed -- betrayed strength there, indomitable strength of purpose and an undying, unyielding will. In Scully, Mulder would only half-allow himself to admit how attractive it was, how humbling and beautiful. Here, in her brother, it was breathtaking.

And it had almost prevented Mulder from hearing the words Charlie had spoken, but now he played them back in his head and something caught. "Black clouds?" He threw Scully a look, but she wasn't paying attention. "Tell me about the black clouds," Mulder turned to Charlie.

"Dana?" Charlie implored, rapidfire. "Who is this? Why is he talking to me? Will you make him go away? I have things to tell you. Secret things."

Scully looked at Mulder, recognizing him really for the first time since he'd sat down. The beers stood vigil on the table, untouched and sweating. "This is my partner, Fox Mulder," Scully said, more to Mulder than to Charlie.

"Sorry we haven't been formally introduced," Mulder extended a hand awkwardly across the table, but Charlie didn't seem to notice.

"Charlie," Scully went on. "We want to help you. Will you let us help you?"

"Yes!" Charlie lit up. "We've got to hurry because the carrier pigeons are waiting to hear and they're gonna blow this town, we've gotta blow this town, you know? We found him, Halifax, we got him, but it doesn't stop there. Halifax was the one we got, but it doesn't stop there. There's still so much to do and it's so hard, Dana--"

"Yo ho ho and a bottle of ol' Jimmy Beam," came a voice that was getting way too familiar. Pudgy and Pointy, Delgado and Bennett blocked the end of the booth like goalies. "Nice work, Feds," Delgado slapped a hand on the table.

From the corner of the room, J. Geils mocked them with "NAH NAH nanana NAH...angel is a centerfold."

"Hi there, Mr. Hunter," Bennett peered down at Charlie. "We missed you today. Saw your work, though."

"Sang campfire songs all afternoon, thanks to you, Twinkie," Delgado said. "You ready to come home with us now?"

The booth was too small, too confining; Mulder was trapped by the bulky cop who was plugged in at the end like a cork in a bottle. Mulder watched Scully trying not to squirm. With everything he had, he wanted to call in the National Guard with their choppers and have them crash through the ceiling and airlift Scully to someplace logical and sensible where cops didn't drawl and her brother didn't kill people.

"Charlie," Scully's voice cracked as she drew back her hands from her brother's and pushed against the table vainly, trying to stand. "You'll be fine. I'm here. I love you."

It was almost as if she'd known what was going to happen next. With reflexes faster than Mulder could track, Charlie raised one of the full Corona bottles and swung it, hard, against Bennett's skull. Beer and blood flew and the detective fell against Delgado with a shout. Charlie vaulted over the back of the booth, leaped from table to table to floor and was out the door before Bennett was fully upright, clutching his temple and seething.

Delgado shot at Charlie.

He fired his gun, steadied, aimed, shot, and Scully shouted "NO!" and then looked like she wished she hadn't. The patrons of the Blind Armadillo screamed too. Lumbering once-brave bodies dropped to the floor, ready to say "take my money, just don't hurt me!"

Charlie was gone, but Delgado took after him on foot, a bleeding Bennett nipping at his heels.

Mulder laid a hand on Scully's shoulder before she could follow. "You don't want to have to arrest your own brother," he said, gently. "Remember?"

"What if they hurt him, Mulder?" Scully talked like she'd had throat surgery.

There was nothing he could say, here, no way he could promise that the worst-case scenarios she was imagining were impossible. All of it was possible. Charlie could be killed if they caught him. Probably would be. Scully knew this, and Mulder knew she knew. As the patrons rose like steam, hazily, to their feet, Mulder and Scully sat in silence.

"Bucket-o-wings?" Dandee offered, grinning broadly.

Scully sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the floor.

The carpet was beige. Hotel beige. Doesn't-show-too-much-dirt beige. Doesn't-matter-what-state-I'm-in beige. If it's Wednesday it must be Corpus Christi. And my brother must be a wanted criminal.

She pressed her toes into the beige, drawing white dents in the thick nap and not calling her mother.

She'd unpacked because it was something to do, padding barefoot on the beige and afraid to turn the TV on because anything could remind her, any dumb sitcom with a brother or a mother or a fire. Because she had made herself a deal. If she called her mother, then she could climb in the shower and stay there for the rest of her life.

Gut instinct told her to cover for him as she'd always done, but that was infinitely easier when Missy was around to back her up with "come on, Mom, give him a break." She couldn't do this alone, wake her sleeping mother and be daughter and sister and cop all at the same time.

She wished she could call Melissa instead. Hear her laugh, her sympathy, "oh, Dana. We'll take care of it. He'll be fine," and make Missy call Mom and work whatever that magic was she'd always had at keeping the peace, at making sense from nonsense.

Damn Charlie for doing this, for putting her in this position. Damn Melissa for being dead. Damn her mom for the tears Scully knew she'd hear in her voice, and damn the time zones for putting her mother in bed.

The clock told her it was getting later. She wasn't sure she'd have known if it hadn't scrolled the minutes in its old-fashioned fashion and 12:03 Central translated itself to 1:03 Eastern in her head. 1:04. It wasn't going to get any earlier, Charlie wasn't going to be any more innocent and Missy wasn't going to be any more alive or Mom any more awake or the carpet any less beige with each scrolling minute.

1:05 Eastern. She reached for the phone.


"Mom?" And she didn't mean for it to be a question, but it was and she wondered if she was hoping for the wrong number.

"Dana, honey?"

"I found Charlie," she said, and paused, as if maybe lightning would strike and the ground would split open and she could end the conversation there as if it were a victory.

But 1:06 and Mom was more awake, now, clarity ringing in her voice with "Charlie? What do you mean? Found him where?"

"He's here. In Texas. Corpus Christi. He's--"

"Have you spoken with him? Is he okay? Does he need money?"

Yes, Mom. That's what it is. Can you send him five hundred bucks to cover his rent? That's all I wanted to say. Go back to sleep now. Good night. Scully slid a little from the bed, as if her body wanted to be on the floor. There was a hand over her mouth and she knew she'd have to move it to answer.

"He's...he's wanted for arson. Ten people have died in the fires he's set, he ran from the police tonight and they're still looking for him." It came out in a rush and if her mother asked one more question she was going to break down and admit how little she knew, how helpless she was, how strong she wasn't.

"Charlie," her mother said. And it wasn't with a sigh like it had been when he was young, with that click of the tongue and that disappointment when Charlie'd done wrong. This time it was with almost wonder, as if her mother was tasting the name to see if it was familiar, this person, this arsonist-Charlie.

Scully closed her eyes.

It had been so long since they'd heard from him. Scully hadn't told her mother about the times Charlie had called her, the times he'd sent postcards. He'd asked her not to, and she was the good sister. She was the good, law-abiding, honor-thy-brother Scully and if this was what it took to gain his trust as favored sister after Melissa died, she'd do it. Too many years as the middle child and too many years with Mulder, maybe, gave her a fiery ambition to be trusted, to be trustable. Or maybe it was selfishness and a need to be liked. All wasted now as Scully imagined what she'd have to do when she found him, if she found him, if she was the one to get to him first with the cuffs and the Miranda rights and the long dark nights ahead of him in some cell somewhere.

When her mother spoke next it was with more decisiveness and more pleading than Scully had heard in a long time. "Don't let them hurt him, Dana. You can't let them hurt him."

As if it were up to her. Years of misplaced ambition wasted, Scully's heart ached. I won't, she wanted to say. Trust me, Mom. Like Charlie trusted me. And Missy too. And Mulder.

"Go to bed now, Mom," she said, instead. "I'll let you know."

There wasn't enough in the little hotel shampoo bottles to leach the smoke smell from her hair, but she was too wet and too naked and too vulnerable to leave the safe space of the shower and collect the bottles she'd brought from her suitcase. She used bar soap instead.

The funny thing was that she had always associated the smell of fire with Charlie. Early days, long ago, way back before Bill had graduated, when they were all living in the same place at the same time, they'd gone camping a lot, big bonfires in the base campgrounds. Melissa and Bill, being older, would cook. Melissa-who-still-ate-meat would spear hot dogs on pointy sticks and spin them over the fire; Bill would slop beans in a cast-iron pot and throw handfuls of them at Missy when she wasn't looking. But Dana and Charlie were always told to stay away: six feet from the fire at all times, said Dad. They'd sit on their sleeping bags, crosslegged, and watch their older sister and brother playing and poking at the flames, their faces flickering black-on-red-on-black and giggling. It was Charlie who shared those nights of denial with her, and ever since, she'd associated the smell of fire with her baby brother. That was the funny thing.

Staring face-first into the shower stream and praying for the smell to leave, wash down, wash away, the funny thing wasn't so funny anymore.

A long time ago, Scully had had a baby brother who liked fires, a big sister who called during her one year of college just to say "somebody loves you," and a father who didn't seem to understand the difference between navy brat and soldier. A big sister who'd say "oh, Dana, he's not good enough for you. But wear the black dress anyhow." A baby brother who'd send a snow globe and a keychain from Mackintosh, USA with a postcard saying "can I borrow a hundred bucks?" A father who taught them to consider church a necessary chore.

And now he was dead, and Missy was dead, and Charlie might as well be and Dana had nothing but handsoap and a shower, handsoap and the man across the hall, ready for her to join him on just this side of insanity. And maybe there was still someone left alive who trusted her.

Not every phone call hurt.

"Mulder," he said.

"Mulder," she said.

Everything in his voice changed with his next words, like they were the only words that anyone had ever needed to speak in the history of humanity: "Come here."

