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Road Not Taken 7: Tsunami, The

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The Road Not Taken 7: Tsunami by deejay

TITLE: "The Road Not Taken 7: Tsunami"
AUTHOR: deejay
CLASSIFICATION: S, R/A (Story, Romance/Angst. . . and we spared no expense on the Angst!)
RATING: NC-17, for same-sexual situations and adult language. If you're under 18 -- or if you're over 18, and this isn't your kind of thing -- then do you, me, and my server a favor and go someplace else.
ADDITIONAL ANGST WARNING: Did I mention we spent no expense on the Angst? If you thought "Typhoon" was angst-ridden, you ain't read _nuthin'_ yet!
KEYWORDS: Slash story, Scully/Other romance.
SPOILERS: "Momento Mori", "Never Again", "Terma", "731", "Leonard Betts", "Max"
SUMMARY: The seventh chapter in "The Road Not Taken". Scully's cancer is revealed. Nuff said.
TIMELINE: Post-diagnosis Season 4. Takes place during February 1997.
ARCHIVE: Submitted to Gossamer, xff and the ScullySlash site. All others, please ask me first, unless I submit it to you. If either case happens, please use only my _penname_.
FEEDBACK: Questions, comments, flames and fan mail to. This story is open for discussion on atxc.
Dana Scully (and all the other Scullys who appear), Fox Mulder, Walter Skinner, Alex Krycek, and a certain unpublished author and his evil henchmen all belong to Chris Carter, 10-13 and Fox TV. I'm still not making money on this, guys, honest! Rebecca Maxfield, Bridgit Benedetto, Dianne Dietrich, Merrill Reese, the members of the Coven, and all other characters belong to Night Tripper Productions and the author, and if you try to make money with them, make room in your bed for the horse's head. Any resemblance to real-life people comes as a complete surprise to me.
Excerpts from "Naked Eye" by Luscious Jackson are also used without permission. There have been better bands, better singers, but there's something about this band that pushes my buttons every time. They're fun, they're dangerous, and you can dance to them. Who can ask for anything more?:)
One of these days I'm going to write a nice short PWP, or maybe the first XF/Homicide/Profiler/Pretender/La Femme Nikita/Men In Black crossover. Until then, here's more TRNT for you. You can find the sources of all the sub-references on the ScullySlash site (, and in novel form at the Annex.
Originally, "Tsunami" was supposed to be yet another epic, part of a two-story arc that began with "Typhoon". However, as I've now got it outlined, this segment has three distinctive parts that are pretty much freestanding. Therefore, "Tsunami" has become Part 2 of a _four_-story cycle. (I've got more arcs than a bad electrical system!<g>) Also, recreational writing time is going to be very, very short around here for the next little while, so I wanted to get something into play while I had the opportunity. I'll try and keep the time lag short between parts, but real life has a tendency to rule the waves, you know?
* The Usual Suspects -- Rad Hall, Jason Cleaver, and the inimitable eeyore -- provided tremendously useful feedback for this story, including input on whether to include a subplot that would add to both the length and the angst. They won, it's here, so blame them.:) * My partner in Slash, Saundra Mitchell, did her usual outstanding job of kicking my. . . umm, pointing me in the right direction.:) She made the story better, as usual, and I owe her a ton for everything she's done, for this series and for my writing in general. Hang in there, kiddo. Maybe next time when they have awards, people will decide to play fair. * Finally, many thanks and multiple hugs to my long lost cyber-sibling, Dana Starbuck -- not just for her invaluable input on this story (and her willingness to let me dissect the odd chapter of _her_ series, "Fletcher"), but for her humor, her insight, and her great good friendship. Thanks for showing up, sis. Wish we'd had the reunion sooner.:)
WHEW! That's not just an intro, it's a cardio work-out! The boiler's plated! Let's fire it up!


by deejay


Scully was in black from turtleneck to toe, fine attire for a late-night infiltration. Unfortunately, she stuck out like a hearse at a carnival in the colorless arcade she was prowling through. Fashion was not on her mind at that moment. She was too busy keeping her terror in a place where it wouldn't impede her actions. She alternated left and right turns, if only to make sure she wasn't going around in circles. The white-on-white-on-white corridors had no markings, and she hadn't brought anything to blaze her trail.

She had been down these passages before, only then it had been on a gurney -- strapped down, drugged to the eyeballs, unable to stop the forms in the baggy environmental suits from taking her back for more experiments. She only remembered those trips in flashes -- flashes brought to her in nightmares that left her wasted and shaking, lying in a pool of sweat when she finally pulled herself awake. The fear was lapping at her now, tying her stomach in knots, forcing down bile at every turn in a passageway.

*Only this time I'm upright,* she reminded herself. She glanced down at her Sig Sauer, sitting snugly in her two-handed grip. *This time, I'm armed. This time, I'm ready for them.* Her assurances didn't diminish the tightness in her chest, or the sweat that beaded her forehead.

Scully looked back at the other end of the corridor, wishing Mulder would come around the corner and say something helpful. She'd even accept a smartass comment, complete with his trademark Smirk. She wondered where he was. This was the kind of thing Mulder ate up with a spoon. *You've got to do this yourself,* she told herself. *For your own sake. . . Still, a little backup would not have been remiss. . .*

*Forget it. If wishes were fishes, we'd all own our own aquarium.* She kept her back to the wall as she crept down the hall, peeking around the corner before she turned down the next passageway. Her heart rate increased. Unlike the last few, this corridor had doors -- big black ones with no knobs, and small high windows near the top of each door. *Cells.*

Willing herself to take it slow, Scully sidestepped up to the first door, got up on tiptoe, and took a look. The view wasn't great; she had to shift around to see anything at all. Except for a gray futon in the far-left corner, the room was empty. The next two cells were vacant, too. *Hopefully, this is not a temporary situation,* Scully thought, shuddering.

Success appeared in the fourth cell. A naked woman was curled in the fetal position on the futon, her face turned to the wall, her body quivering like it was on an ice floe. Her short brown hair was streaked with gray, and she had a purple birthmark on her left calf. Scully examined the area around the door for anything that might suggest a hidden control panel. Nothing. *They must be opened remotely. Maybe They've got electronic keys, or it's done by a signal to some kind of Master Control.*

Scully thought about banging on the door to get the woman's attention, but she decided against it. *No sense in getting anyone _else's_ attention in the bargain,* she reminded herself. *Besides, if I can't open it, she can't either.* A quick check of the other cells found three more women, all in various stages of natural or induced catatonia, all of them naked. *Lab rats don't _need_ clothes,* Scully thought angrily as she moved from door to door.

Scully thought the last cell was empty until a woman's face suddenly appeared from below the window. Scully jumped back, barely biting back a cry of surprise. The woman's eyes nearly doubled in circumference. She was a little younger than Scully, with long curly blonde hair that had gone wild from inattention, and she looked like she'd lived all her nightmares in one day. Scully took a chance. "It's all right," she called out, willing her voice not to shake. "I'm a federal agent! You're safe!"

The woman stayed still, saying nothing. Scully was about to speak again when the woman closed her eyes as tightly as she could and backed away from the door, her lips moving. Scully couldn't hear what she said, but she could read lips pretty well. "It's just a dream," the woman was telling herself, probably in a whisper. "It's not real. . . Just a dream. . . It'll stop if I can just wake up. . ."

"Wait," Scully yelled. But the woman stepped to the left, out of Scully's view. Scully raised her hand, about to bang on the door, but she stopped herself again. *You're wasting time. Find the Control Room first. Find whoever is running this place.* She didn't even consider the difficulty of moving half a dozen naked, drugged, traumatized women from. . . well, wherever they were. . . with only a handgun to persuade their captors. Scully cursed Mulder again for his absence. She moved off down the corridor, breathing deeply through her nose. Her stomach was starting to double her over, but she pressed on.

Two lefts and a right turn brought her to a set of frosted-glass doors at the end of a passage. It was a dead end. She could see shapes moving inside. *People. . . Well, humanoid, anyway,* she amended. She counted four figures standing in a loose cluster, like they were conferring with each other. Scully sucked air through her nose. *Now or never.* She put her back to the door and pushed herself inside. "FEDERAL AGENT," she shouted, making sure to hold the Sig steady. "STAY WHERE YOU ARE!"

They were human. All too human. The well-mannered Englishman who'd spoken to her at Mulder's funeral, and to both of them in the war criminal's greenhouse, seemed shocked by her appearance. The hollow-eyed man who reminded Scully of a gargoyle, who had shown her the place (*The _alleged_ place. . .) where they'd worked on her all those months ago, fixed her with a baleful stare. A third man, dressed like the others but a lot younger, spun around and reached inside his jacket. Scully shot him without a second thought.

The man dropped to the ground without a cry, his Glock flying across the room. The well-mannered man looked down at his dead body, aghast. The gargoyle looked down, too, but never changed expression. The fourth man hadn't moved. He was still facing the glass panel on the wall next to the men, his back to Scully. There was activity on the other side of the window, but Scully couldn't see what was happening. Now the fourth man turned slowly to her, his breathing as controlled as his expression. He had an open Zippo lighter in his right hand and an unlit Morley between his lips.

Scully's legs were starting to shake. She had to bear down hard to keep control. "By the wall," she said firmly, pointing momentarily at the wall to her left with her gun barrel. "Hands where I can see them." When nobody moved, she fired a round into the ceiling above them. "NOW!"

A small snowstorm of plaster drifted down onto the men's heads. They didn't react. The gargoyle and the Englishman exchanged a glance, then looked at their colleague. He started sidestepping towards the wall, never taking his eyes off Scully. The other two followed suit, making sure to keep their hands in plain sight. Scully advanced further into the room, keeping the Sig trained on her targets, circling around to maintain the distance between them. She moved to her right until she was standing next to the window. Somewhat satisfied the men were far enough away that they couldn't get her with one lunge, she turned her head and looked through the glass.

It was an operating theater, with men (Men? Women? Other?) bustling about in environment suits. They went about their respective business unaware of, or disinterested in the gunshots that still rang in the observation booth, all of them facing away from the woman on the operating table. Scully's throat closed, strangling the cry that escaped from her.

There was a tube in Max' throat. Electrodes attached to her chest led to an EKG monitor; two more electrodes were taped to each temple. They had an IV drip running into each arm. Her eyes were open, fixed blankly on the ceiling. Her hair was covered by a cloth cap, the only thing she wore.

Scully swung her head around, her breath coming in gasps. The men hadn't moved a muscle. She pointed the Sig at the man with the cigarette in his mouth. *Cancer Man,* she thought distractedly. "Get her out of there," she hissed. He seemed to consider the order. Then he lit the Zippo and touched the flame to the end of the Morley, his eyes focused on the tip of the cigarette. The movement nearly got him killed; Scully almost shot him in the chest. She put the Sig's T-sight right between his eyes. "GET HER OUT OF THERE!"

His eyes never left his task. When the cigarette was properly lit, he closed the lighter and sucked in a fair amount of smoke, bringing his other hand slowly to his lips as he lowered the hand with the lighter. Taking the cigarette out of his mouth, he blew smoke towards Scully. His voice had a disinterested inflection to it, and his eyes had all the emotion of a mannequin's. "And if I refuse?"

Scully's eyes narrowed. *Sorry, Mulder.* She bit down hard on her back teeth and pulled the trigger.



Click, click, click.

