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Secret World

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SECRET WORLD

Sometimes, when you look around,
everything seems still and calm on the surface.
And then you detect
a little disturbance. And you know for sure
that underneath the surface
lies some other
secret world.
-- Peter Gabriel

 

***********

LOMBARD’S MARKET
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 19
8:23 p.m.

 

John Larivee thumbed through the Richmond Times-Dispatch on the
counter in front of him, checking the want ads and wondering how
guilty he should feel for looking for another job while allegedly
doing this one. He decided that he shouldn't feel very guilty,
not for $6 an hour under the table. After all, he was working
for people who kept a list of customers who bounced checks on
posterboard by the door, just for the spite of it.

He glanced up at the three customers milling around the tiny
shop's Import Beer section -- just added to keep up with the chi-
chi new markets over on Main Street. The customers were all
underage, sporting the requisite thrift store garb of the local
college students, and he couldn't care less. He'd sell them the
overpriced beer anyway. He always did.

The cowbell on the door clanged loudly over the sound of Paula
Cole's newest -- something about being somebody -- and a blast of
frigid December air leapt over the counter, a few papery leaves
rushing in at the feet of the newest customer just as the door
slammed shut behind him.

No, her, he corrected himself, noting the long hair trailing out
the sides of her parka hood. Bright red hair. He pegged her for
an art student and looked away without another thought. The song
continued bleating around him, and he sighed, turning his
attention to the first quarter of the Monday Night Football game
flickering on the small television beside him. Dolphins 14, Jets
3.

"Help me."

Larivee looked up quickly. The woman in the army green parka had
appeared before him so silently that her voice was the first
indication he had that she'd approached the counter at all. He
actually jumped as she spoke. Watery blue eyes stared at him
through the mass of tangled hair crumpled around her face.

"Excuse me?" He found himself leaning away from her as he met
her gaze. Her face was blood red, her eyes awash in tears, her
teeth clenched as if in pain.

She licked her lips, her head tilting to one side. "I need
you...I need you to help me..." Some part of his mind registered
an accent. > he thought.

White hands fumbled on the counter, stretching around the edge
closest to him. She looked like someone clenching the bar on a
roller coaster, her face contorted in a sob now as she leaned
forward, her forehead touching the glass, a puff of condensation
billowing beneath her face as she cried out, the sound starting
low in her throat and gaining momentum fast.

Larivee stood now and backed a step away, looked to one of the
college kids who'd come forward at the sound, her face stricken.

 

"What...what do you want me to do?" he asked weakly, more to
show concern in front of the kid than in an actual attempt to
help the woman in front of him. He hated the city, hated the
junkies. The last thing he needed this night or any other was a
freaked out college kid looking for a Trip Doctor.

Instead of responding, her moan continued, getting more shrill,
and then suddenly liquid. He looked down in horror as a stream
of blood trickled over the side of the counter, racing for his
feet. He jumped back as if shot.

"Hey, are you okay?" The young woman at the refrigerator case
came forward, alarmed at Larivee's reaction. She put her hand on
the other woman's prone back. The woman stiffened beneath her
hand, the moan turning into a scream.

John stumbled backwards now, towards the phone hanging on the
wall. He got the receiver off and dialed 911, his eyes never
leaving the woman. At the sound, the college student stepped
back quickly as well, the other two students suddenly behind her,
their eyes wide, their mouths open.

The woman threw herself backward, her hands clamping down on both
ears as if against some impossibly loud sound only she could
hear. Between her hands, in a horrible second, the scream ended
in a hollow POP, like a cork coming off a bottle of champagne.
Then, between her hands, John saw.....nothing. A spray of gore,
filling the room with quick, wet noise as her body dropped
against the counter.

Then, just the eerily normal tones of the radio. The three
students screaming. And the operator calling out to no one that
help was on its way.

****

Larivee squinted his eyes against another flash as the police
photographer snapped another picture from the doorway. He was
standing at the back of the store now, as far away as he could
get from the body at the counter that wasn't yet covered with a
sheet. The television had been left on, the game going into the
third quarter beneath the blood drying on the screen. He stared
at it numbly. Beside him, the three college students huddled
together as though for warmth, all of them still staring,
stricken, at the body on the floor.

"Did you hear anything like a gunshot?" the detective in front of
him was asking. When Larivee didn't reply, he leaned his head
into the younger man's line of vision. "Come on, son, stay with
me here." He enunciated each word as though Larivee were going
deaf right before his eyes.

"No, nothing," Larivee replied, his voice flat, monotone. "I
told you everything I know. She just asked me to help her, and
then this happened." He nodded towards the counter again, his
eyes never leaving the television.

The detective sighed, looked to the students. "You all say the
same thing. You didn't hear nothing." They shook their heads
silently in response.

"All right, boys and girls," the detective said, stuffing his pad
of paper into the inside pocket of his overcoat. "I've got your
names and numbers. The owner of the store said he was on his way.
So I guess you're all free to go."

To Larivee, the man's voice still seemed impossibly far away.
Nodding, he went to the front of the store, the students pressing
close to the wall to walk around the body as the yellow police
tape was raised to allow them to exit. Tucked at the back of the
counter, Larivee pulled on his coat, ignoring the spatters of
blood that covered it. He came around the corner just as the
police were pulling something -- a wallet, it looked like -- from
the pocket of the dead woman's coat.

Shouldering his way through the police as the camera continued to
flash around him, Larivee pushed out into the street, ducking
beneath the yellow tape and through the small knot of curious
onlookers who had gathered outside the store.

He would not go back to work there again.

 

*******

FOX MULDER'S APARTMENT
ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 23
9:38 p.m.

 

The photograph of Mary Rutherford's body lay neatly atop its open
file folder, flickering in and out with the flashes from the
television set in the darkened room. The police statement of
John Larivee and the other witnesses gathered around it, the text
neatly typed by the Richmond P.D. but too brief to do justice to
the carnage of the photo, which was mercifully shot in black and
white.

On the television, Ebenezer Scrooge reveled in the London
Christmas morning, waltzing with his just-shed robe as he nearly
sang that he was "light as feather, giddy as a schoolboy,"
celebrating his somewhat coerced transformation from a "wicked
old screw" to a man who kept Christmas in his heart all year
round.

And though this was Fox Mulder's favorite moment in his favorite
Christmas film, he only had eyes for Dana Scully, naked on his
lap, her breath coming in shallow, shaky breaths against his ear.
He could still feel the fluttering inside her, her fingers
pressing almost desperately to the flesh of his upper arms.
Besides their breathing, the television was the only sound in the
room.

He had watched her, held her, for some time now, mesmerized by
the play of her body against his, around his. Sometimes when
they made love, he sensed she wanted it this way, sensed how she
resisted the gentle thrusting of his body into hers. Sometimes
there was something she needed from being with him in this way
that he couldn't give her, and he'd sense it in her hands pushing
against him, the way she rubbed her face against his shoulder,
gripped the sides of his ribcage with her calves to disrupt the
tender rhythm that his body found so easily once inside her.

He'd asked her if she was all right, and she'd hesitated before
she replied, moving against him once, twice, the sensation
running over his skin like a fine current. Despite the desire it
stoked in him, he'd reached down and gripped her hips, stilling
her. He whispered the question again, turned his face to just
below her ear, pressed a long kiss against her there. This time,
she'd released his chest, draped her arms around his neck until
her hands found his short-cropped hair in the back.

"I want..." she whispered, puffed out another breath. He didn't
need to look at her to know her eyes were tightly closed. Then
she'd said it again, and he nodded, laying his hands flat on her
thighs, urging her to do as she wished, to completely take
control. As she nodded and braced her hands on his shoulders, he
held his lower body still, let her take what she needed from him.