The lights were off when she got there, and she fumbled in the flickering blue from the muted television to lock the door behind her.

He'd propped it open with the flip-lock, but now he was sitting on the bed with a pillow wedged behind his back, and a second pillow beside him. It struck her that he'd probably been leaning against both pillows before she'd called, that he'd removed one and put it aside for her when she came. It was such a perfect, simple act but he couldn't know how it peeled her open, unclenched the fingers around her aching heart and filled her eyes with tears she didn't notice until they slid down her jaw.

"Saddle up," he said, slapping the pillow and shifting over unnecessarily to make room for her on the bed.

It was a choice between joining him up there in the dark of the TV blue or protecting herself from letting him see her cry.


It was no choice at all.

Setting her room key on the nightstand she crawled up like a child, knee first, then arm, then sank on her back into the pillow. Like a child, she exposed a section of stomach, pulling up the hem of her t-shirt to wipe her eyes. When she let the t-shirt drop again, it crumpled in folds over the shape of Mulder's fingers, his arm across her waist, his body, propped on an elbow, leaning toward her.

"Mulder," she creaked, pressing her forehead against his shoulder. He reached up his arm, unsuccessfully trying to push a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Shh," he said, the way people do. "It's okay, Scully."

His lips were warm against her forehead, feverish, wet. Even with her eyes closed the room clicked to the rhythm of the TV light. Presence, absence, presence, absence.

"It's okay," he said again. Presence. He traced her cheek with the back of a knuckle and then let his hand fall again. Absence. His fingers were broad against her stomach and there was nothing strange about them finding the space in the undershadows of her breasts.

She rolled toward him and spread a hand against his chest, her thumb catching a nipple as she dragged fingerprints across his well-worn t-shirt. A knee, hers, crooked over a thigh, his. Presence. Absence. His left hand rode up her side, settled on her ribcage and brushed gentle circles there.

She looked at him, his face blurry for its enormity, inches from hers. She lived there, she had a place there in those eyes of his that trusted her as friend and cop and partner. And lover. Maybe.

"What do you want?" he whispered.

The world was blue and black and blue.

"I don't want you to move," she said, not sure if she was answering the question or not. "Ever."

"I won't," he said.

She shifted onto a hip, pulled herself up to look down at him through a rainfall of hair. She could give in to him, to this man who trusted her, or she could close her eyes and shut him out and be the woman whose worth would be proven when she sent her brother to jail. Mulder slipped his hand from under her shirt, curled it around her forearm and watched her, waiting, letting her lead. She tipped her head to the side, drew her face down to his and kissed him. Parting his lips with her tongue, she kissed him, and his hand crawled up inside her sleeve and held her tighter to him, fingers to spine. She could be this woman, Mulder's partner and nothing more. She kissed him.

Letting everything beyond the island of the bed disappear, she drove a hand under Mulder's back and wriggled his shirt up over his head, tossing it to the side and finding his chest with her face, the heat of skin and ribs and heart, beating and he understood, now, and shifted under her and caught her breasts with his thumbs, cradled their weight in the webs of his hands and kissed her and this was who he was, partner and lover and everything.

"Scully," he whispered, inhaling through his nose and pulling her toward him. She kissed him hard, clawing at his back. He said her name again and tried to take her shoulder, but she squeezed her thighs around his hips and wouldn't let him, even as he repeated her name, firm, sad, and pushed her back gently, "Scully," getting space between them, space for her to see herself, to feel tired, to let go.

"What do you want?" he asked, touching her cheek.

She looked down at the dark shadows cast by the angle of his chest in the blue illumination. "I want out," she said to the sheets.

He stroked her hair. "You need to sleep," he said. He reached up and under and tugged the blanket down, pulled it back up over their overlapped bodies. Click and the TV light went out. Absence. Absence.

"I do," she said, sinking down into him and burying her face in the space of his neck.

Warmed through her t-shirt from the heat of his bare chest, body against body, she closed her eyes and didn't think about opening them again.

In the morning, he woke.

She was still there, asleep, her back open to him, and he wanted to relearn her tattoo. Wanted to trace its shape in apology, discover it on her skin where it circled low on her back, exposed now, snake circling, known not as part of a crime scene but as part of a woman, a woman warm in bed with one hand reaching, fingers curled as if reaching.

He found himself with her name, the one he never used, the one that meant "this is important" and "look at me" and "you need to listen" and also "I need you" though he'd never once said that.

The sheets were around their feet, and he could see his hand as it slid across the bed to her, his fingers reaching for the conscience of her tattoo. He expected it to feel hot, somehow sharper than the rest of her, raised from her skin like a warning or a scar, but with his eyes closed it was indiscernible from the surrounding flesh. It could have been anywhere, and -- with his eyes closed -- Scully could have almost been any woman.

Been any woman except for the scar that streaked above the tattoo, the comet trail of ruined tissue that told him this was his partner, the woman who always died and the woman who never did.

His hand was pressed to her back, creeping along her spine, and he wanted to own her and free her and belong to her in their bed, to touch her with an honesty no one else was allowed.

He wanted, for once, to love her.

As if his thoughts had woken her, Scully rolled over to face him and his hand slipped from her back to lie near her breast.

"Hi," he said, smiling, waiting for her to remember him.

She was frowning a little, and he wanted her not to, but she frowned and said, "What was that name on the matchbook?"

She was inches from him, her hair sneaking onto his pillow, his hand nudged by her breasts each time she inhaled.

"Did anyone look into that?" she was asking, kicking free of the sheets, pulling down her t-shirt, searching for her key. It was on the nightstand and she grabbed it. "We should do that," she said, unlocking the door, glancing over her shoulder, saying, "Get up. Get dressed."

The door snapped shut.

Mulder flopped to his back, put an arm over his eyes and made a noise that could have been a laugh, if laughs ever sounded like choking elephants.

They wake up together and: matchbooks.


Throwing the sheets off, he got out of bed. His shirt wasn't on the floor so bare chest and pajama pants were it. Nearly forgetting his own key, he tossed open his door and took the two steps across the hall to Scully's room.

Three firm knocks and the door pulled open a crack but no one was there. Mulder pushed it the rest of the way. "So," he said, scanning the room, "it wasn't good for you?"

Scully looked up from where she was digging through her suitcase. "What?" she mumbled around her toothbrush. Minty foam flecked the corners of her mouth, her blouse was only half-buttoned, and she still wore the boxers she'd slept in.

"Come on, Scully, what's going on?" he asked, watching her throw a skirt at the bed and miss.

"I'm getting dressed," she said, sucking on her toothbrush, bent over her suitcase again.

He crossed his arms over his chest. "You can talk to me about this, you know."

Scully dropped a pair of heels to the floor, switched her toothbrush to the other side of her mouth and buttoned the rest of her blouse while walking to the bathroom.

"We need to go back and talk to Stachansky," she said, spitting in the sink.

"You're okay, Scully?"

Her eyes met his in the mirror and he knew if she said "I'm fine" something was going to happen.

She sighed impatiently. "Go get dressed, Mulder."

He almost slammed the door on the way out.

Breakfast was IHOP and Muzak. Mulder sat in a booth across from Scully and watched her ignore him while she read through the case file and scratched notes on a legal pad. She was angry, but he couldn't tell if it was a reaction to the case or if she was just pissed because he'd seen her cry.

Their waiter flew by with coffee, tossing pods of half-and-half on the table and putting Scully's grapefruit down directly on top of a crime scene photo. Mulder's bacon and eggs showed up five minutes later, accompanied by Scully's cottage cheese and yet more coffee.

Scully jabbed at her grapefruit left-handed, making its little bowl scoot back and forth on the limp lettuce leaf beneath it. Her teethy spoon looked like something used during an autopsy.

"Hey, Scully, want a piece of my bacon?" he asked, trying for her attention.

It came about a minute later, distracted and cool. "No, Mulder." She turned to a fresh page, numbered and dated it, and started scrawling notes again.

"Come on, I saw you eyeing it." She, of course, had not been. Her eyes hadn't lifted from the file since they'd sat down. He was trying not to take it personally. She hadn't looked at the waiter either, and her coffee had been prepared through a strange combination of sightless groping and ESP.

Scully crossed out an entire sentence with three angry rips of her pen. The next words were written in all capital letters.

"Admit it, Scully," he pushed, "you've always lusted after my pork."

Scully's pen dug into the paper and she finally looked at him. "Jesus, Mulder, for once in your life could you please just shut the fuck up?"

His fork was suddenly unfamiliar in his hand, as if he'd picked it up in an ancient history museum and didn't know what it did. It almost felt like a weapon, something you might use to poke out the eyes of your enemy.

He poked at his eggs instead and told himself Scully was under a lot of stress and that jamming a fork in her angry blue eyes wasn't the answer.

Scully went back to the case file, eating without looking, spoon reaching blindly for her bowl of cottage cheese. Only the waver of her pen showed how unstrung she was, and when a waitress came by to refill their coffee, Mulder knew he was the only one who saw how Scully's hand shook when she reached for the creamer.

Scully was looking out the window. He could see her three-quarters reflection there, a stranger's face in the fingerprinted glass.

They were at a light and Mulder was waiting to turn, the signal cataloguing everything that was wrong with his life: cli-click cli-click cli-click.

Scully shifted and sighed.

"Am I not driving fast enough for you?" he asked.

Her arms tightened across her chest.

"So, what," Mulder started again, "you're not speaking for the rest of the day? You want to work out a system of hand gestures in case I need you?"

"What do you want, Mulder?" she asked, still staring out the window.

"I want you to look at me."