The man smiled as he took another puff. Scully's jaw dropped. *The slide's not back! The clip _can't_ be empty. . .*

Hands grabbed her from behind and spun her around. She barely registered Krycek standing in front of her before he shot her in the chest. She expected pain, shock, gushing blood. But there was only a slight stab, then a growing sense of numbness. *Tranquilizer.* Krycek's expression was cruel as he watched her fight her captors less and less. Her last thought before the strength left her was, *Where's his other arm?*

Now only her mind fought as they dragged her out of the room through another set of doors. *No. No. Not again. Please God, not again, please don't let them. . .* They were in the theater. Another table was being wheeled into position by a fresh set of shapeless technicians; the table was parallel to Max, but there was enough space so two surgical teams could work at the same time. Scully couldn't turn her head, so she only got a glimpse of Max before they slid her onto the table and started cutting off her clothes.

She tried to call to Max, but she was unable to speak. Her jaw hung loosely from its hinges, and her tongue was a dead weight. *Max,* her mind shrieked. *Max! Don't worry, honey, don't be scared, I'm here, it'll be okay, oh God no please somebody please help us. . .* They were trying to insert an airway when she found some untapped reserve of strength and let out a ringing scream.

The bedside lamp gave the room its only light as Scully found herself sitting up in the hospital bed, a line of drool trailing from the corner of her mouth. She was breathing like she'd run to the top of the Washington Monument. *You're awake. You're here. You're not there. You're safe. It was just a dream. . .* It was her litany, her mantra, after the nightmares came. This time, it wasn't enough. Whether it was the chemo or the thought of Max in that horrible place, the nausea that wracked her body would not be denied. Scully barely made it to the bathroom in time.

It was getting a little too warm for Bridgit's taste, so she turned down the heater and turned up Cassandra Wilson. The tape had lived in the Neon's cassette deck since the day after Christmas. The jazz singer's silky-smooth scat singing was a welcome relief after the too-loud, too-old music at the Pouring. "So, you still wanna go tomorrow?"

"Huh?" Max was slumped down in the passenger seat. She'd been staring absently at the approaching lights of Cambridge as they drove across the Mass Ave Bridge.

"The _impound auction_, dingbat," the lanky Homicide detective intoned. "Doooo yoooo stihhhhhll wahhhnt toooo gohhhh toooomahhhrrohhhhh?"

Her compact companion shook her head like she was trying to get water out of her ear. "Jesus, is that tomorrow?"

"Attention, K Mart shoppers," Bridgit barked, her fist up against her mouth. "Tomorrow is Saturday! Please arrange your schedules accordingly!"

"Oh, man," Max groaned, rubbing her eyes. "Space, the final frontier."

"You better stop taking the term 'pouring' so literally, kiddo," Bridgit observed. Headlights flashed off her flawless latte-colored skin and polished white teeth.

"Yeah, like you're the perfect designated driver," Max shot back, irritated despite all the good cheer she'd imbibed. *She's three years younger than me, and she calls _me_ 'kiddo!'* "I was thinking about something else, that' s all."

Bridgit slowed as they reached the other side of the bridge, crossing into the corporate-collegiate land of MIT. She stayed alert, scanning the sidewalks for drunken engineering students. "If she wants to call, she'll call, Max."

"It's not _that_," Max grumped. "She's not the _only_ thing on my mind." *For _once_, anyway. . .*

"Then what's causing your zombielike attention span?"

Max was silent for a moment. "Between you, me and the upholstery, right?"

Bridgit frowned. *What's all _this_, then?* "What's said in here, stays in here."

Her partner nodded, tapping her fingers on the armrest. "Bear told me Dave Hegeman's retiring."

"Huh," Bridgit said, mildly surprised. "He's not coming back?"

"Nope," Max shook her head. "Seems the brass wanted to shift him over to Evidence Control because he's been recovering so slowly. He told them to kiss his ass. He's got 23 years, and he's two years away from Mandatory Retirement anyway. It'll be announced on Monday."

"He'll go nuts," Bridgit declared. "The man has no life outside the squad."

"I can't see him taking up stamp collecting or landscape painting," Max admitted. She had known the terminally cantankerous Homicide detective for two years, and their relationship had never risen above the level of grudging respect. Bridgit had spent her first three weeks in Homicide as Hegeman's partner. The experience was educational professionally, but agonizing personally. A high chest wound had put Hegeman in the hospital at the beginning of December. Bridgit was assigned to accompany Max on a prisoner-ferry detail a few days later; the partnership had stuck, and a friendship had developed.

"So why is this a deep, dark secret," Bridgit wanted to know.

Max considered. "Bear wants me to be Whip."

Bridgit nearly missed the red light. She braked the Neon inches from a young Jamaican couple bopping across the street, oblivious to everything but each other and the Ziggy Marley tune booming out of the sticker-covered radio on the man's left shoulder. When Bridgit was sure she hadn't hit them, she twisted around to look at Max. "No shit?"

"Ghoul Scout's Honor," Max said, holding her thumb and pinkie up in a devil sign.

*Jesus on a raft,* Bridgit marveled. In the world of the squad room, Second Whip ("Whip" for short) was the second-in-command. If a situation arose and the commander was busy or sick or snowed in, the Whip would take over. Depending on who you talked to, the Whip was either the Vice Principal or the Vice President -- either a disciplinarian taskmaster, or a useless appendage. It was also a springboard to higher rank, and to command. Only two women had held a Whip slot in the Boston Police Department in the last fifteen years, neither of them in Homicide. "The brass know he wants to do this?"

"He says Weeks will back him up." *For all the good that may do. Loot hasn't been a captain a week yet, and already he's trying to push social change in the whitest, most male-intensive police department this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Not a great plan for career longevity.*

Bridgit was thinking along the same lines as the light changed and she got moving again. "Even if the brass _does_ go for it, what're the old timers gonna say about this?"

"Who knows," Max shrugged. "I don't have any bad relationships with anyone in the squad. At least, I don't _think_ I do. Billy DeHais is next in line by seniority, but Billy and I always got along good. 'Sides, he's never made a big thing about wanting to do anything but work cases. Anything else might get between him and his softball league." Max swallowed. "Just to make sure, though. . . Bear wants me to take the sergeant's exam."

"Whoo-ahh," Bridgit exclaimed, rocking her head back. "You gonna do it?"

"The next one's in three weeks," Max said. "After that, I gotta wait another six months."

"Three _weeks_? Ye Gods! That's not _near_ enough time!"

"Tell me about it. My first partner in Vice, he went out _twice_ for the exam. Carried the Big Book around with him everywhere, even to the can. He made it on the second try, but only by the skin of his ass. And that was after studying for six _months_!" She sighed again. "Bear's right, though. Those three stripes will make the idea fly a little higher."

"That's the truth." Bridgit paused. "What's this guy Reese gonna be like as a lieutenant, anyway? I mean, I know he was kickass Murder Police. . ."

"He still is," Max put in, trying not to sound testy again.

"Okay, he still is," Max said soothingly. "But _you_ know there's a big difference between being a player and being a coach. You were his partner. Can he do this? I'm not dissing him," she added quickly. "I just want to know."

Max held back a scathing response and faced the question. It was super cool to have Bear back with the squad, but Max had her own worries about the brass' decision to make him Aaron Weeks' replacement. It was a known fact that Bear hadn't wanted to get off the street. The promotion was all good, but the pay raise was negligible at best. Unfortunately, he had been given two choices after suffering his own line-of-duty injuries: Up or Out. Given his youngest daughter's insistence on going to college in California, Bear chose Up. That didn't change the fact that Aaron Weeks had spent four _years_ running Robbery before he was promoted to Homicide. Bear hadn't paid those dues, and Max knew there'd been grumbling among the other commanders who'd been angling for the job. It took _time_ to learn how to be a good shift commander. Max hoped the brass would give him that time, but somehow she doubted that would happen.

"You heard the same speech I did," Max finally said. "He says he knows he's gonna make mistakes. That's a good sign, I think. It's the guys who try to be _perfect_, try to be Super Manager that you have to watch out for." She shrugged. "We know him, he knows us. That'll help, especially in keeping the team together. Most guys, you roll your eyes and hope for the best. That's not gonna happen with Bear." *I hope.* She paused for a beat, then said, "He'll be okay."

Bridgit was glad she could hide her dubious expression in the dark of the car. *Let's hope she's right. Still sucks, though. I was just getting used to Weeks.* She scanned the Friday night crowds milling around Central Square as she pulled up to another red light. "Who was your partner? The one in Vice, I mean."

Max groaned at his memory. "Frank McMurphy."

"Frank the Tank?" Bridgit did a pronounced double take. "He was in Sex Crimes when I joined the department! You're a hell of a lot smarter than he is!"

"Doesn't say much," Max muttered. "Frankie doesn't have the sense God gave bubble wrap."

"Got the personal hygiene of Yassir Arafat, too," Bridgit added. Max snickered, remembering the six wonderful months she was paired with 'the Smoothie from Southie.' She was still convinced Vice's Whip had paired her with the twice-divorced bullying bigot to drive her back to Uniform. McMurphy seemed to subsist on sub-shop food and Dunkin Donuts, and wore the evidence of both on his seldom-ironed shirts. He chain-smoked La Corona Whiffs, rancid little Clint Eastwood cigars that came in a tin box; he lit them with wooden kitchen matches he'd strike on the wall. Between their stench, his whiskey breath, and his spotty bathing habits, driving in the winter with McMurphy was an exercise in oxygen deprivation. Bridgit bounced Max out of her reverie. "Oh shit, Max, you _gotta_ go for it!"


"The sergeant's exam, you dweeb," Bridgit said fervently. "If only to prove people with brains and talent _can_ wear three stripes in this girl's army."

Max shook her head. "Three weeks. . ."

"It can be done," her partner asserted, forgetting or ignoring her previous statement on the matter. "I'll help. I'll quiz you during lunch breaks. We' ll jam on the practice exams on the weekends. Trust me. I tutored half the UNC Swim Team my senior year. If I can get _athletes_ to get halfway decent grades, I can sure help _you_!"

A lopsided grin crossed Max' face. "How much you charge, and what do I get for the price?" *Whoa! Somebody shut that drunken woman up!*

"You get dinner," she said, passing off the innuendo. *She's _got_ to be drunk if she's flirting with _me_.* "I buy the pizza for the study breaks, you buy the dinner after they give you the stripes. How's that?"

"Deal," Max nodded, relieved that moment had come and gone without incident.

"Excellent." Bridgit turned onto Max' street. "Now, if you want to get some breakfast before the auction, we ought to meet around eight. . ."

Max sighed. "I dunno, B. . ."

"Oh, don't start _that_ shit again," Bridgit groaned. "What's this, the third time in three months your car's been in the shop? Shit, my dad smoked three packs of Winstons a day and he didn't cough and wheeze as badly as that Beretta! Time to get a new ride, kiddo."

"B, I am barely staying ahead of my bills. Nobody's gonna lend me the money to get a new set of wheels. . ."

"All the more reason to ace the sergeant's exam. The pay bump'll help keep the wolf away from the door. Besides, why do you think they call it a _credit_ union? You carry a badge and a gun, they're gonna lend you money."

"Oh yeah," Max scoffed. "They'll be _real_ quick to dole out cash for some rusted-out horror show, or some coke dealer's Carrera. . ."

"They got normal cars at these things, too," Bridgit corrected her. She patted the steering wheel. "Where do you think I got my little red roadster?"

Max goggled. "You got _this_ at the impound auction?"

"Not here, in Charlotte. Some asshole Duke frat boy got caught running a red light. He bolted, they ran him down, and found five keys of prime smoke in the trunk after they busted his ass." Bridgit's smile oozed self-satisfaction. "It took me a week to air the car out, but the deal was tremendous."

"Yeah, well, I got a feeling the _Boston_ impound's gonna be nothing but junkers and rocket ships." *Besides,* Max didn't say. *I've had that car since before I was married. I'm not _ready_ to give it up yet.*

"Hey, it's like my cat always says: 'Ya don't _know_ if ya don't _see_. Seeeeee?'"