 

It was a difficult thing for him to do, to give up this kind of
control to her. But watching her take her own pleasure from him,
her hips moving in maddening circles as her face dewed with
sweat, her bottom lip caught between her teeth, her brow creased
down in a concentration he found enviable and utterly erotic --
he had to admit he loved it almost as much as finding his own
pleasure within her. He'd watched her, listened to the soft
moans she tried so hard to hold back, and marveled at how
different lovemaking could be for a woman -- she could be
playful, or fast and almost harsh, her orgasm coming in a
fleeting second, washing over her quickly in a gasp. Or she
could take it agonizingly slow, with such care, as she was doing
now, taking him so deeply inside her he felt he might disappear
completely.

His mouth had found her breasts, taking first one nipple, then
the other between his lips, smoothing the soft skin with his
tongue, his teeth. He nuzzled at the creamy expanse of her neck,
wordlessly urged her on, let her mouth find his as she needed it.
Her cheek stroked his forehead. Her fingers gripped his hair as
her pace began to quicken. Her fingernails raked his scalp as
her breath fanned his hair, her chin lifting as she pressed his
face into her chest, her body stiffening.

"Mu--" And she was shaking against him, a deep moan and she was
coming, his arms going around her back, holding her tightly, one
hand finding its way to her hair, smoothing it as he pressed a
soft kiss between her breasts.

Now, she pulled back to look at him, her eyes sleepy and wet, her
breathing still heavy as she met his gaze tenderly.

"You okay?" he murmured. There was something strained in his
voice, his own need filtering into the quiet question. His hold
for control was tenuous at best. He could tell from the way she
stroked the back of his hair that she heard it, too.

She could do nothing but nod. Then she leaned down and kissed
him, her tongue gently parting his lips and finding his. When
she pulled away, the look in her eyes nearly brought him to
tears.

And then she reached down and took his arms, guiding his hands
down to her hips, thrusting against him gently. Her meaning was
clear. He moaned softly in response. She returned her face to
his shoulder, turned her lips to his ear, and began to speak.

"I love you," she whispered, and he pulled her hips against his,
pushing into her, already beginning to lose the feeling of his
body inside hers, his own need held in check for so long, his
fingers pressing hard as he moved.

Her voice was as vital as her body. It had always been that way.
Her voice was, in fact, the first thing he'd fallen in love with,
and it had become central to their lovemaking for him. The world
spiraled for him as he lost his body, blotting out everything but
the feel of her and the sound of her voice, first all of it, and
slowly narrowing down to merely words, whispered to him like
secrets...

So good...
More...
Don't....
God....yes...
Love
You....
Yes...
Mulder..
Yes.....

The last word for all of him, for everything that he was, and he
cried out against her, thrusting into her one last time as his
body shook, tiny explosions coming behind his eyelids as his
fingers dug in, holding her against him as he emptied himself
inside her.

Then her lips against the column of his throat, her nails combing
through the wet hair at his temples, her calves pressing in,
holding her body against his as he slowly came back to himself.
Her hands turned his face up to allow him to find her lips.
Again. And again.

The sounds of the television reentered his awareness, just
audible over his harsh, desperate breathing.

And something else. A cell phone ringing. He groaned, both in
lingering pleasure and dawning disappointment.

"Whose is it?" he murmured breathlessly, and she leaned back
from him, looked at the two phones. He moaned again at the
movement against his sensitive skin.

"Mine," she replied, glancing at the display for the number.
"It's Skinner."

"You'd better get it then," he said softly, and with a final,
lingering kiss, she moved off him, his hands guiding her
carefully to her feet as she turned in the dark room and picked
up the phone, tapping the talk button as she did so.

"Scully," she said softly, and, trailing a hand on his thigh, she
moved away, toward the privacy of the bathroom. He couldn't
blame her -- his breathing could probably be heard in the next
apartment.

Shifting a bit, he pulled the edge of the blanket he'd been
sitting on up and over his bare legs, the sweat on his body
chilling him now that Scully was gone. Then he leaned his head
back and exhaled, closing his eyes.

> he thought, both irritated and vaguely
amused.

Since that night when they'd first made love almost a year ago,
the night after they'd returned home after their ordeal in the
Virginia mountains, they had managed to keep their relationship a
secret from everyone at the Bureau. In fact, Scully's mother was
the only one who knew anything about it at all. (Mulder
suspected, though, that the Lone Gunmen were onto them by now.)

He smiled wryly as he thought of the countless times he and
Scully had been in one of their apartments and the cell phones
had rung one after another as Skinner called them to assign them
a case or ask them a question about something they were working
on. They'd gotten good at keeping up the charade that they were
apart.

Sighing now, he leaned forward, leafing absently through the
photos and reports in front of him. Skinner had assigned them
the case that morning, but they'd been wrapping another and
hadn't looked at it until they'd arrived at his apartment hours
before.

He grimaced as he looked again at the headless body in the center
of the pictures and read the reports of what had happened. The
M.E.'s office in Richmond had done a preliminary autopsy on the
body, but had found no cause of death other than the obvious --
nothing to explain what had happened inside that young woman's
head. Scully would want to autopsy the woman herself, he knew.
It was her standard procedure when they were assigned a case. It
was so standard of her that he was having a hard fathoming why
Skinner would be calling her at all.

Curiosity and something akin to a niggling sense of concern were
coming over him just as Scully exited the bathroom and gathered
up the work shirt he'd discarded in his haste not long after
they'd come home. She balanced the phone on one shoulder, then
the other, as she shrugged into it, buttoning a couple of buttons
in the front to hold it closed. Skinner appeared to be doing
most of the talking.

"Yes, sir, I've been through the file," she said finally and
looked up at him, gesturing with a "come hither" motion towards
the bedroom. Obediently, he rose, padded naked to her, his hand
trailing across her belly as he approached her.

"What is it?" he mouthed silently, and she held up a finger,
shaking her head to forestall his interrogation, then pointed to
the bedroom again. Pursing his lips in frustration, he turned
and went where he'd been told, pulling back the covers on the bed
and slipping beneath them. He rose up on one elbow to watch her.

 

After a series on "yeses," which gave nothing away, she finally
said: "I understand, sir. I'll call Mulder and we'll be on our
way in the morning. Goodnight." And she hung up the phone. He
watched her disappear in the direction of the kitchen.

"What was THAT all about?" he called out, his impatience leaking
out a bit in his tone.

She called back from the kitchen. "Well, this case, which was
already interesting enough, just got a little more interesting."

"How so?" he asked, sitting up a bit more.

She returned now, holding two glasses, a bottle of wine, and an
opener. She placed the glasses on the night table as Mulder sat
up, taking the bottle and opener from her. He was glad she
wasn't letting the phone call completely kill the mood, and
smiled wryly.

She continued as he braced the bottle of wine between his knees
and began to open it. "The police department in Richmond
happened to be bored enough to run a background check on Mary
Rutherford and they came up with something."

"A criminal record?" he asked, his curiosity now piqued. With a
tug the cork popped from the bottle.

She nodded. "Of a sort. When they ran the name through the FBI
database, Mary Rutherford came up as an alias used by one Maura
O'Brian. She's an Irish citizen over on a visa, a visa that
expired over eight months ago. And, she not only showed up as
being wanted by Immigration, but there was something else. A
flag by the CIA and NSA. Some agents from both divisions are
going to be meeting us in Richmond tomorrow. We're to go down
there tomorrow so I can perform a second autopsy on the body."