She looked out the windshield instead. "We're here."

"We are," he muttered, turning into the visitor's lot at the police department.

Scully could feel control slipping away from her, bleeding into the boundaries between sunspot and lightbulb. Everything was white, her anger, her guilt, the Texas sun that hovered over her shoulder like a executioner. It was Charlie's fault. It was all Charlie's fault. His fault she'd have to break her mother's heart. His fault she'd cried and climbed into bed with Mulder and let him hold her and let herself kiss him, and his fault that she wanted to fall asleep safe and liked and trusted, his fault that she climbed out of bed before Mulder could touch her, before she could touch him, his fault she held her pen so tightly her fingers cramped while she scratched things like "PARANOID DELUSIONS" and "REPETITION AS PROPHECY" into her legal pad, ripping the paper and yelling at her partner, shut the fuck up, Mulder, shut the fuck up.

Her footsteps were like gunshots across the hard floor, and she felt huge, like a giant, ready to crush and tear and roar.

The boy at the desk was still doing the jumble, oblivious to the noise of the radio being sucked through the fan and coming out the other side in a series of choppy sci-fi syllables. Scully rapped a fist in the middle of the paper, demanding, "Is Captain Stachansky in?"

The boy nodded and paged the captain on the intercom without even looking up. Scully wanted acknowledgment, she wanted fear. She wanted Charlie locked up and she wanted to go home.

Stachansky came down the corridor, flanked once more by Bennett and Delgado. The beefy cop flashed Scully a look with something like sympathy in his eyes and Scully ignored him.

"He's not here," the captain said without preamble. "He slipped us again."

"I want to see his file." Scully's fingernails dug into her palms. "Not the case file. Charlie's file."

"Sure," Stachansky nodded, searching Scully like she expected her to have more to say.

Scully did. "Now."

"Look, um," Stachansky peered at the floor for a moment, and Bennett and Delgado stepped back and away from her. "Agent Scully. The boys told me what happened at the Blind Armadillo, so if there's anything you want to tell me..."

"No." Scully shook her head. "I'm fine."

The captain exhaled slowly. "What I want to say is...if you're too close to this case, if you have a history with this man, we think -- the department thinks -- that it's probably a good idea for you to back off. Let us handle it."

"We've got everything under control," someone said. Mulder. Scully hadn't realized he was there. "But thanks for your concern, Captain Stachansky."

The captain pursed her lips. "Rick, get them the file."

Bennett scurried back into the bowels of the station, and Scully waited for him with her arms crossed and her jaw clenched.

"You know, Scully," Mulder began, and suddenly the radio was agreeing with him: "you you you, oughta KNOW." The fan sliced up an angry wail and the boy at the desk chewed on his pen.

Scully ground her teeth. "No, Mulder. I don't know. Tell me."

He lowered his voice. "They might be right. You might really want to think about letting go of this case and leaving it to people with less personal involvement."

"Fucking unbelievable," Scully spat. "We spend six and a half years tracking down your sister, but we can't give my brother a week?"

She'd forgotten that the captain was within earshot. "Brother? Charles Hunter is your brother?"

"I thought you said you knew?" Mulder asked.

"Rick and Ernie'd said they seemed close," Stachansky was pointedly directing her reply toward Mulder, and Scully wanted to yell. "I figured relative, something. But I didn't know, no."

"Yes," Scully growled. "His name's Charlie Scully. He's my younger brother."

There was more she didn't say out loud, things like: and I taught him multiplication tables. And I send him five hundred dollars every Christmas, except last year when his post office box returned my letter unopened and I didn't even think to question it, just figured he'd moved on, didn't need me. And I promised my mother I wouldn't let you hurt him, so fuck me if you think you'll find him before I do.

The captain was nodding. "Well, in that case, I have to insist that you back off and let us deal with him. Believe me, I know how much familial responsibility can interfere with good policing. I've seen it happen."

"Absolutely not," Scully said. "This is my case, and you'd better be able to swallow that fact or else this is going to be very unpleasant for all of us."

"Captain Stachansky," Mulder cut in, affecting what he would consider a winning smile. "Would you give us a minute, please?"

Stachansky nodded again, taking Delgado with her as she left the room.

"Scully, look," Mulder said. "I would never doubt your professionalism. And to be completely honest, if this had all come out yesterday I'd have staked my reputation on your ability to keep a clear head about this. But...after last night..."

She couldn't listen to this now. Last night had been a mistake. Her life had grabbed her with dirty fingers and hadn't let go and Mulder had seen that, seen her weak and needy, but today she was doing her job, and that was about Charlie, not Mulder, and Mulder didn't realize that. He never would, and he never shut up.

"Fine," she snapped, "I'm sorry."

"I don't want an apology for last night," he said, standing too close. "Though you can certainly apologize for this morning."

Last night when she'd gone to sleep, the shape of her world had been delineated by the perimeter of Mulder's body wrapped around hers, and when she woke up it was a slap in the face to remember that the world was much larger than that, larger than Mulder and Scully. The world was little brothers who blew up buildings. The world was police officers with handcuffs and guns. The world was her mother saying "don't let them hurt him" and so she had to get up and get back into that world and she couldn't let Mulder distract her, couldn't let him like her, couldn't let him want to help her because she may have been strong enough to do this alone, but she wasn't strong enough to do it with Mulder. He would weaken her with his compassion, make her human and hurtful, and that wasn't how she was going to do this. She couldn't do this with him.

"If I'm going to finish this case, I'll need to put some distance between us," she said, watching him. "You'll need to leave me alone. You understand that?"

He exhaled through his nose. "Whatever," he said, turning his palms up, followed by something that sounded like "just don't eat those waffles."

She opened her mouth to snap at him, but Bennett returned and she forced a smile instead, taking the file and thanking him.

Not caring if Mulder was coming or not, she pushed open the glass door to the parking lot with an elbow and thumbed through pages of incident reports chronicling the minor crimes of Charlie Hunter. It was hot and windless, and she was already sweating as she cut across the baked pavement to the rental. The sun glared off the white paper and she leaned against the hood of the car, shielding her eyes and reading. This past autumn he'd broken into a car, pilfered from a church collection box and been questioned for being caught on the naval base with wirecutters and a shortwave radio. She found herself oddly pleased he was going to church at all.

There was nothing earlier than June of '99, so she had to assume that was when he'd taken the name. She wondered what outstanding warrants faced Charlie Scully, and she nearly hit herself for outing him to the Corpus Christi Police Department, but figured that they'd have learned his identity soon enough.

The engine hummed and the sun-heated hood of the car trembled behind her.

"You coming?" Mulder called from the driver's seat.


"Since you were so excited about it this morning, I figured we'd go back to the Blind Armadillo and see if anyone knows Barry. You in or out?"

Flipping the folder shut, she got in the car.

" the band played 'Night of the Johnstown Flood'..."

Bruce Springsteen was still singing, and Dandee was still at the bar, pen behind her ear, with coral lipstick and her roots showing. Mulder held an arm out behind him, propping the door open so Scully could slip in under his elbow.

She breezed past him, dropped the file folder on the bar and stared at the ceiling like she was checking for trapdoors up there, or maybe hidden cameras. Mulder let the door swing shut and took a stool at the bar. "Hi there," he said to Dandee. "Remember me?"

She flashed him a smile and there was lipstick on her teeth. "Heya, sugar. I'll be right there to take your order, okay?"

Mulder chuckled, sliding the file folder across the waxy bar surface in front of him. "No, I was in here yesterday. I've just got a question for you, when you have a minute."

With a desperate look at the short order carousel, she sighed. "I got a minute. What can I do for you, gorgeous?"

He tried for an apologetic smile, then said, "First, do you know anyone named Barry?"

Scully had turned her back and was walking away, down into shadows at the end of the bar. Mulder resisted the urge to call after her and tell her to get her ass back here and do her job, and instead looked at Dandee, who was squinting.

"Shit yeah," the bartender said. "Barry the Bear's here three, four times a week. All the Pigeons are."

And Scully must have been listening after all because she was back at Mulder's side now, asking, "Pigeons?"

Carrier Pigeons, Charlie had said, and Mulder remembered that a long time ago, several days ago, one strange night and an even stranger morning ago he'd read about a man who wanted to wrestle aliens in Corpus Christi. And there was just enough truth there, enough familiarity, for Mulder to feel that pull, pick up the phone, buy the plane tickets and Cathy at the travel agency hid her giggle in a cough because Fox Mulder, badge #JTT04710111, was always running off at the last minute and could never tell her why, even when she asked, which she'd stopped doing two or three years ago.

But this wrestler-of-aliens was Scully's brother and everything changed for that. And now it wasn't a jaunt and jokes and a connecting flight anymore because somehow the aliens had dripped from the bottom of a leaky cardboard box and left Mulder holding something flimsy and soggy and broken and unfixable. And Scully was talking to Dandee now, looking for information about her brother, and from some selfish place Mulder felt cheated.

And it was just too damned hot.

"Carrier Pigeons," Dandee confirmed. "Some biker gang, I think, come in here all sweated up from their hogs and play bad '80s rock and talk all whispery like they've got some big secrets." She laughed, shooting Mulder a conspiratorial look. "They tip good."

Scully showed Dandee Charlie's photo and Dandee pursed her lips. "Charlie. Poor sonofabitch. Yeah, he's in here with the Pigeons from time to time. But, uh, I think he's on the inside now. Some Feds came in, ran him off yesterday." She shook her head. "Poor sonofabitch. Doubt he got away."

"He did," Scully said. "That's why we're here. I'm Agent Scully of the FBI. This is my partner, Agent Mulder."