That broke Max up somewhat. "Klondike is a hell of a philosopher."

"I sure don't keep him around because I hate my furniture." Bridgit pulled up in front of Max' building. "So. Eight o'clock?"

"I guess," Max relented. She smiled at her partner. "Thanks for the backup."

"No charge." They exchanged a low five as Max opened her door. "See you tomorrow."

"Drive careful," Max said over her shoulder, grasping the top of the doorframe and pulling herself out of the car. *Woof! Good thing I _didn't_ have the car tonight.* She slammed the door and Bridgit moved off, beeping the horn once.

Waving at the receding taillights, Max looked at her watch and then rubbed her eyes. It was almost midnight. She groaned as she headed for the sidewalk, mindful of ice patches. *Well, at least I should get _some_ sleep. I've got enough liquid sedation in me.* She sighed as she came up the front door of her building. *I ought to try and call her now. It's after midnight, she's gotta sleep _sometime_.* A fresh wave of annoyance swept through her as she opened door to the foyer. *Assuming she ever gets _home_, of course.. .* She froze, in thought and deed, holding the door wide open.

Scully looked up at her from her place on the steps in front of the inside door. She looked paler than usual, even in the cold, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

"Hey," she said softly. Her smile could only be described as feeble.

Max was still holding the door open, letting a fresh blast of Boston winter into the stone-and-tile foyer. Her first reaction was concern; Scully looked positively awful. Then a line from an old Bugs Bunny cartoon popped into her head: *'I'll be scared _later_. Right now, I'm _too_ _mad_.'*

"Hi," she finally said. Her voice was surprisingly controlled. "Lose your key?"

Scully shook her head, her face as quiet as her voice. "No."

"Does the Feebie HMO cover frostbite?"

More head shakes. "No."

*Swallow, Maxie, or you'll choke.* "Then why aren't you upstairs, waiting for me with hot chocolate and a kind word?"

Scully's gaze dropped to the chipped black-and-white tiles. "I wasn't sure I'd be welcome."

Beat. "You weren't sure you'd be welcome." Max walked in and let the door close behind her. Scully had gotten to know that door when she stayed here three months before. It was quite heavy, and if you didn't hold on to it, the pneumatic hinge would make it slam loudly. Max didn't hold on to the door. Scully didn't jump when it slammed; she didn't even look up. The lack of reaction set something off in Max. "I haven't heard from you in twelve days," she said, her bootheels clicking against the tiles as she stepped slowly towards her lover. "I remember our last conversation succinctly. You were going to Philadelphia, running down some wild goose chase Mulder insisted you handle for him, and you were pissed off about it. Then nothing. No call, no email, _nothing_. And I guess the playback function on your machine must be broken, because I left about two _thousand_ messages. . ."

"It's not broken," Scully said quietly, still not looking at her.

"Really?" Her voice began to rise as she came closer. "You don't return my messages. _Mulder_ doesn't return my messages. I lost the number to your cell phone. And I sure as shit can't call your mother, or your supervisor, or anyone _else_ who might be able to tell me whether you've been _killed_, or _hurt_, or kidnapped by Iranian terrorists, or _whatever_!" She was standing in front of Scully, her hands balled into fists. "And you're not sure if you'd be WELCOME?" Scully's eyes shut tight. Max' shout echoed around the foyer. Then she leaned down and said, quite reasonably, "You are _always_ welcome. I _love_ you. But that doesn't mean I'm not absolutely fucking _furious_ with you at this moment!"

"I should have called," Scully said penitently. "I shouldn't have worried you. I have no excuse." *For a lot of things.*

"Oh, I don't know." Max turned on her heel and walking back to the door. "Maybe you _do_, but you just don't _know it_. Let's find out _together_, shall we?" She was speaking in the singsong voice she saved for perps who were really pissing her off. *What the hell. I _am_ pissed off!* "Let's start with something _simple_." She spun around, eyes blazing. "Like where the fuck you've _been_ all this time!"

Scully swallowed as she opened her eyes; her gaze stayed on the floor. "Well," she said slowly, "for the last two days, I've been in Pittsburgh, arranging the details for the funeral I attended this morning." *Some funeral. Me, Mulder, a couple of her neighbors, and a Unitarian minister I found in the phone book. She had no family, her ex-husband didn't want to know about her, and there was no-one left in MUFON to attend. . .*

"Oh," Max said after a moment. Her voice had lost some of its strength. "Good friend, I take it."

Scully made a sound that might have been a chuckle. "I'm not sure."

A fresh burst of anger flashed through Max. "What the hell does _that_ mean?"

"Penny. . . It was her funeral. . . She claimed we knew each other quite well from. . . another time." She swallowed. "But as far as _I_ can remember, I've only seen her twice to talk to -- once last year, and the other a week ago, in the hospital where we were being. . . treated." She practically spat out the last word.

Max' bomber jacket was open, despite the hour and the season. Now she pulled it closed. The foyer seemed to have gotten colder. "Treated for what?"

*Here we go.* "A neurofibrous growth."

Blink. "A _growth_."

*Mulder didn't buy it, either.* "A tumor."

Max blinked twice in rapid succession. "Tumor," Max said levelly. The word hung in front of them. "Tumor, as in. . ."

Scully looked up. "I have cancer, Max."

Other than a slight tremor, Max didn't move or change expression. It wasn't such a neat trick. Her mind had gone completely blank. *B was right,* she thought eventually. *I shouldn't have had so much to drink. I hope somebody wakes me up pretty soon, because this dream really sucks.* Her hands clenched slowly back into fists. Max cleared her throat. It didn't make her voice any less husky. "Can they take it out?"

Scully dropped her eyes again. "No. It's located in the wall between my sinus and my brain. Surgery is impossible."

*It's a joke. It _has_ to be a joke. Come on, Scully, _please_ say 'April Fool,' I won't be mad. . .* Max turned around and looked out the small window next to the door. "But they can treat it, right? You were getting it treated. That's why you didn't call. . ."

"The treatment we were supposed to be receiving. . . turned out to be a hoax." *There's a special little torture chamber in Hell with your shingle on it, Dr. Scanlon.* "I _am_ beginning standard chemotherapy in two weeks. .." She paused. "But I'd be lying if I told you the chances were good."

*No dream. No joke.* "But there _is_ a _chance_," Max said, her voice tinged with hope. Scully looked at a corner of the floor. "There is a chance," she repeated. *You'd need a microscope to see it, but there _is_ a chance.* She remembered how frail Penny Northern looked when Scully first stepped into the hospital room, how much effort it took Penny to even smile, how horrible it must be to die by inches. The foyer was silent. Neither of them moved. Max' right hand was on the front door, as if she was going to push it open. Her silence frightened Scully more than anything else she had experienced in the last fortnight, including Leonard Betts' cryptic announcement in the ambulance did. "Please talk to me."

"They've come so far with this," Max finally said, still facing the door. Her voice was detached, almost matter-of-fact, but you could still hear that hope. "You hear the stories. Read the articles. See reports on the news. People beat this all the time." Beat. "It happened here, you know, in the department? There was a guy, a Uni named. . ." She made a dismissive gesture. "I can't remember. Anyway, they diagnosed him early, got him into treatment. He's been back on the force six months, not even on restricted duty. Riding around in a radio car like nothing happened. He's fine. . ." Her voice faltered. She started to shake. Scully pushed herself off the step and walked quickly over to her. Max was whispering, her forehead pressed hard against the glass. "Oh, Jesus. . . Oh, Jesus. . ." The shaking increased as she began to sob. "Oh Jesus, I yelled at you. . ."

Scully turned her around and pulled Max into her arms. "I worried you. I should have called. I am _so_ _sorry_. . ."

"Nohhhhhhh," Max moaned. Tears flowed like twin waterfalls as her voice rose. "N-nohhh, nohhhh, it's not _fairrrrrrrrr_. . ."

"I know, honey," Scully whispered. "I know."

"It can't. . . it cuh-cuh-cuh-can't. . ."

"Shhhhh, shhhhhh. . ." She stroked Max' hair.

"Y-y-you _can't_ die, God _damn it_!" Max took Scully' head in her hands as she took a ragged breath. "You. . . You just _got here_!"

Scully squeezed her eyes shut, somehow keeping her own tears back. She'd done it for her mother, and she did it for Max. Max started to sag. Scully went with her. They ended up sprawled on the cold tiles, Max holding on for dear life as she bawled like a newborn baby. Nobody came in or out of the building. None of the ground floor tenants came out to investigate. Either they were fast asleep or they didn't want to know.

How long they stayed like that, Scully couldn't tell. It seemed like forever. When Max seemed to be calming down, Scully took her lover's head in her hands and pulled it off her now-drenched shoulder. "There's more you need to know."

"What else do I _need_ to know," Max whimpered, totally desolate. "What else matters now. . . ?"

"This matters," Scully insisted quietly. "These are things I should have told you a long time ago. I didn't tell you because. . . well, because I was afraid they'd scare you away."

Max grabbed the front of Scully's trench coat. "Nothing could do that. _Nothing_."

*God, I hope that's true. I need you so much, now more than ever.* "Come on," Scully said, pulling Max to her feet. "Let's go get that hot chocolate."

"Can I have some bourbon in it," Max sniffled, attempting to laugh.

Scully hugged Max with one arm as she led her up the steps. "I think we're _both_ going to need some."

There was no bourbon in the apartment. The hot chocolate was instant, with the miniature marshmallows in a separate pouch. Max was sitting on the couch by the window when Scully came out of the kitchen, carrying two short glasses and a bottle of Frangelico. She sat down next to Max and filled each glass half way. They clinked glasses, something Max found oddly formal. They each took a sip, and then Scully began.

She didn't start with the abduction. She started with Duane Berry -- his history, his beliefs, his fears; the hostage crisis that brought Mulder (and then her) into the picture; Berry's kidnapping of her; the terrifying ride in the trunk of Berry's car, concussed and in shock; then Skyland Mountain, the blindingly bright light. . . and then nothing at all.

Max stayed quiet through all of it: Scully's mysterious re-appearance three months later, comatose and on the brink of death, then awake with no memory of what occurred. The nightmares, or what little Scully could remember of them. (She'd never had any when she was with Max, not even on that first night back in October.) The digital tape of Defense Department files that mentioned Scully's name. The files upon files in the West Virginia coal mine that held dossiers for Scully and Samantha Mulder. Melissa's murder -- then the capture (and disappearance) of her murderer. The chip that was found in her neck. The women of MUFON, who carried their chips like ancient talismans that were part of them, but part of something much larger. The train car where they may have worked on Scully, the train car where Mulder nearly died, and what it might have been carrying.

Scully talked about other things, to give Max background: The mission statement she received when she was assigned to the X-Files. Missing time in Oregon. Mulder missing his memory after infiltrating an Air Force base. The Erlenmeyer Flask, and how it cost a man his life. Drop Dead Red, and what it was supposed to have shot down. The roadblocks and blind alleys and labyrinthine schemes that kept Mulder & Scully no closer than a step away from the truth. Their respective theories on why the Syndicate did what they did. Samantha, and everything that surrounded Mulder's quest for her, and for the truth.

It took almost four hours. Except for a quick bathroom break, they never moved from the couch. When Scully finished, Max poured the last of the Frangelico into her glass and downed it in about three gulps. The liqueur barely touched her head, which was spinning like a top. She sat back on the couch, staring blankly into the middle of the room. "Damn, girl," she breathed, "when you tell a bedtime story, you don't fuck around." She shook her head. "Woof!" Then, "What kind of sick, twisted bastards could _do_ this. . . and _why_?"