"What was she? IRA?" he asked, his brow creasing down. He could
think of no other reason that the CIA and National Security would
be interested in an immigration file. He poured the wine into
the glasses, his brow creasing as he took in what she was saying.

"I don't know," Scully replied, and reached down, pulling the
tail of the shirt up and over her head, standing naked before
him in the dim light from the night table. "Skinner said he'd
have a file messengered over to my apartment in the morning for
us to take with us to Richmond." She said the last with
finality, as if to close the subject and everything else out.
Mulder knew that tone, and welcomed it.

He pulled himself over to the edge of the bed closest to her,
curled an arm around her waist and drew her to him, kissing her
just below her navel. It was a long kiss, long enough for her to
run her fingers through his hair several times, her eyes trained
on the top of his head. She shifted her weight, leaning into him
a bit more as his mouth began roaming her belly. She released a
long, slow breath.

At least for that night, she thought, her eyes drooping closed
dreamily, Mary Rutherford would have to wait.

**********

END OF CHAPTER 1a. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 1b.

INTERSTATE 95, SOUTHBOUND NEAR ASHLAND, VIRGINIA
DECEMBER 24
7:03 a.m.

Mulder flicked another shell from a sunflower seed he'd been
gnawing on out the driver's side window, nibbling on the soft,
salty seed as he turned and glanced at Scully, who was engrossed
in the file next to him. Today she was back to her professional
self, changed before him like quicksilver -- her hair curving
perfectly around her jaw just over the collar of her black
trench, the white collar of her long shirt just visible. Her
face was set in an almost grim, serious expression as she read
through the file.

How she could change so much in a 12 hour period never ceased to
amaze him. He smiled to himself, reaching into the bag for
another seed, steering the car for a moment with his knees. Andy
Williams was singing "Joy to the World" on the radio. Badly.

"So you were saying last night that the CIA and NSA had a flag on
this woman?" he asked. They'd driven most of the way so far in
near silence, allowing her time to read the files they'd picked
up at her apartment. "Did you find out if she was IRA or not?"

Scully nodded, but didn't look up from the file just yet. "She's
sort of IRA, they think," she replied absently. "Apparently she
was suspected of being a member of an arch-radical branch of the
IRA called The Path, which has been operating for some time in
the states. They were ousted from Northern Ireland by the Sinn
Fein. Apparently, The Path's sensibilities were considered too
extreme for even the IRA." She did look up at that, raising an
eyebrow at the irony of the statement.

Mulder chuckled, both at her motion and at what she'd said.
"Sounds like a bunch of choir boys." he said finally.

She quirked a smile, then continued. "They refused to consider
the peace agreement with the British government when it was first
proposed, and the IRA was forced to break away from them in order
to come to any sort of accord. The Path was useful during the
Troubles, it would seem, even if their methods were extreme.
They weren't much use for peace."

Mulder considered this. "So The Path split off from the IRA and
came here? Why here?" He was struggling to recall the most
recent briefings on the IRA presence in the U.S. Since it fell
so far outside their usual work, he hadn't paid it much attention
and was regretting it.

Scully flipped to another page in the file, read it over.
"There's a strong pro-Irish grassroots movement in the U.S.," she
noted from the file. "A lot of the IRA's resources come from
people here, and not all of them are for peace. It's likely that
The Path found a sympathetic ear here and were able to move their
base of operations and continue their work. It says here that
they've been blamed for several bombings in Northern Ireland over
the past three years, attacks on British personnel, ones not
attributed to the IRA itself."

Mulder nodded. He did remember reading something about a group
operating in the U.S. Counterterrorism in the Bureau had been
working on the case for years now. "So Mary Rutherford was in
The Path." He bit into another seed, spit the shells into his
hand and tossed them out the window again.

"They believe so, yes. Partly because of her visa violation, and
also because they've narrowed down the base of operations for The
Path to Richmond. It's close to D.C. and the I-95 corridor, easy
to get people and information to and from D.C and the northeast,
where they suspect a lot of their support comes from. Richmond's
just out of the way enough for them to be inconspicuous." She
pushed her hair back behind her ear, flipping through another few
pages of the file. "They know they're there, but they haven't
been able to get enough evidence that they were involved in any
wrong doing to do anything about them."

"So where do we come in on this?" he asked, gunning the engine
to pass an eighteen wheeler that had appeared in their path.
"This sounds like something for Counterterrorism or the boys at
the NSA."

"Well, the fact that we deal with unexplained phenomena is part
of it, of course. We still don't know what killed Mary
Rutherford. And the other part is about me. They want my
medical expertise on this case." She looked at him as he glanced
over. She knew he hated it when she was singled out from him,
and she saw it in his quick look. She pressed on anyway. "They
apparently are wondering if the cause of Mary Rutherford's
^^accident' is related to her suspected involvement with the
terrorist activities."

Mulder barked out a laugh at that. "You mean they think it's
some kind of terrorist weapon that did this?" He was incredulous
now. "That's a little paranoid of them, don't you think? Isn't
it more likely she was just hit by something coming through the
window, a sharpshooter or something?"

"You would think that, yes," Scully replied. "Except for the
fact that there were no entry points in the shop where this
happened. No broken glass, no open windows, no one but the four
eyewitnesses in the store. Nothing to show anything other than
internal involvement."

Mulder nodded now, the puzzle pieces starting to sift around in
his head. He couldn't make much sense of them. All they really
knew for certain at this point was that Rutherford was dead.
Cause of death unknown.

Finally, he let out a put upon sigh. "You know how much I hate
working with the NSA on anything," he grumbled. "They can be
such cloak and dagger assholes."

She smirked. "I hate working with them, too." Her tone was
teasing. "But hey, with any luck we'll get down there, I'll
find out the cause of death, it'll be something completely
explainable. Then we'll close the case and put their minds at
ease at the same time." She reached out and and stroked his leg
affectionately.

"Let's hope," he replied sullenly. He knew neither of them
believed a word she said.

They crossed a bridge, passed a sign that said they'd entered the
Richmond city limits. Before them they saw smokestacks, an
endless series of train tracks crammed with coal cars, an expanse
of old buildings. Then, in the distance, the squat series of
highrises that marked the center of town.

"We want exit 76B," Scully volunteered, reading off the
directions.

Mulder nodded, still glancing out the passenger window. "What an
ugly town," he remarked.

"Oh, it's only ugly from the highway. There are some parts of
Richmond that are beautiful. Rows and rows of Victorian houses,
Civil War monuments, huge old trees." Scully smiled. "I used to
come here a lot when I was at UMd. I did some of my pathology
training at the medical college here."

She spoke with such a fondness in her voice that he had to smile
again. But as they curved around the city towards the highrises
in the distance, his smile melted away. Despite her enthusiasm,
her warm hand still on his leg, he couldn't shake the fact that
he had a bad feeling about this case.

*************

END OF CHAPTER 1b. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 2.

*********

STATE MEDICAL EXAMINER'S OFFICE
RICHMOND, VIRGINIA
8:27 a.m.

 

Scully pulled her black coat around her more tightly as she
exited the car, ducking her chin down against a sudden gust of
frigid wind that came across the parking lot. She tucked the
small briefcase of files under her arm and took in her
surroundings, surroundings she found almost comforting in their
familiarity.

The Visitor's spaces were off to the side of what appeared to
be a loading dock area, a concrete platform built up at just the
level of an ambulance or hearse's back door. From the loading
dock, there was a few feet to a rolling metal door, like a
garage door only much larger. Off to one side was another door,
this one typically sized, its thick glass imbedded with screen.
Beside it, a plain black and white sign announced: "State
Medical Examiner Entrance -- all visitors must sign in."