"Well damn," Dandee clapped a hand to her cheek like a nineteenth-century belle. "I wonder if I should have said what I did. You won't, uh, you won't tell the guys I sent you to 'em, will you?"

Mulder assumed the Pigeons would be less than forthcoming if they were the particular breed of conspiracy theorist he took them to be, but still, it was something, and he could see Scully brighten too, just a little around the edges here in the presence of this woman who'd known her brother.

He decided to smile at Scully, but she was pointedly not looking at him and the side of her face he could see was blotchy with sweat and heat-burn. He wanted to stop and have a drink, run an ice cube over his forehead, run one over hers, the same forehead, same face he'd known for seven years and had known, touched, kissed, last night. But she was pointedly not looking at him and whatever was going on with her he had no choice but to take in stride. It was just hot enough that he could imagine shaking her -- hard enough to make her notice him, make her fucking explain herself -- but instead he turned back to Dandee.

"Do you know where--" he started to say, but Scully cut him off with the gruff force of a bookie who'd been given the runaround for one week too many.

"Do you know where we can find them?" Scully asked.

"Snag a 'zine from by the door," Dandee said, gesturing with an obscenely long fingernail. "I let 'em leave 'em here. Nobody ever reads the things, anyway."

Mulder crossed to the stack and tugged a copy of the flimsy newsprint from under the rubber band that bound them. There was a street address in the upper right which he assumed was an office that would probably be abandoned, but he knew what to look for once they got there and it, again, was something.

"We're in luck, Scully," Mulder said, trying to keep his voice even and curb his eagerness. "Got an address."

Without even responding she collected the file from the bar and strode past him out into the bright of midday Texas.

Mulder tucked the paper under his arm and followed her out, over Springsteen moaning "man turns his back on his family, he just ain't no good."

She insisted on driving, and Mulder didn't even try to argue, even when she cranked the radio up in an attempt to piss him off. She damned him for that, wishing he'd have challenged her so she could scream and holler and rail and fight for something as simple as that, get out her anguish where she could channel it better instead of stumbling blindly in some sort of vague direction toward saving her brother.

The radio was telling her to "come on shake your body, baby, do that conga" and she pressed harder on the gas, keeping her eyes fixed ahead as the car sailed from the parking lot and onto the blacktop road.

"You want to stay straight for about six miles," Mulder said loudly, hunched over a map. "Look for something called Rio de la Plata on your right."

She didn't respond, gunning the engine faster, past 60, 70 miles per hour toward the closest thing to an answer they had yet.

She veered into the left lane, wheeling past a Datsun that was burning oil. Mulder gripped the dashboard and tried to laugh.

"You trying out for the Indy 500?" he asked.

"I'm tired of doing nothing," she snapped. "I want to get there."

"Well, okay then, Mario Andretti, do you want to talk about why you're so edgy?" he tried.

She downshifted, weaving through traffic and just catching the last bit of yellow on a traffic light. "I've got to find him before they do, Mulder," she said, turning to glare at him.

The radio said, "Don't you fight it till you've tried it, do that conga beat..."

He nodded. "Of course," he said. "But wouldn't it be easier for you if you let me-- LOOK OUT!"

Too late. She slammed on the brakes too late, colliding into a silver Ford Expedition that was waiting to turn left. Scully hurtled forward, her forehead pounding into the steering wheel before the seatbelt yanked her back into her seat.

"You cunt!" Someone was shouting and a hand was rapping on her window. Heart racing, hands trembling, Scully rolled it down.

A tall, wiry woman dressed for the gym was waving her cell phone and hollering obscenities. "You're a fucking idiot, you know that?"

Scully blinked, trying to remember what had happened. She swallowed over a stone. What had happened was she'd nearly killed them. The car could have flipped and she'd have killed them dead, airbags or no. Dead Mulder and dead Scully and some dead stranger in Spandex lying in a puddle of commingled blood on a Texas side street. She reached up a hand and wiped blood from the side of her nose. "I'm sorry," she said to the gym woman. "I'm, uh...we're..."

The radio was still screaming, and someone shut it off.

Scully wasn't entirely sure the woman could hear her and she wasn't entirely sure she was actually still alive, here with the sun like heaven-white paint across the dirty windshield. Her thumbs twitched like baby mice.

She turned around. Mulder was still alive and had even unbuckled his seatbelt and was halfway out of the car. When he saw her face he reached into his pocket and drew out his handkerchief, which he gave her without a word. She clapped it to her forehead and managed a weak smile.

Mulder circled the car, took the gym woman aside and spoke to her in a voice too low for Scully to hear. He flashed his badge and a winning smile, and nodded several times before the woman, with a shrug and a giggle, nodded back and crossed to get in her car.

Mulder got in beside Scully. "You okay?"

She wondered if it would be a good idea to go somewhere quiet and throw up. But her forehead had stopped bleeding and she nodded. "You?"

Mulder slapped his hands across his body. "Everything seems to be where it's supposed to be. And, you know," he went on, "I don't know what she was complaining about -- we barely scratched her. Airbags didn't even engage. Those SUVs are like tanks. They shouldn't be allowed on the road."

Scully tried hard to smile again. "Yeah, but we hit her."

"The rental company's not going to like it," Mulder agreed, looking out the windshield on the ripples in the car hood. "Neither is the Bureau. You want to, uh, let me drive?"

Scully's head was pounding, her eyes throbbing and dry as she nodded again, slipping out of her seatbelt. Her feet clocked like a tap dancer's as she did a wobbly Chinese fire drill to the passenger's seat and collapsed, trying to steady her breathing.

Mulder drove in silence for a while, and Scully watched him, too ashamed to speak, too shaken by the collision, and too stunned to express her gratitude for how well he'd handled it, handled everything, the accident and the bar and the police and the night before when she'd come in needing him.

Heat, dehydration, and terror combined and she had a headache now, migraine-caliber and her mouth was dry and she wanted a pint of ice cream and a Kevin Kline movie in bed somewhere, 8:30 at night and she'd order in dinner, rain outside and nothing to worry about or wake up for or live for. But as long as they were still driving she wouldn't have to think and as long as Mulder was here she wouldn't have to do this alone with her aching head and so much loss and pain and work to be done. The car thunked on over rumble strips and Mulder stayed under the speed limit.

"Hey Mulder," she said in a small voice, staring at the bloodstain on the handkerchief in her hands. "I'm sorry."

He turned to look at her, his face softening into a smile.

"Now," he said. "This is Rio de la Plata. Can you look at the map and tell me what's next?"

The Pigeons had flown the coop.

The door wasn't locked, and the security camera above the jamb didn't see a thing when Mulder and Scully bumped the door open and slid inside. A string hit Mulder in the face and he caught it and pulled, starting a chain reaction of fluorescent tubes wavering to life across the ceiling.

The basement room was hospitably cool, but no one was home except the roaches, who scuttled across half a pizza and disappeared into the walls.

Scully went down the hall and into the kitchen, and Mulder stayed in the main room to poke through the bookshelves that seemed to hold everything but books. He took inventory: drive-thru cups with mostly chewed straws. Mobiles made of computer chips. Sharpie markers with duct tape wrapped around them. Overflowing manila folders with black-and-white photographs of everyone and anyone.

The mustard-yellow couch along the wall held a biker-sized dent in the middle, but was otherwise a twin to the mustard-orange couch the Gunmen owned. Apparently conspiracy theorists all shopped at the same IKEA. Langly would have been at home there, his Converse hightops kicked up on the beer-crate coffee table while he read old issues of Wired and complained it was written by illiterate Republicans. Mulder could practically see Frohike hunched over the central work table, soldering two somethings together into what promised to be his best kung fu ever until he took it apart and soldered the pieces into something else.

The file cabinets had been treated like industrial-sized junk drawers and were filled with wiry bus lines, boxy external modems, old Atari joysticks and miles of plugs and cords and ports. Mulder pushed the drawer shut, and a keyboard perched on top of the cabinet decided to fall to the floor. From the next room, he heard Scully's jump, the scuffle of her heels on the concrete.

"Sorry," he called. The next drawer actually had files in it.


"Sorry," he repeated, a little louder.

"Mulder, get in here."

There was a map of Corpus Christi hanging behind the door. The streets were marked with a spray of red thumbtacks. A piece of yarn wound around them, starting in the center and spiraling out like string art for the paranoid and fucked-up.

Tacked above the map was a list:


Scully was muttering to herself, the blood on her forehead dried in a rusty kiss. "Number one Halifax."

Mulder tapped the list. "Looks like he's filed under 'alien,' Scully."

"You think that means anything?" She flicked the green paper. "It's written on the back of a take-out menu, Mulder."

"What? You've never had a good idea while eating fried rice?"

She ignored him. "These are the 7-Elevens," she said, pointing at the pin in the center. "They're numbered. Number one. That's Halifax."

There were nine pins. Charlie had blown up eight 7-Elevens. Mulder could do the math.

"I'm calling Stachansky," he told her, reaching for his phone.

"Fine," Scully said, experimentally covering the thumbtacks with her open hand and then leaving the room.

His cell wouldn't work in the basement, not even when he paced from the map to the avocado fridge with "Live to Ride and Ride to Live" stenciled on it. Around to the sink, back to the map, nothing. A drawer slammed in the main room. Mulder followed the sound, still no signal, no Scully either. He went back outside, leaving the cool of the basement and finding both Scully and a signal.

The phone sounded bored. "Stachansky."

"This is Agent Mulder."

"Agent Mulder, we were just talking about you. Has E.T. confessed yet?"