"That," Scully said gravely, "is the sixty-four thousand dollar two-part question. We don't know _who_ these people are. Yes, we've seen them, even spoken to a few of them when the situation suited their purposes. But we're no closer to them than we were on the first day I went down to the basement. We _know_ the government is involved. Even parts of the Bureau are involved. But we can't prove it, and we can't touch the people involved. And as for the _why_. . ." She shook her head herself. "We're even _further_ away from _that_ answer." She laughed once, without humor. "We can't even agree on what the answer _might_ be!"

"Whatever it is," Max murmured, "it makes Watergate and Iran-Contra look like high school pranks."

"Yup," Scully agreed, looking into what was left of her drink.

Max looked over at Scully, doing her best to keep it together. "But you think this is connected with. . . with what you have." *Cancer. She's got cancer. Oh fuck, oh no, oh _please_ Goddess, I'll do whatever it takes. . .*

"It's the only answer I can think of, Max. I was never a big smoker. There's no family history. . ."

"Who knows about this shit, though? Look at Andy Kaufman. He did everything the doctors say you're supposed to do." She ticked off points on her fingers. "He didn't smoke, didn't drink, and didn't do drugs. Total vegetarian, no red meat at all. . ."

"Everything happens for a _reason_, Max. I don't know Andy Kaufman's history. But I _do_ know my _own_ history. And I know the history of the women in MUFON. All of them were abducted. All of them discovered chips in their neck, and had them removed. All of them contracted the same kind of tumor I have. And all of them. . ." Her voice caught. She swallowed. "All of them-"

"Stop," Max choked. She put her hand on Scully's thigh and squeezed hard.

Scully took Max' hand. "We have to be prepared for that possibility, Max."

"No," Max said firmly. "We don't. We can stop it." She shifted so her whole body faced Scully. "You know Mike works at Boston Medical Center. They've got a terrific cancer unit there. . ."

"I've got a great oncologist back home, Max," she said gently. "I have to do this in Washington, anyway. It's the only way I'll be able to stay on the X Files."

Max looked at Scully like she'd just grown antennae. "You're going to keep _working_?!"

"Max, haven't you been listening? This. . . this thing I have. . . _has_ to be connected to my work. I have to believe the cure for it, or maybe even a _clue_ to the cure, is out there, too! Mulder can't find it alone. And I can't just crawl into bed and face the wall, _waiting_ for him to find it."

"Baby, you're a doctor," Max implored. "You _know_ what chemotherapy does to people. . ."

"I know." *Boy, do I know. . ."

"You're going to be sick as a dog. You're going to have all the energy of a pet rock. . ."

"It doesn't matter, Max," Scully turned to her lover and looked her squarely in the eye. "I have to do this. It's the only way."

It usually made Max dizzy to look in Scully's eyes. Now instead of passion, she felt immeasurable sorrow. "All right," Max said after a moment. "_I'll_ come down _there_."

Scully had prepared herself for a lot of reactions, but that wasn't one of them. "How," she asked, incredulous. "They won't let you. . ."

"They don't have a choice," Max contended. "I'll take a leave of absence. If they won't give it to me, I'll quit. . ."

"No!" Scully shook her head quickly.

Scully's obstinance was starting to piss Max off. "Someone's got to take care of you. . ."

"Max, I will _not_ have you wreck your life! You've worked too damned hard.. ."

"God damn it," Max seethed, her teeth clenched. "If you _die_, my life will be wrecked _anyway_!" The dam burst, letting loose a fresh torrent of tears.

Scully took her into her arms, holding her close. *Don't yell at her, idiot! She just said she'd give up her life to take care of you! Dear Lord, whatever you may think of this, thank you for sending her to me. . .* "I'm not going to die. . ."

"You can't _say_ that," Max blubbered. "You don't _know_ that. You know you _might_! And if you do. . ."

"Shh, shh, shh. We're a long way from that yet." *Who am I saying that to --her or me?*

"I have to do _something_. . ."

Max' embrace was becoming python-like. Scully kissed her on the ear and pulled away, keeping her hands on Max' shoulders. "There is. You can give me your strength. You can give me your humor. You can give me your understanding. I need you to support me, because this is the only way I can do this. . ."

"Then why can't I come. . ."

"_But_ I will _not_ complicate anyone's life but my _own_!" She looked away for a moment. "If things. . . get bad. . . Yes, I want you with me. I want that more than anything. But _until then_, we do it this way. Phone calls. Email. Every day. Twice a day, if we need to. And I promise I will not disappear on you like I did these last couple of weeks."

"You do that again, girl, you won't have _time_ to apologize when I track your ass down." Max wiped her eyes.

"Promise," Scully said again, holding her hand up with three fingers extended. "Girl Scout's Honor."

Max laughed/sniffled. "_Ghoul_ Scout's Honor."

The eyebrow went up, accompanied by a Level 1 Mulder Smirk "_I_ was never a Ghoul Scout."

She pressed her forehead against Scully's, eyes closed. "You're never too old to join."

Scully smiled, squeezing Max' shoulders. "There is one thing you _can_ do in the short term."

"Name it, and you get it."

The love of Max' life closed her eyes. "Take me to bed and hold me. As tight as you can."

Max shifted her head so she could look in Scully's eyes. Their noses touched. "You _are_ scared, then."

Her answer came with a shaky laugh. "What gave you the idea I wasn't?"

"You're upright and talking," Max came back. "You wouldn't be able to get _me_ out of the fetal position with a crowbar and a blowtorch."

"You're a lot stronger than that."

"Got _you_ fooled," Max murmured. They chuckled, hugged, shivered. "Come on," she said, pulling Scully up with her.


Scully had hung her blouse on the chair and was undoing her bra when Max said, "_What. . . the. . . _fuck_. . ."

*Omigod! I completely forgot!* Her hand went behind her back, covering the spot in question. "Oh. Yeah."

She looked over her shoulder. Max was sitting on the edge of the bed, down to her white cotton underwear. Her jaw hung free. "'Oh yeah' is _right_." She looked up at Scully, eyes wide. "Where the fuck did _that_ come from?"

*Good question,* Scully thought ruefully, turning to face her, fully aware her face was glowing like a burning ember. *I could blame it on the drugs, but they didn't come into play until later.* "While I was in Philadelphia. .. One night, I got drunk, and. . . Well. . ."

Max' eyebrows threatened to hit the ceiling. "You got drunk. . . and got a tattoo?"

"Ummm. . . yeah." *It's not a lie,* she told herself. She felt like something you scraped off your shoe. She didn't have sex with Ed Jerse, but that didn't change the fact that she had wanted to.

The look on Max' face was a wonder to behold; she kept looking at Scully's belly, still picturing the snake at the base of Scully's back. "But. . . I mean, Scully. . . That's so. . . so. . ." She looked up, a hint of a smile on her face. "Butch."

Scully raised her hand to hit her, but Max jumped further back on the bed, giggling like a madwoman. Scully had to smile, in spite of her mortification and subterfuge. "I'm getting it removed."

"Don't you _dare_!" Max moved back to the edge of the bed and turned Scully around, getting a closer look at the design. "I _love_ it! Does it have a name?"

"Ourobouros." *A snake biting its tail. One of the more violent symbols of karma. Why did I choose that? Because it's my life, I suppose. . .*

"The detail is _terrific_." She looked up at Scully, now resembling a kid who'd just seen a new toy in a store window. "I want one! What's the name of the parlor?"

"It's closed now," Scully said quickly, turning around to face her. "Philadelphia PD shut it down the day I left."

"How come," Max frowned.

"The owners were involved in a series of fraud and protection rackets in the area." She frowned herself. "You wouldn't want a tattoo from there, anyway. I had. . . a bad reaction to some of the ink they used. Other people did, too." *Yes, I'd say murdering people because your tattoo told you to qualifies as a bad reaction. . .*

"Geez," Max said, "I hope you didn't get too s-" *Sick.*

Her eyes started to fill up. Scully squatted down and put her hands on Max shoulders. *I nearly ruined this. I pulled back and slept on the couch, but I nearly ruined this, and I nearly got killed. I will never be that stupid ever again.* "It's going to be all right," she assured her.

"I know." Max didn't look at her, but she did nod. "If anyone can beat this," she croaked, "you're the one."

Scully took Max' chin in her hands and turned her so they faced each other. "With a little help from my friends," she said softly, smiling in the face of her fear.

Max ran her hands down Scully's shoulders. She bit her lip hard, then quickly took Scully's head in her hands and brought her in for a kiss. It was short and soft, but wasn't alone, as Max rained kisses over Scully's face, cheeks, brow, nose, eyes. "Come to bed," she whispered. "Please."

Wordlessly, Scully nodded, reaching behind her to undo her bra. She folded her jeans over back of the chair and moved to the dresser, already reaching for the drawer where Max kept her t-shirts.

"No." Scully looked at her. Her bra was off and she was pushing her panties off her hips. "I need to feel you. All of you."

Again, Scully just nodded. She shucked out of her panties, tossing them on top of her jeans, and crawled under the covers with Max. Despite Max' husky request, sex was the last thing on either of their minds. But once in each other's arms, they needed more than comfort and affection; they needed the spark, the connection, the humanity, the final acknowledgment that they were part of each other, indivisible.

Their kisses were tender to begin with, then built in intensity as the fever grew. Scully felt her lips grow puffy and bruised as Max pressed her mouth to hers. Her hands ran down Max' back, cupping Max' small muscular ass in her hands, pulling her closer, urging her on. "Oh Lord," Scully cried out as Max' mouth sucked in a nipple, hands pushing on Scully's back as if she could force her breast further into her mouth. Scully grabbed Max' head, tangling her fingers in her lover's brown hair.

Max wanted to be everywhere on Scully at once -- stroking her, tasting her, drinking her in, never letting go. She ran a hand down Scully's belly, finding her center on touch alone. Scully's hips rose to meet her fingers, w elcoming their entrance. Max left marks as she bit down, tears trailing out of her squeezed-shut eyes as she kissed her way over to the other nipple. Scully's breath came in gasps, her pale pink body pulsing like a live wire. Max left Scully's nipple and started moving down her stomach.

"No," Scully rasped, holding her head hard now. Max looked up. Scully's face was flushed, her jaw slack. "I need your eyes."

All Max could do was whisper. "Yes." Scully brought her head up and Frenched her roughly, ignoring her bruised lips.

It was not subtle. Subtlety could wait for another time. This was an act of need. Max was still dry when Scully slid her hand between Max' legs, but fervent attention to her clit took care of that problem. Max shifted up so her nipples mashed against Scully's, sending them both reeling. Scully pushed her up so she could stuff one of the hardened buttons into her mouth. Max already had two fingers inside Scully and was adding a third when Scully finally entered her, pressing her thumb down on Max' distended center. Max threw her head back and wailed, "Oh please, yehhhsss. . ."

It didn't take long, for either of them. Scully went over the edge first, thrusting three fingers deep inside Max as she peaked, babbling incoherently as the stars burst behind her eyelids. Max bit into Scully's shoulder as she pumped, humping her hips to keep the suspended motion going. Somehow Scully had the presence of mind to pick up the rhythm, flicking Max' button until the quivering Homicide detective called out, "Here it ihhhhzzzz. . ." She made wordless sounds as she shook and sighed, clutching Scully's sweat-soaked body as another earthquake rolled up and over her.

They laid on their sides, holding tight, fingers still inside, heads on each other's shoulders. Scully's tremors had turned to tears. Max stroked her hair with her free hand.

"It's okay," she whispered. "It's okay."

"Don't go," Scully sobbed quietly. "Please. . . Please don't go."

*That's my line,* Max wanted to say. It was her turn to be strong. "I won't," she assured her. "I promise."

"Wearing nothing is divine
Naked is a state of mind
I take things off to clear my head
To say the things I haven't said. . ."