A black Medical Examiner's hearse was backed up to the loading
dock, the gloved attendants pulling the stretcher out of the
back, on which lay a form encased in a black plastic body bag.
The metal door was slowly rolling up as the stretcher bumped up
onto the concrete. Once it had risen to just above their heads,
the M.E. personnel pushed the body into the large receiving
area, disappearing into the warehouse-like building. Only the
faint echo of the wheels on the hard stone floor reached Scully
as she stood before the visitor's entrance. She couldn't feel
an ounce of heat bleed out from the huge open doorway.

Mulder had opened the door, held it open for her as she huddled
further into her coat and entered the cold building. He
followed close behind her, letting her lead the way to the desk
where a bored looking young black man was listening to the
radio, his eyes on a magazine on his lap. The whole place
smelled of industrial strength cleaners, the slight hint of
formaldehyde.

"Excuse me," Scully said politely. "I'm Special Agent Dana
Scully and this is my partner Special Agent Fox Mulder. We're
with the F.B.I." She nodded towards Mulder as the man looked
up. "We're here for an autopsy."

The man put his magazine down, pushed a clipboard with a pen
dangling from a chain attached to it. "I need to see your
badges. Sign in here."

As they both produced their badges and handed them over, the
clerk wrote their badge numbers next to their signatures. Under
the "subject" line, Scully had written "Mary Rutherford."
The clerk checked his roster, handed back the badges. "Your
subject is in Bay 6. You can use Examination Room 3. It's free
now."

"Thank you," Scully replied.

"Have a better one," the man called to their backs as they made
their way down the hallway. Mulder reached from beside her and
took the briefcase from underneath her arm as they followed the
corridor into the building.

"So this is where you spent your wild medical school days?" he
quipped, his voice and the sound of their heels echoing off the
cinderblock walls. Several people had passed them but no one
had said a word.

Scully nodded, looked up at him as they walked. "Yes, I spent
a lot of nights here. Working the graveyard shift, if you'll
excuse the phrase. Richmond had a lot of murders back then. It
was a great place to get experience without things being as
hectic as D.C."

She tried, with her tone, to lighten things up a bit. Mulder,
she knew, had never been completely comfortable in morgues,
despite his vast experience with them. She could always tell
from his sometimes nervous conversation, the way he hovered back
away from the table most of the time, the way she'd see him try
to hide a gag at some of the things they'd seen. And the
Richmond morgue was particularly cold, particularly dim and
cavernous. She could see why it might give him the creeps.

They turned down another hallway, following a sign to Bay 6.
As they rounded the corner to it, they suddenly found themselves
confronted by two men, both in dark suits and long coats,
standing outside the door to the room. They both turned to face
them as they approached.

"Excuse us," Scully said, and attempted to pass the men to get
to the door. To her surprise, neither of them budged. She and
Mulder pulled up short.

"Agent Scully, Agent Mulder," one of the men said, reaching
into his pocket. "I'm Agent Hirsch, CIA, and this is Agent
Coulson with National Security." Both the men flashed their
badges.

"Well, hail hail the gang's all here," Mulder said from behind
her, and both men shot Mulder a strange, almost disparaging
look. "We heard you boys would be sitting in on this one, too.
I guess you beat us here."

Coulson looked at Mulder again, his face set in stone. "We've
been instructed to take you to a briefing before you're allowed
access to the body."

"Before we're *allowed* access?" Scully repeated
incredulously. She looked back at Mulder, and she could see his
jaw was already working.

"It will all be explained to you in the briefing." Hirsch
said, like a robot. "If you'll just come with us, please."
And the two men gestured with their arms, forcing them to turn
back the way they'd come. Hirsch got in front of them and
Coulson brought up the rear. To Scully, it felt like they were
being corralled like prisoners.

She saw Mulder starting to say something to the back of
Hirsch's head and put her hand out, touching his arm quickly.

"What?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head once, her meaning clear. She saw him purse
his lips in frustration, but he did remain silent.

"We need to sign out at the desk," she said quietly as they
reached the main foyer where they'd entered. The young man was
no longer there.

"You've already been signed out, Agent Scully," Coulson said
from behind them, and Scully looked up, met Mulder's gaze. She
could tell from the tension in his face that his alarm bells
were going off. Hers were, too.

They went through the door back out into the cold. Hirsch
started leading the way to a black sedan parked beside the
entrance.

"We'll take our own car and follow you," Mulder said, putting
his hand on Scully's arm and halting them both. Coulson almost
ran into them from behind.

Hirsch turned. "It's easier if you just ride with us, Agent
Mulder." He was clearly losing his patience now, but Mulder
wouldn't back down. He shook his head.

"Either we take our own car or we don't come at all." He stood
his ground, toe to toe with Hirsch now. Mulder had a good four
or five inches of height on Hirsch and was using it to his
advantage, Scully noted. She sometimes envied him that
ability.

Hirsch exchanged a look with Coulson, then blew out a
frustrated cloud of vapor into the air. "All right, Agent
Mulder. Have it your way."

*********

The wrought iron streetlamps were adorned with Christmas flags,
bearing bright sprigs of holly on a blue background trimmed in
gold. Scully watched them as they followed the government sedan
through the streets of downtown Richmond, the streets crowded
with shoppers. They nosed through the crowds, Mulder keeping
his eyes on the black car with government plates that appeared
to be leading them away from the heart of town.

"This is exactly what I was talking about," Mulder was saying.
"Cloak and dagger, mysterious bullshit." He inched closer to
the Hirsch's car as they went through a yellow light going red.
Hirsch wasn't making it easy for them to follow, cutting in and
out of lanes. Mulder was sent weaving through traffic to keep
up.

"I mean, ^^allowing us access to the body?' What is that?
We're not even on their case about this terrorist group. We're
just here to investigate the death. If they want us off the
case they should just throw us off the case."

Scully watched his profile as he drove, sighed. "Mulder, they
clearly don't want us off the case. Skinner said they wanted my
medical opinion on the autopsy."

Mulder shot her an irritated look, though it wasn't directed at
her personally. "Then why won't they let you do the goddamn
autopsy? What are we doing this briefing for? To learn the
secret handshake? To pick up our decoder rings? This is
ridiculous."

"I agree with you," she soothed. "I'm not taking their side,
believe me. They're giving me the creeps. Thank God you said
we weren't going to drive with them." She had pictured them
disappearing into some underground world presided over by the
Smoking Man, or someone worse. Part of her still pictured that.
She knew that Mulder did, too.

They pulled onto Belvedere, then took a left onto Franklin. "I
don't like this," Mulder said.

"I know, I don't like it either."

"No," he said softly, turning to look at her for a moment. "I
don't like them being so...interested in you like this."

"Mulder," she replied, frustrated now. "They're not
^^interested' in me in any unusual way. I'm an agent, a doctor,
a pathologist. I have experience working on unexplained cases.
It's perfectly natural that they would want me to look at this."
She looked out the window, blew out a breath. She shook her
head. "It bothers me when you get like this."

"When I get like what?" he asked sharply.

She looked back at him now, her eyes hard on him and yet
imploring. "When you're so protective of me. You're almost
possessive sometimes, and I don't like it."

"I'm not any different than I've ever been, Scully." He
snapped on the turn signal, too hard, as he followed the sedan
into the right hand lane.

"You are," she replied, and now wished she'd never brought it
up. "Ever since we....well, ever since Goshen, you've been
getting more and more protective of me, Mulder. You have to let
me do my job."