"No, but we're closing in on Stu's Aunt Judy."

Silence. Mulder continued. "Have you ever heard of a group called the Carrier Pigeons, Captain Stachansky?"

"Conspiracy theorists with too much beer and not enough brains," Stachansky said, sounding distracted. "What about them?"

"Agent Scully and I swung by today and noticed their door was open. Worried for their safety, we checked it out."

"And they say the Federal Government is out to lunch."

"There's a map in their kitchen with nine locations marked. Eight of them used to have 7-Elevens at them."

"And the ninth?" she asked.

"La Mirada and Shoreline."

"Shit. We're on our way."

Mulder thumbed his phone off and turned to find Scully already sitting in the passenger's seat, a fat manila folder spilling over her lap as she pawed through photos, sales receipts, survey maps, immunization records and enough forms to apply for a loan, buy a house, sell it, file for bankruptcy, and start all over again.

"Scully! Wherever did that come from?" he asked, leaning over her open door.

"I found it," she said with a coy smile.

"How fortuitous." He paused a moment, then, "We're going to the last 7-Eleven."

"I know," Scully said, holding the file open against her chest and lowering her eyes.

He nodded and then moved around the car to get in. Scully pulled her door shut and they were on their way, Mulder concentrating on reading street signs and adjusting the air-conditioning vents while he drove.

La Mirada went east-west and he headed west on it, toward the beach. Beside him, Scully was sorting through a handful of claim tickets.

"Anything good?"

She held up a numbered stub. "Want to pick up Halifax's dry-cleaning?"

"Nah, alien inseams never fit me."

She snorted, but then they were at La Mirada and Shoreline and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven was filled with cop cars and cops and kids and a clerk in a red apron and Scully was looking out the window, her fingers pressed there, the file sliding to the floor.

Mulder got out of the car and loosened his tie. It was too hot to be dressed like this. He wished he could take his socks off, stand in the grass of the median and be someone else for a while. Someone without socks.

Delgado and Bennett were questioning the thirty-something clerk, holding up a photograph. "You're sure you haven't seen this man before?"

Stachansky was yelling at someone on the phone: "It doesn't matter how quickly you get down here, we're still going to close the store. It's a safety issue--"

Mulder stood next to Scully and watched as she searched each face in the parking lot as if she believed her brother were there pretending to be a middle-aged cop with mirrored sunglasses or a twelve-year-old with a Big Gulp and drippy hot dog.

Now it seemed Stachansky was yelling for all different reasons as she ran to her car. "What! When? I'm not there, I'll be there. Oh god."

Delgado reached for her just as she pushed past him. "Andi, what's wrong?"

"It's Stan. The refinery just exploded."

Next to Mulder, Scully tensed, her hand brushing against his thigh before she took a step towards Stachansky.

"What? When did that happen?" Delgado was asking.

"Just a few minutes ago," Stachansky said, shaking her keys as if the one she wanted was missing. "They think it was a bomb."

Scully squeezed Mulder's arm and he thought for a moment that she might faint or scream.

Stachansky studied them, then gestured toward her car. "Agents?"

Mulder aimed Scully at the prowler, and they both slid into the back seat, caged up like criminals. Scully's hand was a fist and Mulder took it in his own, running his thumb across her knuckles like they were beads on an abacus and he only had four things to count. Scully stared out the window.

Sirens and lights and lane changes and through the mesh, he caught the captain's eyes in the rearview mirror. Her mascara was smudged just a bit at the corner of her eye.

"Is Stan..." Mulder tried to ask.

"Yes. Last six years, on and off. This month was an off."

Six years off and on. Mulder rubbed Scully's hand.

It smelled less like death and more like dinner, the combination of natural gas and charred wood and stone and maybe, somewhere in there, flesh. Scully swallowed bile. She didn't know what she was expecting, but it wasn't this. Not this crowded festival of chaotic efficiency, a tribute to her brother and a match. There were hundreds of people, hundreds of hundreds, too stunned to comprehend what had happened and too fascinated to look away, like it was an adventure, a televised special breaking up an otherwise mundane Texas Thursday.

Flashing badges, Scully, Mulder and Stachansky pushed through the parking lot at the refinery, navigating a circus of fire trucks and shouts and newscasters and cameras and a tight knot of Mexican women weeping.

"Mi marido y mi hijo trabajan aqui en la noche!" one of them shouted at Scully, waving her arms. "Y su rotacion era principio justo -- que si ellos habia? Como sabre si estan viva? Mis muchachos! Usted tiene que ayudarme!"

Scully recognized "help" in there, maybe, and "husband," but she couldn't even begin to think of how to respond. Stachansky brushed by and clapped a hand on the woman's shoulder.

"Deje a los bomberos hacer su trabajo," the captain said gruffly. "Le ayudaran tan pronto como puedan."

The woman looked like she wanted to say more, but Stachansky was making her way toward the building and Mulder and Scully followed, their eyes to the ground against the ripples of gas and flame. The heat was thick, angry, present and oppressive. A young firefighter in protective gear and a ponytail intercepted them several yards from the blaze. CARD was stenciled across the shoulders of her jacket.

Stachansky reached down and flashed her badge again, but Card just shook her head. "You can't be here in street clothes," the firefighter said. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave and let us do our job."

"I'm looking for an employee of the refinery who would have been on tonight," Stachansky said. "Stan Ciccorelli."

The woman shook her head again, ponytail slapping the backs of her shoulders. "Have no idea, ma'am. We've only just gotten started here. You can ask one of the uniforms doing crowd control, but I don't think anyone knows a thing about casualties yet."

The captain nodded, and with a final warning glance Card turned away, tucking her ponytail under her helmet and heading back toward the fire.

"Um...wait here, or something," Stachansky said to Mulder. "I'll be right back."

Scully somehow doubted that as she watched her elbow through the throng, back toward the cops working crowd control along the perimeter of the lot. There were people everywhere, closing in on all sides, here in the heat along the caravan of sawhorses blocking off the hook and ladder and the hoses arching foam on the fire. Everyone who wasn't shouting in English or Spanish was chattering or crying and all the voices went up at the ends, questioning, hoping, begging.

Scully caught the phrase "a hundred and ten people working tonight," and she knew Mulder heard it too because he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to his chest. Her head still throbbed and she rubbed three fingers across the bruise on her forehead, rolling the scab open and feeling her fingertips get wet with blood.

"Are you sure you want to be here?" Mulder asked, smearing the blood on her forehead away with his thumb.

"No, I'm not," Scully said. She looked past him at the building, white-yellow flames shooting geysers through black smoke. The fire smacked like a flag in the wind, hissing streams of gas from the silos into the darkening sky. All around, red-shrouded firefighters hollered commands and shouldered hoses, the slender streams impossibly weak against the inferno. "God, how could he do this, Mulder? A hundred and ten people."

"I'm so sorry, Scully," Mulder spoke softly. It was hot, too hot and she stank of smoke and sweat and gas and Mulder did too. Dusk was settling, the sky grey beyond greyer billows of smoke. "We'll find him," Mulder said.

She let her arms drop to his hips and crawled her fingers around his back, clutching her right wrist with her left hand.

"I don't know if I want to anymore," she said, not knowing what that meant. Mulder was trying to be helpful, trying to say what she wanted to hear but there were no useful words anymore, and no clear answers. Charlie's sister had become his prosecutor; Dana's brother had become her suspect. Lines were blurred now and it didn't matter. "But I know we have to do this. We've got to solve this case, Mulder. We've got to find him and find out why he's doing this and go home. We've been here too long."

"We've been here a day and a half," Mulder shook his head. "It just feels like a lifetime."

"It's a lifetime for Charlie," Scully sighed, relaxing her hold on Mulder and stepping back. "Life in prison, when we find him."

"Well, it doesn't have to be us, Scully." Mulder wrestled out of his jacket, revealing long ovals of sweat down the sides of his dress shirt. "The cops can take care of it. It's not even really an FBI matter, and the only reason we're here is that it resembled an X-File."

Scully set her jaw. "No, Mulder," she said, staring at his chest. "The reason we're here is that Charlie's my brother and I thought I could take care of him. But I can't. Not if he's the kind of person who does things like this." With a sideways look she took in the flames, the building, the crowd.

"Okay," Mulder agreed. "But you want to continue working the case?"

She sighed. "I have to. I need to know why he's doing this."

"Understandable," Mulder said. "So we'll do it, as partners, you and me. Like we've investigated every case for the last seven years. Together."

A knot formed around her heart at his words and she fought the tears that wanted to come for his kindness. There was no room for sentiment here with ash in her hair and ash in her throat and sour sweat tracing dirty lines down her face. Instead she said, "Thank you."

"That's why they pay me the big money," he smiled.

She gave the fire one last look. Paramedics were loading gurneys into ambulances, soot-blackened faces watched, looking scared. Every now and then she heard a sigh of relief, tears of relief as a wife and husband were reunited, smudging each other's cheeks with kisses of ash.

"Let's go," said Scully.

"Okay," Mulder said, pulling back and taking her hand.

Delgado and Bennett were sliding up to the curb when they got there and far from the fire now Scully shivered in the cold.

"Thought we'd come see some of the excitement," Delgado said, getting out of the car. Then he flushed. "Oh, man, I'm sorry, Agent Scully."

She nodded, gripping Mulder's hand tighter.

"We want to get back to the hotel," Mulder said. "Can you take us? We lost Captain Stachansky back there."

"Probably trying to track down Stan," Delgado nodded. He scanned the crowd and his eyes brightened. "Well, look at that!"