*I never thought heartburn could be so satisfying,* Dianne thought, tapping the steering in wheel in time to the beat. She hadn't eaten at the Tasty in over two years, and it was as greasy and calorie-intensive as she remembered it. *So much for _that_ diet. Why do all the bad things in life taste so _good_?* She smiled, licking her lips unconsciously. *Double entendre on a Sunday morning. Life is good.*

Life _was_ good. The mentoring speech at Albany Law had been extremely well received, and the question period showed her the quality of her law school's female students had not diminished since her graduation in '89. No "adventures" materialized out of the crop of hungry students, much to the statuesque criminal attorney's disappointment. *Probably wouldn't have been a good idea, anyway. I was supposed to set a _good_ example.* She grinned again at the latest double entendre. *A good example of a _lawyer_, that is.* At least she'd gotten in and out of town without dealing with her family; she hadn't even told them she'd be visiting the area. *The guilt trips I got for Christmas are still tiding me over, Mom. Thanks very much.*

Her frustration was alleviated the next night, in no uncertain terms. *Frustration is right! Three hours on the Mass Pike would make you jump Barbara Bush!* The compact brunette Dianne had picked up at Ryles was not a virgin by any means (*Never again!*), but she still had that marvelous sense of wonder that came with a minimal amount of experience. The woman (*What was her name again? Lita? Rita? Risa? Risa, that sounds right. . .) was quite accomplished orally, but she knew nothing of tribadism and had never been fisted before that night. Dianne had felt Risa's high, keening orgasm all the way up her arm, making all the gentle persuasion she'd had to employ well worth it. It had even been easy to wake up for an early exit; Risa snored like a Harley at full throttle. She didn't even stir when Dianne eased out of bed for a quick getaway shower.

*Yes indeed,* she decided, brushing a blonde bang out her eyes. *An exemplary weekend.* The only downside had been the rental car. The side trip to Boston had been an impulse, so she had to take what she could get from Alamo. The copper-colored Prism wasn't even in the same universe as her new red Volvo. *At least this thing's got a tapedeck. Most rentals don't.*

"It's not a choice I tried to make
It's not a thought I couldn't take
Something told me it was time
To give you yours
And leave me mine. . ."

Foot traffic was light in Harvard Square. The sun was shining, but it was as cold as a witch's tit, so what few people Dianne saw were bundled up to the hilt. One dirty long-haired man, obviously a street person, had a scarf that must have been ten feet long. The scarf made her chuckle, in spite of the man's homelessness. *See what happens when you watch too much Dr. Who?* After she moved to Baltimore, Dianne hadn't given Cambridge much thought, so the feelings of nostalgia were surprising. *Reading the Sunday Globe at the Tasty'll do that to you, I guess.* When she lived in Boston, she considered the Globe a faux-liberal corporate tool with a comics page. But after a year of the "Baltimore Scum", the Globe seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Nostalgia had to be the reason she turned off Massachusetts Avenue onto the familiar side street. *It can't be that I think I'm gonna get lucky twice in twenty-four hours,* she thought wryly. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. *She used to take a run about this time of the morning. Assuming she's not on a stakeout or something. Shit, so what if you _do_ see her? What are you gonna do, offer her a ride? It's over. It's _very_ over.*

*To hell with it,* she decided. *A quick drive-by never hurt anyone.* She absently worked out how to get back to the hotel. *Pack up, check out, on the road in an hour. Back in Albany by one o'clock, back in Charm-Free City by sundown.* She giggled. *I ought to ask the hotel for a discount. God knows I never spent any time in the room. . .*

The train of thought was promptly derailed. Max was standing outside her apartment building -- not in her running togs, but in jeans and a gray sweatshirt. *Probably that Red Sox shirt she always liked to wear, and I always wanted to throw out. . .* Dianne couldn't confirm what was on the front of the shirt. The woman Max was embracing blocked her view.

Dianne steered out of the corner of her eye, unable to stop staring. The woman was a couple of inches taller than Max, with pale skin that looked paler next to her flaming red hair. Dianne only saw her in profile, but the profile was impressive enough. *Where did _she_ come from?* They didn't break the hug as she drove past, and were exchanging soft kisses as she parked the Prism six cars down. *A parking space in Cambridge on a Sunday morning. Must be fate.* She had counted up to "forty-two Mississippi" when the redhead reluctantly broke away. They walked down the sidewalk hand-in-hand. Their proximity made Dianne's breath catch. *Turn down the tunes, idiot! They'll see you!* She fumbled blindly for the volume control, dumping Luscious Jackson down to a manageable level. She needn't have bothered. Neither woman looked her way as they walked into the street, only letting go when they reached a gray Saturn parked three cars behind Dianne, where they exchanged one final hug. Dianne could feel her pulse race as she watched them in the side-view mirror:

"With my naked eye I saw
The falling rain
Coming down on me
With my naked eye I saw
If I said it all
I could see. . ."

The redhead got into the car and started the engine. She must have rolled
down her window, because Max's head disappeared inside the driver's side
door. *Goodbye kiss.* She didn't pull her head out of the car until "twelve
Mississippi". She stepped away and the Saturn pulled out. Even from three
car lengths away, Dianne could see Max was crying. Dianne leaned her elbow
on the window and scratched her temple as the sporty little roadster drove
past. Both her eyebrows went up when she saw the pseudo-medieval crest in
the middle of the Saturn's license plate -- the same crest she saw every day
she went to court, or walked into a state government building. *Maryland
plates. Baltimore? No, that'd be _too_ much. It's a big state, relatively
speaking. . .*

The tape changed tempo, from the frantic dance beat to a ghostly, loping shuffle. Dianne hadn't made a conscious decision to follow the Saturn. The redhead just happened to be going the same way Dianne needed to go to get back to the hotel. She kept a two-car gap between them, only coming close when a stoplight caught them at Central Square. Dianne rubbed her temples with her right hand the whole time they waited. She had a mild headache. *Too much coffee at breakfast. A couple of Advil when you get back to the room will take care of that. No problem.*

"This is ridiculous," she said aloud. She wanted to pull over to the curb and let the Saturn go, but the Lexus behind her was right up against the Neon's bumper, and anyway there were no parking spaces to be had. When the light changed, Dianne moved off with the rest of the cars. She was debating passing the Saturn in Central Square, despite the safety risk, when her cell phone went off. Fishing it out of her topcoat, she pulled out the antenna with her teeth and hit the "Call" button. "Dianne Dietrich," she intoned. "How can I help you?"

"You can shoot my client's husband," a flat voice answered. "He just cost me a night of sleep."

*Lauren. She sounds beat, too.* "Was he trying to sell you cut-rate long distance service?"

"No," Lauren said, not rising to the joke. "He was trying to get into his old address."

Dianne sobered immediately. "He violated the restraining order?"

"True love and Jack Daniels lets you ignore trivial stuff like that," her long-time friend snorted. "Danny Boy showed up about 1am -- stewed to the eyeballs, naturally. Thank God Trish _finally_ got the locks changed. Her daughter called 911. Good thing, too. Trish told me she was an inch away from letting him in when the cops showed up."

"Jesus Christ," Dianne muttered. "What a stupid bitch."

"Seven years of abuse tends to knock down only three weeks of resolve. I spent the rest of the night calming her down, assuring her she isn't a fool." The divorce lawyer's tone said she clearly felt otherwise. "The guy _is_ slick. I guess that holds when he's three sheets to the wind, too. He talks for a living, after all."

She looked ahead. Another red light. The two cars between her and the Saturn had pulled off, leaving her nowhere to hide. *Hide from _what_? Jesus Christ, I'm not a stalker. I'm driving home!* Dianne pulled up behind the gray coupe. "Well, look on the bright side," she put in. "This means the hearing's gonna be a slam dunk."

"That's for sure. His ass is _mine_. I just have to keep my client's eyes on the prize. Hey, how was the old alma mater?"

"They finally finished that new wing. I did the talk in one of the lecture halls. Carpeting and everything."

"Oooooh," her classmate cooed. "Don't it make you wanna give money?"

"I make _partner_, I'll give money."

"That's the spirit. How was Albany?"

"It's still there." The Lexus emitted a short, polite honk. The light had changed. Dianne waved absently as she moved off. The Saturn was half a block ahead now as they approached Memorial Drive.

"Damn it, DeeDee, you've gotta get over your hostility. The Capital District's not such a bad place to be from."

"That's because _you_ lived in Clifton Park," Dianne snorted. "Growing up in Mechanicville lacks a certain 'je ne sais quoi.'"

"Status bug," Lauren teased. "You're just pissed Shenendehowa beat you guys three years running."

"You mean Shen got the _calls_ three years running!"

"Your Honor, permission to treat the witness as hostile?"

"Of _course_ I'm hostile, Reid! That shot beat the buzzer! The ref fucked up!" She laughed in spite of her vehement objection. They had been having this discussion ever since Dianne discovered Lauren Reid was in the same Torts class. One of the more humorous males called the former high school basketball rivals "the Twin Towers." They took great pleasure in beating the pants off of the would-be comic in the Moot Court competition two years later.

"I love revisionist history," Lauren purred. "Get your ass back here. We can argue over a gallon of your dad's Bloody Mary recipe."

"Late this afternoon, I promise," Dianne assured her. "Hey, make you a deal. You pick me up at BWI, we'll go out and eat crab cakes and make fun of the locals. My treat."

"I save you cab fare, you buy me crab cakes." Lauren chuckled. "What a negotiator."

"They're very _good_ crab cakes," Dianne giggled. She turned left onto Memorial Drive, ignoring the sign forbidding such a move. The Saturn kept going, driving onto the Mass Ave Bridge. Dianne didn't give it another thought.

The cold snap had broken late Sunday night, shrouding Boston in Indian Summer fog as Max crossed the street to Police Headquarters. She never bothered with the elevator, even when someone was holding the doors; the squad room was only on the second floor, and the elevator was slow enough that she could usually beat it when given an equal start. She got a nod from a Uniform she knew as she headed for the stairs, but otherwise everyone was locked inside their own heads. It was so normal, so typical, so Monday morning, that Max wanted to scream.

The members of Third Squad were doing their best to stay awake as she walked into the squadroom, some of them polishing off paperwork, others shooting the breeze with incoming members of the morning shift, the atmosphere laced with the familiar mixture of scorched coffee and cigarette smoke. Howard Stern's rapid-fire rhetoric blared out of a boombox at the back of the high-ceilinged office. Sometimes Max felt like she was the only person in the world who didn't find Stern's misogynist drivel to be captivatingly funny.

Jim Slota was hunched over the keyboard, hunting and pecking his way through an arrest report, when Max walked up to the desk they shared. His Warner Brothers tie was at half-mast, and the top button of his short-sleeved dress shirt was unbuttoned. "Whadda ya say, Max," he said, not looking up from his work.

She nodded at the computer screen. "That a good story?"

"Nahh," the swarthy Polish detective grunted. "They all die in the end."

Ordinarily, Max would have laughed. Now she just put on a very tight smile. "Anything earth-shaking happen overnight?"

"Pretty quiet, overall," Slota said. He sat back and ticked off the shift's caseload in a monotone that fell between fatigue and boredom. "Hooker did a john with a straight razor in the Zone; the vic got a little too freaky for the cover charge, or so she said. Mugger got shot in the Fens. He had a switch, but his target had a .32." He smiled grimly. "Peace through superior firepower. Feldman and Nunzio caught a Domestic up on the Hill. Lady of the house blew away her hubby with his favorite fowling piece. . ."

"Do we know why?" Even before the Circle of Fire case, Max had kept a keen interest in Domestic murders.