"I've never not let you do your job," he said angrily. The
sedan was turning right now, into a circular driveway. Mulder
followed it in. Scully realized from the valet parking
attendants that they were at the entrance of a hotel, a very
expensive hotel. The sign at the entrance said "The
Jefferson."

"Mulder, let's just drop it, okay?"

As Mulder stopped the car, just before the parking attendant
approached his side of the car, he turned and looked at her.
The anger was gone from his face, replaced by an expression that
seemed almost hurt.

"What's happened between us doesn't change the respect I have
for your ability to do your job. I would never interfere with
that."

She met his gaze for a moment, the frustration going out of
her. She nodded slowly as the valet reached down and opened
Mulder's door. He returned the nod and climbed out of the car.

Scully's door opened, as well, and she got out, pulling the
briefcase with her.

"Welcome to The Jefferson, ma'am." the young clean-cut looking
man before her said. "Do you have any luggage you'd like
brought up to your room?"

"No, no luggage," she said, brushing him off. Hirsch and
Coulson were already out of their car, standing beside the
entrance. Mulder handed off the keys to the valet, took the
ticket and came around the car. They walked to the entrance
side by side, the tension gone from between them. Hirsch turned
and went into the hotel without saying another word.

Mulder and Scully followed them through the large open foyer.
A bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson held court over the scene, a
huge Christmas tree with gold and silver decorations fanned out
behind him. They boarded the glistening elevator. Hirsch
pushed the button for the sixth floor.

"Nice place," Mulder said into the quiet as they rode up. "Not
going cheap on the taxpayers, are we."

"Yeah, thanks, we like it." Hirsch replied sourly. Scully
sighed. Mulder was never good at working and playing with
others.

The elevator dinged as they reached their destination, Hirsch
again leading the way down the corridor towards an ornate door.
The small sign next to it said: "The Presidential Suite." It
was the only door on that entire side of the building, Scully
noted.

Hirsch knocked, gazing directly into the peephole to allow
whoever was inside to see his face clearly. The door opened and
the four of them entered.

And Scully was amazed by what she saw.

The first thing she noted was that the room was the largest
hotel room she'd ever seen. A large living room with a very
high ceiling was the first room, furnished completely with
couches, tables, and even a baby grand piano. Beyond it was a
balcony, the French doors to it tightly closed but not obscuring
a grand view of the city. A bedroom was off to the right, and
to the left, a full dining room, the table large enough to hold
at least 20 people. More rooms extended off of it.

The next thing she noticed was that the room didn't look like a
hotel room at all anymore. Computers, printers, fax machines,
paper, was everywhere. And the place was jammed with people,
men in suits and ties on telephones, behind makeshift work
stations. She estimated there were at least 30 people in the
room, all moving about. The room was buzzing with conversation
and the sounds of machines running. Two men caught sight of
them and came forward from the organized chaos of the room.

"Agent Scully, Agent Mulder," the man said, extending his hand.
They both returned the handshake. "I'm Richard Jessup, F.B.I.
Counterterrorism Unit." He forced a smile. "Welcome to
Richmond. I've heard a lot about you both."

I bet, Scully thought, but returned the stiff smile. "Thank
you," she said, before Mulder could say what she was thinking.

"It's been a confusing visit so far, Mr. Jessup," Mulder
replied, shaking Jessup's hand with mock enthusiasm. He jerked
a nod towards Hirsch and Coulson, still standing stiffly beside
them, their hands clasped in front of their crotches. "Nice
welcoming committee."

Jessup's smile got more strained. "Yes, I'm sorry about that.
You see, we weren't expecting you two to come in on this case
this early. We were unprepared for your involvement and have
been trying to catch up."

That got a gape from both of them, but before they could say
anything, the other man introduced himself. "Ben Anderson, CIA
Domestic Terrorism Unit." His handshake was firmer, less
friendly. "Why don't we cut right to the chase and get you to
Dr. Padden. He'll explain everything to you to your
satisfaction, I think."

"I hope so," Scully replied, and followed Anderson and Jessup
as they started to weave their way through the room. She saw
Mulder turn to Hirsch before following.

"We can take it from here, boys," he said, patting Hirsch's
upper arm. "Why don't you take a load off? There's even a
piano over there if either of you decides you'd like to
tinkle."

Hirsch forced out a fake laugh to that. Coulson glared at him.
"Thanks, Agent Mulder. We'll do just that." Scully could
swear she heard him say something else under his breath as they
walked away. It sounded suspiciously like "son of a bitch."
But she could have been wrong.

They were led to the dining room table where several older men
were sitting, folders in front of them. The man at the head of
the table, greying, wearing glasses and a dark suit, stood as
they approached.

"Agents Mulder, Scully," he said softly. It was quieter in
this corner of the large room. "Let me begin by apologizing for
all the intrigue. I'm Dr. Robert Padden, Chief Inspector, NSA.
Won't you take a seat?"

They both peeled out of their coats, sat in the two seats
beside Padden, across from two other men who looked to be about
Padden's age. Jessup and Anderson sat beside them.

"Begging your pardon, Dr. Padden," Mulder said without
prelude. "But just what the hell is going on?" Scully winced
inwardly at his tone, but she shared his indignation. "We were
under the impression that this autopsy was part of OUR
investigation of this death, an investigation started by the
Richmond P.D."

"Surely you were told that there would be agents from the NSA
and CIA here to meet you? I spoke to Assistant Director Skinner
yesterday about this." Padden, clearly used to being in charge,
didn't take Mulder's bait. His voice remained flatly cordial.

"Yes, we were told," Scully interjected before Mulder could
reply. "But we were not told that these agents would be
interfering with our investigation. And most certainly that we
wouldn't be denied access to the body, or be told we would need
any sort of outside permission to perform our investigation."

"Agents, please." Padden held his hands up in a "calm down"
gesture. "If you'll just give me a moment, everything will be
explained to you."

Scully sighed. They weren't going to get anywhere by being
petulant at this point, that much was clear.

"Would you like some coffee?" Padden gestured towards the
coffeemaker in the corner. "Something else?"

"Just answers, SIR," Mulder grumbled under his breath.

"No, thank you," Scully replied, her chin coming up almost
defiantly. She refused to be bullied by the silent stares of
the men at the table. She was also more than slightly aware
that she was the only woman in the room.

Padden looked to the two men across the table from them. "I
want to begin by saying that, of course, everything you're going
to hear today is classified information."

"Of course," Scully replied. Mulder nodded, as well. Padden
continued, satisfied.

"Then let me introduce everyone first. This is Phillip Grant
and Duncan Hall from Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorism division."
Both of the men nodded to Scully and Mulder, who nodded back.
"They're acting as consultants on this case.

"We want to have a clear understanding of what's going on
before you go into the autopsy, Agent Scully." He pinned Scully
with his eyes. "Mr. Grant?"

Grant, a balding man, also wearing glasses, cleared his throat
and opened the file in front of him. He spread out several
black and white photos in front of Scully and Mulder. They were
all crime scene photos. The bodies, like Mary Rutherford, were
missing their heads.

"This is the fifth body to turn up in this condition in the
past year," Grant said, his voice heavy with a British accent.
"Two of them have been in Northern Ireland, the other three here
in the States -- one in Massachusetts, one in Philadelphia, and
now one here in Richmond. All of the autopsies showed the same
thing. No clear cut cause of death, other than the fact that
their heads appeared to have exploded."

"There was one other detail that isn't in your report of the
autopsy results of the victim here in Richmond," Padden added.
"An organic compound was found in the toxicology reports of all
of the victims, one that we've been unable to identify." He
looked at Scully. "We were hoping you might be able to give us
some insight into the nature of this compound, Agent Scully,
when you do your autopsy and review the findings on the other
victims."