Scully turned to follow his eyeline in time to see Stachansky, fifty yards away at the edge of the mob, throwing her arms around a black-stained man in an industrial jumpsuit.

"I want to go give that sonofabitch a slap on the back," Delgado said. "Rick, take these kids back to their hotel, won't you?"

"Agent Mulder. Agent Scully. If you'll get in the car?" Bennett circled the prowler and got in, leaving Mulder and Scully to slip in the back seat after him.

She was chilled, sweat evaporating and gooseflesh rising on her arms in the inhuman freon rush of air conditioning as they pulled onto the avenue. She could hear on the radio, tuned down to a respectful purr, Blondie singing "Heart of Glass."

Scully wriggled out of her jacket and pulled it across her chest upside-down like a blanket, leaning on Mulder's shoulder. He wrapped his arm around her.

"You don't have to do that." Her teeth chattered. "I'm fine, Mulder."

"I know you are," he said, hugging her closer. "You're keeping me warm."

"Okay," she said, smiling weakly. "I can do that."

"Good," he said to her scalp, his lips pressed against her head. "Good."

She looked out the window past him at the shuddering clouds of grey burbling over the sky. Somewhere behind them the sun was setting, but the orange of sun and the orange of fire were indistinguishable, the works of life and death, of God and Charlie.

"It's not your fault, you know," Mulder said. Scully nodded. He thought it was a conclusion, but it was one she'd already come to and it hadn't changed a thing.

"It doesn't matter," she said simply. "A hundred and ten people, Mulder."

He didn't have a response to that, but she didn't mind. She didn't expect one.

"Once I fell in love, and it was a gas..."

They rode the rest of the way, sweating and frozen in silence.

Fifteen miles and a long shower should have put him out of range, but he could still see it, the black smoke sulking like a bad mood somewhere between the horizon and the sky.

The day's suit was on the floor of the bathroom, smelling like death and reminding him of Scully's pale, sweaty face and the way her fingers had pressed on his spine as he'd held her. She hadn't cried because she thought she was angry instead of scared, and he worried there was something wrong with her that she couldn't tell the difference.

There was nothing on TV except coverage of the fire and that was the last thing he needed to see, some local news station with a helicopter and no sense of decency hovering over the scene while a blonde in a headset yelled about estimated fatalities and predicted property damage.

Mulder booted up his laptop and stood there at the table, looking out the window while the computer muttered and checked its pockets for hard drives and available system memory. The sun had almost set, blending the refinery's smoke into the clouds and the night, but imperfectly, like someone had spilled charcoal there and then tried to wipe it away with the side of his hand.

One final shimmy and the laptop hummed the Windows 98 theme song to itself while it loaded the desktop. Mulder pulled a chair back from the table, but there was a knock at the door before he could sit down.

The peephole showed Scully dressed in a clean suit -- skirt ironed, hair brushed, heels polished, face composed. She looked whole and awake and he decided to try and keep her that way.

He smiled as he opened the door, but she headed straight for the window. He turned, ready to distract her, but the sun was gone and there was nothing to see but their reflection in the glass, Scully, arms crossed, Mulder behind her, looking blurry and indistinct in his slacks and undershirt.

"That file is still in the rental," Scully said to his reflection.

"And which file is that?" Mulder teased.

In the glass, her face changed, and he watched as it shifted into a sly grin. She raised an eyebrow at him and he crossed the room to stand next to her and that eyebrow.

"Which file?" he needled and she gave him a smug look. "Scully!" he laughed, poking her in the hip.

"The file from the Carrier Pigeon," she said, turning to gloat at him. Her eyes flicked down to his bare feet and he felt his toes curl into the carpet.

"Oh, you mean the file that you stole, Agent Scully?"

"Found," she corrected, sitting down in front of his laptop and playing the pointer across the screen. "I want to DO something, Mulder."

His toes liked that too and wanted to wriggle over to where she was and DO something, but the rest of Mulder knew what she meant. "Why don't I call the Gunmen and get some insider dirt?"

Scully nodded and launched a program. He wondered what she was looking for.

The room phone resisted him, and it took approximately three minutes to dial all the numbers required to reach the Lone Gunmen.

Langly answered the phone. "Lone Gunman."

"It's Mulder."

"Hey Mulder, get this, in reality there is no such thing as 'Attention Deficit Disorder.' It's a manufactured 'syndrome' created by the government in order to rein in free thinkers. Get 'em when they're young and keep 'em stoned 'til they die. That way they don't grow up to challenge the dominant power, you know? I mean, Ritalin's some bad shit, it's like giving toddlers crack. It shrinks their brains, makes 'em stupid and complacent -- and that's just what They want, a brave new world, Mulder, where everyone's watching Happy Days reruns and drooling in their oatmeal--"

There were air quotes in there. He could hear them. "Langly--"

Mulder's cell rang from his suitcase. The phone cord didn't reach and he gave an impatient hop.

Scully laughed at him. Pulling his cellular away from a clingy sock, she hit TALK and did so: "Mulder's suitcase."

"--they created a 'disorder' so they could 'diagnose' and 'treat' it, but it's just another method of thought control, perpetuated by the medical community and endorsed by Kathie Lee and 20/20. Better living through chemical means, it's Prozac all over--"

"Langly," Mulder interrupted again.

"He's on the phone," Scully said.

"What can I do for you, buddy?" Langly asked, with no sense of irony regarding his own attention disorder.

"What do you know about a group called the Carrier Pigeons?"

Langly snorted. "Bunch of crackpots. Their thinking is deeply flawed. They've obviously got no understanding of causal relationships or even simple rhetoric."

"Obviously," Mulder said.

He saw Scully grab the chair she'd been sitting in. "What? He--"

The Lone Gunman rattled on. "They blame the military-industrial complex for everything, man. It's like they've got no imagination at all."

Scully's back was to him, her fingers pinched white where she gripped the chair. Mulder already knew the cord wouldn't reach. He hung up on Langly.


She collapsed more than sat down, knees together, feet splayed out, her expensive high heels making her look out of place in her distress, like a stockbroker crashing right beside her clients' portfolios.

He knelt next to her chair. "Scully, what is it?"

"They found him."

Mulder touched her knee.

Her face turned toward the window. "They found him, and he pulled a gun, and they shot him," she reported. "Captain Stachanksy shot him."

Mulder felt a jolt go through him like an exclamation point. "Scully!"

She looked down at him. "He's dead," she snapped, as if it were in some way his fault.

Strangely afraid of her, Mulder crouched at her feet like a clumsy servant and tried to find something to say.

"Oh, fuck." Her fists came down on her thighs, then flattened out, fingers spread open like starfish. "I have to call my mother," she spat, pushing at the table.

"Why don't you wait until you're--"

Standing over him, she seemed a hundred feet tall. "It can't wait, Mulder. I have to call now."

He couldn't watch her do this, settle down into her anger and hide there in its cave. "Scully, you shouldn't--"

She stepped past him to get to the phone. "That's not a choice I get to make."

Mulder pushed himself to his feet. "Scully, don't."

Her back was to him again. "I have to, Mulder. She has to know, and no one is going to do it but me."

"I will."

"You can't," she argued. "This is my responsibility."

"I can do this for you, Scully. I want to."

"This is a family thing, Mulder. It doesn't concern you."

"I am your family, Scully, and you're more family than I've ever had. I think that means we're allowed to take care of each other."

Her sigh sounded like something she'd been holding for years.

Moving to stand at her steady back, he reached around her, arm low across her waist, fingers meeting the sharp line of hipbone. "Scully," he said into her hair, "I'm so sorry."

He held her and tried to prepare himself for the moment she would pull away.

When she shifted her weight, he loosened his hold so she could leave, but she surprised him. Turning around, she pressed her face into his shirt and rubbed her hands across his back briefly. "Andi shot him, but I would have done the same thing."

Stepping back without looking at him, she said, "Excuse me," and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

Mulder knew the phone number, but the voice that answered sounded old and unfamiliar.

"Mrs. Scully?"

"Yes, who is this?"

"It's Fox Mulder, Mrs. Scully--"

She interrupted him immediately. "What's wrong?"

"Mrs." Mulder stopped for a second, long enough that she might suspect something was wrong, making it easier for him to break the news. "Charlie's dead. He was shot while resisting arrest. I'm sorry."

"He's dead? But-- Where's Dana? I want to speak with her."

Mulder glanced at the bathroom door. "She's resting, Mrs. Scully."

There was a long pause, then, "When are you coming home?"

"Soon, tomorrow," he said, nodding.

"Take care of her, Fox."

"I will," he promised.

Mulder tapped on the door to the bathroom. "Scully?"

The sink shut off and he heard her clear her throat. "Just a second."

When the door finally opened, Scully was three inches shorter, her high heels kicked off and mingling on the bathmat. She'd washed her face, and now that her makeup was gone her skin looked pale and blotchy, like she'd been out in the sun too long, which she probably had.

Shrugging out of her jacket, she crossed to the bed and sat down. Mulder followed her, asking, "What can I do for you, Scully?"

She gave a small laugh. "Actually, what I'd really like is a drink."

He put a hand to his chest and pretended to be shocked. "You mean crack the sacred seal of the minibar?"

"Yes, and bring me one of those glasses from the bathroom," she ordered.

"How tawdry," Mulder said, taking her jacket from her and draping it across the back of a chair.

The minibar opened with a pop and he peered into its shelves, pushing the tiny bottles around and feeling like a giant in a dollhouse. "We've got cheap scotch, generic vodka and expensive rum."

"Cheap scotch please."

He snagged two. "Ice?"

"No," she said, sitting back against the headboard and crossing her legs at the ankle.