"She walked in on him and the chauffeur." His grim smile turned up the corners of his drooping mustache. "Hubby told her she could either join the party or close the door. Guy had balls, til she blew 'em off."

"Colorful," Max deadpanned. "She waste the chauffeur, too?"

"Nahh." He shook his head, reaching for his stained Celtics coffee cup. "She gave Hubby both barrels. The blast knocked her on her ass. Chauffeur grabbed his pants and jumped out a window while she went to get more shells." He slugged down what was left in the cup, inured to the vile taste.

"Serves her right for not planning ahead." Max usually took comfort in this banter, however black it may have been. Not today. "Anything else?"

Slota pointed at the computer screen. "Saul and I won the Slam Dunk of the Night. Double homicide in Roxbury. Dealer got killed by one of his customers. The dealer's lookout waxed the crackhead, took twelve slabs of rock off his former employer, and split. Narcotics ran down the lookout; they had an OP set up on the roof across from the stoop. Got the whole thing on tape, including the lookout putting the gun in the dealer's hand. All we had to do was clean up the mess." He put his right arm behind his head and stretched. "It was a laugh and a half listening to him explain how the dealer shot the customer in the back eight times while the customer was sticking a hunting knife in his guts."

"Guess he failed Physics in school." She looked over at the shift commander' s glassed-in cubicle. "The Bear in yet?"

He stretched the other arm. "Ten minutes ago. He's chewing the fat with Lex."

She nodded. "How old's the coffee," she asked as she turned away.

"Mandatory retirement." He returned to his hunting. "I'll make some fresh before I go."

"You're a prince."

Bear was sprawled out in one of the office's two visitor's chairs, a beefy hand wrapped around a can of Diet Pepsi. His double-breasted blue blazer was unbuttoned, even though he'd lost a good measure of gut in the last four months. Don Luthor, Third Squad's garrulous commander, was behind the desk, talking over the newscast coming out of the clock radio next to the word processor. Unlike the cartoon character that shared his nickname, Luthor had a full shock of curly gray hair. His sleeves were rolled up and his charcoal-gray pinstriped vest was unbuttoned; he looked like he hadn't slept for a week. His voice still sounded lively, though, as it usually did when he and Bear discussed the ongoing soap opera that was the New England Patriots.

"Parcells is overrated," he insisted. "He only got good when he got good _players_. Take away Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, he's down one Super Bowl ring. Scott Norwood splits the uprights, he loses the other one. Six months with the Jets'll have him calling Bledsoe's name in his sleep."

"The way I hear it," Bear rumbled, moving the can to his lips, "he's been doing that for the _last_ six months."

Luthor laughed, then noticed they had a visitor. "Morning, Max. How was your weekend?"

*Oh, not bad. The love of my life is going to die, but other than that. . .* "It was a weekend, Lieutenant." she said easily. She still wore the tight smile she'd picked up at her desk. It loosened up a little when she looked down at Bear. "Got a minute, Mister Reese?"

"Anything for my children," he said, spreading his arms in a gesture of benevolence.

"My cue to go," Luthor said. He took his suit jacket off the back of the high-backed leather chair as he got up. Bear stood as he came around the desk. They shook hands. "You have any questions, any troubles, give me a call, you hear?"

"I'll be sure to wait until just before you fall asleep."

"Why should _you_ be any different?"

"Tell Roxanne I said hi," Bear laughed.

"I will if I stay awake long enough." Luthor slapped Max on the shoulder as he walked out. "Have a good one, Max."

"Uh huh." Max glanced around the cluttered office as Bear took Luthor's place behind the massive steel desk. (*They must have built the walls _around_ it,* Max mused. *I don't see how they could have gotten it through the door. . .*) Maneuvering room was at a minimum for normal-sized people. Bear had never been normal size, so he had to step sideways to assume the position of power. Max nodded at the wall spaces where Weeks' pictures and commendations had hung. "You haven't filled in the blanks yet."

"My niece gave me a cat calendar for Christmas. I keep forgetting to bring it in." Bear took better care of his teeth than he had of his body; his smile would have been brilliant even without his night-black complexion to set it off. He reached over to the radio and pressed one of the memory buttons, replacing the too-peppy-for-Monday newsperson with the jumping beat of Earth, Wind and Fire. "I got tunes, though."

"Lucky you." Her smile stared to fade. "Mind if I close the door?"

"'Oh ho', said the Bear," he said. "It's like that, is it?"

Max wasn't smiling at all now. "Yup. It is."

He blinked. "Unh _hunh_." He turned off the radio, silencing "Shining Star" in mid-chorus, and gestured for her to close the door. He was already seated when she turned and sat down. "Speak to me."

She spoke to the front of the desk. "I think you ought to offer the Whip slot to somebody else."

Surprise flickered in Bear's eyes. "I thought you were up for this."

"I was. I am." She put her hands in her lap, fingers interlaced. She still didn't look at him. "I don't want to put you in a position where I can let you down."

The flicker became a flame. "Who put bullshit in your coffee this morning?"

Max took a deep breath. "Scully turned up on my doorstep Friday night."

Bear gave her a hooded stare. "Hope she had a dozen roses and an apol-"

"She's got cancer, Bear."

That stopped him dead in his tracks. He leaned forward, cocking his ear toward Max like he hadn't heard correctly. "One more time?"

"Cancer." She cleared her throat. "She's got cancer." *Wow. I can say it without going into hysterics. Things must be looking up.*

"Sacred shit," he breathed. He put a fist under his chin and closed his mouth. "How far along?"

"Far enough." She shrugged. "There's a chance, but. . ." She cleared her throat again, wiping her eyes quickly.

Bear felt like he'd been shot in the stomach. He'd had six partners before Max, counting his days in Uniform -- two of them great, three of them good, and the last a complete waste of food. When Max came over from Vice, he never expected to like her, let alone become friends with her. They were very different people, in almost every sense: Max was college-educated, with a degree in Criminal Justice. Bear was a street kid from Dorchester who joined the police force because he couldn't get a football scholarship. Max was the hard charger, asking questions, developing theories, trying to make sense of it all; Bear was, by his own admission, a mellow creature who stood back and observed -- at crime scenes, in interrogation rooms, at the houses of witness and suspects. Having a generation separating them didn't help matters, either.

For the first two weeks, they did nothing but argue -- about cases, about sports, about politics, about where to eat lunch, about what to order when they finally _agreed on_ where to eat lunch, and on and on and on. The smart money in the squad had them killing each other in a month. Instead, they worked their differences into over two hundred closed cases and a commendation apiece in less than two years. One cooked dinner for the other at least once a month, and Max was a fixture in Bear's backyard all summer long. Janis Reese referred to her husband's partner as "my sister in Law".

He didn't pretend to understand his ex-partner's sexual orientation. But he understood love, and could recognize it when he saw it. He'd seen it when Scully and Max visited him a second time in the hospital, a few days after the shootout at the MFA. They didn't say anything at the time, but from their sprightly demeanor and the quick looks they gave each other when they thought he wasn't paying attention, they might as well have been waving flags and throwing confetti at passersby. On Christmas Night, Max had brought Scully by Bear's house in Jamaica Plain. They drank eggnog and ate leftover turkey sandwiches and laughed with him and Janis at the video of "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka" Max had gotten him for Christmas. Bear had liked Scully from the moment they met. She was sharp as a tack, and completely unimpressed with herself, a rarity in Feebies. Her effect on Max was stunning; she was brighter, happier, than Bear had ever seen her. They were just like any other young couple he had ever known. Maybe even more in love than any other young couple he had ever known. It was a beautiful thing, and he was glad they'd gotten together...

*And now Scully's got cancer,* he thought, bewildered. *_Cancer_. Lord, if you have a sense of humor, you'd better trade it in. How is shit like this _decided_?*

Max was still talking, still aiming her words at the desk. "There may be a time. . . where I have to go down there. There's no give and take on this. I _will_ go. I'll also be visiting her on and off, as well." She finally looked up. Her eyes were dry, though they were a little red. "You need a Whip who can crack twenty-four seven, three-sixty-five. There's no way I can give you that now."

Bear blew out a long breath, rubbing his chin now. "You tell her about this?"

"Yeah. Well, about the job, not about me not taking it." She laughed shakily. "She was psyched. Wants me to go for it, sergeant's exam and all. But I don't think-"

"_I_ do."

It was Max' turn to be surprised. "Huh?"

"I still want you to take the job," Bear said flatly.

Max laughed again. "Bear, come on. . ."

"No 'Bear, come on,' Maxfield," he said, almost stern. He got up and walked around the desk. "I haven't spent as much time around her as you have. But I think you'll agree I'm a pretty good judge of character. Right or wrong?"

"Bear. . ."

"Right? Or wrong?" He sat on the edge of the desk.

She sighed. "Right."

"Okay, then." He put his hands behind him and leaned back. "You want to know why you two get along so good?"

Bear had almost a foot on Max when she was standing. Now, in the low-slung visitor's chair, she had to tilt her head back to maintain eye contact. "I'm sure you'll tell me."

"Because you both ask for no quarter, and give _none_." His eyes were hard and black, like the business end of a double-barreled shotgun. "Seems to me she'd want to keep on keeping on, no matter what the doctors may have told her."

"You got that right," Max admitted.

"And I'm _pretty_ damn sure she'd want _you_ to do the same."

Max shifted her gaze to the dropped ceiling. "I don't want to let anybody down, Bear. . ."

"Oh, fuck _that_ noise, Maxfield," he said pointedly. "I can't speak for everybody. . ." His voice lowered, but lost none of its sharpness. ". ..least of all your lady friend." He folded his arms; he may have lost weight, but his shoulders were still massive enough to bunch up his blazer. "But the only way you could let _me_ down is if you give me less than your best. Is that what you're saying is gonna happen?"

"No! No! That's not it at all!" She sat bolt upright, upset she wasn't being understood.

"'Cause you could always take the slot in Evidence Control they offered Hegeman. . ."

"Oh, don't talk shit, God damn it!"

"Then what is. . ."

"Bear, I watched you be Whip for two years! It's a _lot_ more than catching cases and making coffee, and you know it. It's keeping tabs on everything that's happening with the squad: Who's doing what, what's being done. Backstopping interrogations, keeping up with the paper chase. . ."

"And the reason why Whip isn't as big a bitch with this squad as it is with _other_ squads is that our people may fuck _around_, but they _never_ fuck _off_!" He leaned down until they were almost nose-to-nose, his hands now on his knees. His expression was stoic, his voice controlled. "I didn't offer you Whip because you were my partner, or, because you're my friend, or because I think you'll cover my ass. You were, you are, and you will, but that's not the point. I offered it to you because you've got the respect of everyone in the squad. They'll listen to you. They'll take your help. But this is a _team_, Detective Maxfield. Everybody pulls their weight, and everybody covers for everybody else. That means that if the Whip has a sick relative, or needs the _occasional_ day off, life _will_ go on. Whips take sick days. Sergeants do, too."

She started to object again, but he cut it off. He did soften his tone, though. "I know how you feel. It's gotta be tearing you up. If I got this news about Janis, I don't know _what_ I'd do. But you aren't gonna change anything by sweating shit you can't control. And not taking this job is _not_ going to make the problem go away any easier. It'll just give you less shit to do and more time to sweat."

Max held his gaze, dropped it, and then picked it up again. "You sure do give a mean pep talk, Mr. Reese."

"It was my best thing in high school," he said amiably. "That and taking Southie football players' heads off." He turned serious. "Look, if you really don't _want_ the job, don't _take_ the job. No knock on you if you don't. But do me a flavor? Sleep on it one more night? There're a lot of guys who can do this, and do it well. But Uncle Bear wants _you_." He pointed at her for emphasis.