"Were all these people in The Path?" Mulder asked, picking up
one of the photos to look at it more closely. This victim, a
man, was wearing an army fatigue jacket and jeans. He appeared
to be lying in a public bathroom. Scully was studying another,
the gender unrecognizable, lying next to what appeared to be
city trashcans in an alley.

"We haven't been able to identify two of the bodies." Anderson
answered. "But we're assuming so, considering the identical
unexplained cause of death, and the presence of this organic
compound in the bloodstreams. The other victims, the ones who
happened to be carrying identification...all had connections
with either the IRA or The Path itself."

"Because of recent information that we've received in regards
to this Rutherford's death, we're treating all of these deaths
as homicides." Padden said quietly.

"What sort of information?" Scully asked, laying down the photo.

Padden looked at both of them. "I'd rather not go into too
much detail at this juncture. I will tell you, however, that we
received word that Rutherford might be killed a few days before
her death."

"So you already knew that Rutherford was in The Path," Mulder
said, leaning forward. "Then why did the Richmond P.D. bother
with the background checks on her? Why was her case sent to
us?"

All of the men looked down, as though embarassed. Padden
pursed his lips before he answered. "We didn't realize
Rutherford had been killed until a few days after the fact. We
didn't realize she was here in Richmond. The Richmond P.D.
released the case to you in that interrum period. We didn't get
containment of the situation quickly enough."

Mulder gestured to the room around him. "Even with all this
here, you couldn't get containment?" His tone was incredulous.
Scully saw the men at the table squirm a bit more. Clearly some
heads had rolled over this.

Padden nodded. "This command center has only been here for the
past 36 hours," he said. "We didn't settle on Richmond as a
base until this death. Again, because of recent intelligence.
Suffice to say that we've recently had a break in the case."

Scully nodded, looked down at the photographs again. > she
thought, > Finally she said: "Do these deaths
have anything in common other than the cause of death and the
victims' association with The Path?" she asked.

Hall looked at Padden, who nodded. "Yes," Hall then said.
"There was a tremendous amount of funding from the Campaign for
Free Ireland, an American fundraising group based in Boston,
going into those areas when the deaths occured. And we believe
that one man may have been in all of the areas when these people
were killed." Scully recognized from his accent that Hall was
Irish.

"A hit man?" Mulder asked.

"Of a sort," Hall replied. "He's actually the head of The
Path. His name is Owen Curran."

"So you think this man ordered these deaths?" Scully asked.

Padden nodded. "Or that he was somehow responsible for them,
yes."

"And he's here now, in Richmond." Mulder said quickly. Scully
could see that it was all falling into place for Mulder. It was
starting to come together for her, too.

Beside them, Jessup nodded. "We think so. We believe they've
settled here now. That's why Dr. Padden was able to tell
Assistant Director Skinner about Richmond being the base of
operations for us yesterday on the phone. Unfortunately, we
don't have any sort of evidence linking him to any of the crimes
or any other sort of wrong doing."

"As you're probably aware," Padden added. "We believe this
might be some sort biological weapon that Curran is testing on
his own people. Some sort of toxin. That's why we called you
in, Agent Scully."

Scully looked at Jessup. "Agent Jessup said that we came in
^^early' on this case. You were expecting to involve us at some
point?" Beside her, Jessup reddened.

Padden glared at him. "Yes, we were. Both of you. You for
your medical and scientific expertise, and Agent Mulder for his
profiling abilities. We need a profile of Curran, some idea of
what might be motivating him. But no, we weren't prepared for
your coming aboard without us specifically asking for you. Your
involvement at this juncture was simply fortuitous."

Jessup leaned forward. "We're also aware that you both have
experience on...unusual cases, and this certainly qualifies.
Though we're *fairly* certain this has nothing to do with the
paranormal." The agents around the table smirked a bit at that.
Scully watched Mulder sit back in his chair, feeling mocked.
She did, as well.

"Anyway," Padden interjected sternly, silencing the table.
"We're hoping that we can get to the bottom of what exactly
Curran is planning. Between these deaths and the fact that he's
using up so much money right now....we'd like some answers on
the ^^whys' on both these mysteries. We'd like you to do your
autopsy right away, Agent Scully."

"Yes, sir," Scully replied, and stood. Mulder followed suit,
shouldering into his coat.

"I'm going to join Agent Scully and have a look at the body,"
he said to the table. "I'll start my profiling with the
available evidence and move on from there."

"Of course," Padden replied, stood. He reached a hand towards
them both. "We're glad to have you both aboard. We'll look
forward to your reports."

They both shook his hand, forced a smile. Scully was relieved
that Mulder was too preoccupied to needle Hirsch again as they
went out the door.

************

As the door closed behind them, Robert Padden looked to the men
at the table, pinning them over the rims of his glasses.

"What do you think?" he asked, and the other men looked at
each other for a few beats. Finally, Jessup spoke up.

"You can tell she keeps her head about her." he said softly,
shifting the photographs into the folder in front of Padden.
"That's her reputation in the Bureau, as well. Hell, she's even
a red-head, Curran's type, from what we've seen. I think she'll
do perfectly."

"If," Hall added, leaning back, his face thoughtful, "you can
find a way to get them apart. That'll be the trick of this, I
believe." They all looked at him, then again at Padden.

Padden nodded, sighed as he closed the folder, tossed his
glasses on top of it. "Yes, I have a sneaking suspicion that
you're right about that."

 

****************

END OF CHAPTER TWO. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER THREE.

***************

RICHMOND CITY MORGUE
10:32 a.m.

Scully pulled on her mask as two morgue attendants rolled the
headless corpse of Mary Rutherford onto the examining table.
From behind her, she could hear Mulder make a low sound in his
throat at the sight, and she didn't have to turn around to know
that he had averted his eyes. She thanked the men and they
left the room.

A microphone hung suspended above the examining table, and
Scully flicked it on with a gloved finger. Below it, the body's
skin glowed an unearthly blue in the fluorescent of the silver
overhead light.

"Second autopsy on Mary Rutherford, a.k.a. Maura O'Brian, by
Dr. Dana Scully, Federal Bureau of Investigation. I will begin
by reopening the torso for an examination of the internal
organs."

She heard Mulder groan again, though he'd come forward now to
the other side of the table, his eyes scanning the body, taking
it in. She reached for a pair of surgical scissors and started
on the bottom sutures of the Y-incision, just above the shock of
pubic hair on the white skin. She snipped the thick corded
sutures in a series of snaps.

"She was underweight, wasn't she?" Mulder asked, not taking
his eyes off the body. Now that he mentioned it, she noted the
protrusions of the woman's pelvic bones and ribs beneath her
thin skin. She stopped cutting and looked at the readout on the
scale built into the table.

"Well, it's hard to know her exact height considering." She
gestured to the ragged stump where the head should be. "But
yes, she does appear a little underweight. 103 lbs."

Mulder nodded, and Scully began cutting up the incision again.
She hadn't had a lot of opportunity to see Mulder working as a
profiler, not for years now. She'd always been secretly
fascinated by his skills in this area, the ones he was so famous
for at the Academy. He had been considered one of the best
Violent Crimes had ever seen.

He bent over, looking closely at Rutherford's arm and hand.
"There are some needle marks on her arms."

"Yes," Scully replied. She began parting the flaps of skin.
"That was on the preliminary autopsy report. There don't appear
to be enough of them to confirm any long-term IV drug use."