Mulder found himself strangely attracted to a bag of cheese curls and grabbed that too, realizing they hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast, which felt so far away it could have been a memory from another life.

Flipping the paper hat off one of the water glasses, he unscrewed the scotch and upended the bottle with a flourish.

"Cheap scotch for the lady." Handing Scully her drink, he moved up next to her on the bed. "How are you doing?"

The cheese curls wouldn't open and his teeth tugged at the bag.

"Guilt. Scotch tastes like guilt."

Startled, he stopped chewing on the orange plastic. "Scully?"

She took a sip of her drink, her bare arm brushing against his. "Do you feel guilty about this?" he asked softly.

"I let him get away, and now he's dead. And I couldn't even tell my mother, I let you do it."

Mulder dropped the cheese curls and turned toward her. Using both hands, he ran his fingers over her cheeks, nudged her hair behind her ear, looked into her eyes. "You don't have to be strong for everything," he told her. "You can let me help. It doesn't mean you've lost."

She looked back at him with those eyes, and he thought he understood. Still holding her drink, she reached for him and the glass pressed against his neck, clammy and warm from her hand while she hugged him and he took her in close, wrapping her in his arms and hoping he could somehow be enough for her.

"Wait, don't move," she said, her hands fumbling against the back of his neck.


She giggled. "Shh, let me--"

He could feel the glass sliding from her grip. "Scully--"

"Here," she said with another laugh, finally recapturing her drink and leaning back to smile at him.

"Scully," he said sternly.

"Nearly doused you with cheap scotch there, Mulder."

"Trust me, I've been doused with worse." Keeping an arm around her, he leaned back so she was tucked into his side.

"I'm not sure about that, Mulder. This is really cheap scotch. It would probably eat through your shirt." She put the glass down on the nightstand, then picked up his bag of cheese curls from where it had fallen between them. "But then, if you were planning on eating these, nothing I could say could possibly scare you."

"They're high in niacin," he insisted.

"Sure they are," she said, pulling the bag open and offering it to him.

Radioactive orange never looked so good.

While he ate his way to an early grave, she leaned her head against the wall. "I want to be on the next flight home."

"Yes," he said. "I'll get us tickets."

"On behalf of the entire Dallas-based flight crew, we'd like to thank you for flying American Eagle flight 1588 with continuing service through Dallas/Fort Worth."

That was the captain, and for no good reason Scully wanted to know his name. The stewardess -- or flight attendant, she supposed -- had introduced him in the ritual PA announcement, though ritually Scully hadn't been listening. She hadn't paid attention to the safety mime either. Now, that seemed like bad luck, like she was asking for trouble, like she'd been cocky and overconfident, and she felt superstitious and jinxed.

"Our lives are in his hands, Mulder," she said, as the captain prattled on about Gulf Stream currents.


"What would you do, if we crashed?" she asked.

"Stick my head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye," Mulder grinned. "I might do that anyway, though."

She smiled at him for the unprovoked flirtation, but continued to plow her morbid ditch. "In the past seven years the size of my family has decreased by half. Who's next to go? Me? Probably me."

It was cruel and she watched his face for a long moment, waiting for him to agree or disagree. She didn't know why she was affecting the defeatist attitude, but the stovetop pessimism was delicious and already she was feeling better. She refused to think the name "Charlie."

"Scully," Mulder said.

"I know," she said. His expression was crossed with concern for her, confusion, exasperation. He was at a loss, but she was too and in an hour they'd be touching down in Dallas, then on to DC and Mom and all this floating, imaginary pain would be real again. Charlie. Damn. "Sorry."

"It's okay," he said. "You know, you should really get some sleep. Even if it's just a power nap. I'll loan out my shoulder for a modest fee if you're interested."

"Why did this happen to him? He wasn't always like this. He was normal, not crazy, not paranoid and crazy and yelling about aliens." Scully spun the tiny dial on the armrest, turning its volume up to ten, then back to zero.

"I could try and..."

"He was normal," she insisted, trying to forget everything she'd ever learned about Texas.

"There was probably a point in his life," Mulder said slowly, "when he started to doubt his importance, his worth. He somehow met up with the Carrier Pigeons, or a group much like them, and he found something he could be a part of. He was given knowledge that made him special, one of the few clued in to what was really going on. He was going to save the world, Scully. He was just too far gone to realize he was the one putting it in danger."

It could have been Mulder, unwashed and insane, prying at the hinges of reality and waiting for aliens to come tumbling out the crack. Instead he was here with her, steady and mostly sane, a man who would protect her and yell at her and, perhaps most importantly, wait for her.

She squinted at him. "If I died, would you remarry?"

His mouth dropped open and she laughed out loud.

Blinking, he might have understood what she wanted. "Never," he said. "I'd sit on my couch and stare at my fish and pine away for you."

"Oh good," she said. "I'll take you up on that shoulder, then."

She'd already scrunched up her jacket and stuffed it against the back of the seat. Shifting on the pilled polyester, she leaned on Mulder's shoulder and poked her hands, together in prayer, under her cheek like a child.

Mulder wormed a hand under the jacket and wrapped his arm around her. His shoulder smelled like airplane combined with affection, something familiar there as they sailed through space. "Thank you," she said in a small voice.

"Always," he said, in a voice equally small, low and creaky like he didn't want to wake her.

They had only been in Texas two days. Two full days, but it felt like eternity and then some, her whole life flashing in the face of her brother, now alive, now mad, now dead at the hands of law enforcement. Somehow that would have to be explained to her mother, explained and excused and all done somehow without Scully flashing her badge and without Scully trying to pretend it was all okay.

But Mulder was holding her close to him, the most comfortable excuse she'd ever slept against. Mulder was here, as he'd always been, strong like an outsider and chivalrous like a partner and wrapped around her like a lover and a friend. She'd tortured him this week in an effort to spread the pain across a wider surface area, and as willing protector he'd unrolled and taken it on.

Thick with sleep and itchy-eyed, she thought that made her strong enough to go through this with him, but as she drifted off she realized he'd provided far greater a service. He'd made her strong enough to do this alone.

"Mulder," she muttered, lips moving across his sleeve, "I'm going to stay with Mom for a few days when we get home, I think. Until the funeral, anyway."

"Good idea," he said. "I'm always around if you need me, you know."

She knew.

The next thing she heard was the sound of shuffling, overlapping voices and the clack of seatbelts being unbuckled and baggage compartments opened. She opened one eye to see that the plane was stopped on the tarmac and the aisles were packed with passengers shouldering carry-on bags and plastic sacks and children.

Their connecting flight was in twelve minutes, way the hell across the terminal and out like a cork they popped from the jetway, elbowing past families and taxi drivers with cardboard signs.

"Can you run in those heels?" Mulder asked, and Scully shot him a look. He grinned right back. "Let's do it, then," he said.

Slipping her hand into his, hoisting her bag over her shoulder and letting it catch on the pointy bit of bone there, they took off down the carpeted corridor, her shorter strides matching his lopes as they leaped and bumped and raced their way to Gate 37B.

There was a parking spot right in front of the cemetery gate, grey pavement and a storm drain in a space just exactly the right size for the Lexus LS200 Mulder was driving, but he drove past it and parked half a mile away on a winding side street under a heavy drooping willow.

Somehow it would have seemed presumptuous, arrogant even to take such a good parking spot, here twenty minutes early for someone else's family funeral, and besides that, he wanted the walk.

He hadn't seen Scully in days. He'd thought once of calling but decided against it, knowing that she'd find him if she needed him, and knowing that she needed this time alone. She'd told him about the funeral in an e-mail.

It had rained all morning, but now it was clear and grey, shadows cast long and black like photo negatives, and the air was warm and thick with the mildewed scent of wet pavement. The Scullys were all there by the time Mulder walked through the gate and he stepped off the path and onto the forgiving and squishy grass to watch a while before making his presence known. It was four o'clock.

Mrs. Scully was in a black suit that had been so often washed and was so faded it had retreated to a kind of grey, a testament to too many funerals just like this one. She was standing with her heels together near the gravesite, talking to the priest with her head down and her shoulders tight and raised like dove wings, her fingers knitting together in front of her.

Bill Jr., with sad eyes, gave his wife a stick of gum.

Beside them, Matthew was fidgety, tugging on his father's slacks and asking about something that could only be the name of a Pokemon character. Bill raked a hand through his son's hair idly and didn't say a word.

Mulder stopped walking and let his heels sink into the mud. Scully had approached the child, and in a skirt too short to cover her knees she knelt in the damp grass so she was face to face with Matthew.

She was talking to him in a low voice, smiling, taking him by both hands and swinging his pudgy arms gently from side to side. She took off her watch and handed it to the boy, wrapping an arm around him and bringing his face close to hers so they could both see the digital readout as she pressed the buttons and made the Indiglo light up.

Matthew tittered and snatched the wristwatch from Scully's hands, trotting off somewhere to experiment.

Mulder recognized it all, the watch, the look. He'd been at a lecture once, rolling a pencil between his hands with serious thoughts of a ceiling attack when Scully had taken off her watch and handed it to him, leaned in so close he could feel her breath through his shirt as she whispered conspiratorially about the buttons. She'd been so close he could hear her heart beat, or maybe it was his, and forty rows back they giggled together. She had rescued him.

And here, surrounded by death and whispers, Mulder knew Scully had done the same thing with Matthew.

She had taught him to play Space Invaders.

Setting his jaw, Mulder strode across the path again, leaving wet footprints behind him on his way toward the congregation and their rows of folding chairs and Scully.