She smiled for the first time since she closed the door. "You ought to copyright that." She looked off, sighed. "I'll let you know, yea or nay, by end of shift tomorrow. Fair enough?"

"Works for me." He nodded at the door. "Now go catch me some fish," he said, using his euphemism for closing cases. Max nodded and got up to go, already lost in thought. As she opened the door, he said, "And Max?"

She turned around. "Yo."

He was working his way back to his chair. His expression was unreadable. "You tell that Feebie she gets well soon. Or she deals with _me_."

Max' grin was wide and genuine. "You rule, Bear."

Bear cocked his head back, eyes narrowed. "I am a squad commander," he said dryly. "I do not _rule_." He took his seat regally, holding the arms of the chair for support. "I _govern_."

*If this keeps up, I'm going to have to get more refrigerator magnets.*

Scully grinned at her dilemma as she stood back and admired the latest batch of artwork Max' nieces had made for her. While Rachel seemed to be a budding Impressionist (*I _think_ that green shape is a tree. . .*), Erica's red-on-pink-on-yellow-on-purple blotches owed a large debt to Jackson Pollock. To make room for the twins' creations, their Christmas pictures had been moved to the lower half of Scully's bone-white refrigerator. *Maybe I should get both of them MFA memberships for _their_ birthdays.*

Two Wallace & Grommit magnets held Erica's latest contribution to abstract art in place. They were the biggest magnets Scully owned, and the only ones that could keep the paint-intensive masterpiece from sliding onto the kitchen floor. She took in another whiff of cinnamon from one of the votive candles Jane had included with her daughter's paintings. It sat on a saucer next to the sink. Her plan for the evening was to go to Pearl Grant Richman and get a proper holder for them. The one Mulder had given her for Christmas was too big.

Christmas and birthdays had become dismally drab in the last few years. Scully had gotten used to only getting presents from her mother; some of the presents were ostensibly from her brothers, but her mother was obviously the procurement agent. Mulder was good for a gag gift, and he'd come through again with the Apollo 11 keychain. The candleholder he'd given her for Christmas was the first serious gift he'd ever given her. The rest of her birthday haul usually consisted of a professionally toned note from Skinner, cards from the rest of her family, and email wishes from a few friends.

Not this year. Between all the members of Max' family -- real and extended -- Scully's mailbox had been literally stuffed when she returned from the Max Fenig investigation. Still depressed about the death of Agent Pendrell, Scully had torn into the mass of boxes and bags with serious vigor. She'd been sleeping in the oversized t-shirt Rose had given her; she still smiled when she looked at the disgruntled-looking cartoon cat on the front proclaiming, "JUST HAND OVER THE CHOCOLATE AND NOBODY GETS HURT!" The book of political cartoons K.C. had sent sat on the table by the couch. They dovetailed with the collection of Molly Ivins essays she got from Tina. (Max' middle sister Chris' professional name was "Tina Maxfield". To avoid conversational confusion with Neesie's husband, Chris Duncan, Scully called her Tina. "Just don't call her 'Christeeeen,'" Max said, giving the appellation a nasal tone. "She flat-out _hates_ that name!")

Scully's library had done well this birthday. She had stayed up until two in the morning reading Neesie's present, a hilariously sappy Laurie Colwin novel called "Happy All The Time". She had already dog-eared six recipes in the Yankee magazine cookbook she got from Max' mom. Max' brothers kept the entertainment thread going, but in different directions. Jamie had searched the Boston video stores until he found a copy of "The Hustler"; the Far Side card that came with it called it, "Scenes from a past life." Mike had put together four homemade cassettes of Jimmy Buffett. The note with _his_ Far Side card said, "He got me through Residency when the coffee ran out."

There had also been a flood of support from all quarters about Scully's cancer. Mike had sent a separate note with the name of a friend in BMC's oncology department "in case you want a second opinion." K.C. had sent her a PowerSource article on the healing power of herbs. When Neesie came down to Washington for a Senate subcommittee hearing on the environment, she gave Scully the email address of a Harvard Law classmate who had been in remission from breast cancer for two years. The classmate, a self-titled "corporate assassin" named D'Arcy Jameson, had also provided the Usenet URL of her cancer support group. "I didn't ask D'Arcy for this stuff," Neesie stressed as they ate a hurried lunch during a recess in the hearing. "She volunteered it. She really wants to help."

Everybody wanted to help. They made phone calls, sent emails, sent cards. The words were different, but they all said the same thing: "You are not alone." It almost moved Scully to tears. Over the years, her circle of friends had practically disappeared. She still exchanged Christmas and birthday cards with Nikki McClure, her roommate at U of M, but any contact with non-FBI acquaintances had dwindled down to email, usually in the form of forwarded jokes found on the Internet. *I can't throw stones. I've been just as bad as they have at keeping in touch.*

The other members of the Coven seemed firmly dedicated to not letting that happen. Max was not the only thing she had in common with them. She shared Rose's passion for classical music, Neesie's interest in Republican politics, K.C.'s mania for Katherine Hepburn films. Scully had been trading phone calls and emails with her new girlfriends long before she'd been diagnosed. *Girlfriends.* She couldn't help but smile at that. *I have girlfriends.*

The doorbell rang. Scully carried her smile to the door. It disappeared when she looked through the spyhole and saw who it was. *Stay calm,* she told herself. *His battle group leaves this weekend. Karen said he'd probably come by.* She emitted a dark chuckle. *If he knew what was good for him.* She stilled her expression and opened the door.

Charles had his head bowed and his hands behind his back. He didn't move his head as he looked up at her. "Don't call the cops," he said quietly. "I just want to talk."

She held the door with her right hand while leaning against the doorframe. She fixed her brother with a neutral stare. "Why should _I_ call the cops, Charlie? _I'm_ the one who hit _you_, remember?"

The upheld hand moved to the cheek Scully had slapped during their vehement confrontation three months before. "Yeah," he said, grinning sheepishly. "You throw a hell of a punch."

"Thank you. You deserved every inch of it."

His grin faded and his eyes dropped. "Yeah. I know." He coughed. "If I promise not to act like an asshole again, can I come in?"

Scully's eyebrow did its thing. "An asshole." She seemed to consider the word. Then she pushed the door open, allowing him space to enter. Her eyes followed her brother as he stepped inside the apartment, looking him over as he removed his blue 'USS Constellation' baseball cap. He had 5 o'clock shadow, and he looked like he hadn't slept all that well. *Bunking on the couch will do that to you,* she thought wryly. During one of their "forbidden lunches", Karen had been almost gleeful in detailing the scorched-earth campaign she'd been waging on her husband since he last saw his sister.

Charles unzipped his nylon flight jacket, but he didn't take it off. "Before you say anything, let me. . ."

"No," Scully said firmly, closing the door behind her. "Why don't _I_ start this time?"

"Fair enough," he shrugged, hands back in his pockets.

"Good. Look at me."

He took a deep breath and turned to face her. She wore a blue fleece pullover over faded jeans, and her eyes held all the warmth of an anti-aircraft battery. *Pucker up, Charlie boy. Here comes the Triple A.*

"Let's start with the word 'asshole.'" She put her hands in her pockets, too. "Charlie, an asshole is someone who cuts you off on the highway when you're in a hurry to get home. An asshole is someone who takes a full shopping cart into the '10 Items or Less' line, or snatches up the last piece of cheesecake in the cafeteria, just as you're reaching for it. What _you_ were. . . What you _said_. . ." She walked away from him, shaking her head slowly. "A lot of words come to mind. Vicious. Hateful. . ."

"I know," he said softly, eyes on the rug.

"I mean, I knew _Billy_ would go ballistic about this. I knew Mom would be upset, though I'll admit I underestimated _how_ upset." She reached the window and turned back to him. "But you? I expected. . . I don't know, maybe not _better_, but. . . different?"

Charles cleared his throat. He still didn't look at her. "Yeah," he finally said. "I expected better of me, too."

"Well, then _why_, Charlie? Haven't you ever known anyone who was gay?"

He stifled his smile, but not his response. "Don't the rules say you're not supposed to ask those kind of questions?"

The glare Scully gave her brother would have sent his A-6E Intruder into a fiery tailspin. "In case you hadn't noticed, Charlie, now is _not_ the time to be a smartass."

*So much for joking my way out of this.* "Yeah. I've known people who were gay. Men _and_ women." He swallowed. "I just haven't known any _family members_ who were gay."

"Even so," Scully said, her patience wearing thin, "how could you think I would do something to hurt Mom? Or hurt your _kids_?"

"You hit me, and I got pissed, okay?" His face flushed red with embarrassment. "I overreacted."

Scully was aghast. "What are you, 12 years old? I hope you don't handle stress like this when you're in the air. You'll put your plane into the side of a mountain!"

"That's combat," he countered, finally meeting her gaze. "That's cut-and-dried." Before she could react to that, he went on. "Look, I could make a _lot_ of excuses for what I said. The only time I'd seen Mom that freaked out was when Dad died. Billy was up my ass like a hot Sidewinder, telling me _I_ had to handle this. 'Stop it before it spreads,' as he so eloquently put it. . ." He sighed. "But when you boil it down. . . I guess I'm just not as liberal as I thought I was."

"For God's sake, Charlie, I haven't joined a _cult_! I'm not going to abduct your children when you're not looking and drag them off for indoctrination, or start reading Rita Mae Brown novels to them as bedtime stories! Use a little _sense_!"

"Dana, if this were Melissa we were talking about, I probably wouldn't have been as surprised. Anything new, she tried it. Anything guaranteed to snap Mom and Dad out, she did it. But you, you're way too-" He stopped.

She filled in the blank, punctuating it with a raised eyebrow. "Straight?"

"Now who's being a smartass?" He held up both hands to ward off more flak. "I'm just trying to figure out how this happened. _Why_ this happened. That' s all."

Scully sighed, looking out the window. It was starting to snow again. She was still pissed at him, though the feeling had dulled somewhat. *At least he's asking questions, not tossing accusations or issuing orders. But how do I give him answers I don't even have myself?* Then a thought occurred to her. "Tell me about the first time you saw Karen."

That was unexpected. "What has _that_ got to do with the price of. . ."

"Indulge me, Charlie."

Her tone said he had better fill her request. He sighed and stuffed his hands back in his pockets. "House party in P-Cola, three weeks out of Avionics school. Still getting to know the Intruder, still getting to know my bombardier, still bugging about being a for-real _officer_, even if I am just another Butter Bar from Annapolis." Charlie's gaze was on Scully, but his mind was back in the cramped off-base house of Commander Bradley 'Sting' Swindell, his first squadron leader. *Man taught me everything I know.* "I was in the kitchen with my wingman, talking with Sting and his wife, when their next-door neighbors come in the back door. Jeanine and Mark Crukshianks. He was a civilian contractor, she managed a department store in town." He didn't even think about smiling. It just happened. "Jeanine's cousin was visiting from Tallahassee, and tagged along."

Scully smiled with him. "Karen."

He nodded. "She was taking a break before she started her last year of Biz school. Her parents were still pissed at her for going to grad school instead of marrying some fellow rich kid." Pause. "We had nothing in common. I mean, _nothing_. But we looked at each other, and I swear. . ." He stopped, still grinning lazily.

"And she followed you out to San Diego as soon as she graduated."

"I had to talk her into going to the ceremony. She made sure it said MBA on the diploma and went straight to the airport. Had two big-money job offers, not counting the one with her daddy's bank, which she didn't. She told 'em all to go to hell." He shook his head. "That still amazes me."

Scully could feel his happiness. Unlike Tara, whom she had kept at arm's length long before the current conflict, Scully and Karen got along like a house afire. In many ways, she wished she were more like her younger sister-in-law. Karen was much more of a risk taker, and she didn't stress about the effect her life choices had on her relationship with her father. The first thing Karen said when Scully told her about Max was "Good for you!" She was a lot like Melissa, if Melissa had ever bothered to grow up.