"And she bit her nails," he said, picking up the hand to show
to Scully. She noted the nubs of fingernails, the ragged edges
of hangnails. While she waited for him to continue, she
finished up clamping back the skin on the corpse before her.

"That, coupled with her being underweight.... I'd say she was
fairly unhappy before her death. Under some sort of duress."

"That would follow with what she said at the crime scene,"
Scully replied. "She said she needed help, and the witness
reported that she was crying."

Mulder shook his head. "I think this was more long term. I
think she'd been living under a great deal of stress for a long
time before her death. It shows on her body. Even now." His
voice had grown very far away, his gaze both looking at the body
and not. To Scully, he seemed as though he was talking only to
himself. Despite the years she'd known him, his tone gave her
the creeps.

Mulder moved to the head of the table, grimacing as he came to
the nub of neck at the intersection of her shoulders. The skin
was ragged, torn away in flaps. A small protrusion of spine
nosed up through the folds of skin.

Scully lifted out one of the two bags nestled inside the
abdominal cavity, a large moist bag where all of the internal
organs had been placed after they'd been removed and examined.
She began on the twist-tie as Mulder leaned closer for a better
look at the neck.

"There's no explosive residue here at all," Mulder muttered,
his face twisting into a grimace as he leaned a bit too close.

Again Scully nodded. "That was also in the preliminary
report." She took the organs out one at a time and laid them on
the scale. Then, reading the weights one by one into the
microphone, she placed them in a row on a small tray beside the
examining table. Mulder had stepped back now, his expression
that same faraway look.

"Whoever did this to her...hated her," Mulder said finally.
"They calculated this, knew this would happen this way. There's
a lot of anger in this."

Scully wasn't going to argue with that. As she moved to the
woman's neck, her fingers probing the area with needless care,
she couldn't help thinking there wasn't a much more gruesome way
to die. At least it would have been quick, though from the
police reports that she'd read and from the amount of blood
found at the scene before the head "detonated" (as it was
described in the first autopsy) the woman had suffered
terribly.

"What do you think caused this?" Mulder asked her from behind.
His voice was still quiet in the room. The only other sound was
the electric hum of the overhead lamp.

"My best guess at this point, based on what I've read and what
I'm seeing here," she began, pulling a small piece of bone from
the tissue around the neck. "...is some sort of dental implant,
some sort of explosive. Something so powerful that the damage
it caused would literally blow away any residue."

"You think she was fitted with a bomb? Why would she allow
that?"

Scully shrugged. "Maybe she didn't have a choice. Or it was
implanted without her knowledge."

Mulder crossed his arms over his chest, coming up beside the
body again. "What are the chances of that being the case with
all the victims?" he asked. When Scully didn't reply, he
continued. "I mean why would five people find themselves with
enough explosives capped onto their teeth to do this?"

"Well," Scully said, standing straight now. "It could be some
sort of guarantee of loyalty that The Path requires of its
members. Being fitted with the implants. Or they could have
been placed there to ensure that anyone who crossed them could
be effectively silenced."

"I still don't see these people happily lining up to have the
things put in," Mulder said softly. "I think your theory that
they're put in without their knowledge is more likely. If we're
even talking about some sort of implanted explosive."

"I don't know what else it could possibly be," Scully said,
going back to the torso. Another, smaller, bag was tucked
beneath the ribs and she reached for it. Mulder felt bile
rising up in his throat as he saw the tangles of red hair
pressed against the clear plastic, realizing that this was what
could be gathered up at the crime scene, the remnants of the
woman's head.

"I think I'm going to go back to the hotel, see what I can find
out about this Owen Curran, start my preliminary profile." He
pulled off the gloves he'd been wearing, tossed them in a
biohazard bin beside the table. He reached for his coat, on a
hook by the door.

She looked up, the unopened bag still in her hands. "All
right. I'm going to go back over the body, have a look at the
toxicology reports and see if I can begin to isolate what this
compound found in her bloodstream might be. I'll call you when
Ifinish."

She sighed then, laying the bag down on the side of the table,
remembering suddenly the day. "I guess I won't be meeting the
family tonight for Christmas dinner," she said quietly. "I'll
need to give my mother a call at some point." She could already
hear the disappointment in her mother's voice when she made the
call. It gave her a twinge of guilt.

He looked at her, his expression regretful. "I'm sorry," he
said, shouldering back into his coat. "I know how important
that is to you, to be with them."

She quirked a small smile, chasing the feelings away. "This is
important, too," she replied, then met his gaze, held it for a
beat. "And at least I'll be with you."

He returned the small smile, his eyes warm. "I'll be back to
get you."

**************

Mulder was sitting at a light, spitting another sunflower seed
shell out the car window and listening to Nat King Cole telling
him to have himself a merry little Christmas when his cell phone
chirped in his coat pocket. He fished it out, tapped the talk
button.

"Mulder."

"Agent Mulder, what the *hell* is going on down there?"

"Sir?" he replied, confused. He did a quick scan to figure
out what he could have done to piss off Walter Skinner enough
for the Assistant Director to already be talking through his
teeth. He came up empty.

"Don't ^^sir' me, Agent Mulder." Skinner snapped. "I'm sitting
here with a transfer order that was just faxed to me, signed by
the head of NSA, moving you and Agent Scully out from under my
supervision for an undetermined period of time and I'd like to
know why I wasn't informed -- particularly by either of you --
that this was coming."

That feeling of concern that he'd been warring with since last
night started to come over him again as the light turned green
and he pulled into the intersection.

"I'm sorry, sir, I assumed you had been informed that Scully
and I were consulting on this case."

"Consulting, yes, but that's not what this says," Skinner
replied, and Mulder could hear paper rustling. "Under the
reasons for transfer this says ^^undercover operations.' Now I
ask you again, Mulder -- just what the hell is going on?"

"What?" Mulder replied, incredulous. The concern went into
full blown alarm as he immediately gunned the engine, changing
lanes quickly as a horn blared behind him. "No one's discussed
any undercover operations with us, sir. I don't know what --"

"I'm coming down there," Skinner replied, and the line went
dead.

**********
THE JEFFERSON HOTEL
12:23 p.m.

Mulder knocked on the door to the Presidential Suite so hard
that it sounded like he was going to break the door down if
someone didn't answer it. He watched the pinpoint of light in
the peephole disappear, then reappear, and the door opened.

It had to be Hirsch, Mulder thought.

"Agent Mulder, you weren't expected back for some time," Hirsch
said, dripping with politeness.

"I want to talk to Padden," Mulder said without prelude,
pushing past Hirsch and entering the spacious room. Several
heads came up from workstations as he burst into the room, his
eyes moving over everyone, looking for a familiar face. He was
winded from rushing up the stairs, too impatient to wait for an
elevator.

"What's your hurry, Agent Mulder?" Hirsch asked from behind
him. "You'd think you had somewhere else to be."

Mulder ignored him as he saw Richard Jessup stand from where he
was bent over a printer that was spitting out a long ribbon of
paper. Mulder was instantly in front of him.

"Where's Padden?" he asked, his tone angry, challenging.
Jessup put his hands up defensively.

"Dr. Padden won't be returning today, Agent Mulder," he said.
"Perhaps there's something pertaining to your profiling that I
can help you with?"

Mulder squared his shoulders, his hands going to his hips. "I
want to know where you people get off volunteering an F.B.I.
agent for undercover operations without consulting the agent or
the F.B.I. I thought you were done with the bullshit intrigue
this morning."

Jessup paled, his voice nervous when he spoke. "I'm afraid I'm
not at liberty to discuss that with you, Agent Mulder. Only Dr.
Padden can speak about the details of this operation. You'll
have to speak to him tomorrow morning when he returns."