"You okay, Scully?"

He reached down to help her to her feet, and her black-stockinged knees were stained with ovals of mud and grass. She brushed at them ineffectively.

"I'm fine, Mulder," she said. "This is the easy part. Yesterday was harder. The day before that was even harder. You know how it is."

He did. They both knew, too well, the striated mourning rituals and the long nights spent afraid to make weak jokes, afraid to drink and afraid to laugh through the cloud of impossible pain. Such is life, the way of things, crowds thinning out at every subsequent funeral until some day the last man standing would set the rock on the gravestone of his lover and get back in the car and drive away.

It was a beautiful service.

The family took turns speaking and it was obvious no one knew quite what to say. Bill dwelled on early childhood memories, speaking often of Melissa with a story about the night they'd all broken into the cockpit of a C-160 transport plane and poked at the powerless dials, high on the thrill of breaking the rules and dwarfed by the power of the equipment they couldn't use. He choked over tears and Mulder wasn't sure if they were meant for Charlie or for Bill himself, embarrassment for his own inadequacies. But funerals were for the living, not for the dead, and Mulder found himself more sympathetic toward Scully's older brother than he'd ever been, even when the eulogy was completed and Bill settled into his folding chair again, complete and average and perfect with his blonde wife and son.

Mrs. Scully remembered Charlie over a lump in her throat, and called him "my baby boy."

Scully, with a stack of index cards, spoke last. She left out the details of the case in Corpus Christi, instead talking about Charlie's passions in the abstract, his peculiar brilliance, his hell-bent desire. Mulder wanted to reach out and touch her, wrap his arms around her and tell her it was okay, not to worry, as she thumbed through the three-by-fives and looked at everyone and no one. "In many ways," she said, "he was the most daring of us all. And possibly also the most honest."

When she was finished she took her seat beside Mulder and allowed him to slip his hand in hers. Her spine was straight, her eyes were dry, and he saw a strange mixture of love and pride in her face as she watched the congregation shovel dirt onto the plain pine box.

And then the coffin was buried and the chairs were folded again and the priest was thanked and there was hugging and tears and the nervous lull as friends and family waited and wondered how long was appropriate to stand and mourn before returning to their homes and their lives.

Scully left with Mulder, though he hadn't expected her to. She was silent as they walked, and he didn't know what to say so he was silent too. She was beautiful, more beautiful, perhaps, than he'd ever known her to be, shouldering the weight of this death and this responsibility with enough strength to wipe away her mother's tears, make arrangements for a headstone and teach her nephew to play Space Invaders in the peaty late afternoon. Mulder was awed as he realized how familiar this was to her, how natural and human and sensible in its own illogical way. Death came at the end of life for the dead, but it came over and over again for the living, with each new funeral ticking off the passing seasons along with grey in the hair and slack in the flesh. And for Scully it had come far too often, but yet her faith and her science allowed her to accept it, accept it and move on.

One day she would be gone, or he would, and the last man standing would pick a flower and say a prayer.

He circled to the passenger's side of the Lexus and let her in. One day he would be alone, or she would, but the other would go on. Death was an uncanny business, but it was theirs, and with it came the occupational hazard of mortality.

She was staring through the windshield and he wanted to wrap her in his arms and feel her heartbeat against his, his Scully, his love and his everything, here and alive surrounded by bodies and bones and loves lost. He smiled through the open window, and she smiled back, leaning out into the late-spring air. The willow had wept and the hood of the car was blanketed with sprigs of brown and green. Mulder brushed them aside.

Supporting himself with a hand in the passenger's side window, he crouched down and looked in at Scully, strong as she ever was.

"You did great today," he said. "I'm proud of you." And those weren't the right words but she knew what he meant, he meant that she was holding up like one of the living, and that she would carry on, and so would he, and they would not let this get them.

"Thanks," she said.

Resting his elbows on the lip of window, he leaned inside and kissed her. When he pulled away, she pursed her lips into a mournful smile and brushed her fingers against his arm.

Picking up a rock and slipping it into his pocket, he got back in the car beside her and they drove away.

The cocktail napkin had little silver stars on it, like something you'd find at a wedding or a New Year's party. Scully's sister-in-law had handed it to him under a flaky puff pastry, asking him with a nervous smile if he would like something to drink.

Scully was across the room, talking to people Mulder did not know. He stood in the corner with his napkin, balancing the delicate triangle in the palm of his hand and watching Scully move among the black of the mourning.

He had declined Tara's offer, wanting to keep at least one hand free in case of emergency. She still stood near the banquet table where he had left her, adjusting the angle of the cocktail napkins where they fanned out beside the cheese plate. He wondered where her husband was.

In his ideal picture of marriage, the image he created to fill the gaps his parents left in him, he believed couples were supposed to protect each other from loneliness, from not fitting in. At least, that's what he wanted marriage to be. Searching the black hole of murmured whispers and clinking ice, he looked for Scully, but she had disappeared.

"She's in the kitchen."

Mulder turned back to Tara.

"Dana's in the kitchen," she told him.

"Oh," he said, nodding a few times, moving past her and down the narrow hall.

Scully was sitting at the Formica table with her mother, their hands clasped over a haphazard pile of bills and craft projects. Mulder put his napkin and pastry down on the counter, wiped his sweaty hands on his pants.

"Mulder," Scully said, and for a moment he thought she was scolding him, but her hand was out and she was trying to smile.

There was a sudden wail from the living room, the sound of a two-year-old realizing he's not the center of the universe and doing everything to change that.

Mrs. Scully stood with a laugh. "Matthew," she explained, touching Mulder's arm on her way out of the room.

Scully had apparently given up on smiling. She pushed a red and blue Priority Mail box across the table. "Captain Stachansky sent us Charlie's things."

Mulder picked it up, and Scully handed him a pair of plastic safety scissors that were lying on the table.

"Does this mean I have to sit at the kids' table at Thanksgiving?" he asked, giving some trial snips in the air with the bright yellow scissors.

This time it was a real smile. "I'm not sure I could handle you and Matthew at the same table. That's a lot of whining."

The scissors were so safe that the tape barely acknowledged them, admitting only a little denting and no actual defeat. Mulder tossed them back on the table and went for a steak knife.

Scully looked up. "I'm taking the rest of this week off, but I'm coming back in on Monday after the gravestone's planted."

"Good idea." Mulder hefted the package in his hands. It made a shushing noise.

"Mulder." Scully was looking right at him. "I love you."

It was not what he expected from her. On his worst days it wasn't even something he wanted.

"I love you," she said, not as if it were new to her, but as if she had known and finally decided that he should as well. "You are my family," she said, "and I want you with me."

Mulder dropped to the empty chair. "Scully," he whispered. The box was forgotten and he took her hands instead.

"You need to know," she said, fingering his cheek, "that you are important to me. This last week made me realize how much."

They were in the kitchen of a house that was celebrating one more life, one more death, and it was almost gruesome to have new love there, to be before her with blurry eyes and too much happiness for a funeral. But the entire world could walk into that kitchen and he would stay there, staring at her and her staring back. And somewhere in there there was a lesson to be learned, a fable or a moral or a punchline, beyond crudites and hors d'oeuvres and the black sea of mourning for a loved one gone wrong and slipped and bad, but the only thing Mulder could think was that she'd said she loved him. She knew.

Mulder squeezed Scully's hand and got to his feet.

Picking up the shipping container, he poked the tip of the steak knife through the packing tape and sliced it open. Inside was a wallet, a man's watch, the folder they'd left in the rental and a handful of things you'd find in someone's pocket.

Handing Scully the wallet, he opened the folder. It looked like something the Gunmen had scraped up, none of it making any sense except to the paranoid minds that put it together. Mulder blinked at a grocery receipt for beer, ketchup, and cigarettes, and wondered if it actually belonged in the file or if it was being used as a bookmark.


She had a piece of paper. The back was covered with writing, black veins of smeared ink.

Scully stood up too quickly, tripping on her chair. Mulder grabbed her arm and she pushed the paper at him like she was afraid it wouldn't let her go.

"Scully," Mulder grunted, trying to hold her up as she backed into him.

The paper was falling to the floor, sliding back and forth, swinging in the air the way paper does.

Scully's foot came down on his shoe. "Mulder, it's--"

The page slid to the ground, a face spinning on the clean floor. "It's him!" she said, grabbing a handful of his waistband. "That's Halifax, but--"

It was a man in uniform, an admiral. His hat was tucked under his arm and he was squinting in the sun, except Mulder had seen this man before and knew he always had a squint to him, as if he didn't understand how the light worked here, as if it were always too bright or too dark for him.

"He was right," Scully said into the space under his arm.

Squinting eyes, broad forehead, thick lips. Mulder had met up with this man in Alaska, seen him again in Canada, probably dreamed about him on those nights he woke up sweating and scared. He didn't know what he had been expecting. Halifax could have looked like anyone, but instead he looked like the man who could have looked like anyone, the man who bought and sold faces to further an agenda Mulder knew in whispers and screams. The face of a man without a face.

He wasn't Halifax. He wasn't even human.

And Mulder wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be looking at Scully or the floor or that face mocking him from worn creases in folded paper. Out there, black fish swam in circles mourning a friend and a brother who had known and had never been able to tell anyone who believed. But this was the echo of defeat and it wasn't foreign anymore, it was familiar, this man staring back who had beaten Mulder again and again and again. And Charlie had lost, and Scully had lost, and here, Mulder had lost something too. They stood together, people who believed, staring into the worn creases of folded paper, trapped in a cyclical history against time. Except now there was one less.

"Charlie was right," Scully said.