Charles focused back on Scully. "Was that what happened with you two? One look, and you heard bells?"

His question would have sounded snide in other situations; his tentative, inquisitive tone softened it. Scully shrugged. "I don't know _what_ it was, exactly, Charlie. It wasn't bells, but it was. . ." She shook her head. "I can't quantify the feeling, but there was definitely _something_ there." *Like destiny.* She decided her brother wasn't ready for that line of reasoning. "If it was attraction, I didn't recognize it. I'd never considered women an alternative before Max."

"Not at all?" He demonstrated his skill with the Scully Raised Eyebrow. "No practice kissing with the girls at St. Mary's. . . ?"

"That's different!" She paused before she continued her objection. "There's no way anything could have happened there, even if we'd thought about it. The guilt from doing that _alone_ was bad enough."

"I'll bet." Charles bit his lip to keep from smiling. His sister still turned red as a fire hydrant when she blushed. He regained seriousness quickly, though. "And now?"

"Now. . ." She sighed. "Twelve years of Catholic school doesn't go away overnight." She nodded. "Yes, there's guilt." Beat. "But I felt guilt when I slept with men, too. No sex outside of marriage, remember? So guilt's not the problem." She walked over to him, her focus on the wall of pictures by the bedroom door. "I've denied myself so _much_, Charlie. Usually for the reason that you aren't supposed to _want_ things. Not things that make you feel good, anyway." She absently rubbed the back of her neck. "This isn't about feeling good, though, Charlie. Yes, it feels good. It feels great, if you want to know the truth. But that's not _all_ it's about."

She stopped by the photographs. Neesie's wedding pictures were at eye level. Charlie looked at them, too, studying Max the way he'd study an assigned target. "I don't know _how_ it happened, or _why_ it happened. But I thank God it did." She shook her head again, dropping her arm to her side. "That's not much of an answer, is it?"

He gave a head shrug. "It's _your_ answer." His voice was carefully neutral. "I'm. . . _We're_ just going to have to accept that." He made acceptance sound like something that was neither feared nor welcomed.

"Well, one thing I _do_ know," Scully amended. "If Max and I hadn't met, a woman would be dead. Maybe a _lot_ of women, come to that."

Charlie frowned. "You lost me."

Scully told him about the incident in the lobby of the Museum of Fine Arts. When she finished, Charlie looked stunned. Mom had told him Dana had been in some kind of shoot-em-up at a house in Massachusetts late last year, but he thought that was just another adventure with her goofball partner. He hadn't known the details about the South Shore Women's Center, and he hadn't heard about the MFA. When he looked at Max' picture again, there was respect in his eyes. *She's been in combat. She's saved lives.* "Does she love you?"

His sister cocked her head. "Don't you want to know if I love her?"

"I kinda figured that one out, sis," he said evenly, still focused on the picture. "What I want to know is, does she care for you? Does she cherish you?" He swallowed. "Does she know about your cancer?"

"What's that got to do with anything," Scully frowned, irritation starting to itch at her again.

"Dana, I knew a Tomcat driver on the 'Saratoga' who divorced his wife while she was in the middle of chemotherapy. Had her served with papers while we were cruising the Med. They had twelve years and two kids, but he honestly thought her illness reflected on _him_! His back-seater nearly threw the stupid bastard off the fantail when he found out." He turned to her, hands up again. "I'm not saying _she's_ going to do that. I'm just concerned."

She nodded, letting the flash of anger pass. "She wanted to come down here and take care of me. She was going to quit her job if they wouldn't let her." She looked back at the wedding pictures. *Such a great day. Best day of my life.* "She'd been offered a promotion, she was going to take the sergeant's exam, and she was going to give all that up. . ." *For me. For _me_.*

"I'd say that answers my question." He took her hand. She didn't look at him, but she did squeeze back. He looked down at the floor. "I can't change what I did. I don't expect you to forget it. I can't ask you to forgive it, either. That's up to you. But I don't. . ." His voice caught. She looked over at him. She'd only seen Charles cry once -- in the hospital when the doctor told him his daughter Caroline, born six weeks premature, was out of danger and would be going home soon. Finally he said, "I don't want. . . I _can't_. . . have anything between us. Not now." He looked up, tears coming down his face. "Not ever."

Scully wanted to hug him to death. But even through her own burgeoning tears, she had to know one thing. "What about Billy?"

He wiped his eyes, sniffing once. "Billy's good at riding a high horse. I've got no head for heights."

She snorted softly. "You're a pilot, Charlie."

"Aviator," he rasped. "Naval aviator."

"Asshole," she whispered. Now she hugged him. His embrace almost snapped her in two.

"I love you, sis." He rubbed her back as they laughed and cried. *Much obliged, Sir. Anything I can do for you, just let me know.*

"I love you too, little brother." She turned her face into his chest. *Not so little any more. I've got part of my family back. Oh thank you, thank you. . .*

When they could talk again, Charlie asked, "When do you start treatment?"

"Tomorrow at 2." Her stomach roiled at the prospect.

"We don't shove off until Midnight." He cleared his throat. "You want company?"

She gave him a squeeze. "Mom's taking me. She wouldn't take 'No' for an answer."

"I don't blame her." He squeezed back. "We're gone for eight weeks, more if weather extends the exercise. But you can call Karen if you need. . ."

"I know," she sniffed. "She told me."

His chest vibrated with his deep chuckle. "I definitely do not deserve her."

"Don't worry," Scully murmured. "I can keep a secret."

The chuckle went deeper, and then it stopped. "What's that?"

"What's what?" She looked up at him, then over at what he was looking at. She smiled. "Max' birthday present."

The wooden frame was hand-carved, and very expensive. Rose had found the old Celtic blessing on the Internet one night. The Coven had adopted it as their motto, and each member had a copy of it. Max' copy was taped to the wall next to her desk at work. Scully's copy was special; an artist on Max' Y-League volleyball team had copied it onto ancient-looking parchment, in beautiful Old English lettering, and bracketed it with green Celtic knots:

"May those who love us, love us And those that don't love us, May God turn their hearts, And if He doesn't turn their hearts May He turn their ankles So we'll know them by their limping."

Charles' grin could light up a room. "I could learn to like this woman."

The waiting room was decorated in muted tones of beige and brown, its windows covered by venetian blinds. The sun wasn't out today, but the staff kept them closed out of habit. After treatments, most of the patients couldn't stand bright light. There was a large-screen TV mounted on the wall in the far corner of the room. When Scully had come in for her initial consult, Cartoon Network had been playing. A 7 year-old boy had been watching something called "Cow and Chicken," and laughed uproariously all the way through it. He was bald as an egg, and if you'd painted him black from top to toe, he could have passed as an animated stick figure.

Now the TV showed a CNN reporter standing outside the Howard County Courthouse in Baltimore, where a hostage situation had developed earlier in the day. An advertising executive named Daniel James Pettiford had been representing himself in a divorce proceeding when he pulled a revolver out of his briefcase and shot the judge, his wife's attorney, and a bailiff who tried to grab his gun. He was holding his estranged wife and a stenographer in an office off the courtroom. In a call to a local radio talk show, Pettiford said he would not surrender until the police produced a Methodist minister to renew their marriage vows. Furthermore, he wanted his parents, his best man, and his four ushers to witness the ceremony, and his wife's parents and sister were not to come within one hundred yards of the courthouse -- the same distance a restraining order said he was supposed to maintain from his wife. The police were trying to negotiate, but they had to wait until Pettiford got off the phone. He was also calling the TV stations and the Sun, and he was providing continuous updates to the talk show host, who was using the situation as a centerpiece for his subject of the day, "Is Romance Dead?"

Dana and Margaret Scully sat on the opposite side of the room, heads close, talking quietly, trying to drown out both the newscast and their fears. The agreement that had been silently formed in Allentown still held. They were reconciled, to be sure, but the change in Scully's personal life was not discussed. Neither of them mentioned Max, or the scene in front of Scully's apartment in December. Charles' imminent departure was touched on, as was his visit the previous day. Margaret didn't ask for details about the visit, and Scully didn't offer any. "I'm glad you two are talking again," Margaret said, mightily trying not to sound uncomfortable.

"So am I," Scully said quietly. And the subject was dropped. *One thing at a time.*

With all the sensitive areas being eliminated as conversation topics, they discussed the Blue Widows' organizational meeting Margaret had attended the previous evening. Nominations for the Spring Vacation had been made. They included a gambling weekend at Trump Castle in Atlantic City, a camping expedition in the Adirondacks, and a package tour to Branson, complete with hotel and show tickets.

"I'm sort of leaning towards the hiking trip," Margaret said, absently looking at the nature photos on the walls. "I don't know if I'm in good enough shape, though."

"You're in _fine_ shape, Mom," Scully told her. "You walk two miles every day, you do aerobics. . ."

"But these are _mountains_. . ."

"Mom, it's not Outward Bound. They're not going to have you traversing alps. They probably match the trail to the overall condition of the group." She smiled faintly. "Besides, you don't like gambling, and I can't see you wandering around Dollywood with a one-shot camera, killing time before the Porter Wagoner show."

"I may have to get used to that idea." Margaret wasn't upset, though she did seem resigned. "We're not voting until next week, when the officers make individual presentations. But I got the general impression Branson was the popular choice." She shrugged. "It wouldn't be _that_ bad, I suppose. I'd definitely enjoy Branson more than Atlantic City."

When she wanted to, Scully could do a deadly impression of Mulder. "You have something against Robert Goulet?" That got a smile out of her mother. Scully giggled. "The group better start saving up for the RV rental fee. I don't think they'll let you into Branson without one." Margaret started to laugh.

"Doctor Scully?"

Laughter died. A tall chunky technician with short blonde hair stood at the edge of the waiting room, a metal clipboard in her hand. She wore a long white lab coat over blue surgical scrubs, with a red AIDS ribbon pinned to one of her lapels. "Whenever you're ready," she said. Her sleeves were rolled up. Her smile was meant to comfort.

Mother and daughter turned to each other. Scully felt a rush of memory: The first pediatrician visit she could remember, an annual checkup in Norfolk. Biting her lip to keep from crying in the Miramar infirmary after she fell off her bike and cut her head. Her first visit to the gynecologist -- a woman, which seemed to ease the mortification. She'd still made her mother speak with the doctor separately. *Every time, Mom's been there. Every step, every scrape, every skinned knee, making sure I wasn't scared. I was scared then. I'm scared now. . .*

Scully had kept her trenchcoat folded in her lap while they waited. She clutched it like a life preserver. Maggie touched her hand. "Do you want me to come in with you?"

*I want you to make the monsters go away, like you used to do when I was small. I want you to take me home, mix me a glass of Nestle's Quik, and tell me everything will be all right. . .* "That's okay," she said as she stood. "I'll be fine."

Margaret stood with her. *My baby girl. Always being brave. Always being the grown-up. Always telling me not to worry. Oh Dana, I wish I knew why. . .* "I'll be right out here," she said, smiling back, ordering herself not to cry.

The two women hugged, long and warm. Maggie took Scully's coat, then stroked her daughter's cheek. Scully took the hand and pressed it to her face, then turned away before she broke down. The tech's smile hadn't dimmed. She'd seen scenes like this too many times. Scully walked up to her. "All set," she said, her face stilled to Ice Queen specifications.

The tech gave her a professional nod. "Come on."

She turned and walked back to the thick gray door that separated the waiting room from the rest of Oncology. Scully paused a moment to straighten her jacket. She thought of Max for strength, and then followed.


Dana Scully will return in. . .


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