"That's not going to do it, Jessup," he replied. "Now I want
some answers, dammit!" His voice had risen to the point that
more heads were turning in their general direction.

"Agent Mulder," Jessup replied quickly. "You'll get your
answers, but not until tomorrow morning when Dr. Padden returns
from Washington. " He lowered his voice. "Now I can't help
you. I'm sorry."

He really did seem to be sorry, and Mulder relented, blowing
out a frustrated breath.

"All right then, yes, you can help me. Get me everything you
know about Owen Curran. At least if I'm going to meet the man,
I want to know something about him."

Jessup swallowed, his face flushing. "I can get you that
information, yes," he replied, and gestured to the table where
they'd met with Padden that morning. "If you'll have a seat
there I'll get you all the information we have."

Mulder stalked to the table, pulling his coat off and tossing
it over a chair as he sat down hard in another. He took off his
dark suit coat, as well, throwing it over his coat.

From the corner, he could see Hirsch looking at him, smirking
at him knowingly. Mulder sat up straighter in the chair and
glared back.

**********

RICHMOND CITY MORGUE
2:34 p.m.

Scully leaned back from the stack of toxicology reports,
rubbing at her tired eyes as she did so and blowing out a
breath. The columns of numbers, the list of names of chemical
compounds -- it was all beginning to make her head swim. She
found herself wishing for a moment that she'd gotten a little
more sleep the night before.

She took the sentiment back as the memory of she and Mulder's
lovemaking came back to her in a warm rush. She smiled at the
thought.

Pushing herself up from the desk, she stood with the reports
and the legal pad she'd been writing on and went back to the
examining table at the center of the room. Her autopsy was
finished, the body closed again and a sheet drawn over the
corpse, hiding the gory sight from view. Her scrubs, gloves,
and apron had long ago been discarded.

She flicked on the microphone once again, reading from the
notes she'd scrawled on the yellow pad.

"Chemical compounds identified from initial toxicology reports
indicate the presence of a number of substances, including
ondansetron, mianserin, cyproheptadeine and mescaline.
According to my phone consultation with Bethesda Naval Hospital
Pharmacology, all of these substances are serotonin-inhibiting
compounds, including the mescaline, which is also a powerful
hallucinogen."

She began to circle the table, stretching out her back as she
did so, continuing to speak. "I am unable to determine the
exact effect these compounds would have had on the deceased,
except to say that serotonin is associated strongly with sleep
patterns and is thought to be the regulator of the so-called
^^internal clock' of most animals, including humans."

She turned the page of her notes, stopping at Rutherford's
feet. "Also, increased levels of serotonin have been found to
be associated with feelings of well-being and an exaggerated
feeling of self-confidence." She sighed, stifling a hearty
yawn.

"I can only surmise that the deceased, having had what must
have been the majority of her serotonin neutralized by these
compounds, would have experienced a severe disruption in sleep
patterns and would have most likely suffered from mood
disturbances. The presence of the mescaline also would indicate
that she probably experienced some form of hallucinations. I
will complete my report when I have access to Internet resources
and when I receive a new toxicology report that will include
serotonin levels in the blood specimens."

She flicked off the microphone, went to the table where she'd
been sitting and gathered up her briefcase, sliding the files
and notes into it neatly. From the tape player set into the
desk, she retrieved the tape that had been recording everything
she'd said during the autopsy, popped it into a plastic case
beside the recorder and slipped it, too, into the briefcase.
She clicked off the desk lamp. Finally, she tapped the
speakerphone, then punched in an extension.

"Front desk. Can I help you?"

"Yes, I need orderlies to return the body I've been working on
in examination room 4 to the freezer, please." Now she did
yawn, covering it with her hand.

"They're on their way," came the bored reply.

"Thank you," Scully called, and tapped the speakerphone button
again, closing the connection. Gathering her things, she went
to the hook beside the doorway, pulling down her coat. She
turned and surveyed the room to make sure she had remembered
everything she'd brought with her.

Her eyes fell on the corpse, the small shape of it beneath the
sheet, the flatness of the area at the head of the table. The
room was quiet, the only light the silver lamp over the body,
throwing the floor around the table into shadowy relief.

Unbidden, the words from the police report came back to her:

>

A chill ran up her spine. She could almost hear it in her
mind, could almost see the face she'd seen in the driver's
license picture contorting in pain, the fragile features, the
blueness of her eyes.

She had been crying.

The flow of blood coming from her nose -- or was it her mouth?
The clerk hadn't been able to tell. The shrill sound of the
screaming....

>

Scully gathered her coat closer to her. It had grown colder in
the room, it seemed. Or perhaps it was just that she was
standing still, could just now feel the chill that permeated the
concrete walls, the smooth cement floor. Her gaze stayed fixed
on the sheet-draped form in front of her, the images playing in
her mind again and again.

"I'll help you," she whispered finally as if to silence them,
the words out before she realized she'd said them.

Shaking free from the strange mood, she turned and went out the
door, retreating from the body, eager to put some distance. She
reached into her coat pocket and brought out her cell phone,
punched in speed dial one.

"Mulder, it's me," she said when he answered. She couldn't
quite shake the chill that followed her down the empty corridor.
"I'm ready for you to come get me out of here."

 

************

END OF CHAPTER THREE. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER FOUR.

***********

RICHMOND MARRIOTT
8:33 p.m.

When the knock came at the door, the last thing Scully expected
was a full spread of room service. Mulder perhaps, finally
breaking from the strange, quiet mood that he'd cloaked around
him in the car. But not a rolling cart that set up into a full
table with hidden leafs, the tablecloth a festive green and red.
There were two covered dishes, warm bread shrouded with linen in
a basket, a bottle of wine chilling in a bucket of ice. Two
white candles in crystal holders. A sprig of holly dotting the
center of the table in a small white vase.

"I didn't order this," was the first thing she said, taking off
her glasses as she stepped out of the way in her stocking feet.
She had, in fact, never ordered anything more than coffee from a
hotel's room service -- she found it an extravagance. Despite
this, she let the bellhop continue setting up the table.

"Yes, ma'am," the man said, smiling as he pulled the cover off
one of the dishes. Breast of turkey, cut neatly into a fan,
festooned with parsley potatoes. "The gentleman in the
connecting room ordered it earlier this afternoon for a dinner
delivery."

"Ah, I see," she said, hiding a smile, and let him finish. The
other plate was clearly Mulder's -- a thick steak. The room
filled with its rich, dark smell.

As he stacked the plate covers, she padded to her purse,
sitting atop her open suitcase, and pulled out a five dollar
bill. She handed it to him as he straightened from lighting the
candles in the middle of the table.

"Thank you, ma'am," he said. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas," she replied softly, a bittersweet smile
coming as the bellhop withdrew, closing the door behind him.

She surveyed the table, and though it was lovely, she couldn't
help but think of her family's Christmas Eve dinner. Her
mother's thick linen tablecloth she used only on special
occasions would be out, covered with platters of turkey and ham,
boats of gravy, china plates of yams. And everyone there --
Bill, Charlie, Tara, little Matthew. The white lights of the
Christmas tree playing on her mother's crystal goblets. Her
mother had said, her voice tinged with the disappointment Scully
had expected, that they were even expecting a dusting of snow.

Sighing, she turned away from the table, gazed out the window
at the view of the city from her ninth floor window. All of the
high-rises were outlined in white lights, a slow ribbon of cars
weaving through the narrow streets below. It was clear, and
despite the glow of the city she could make out a few bright
stars in the woolen night. There was something peaceful about
it, and she felt herself relaxing a bit, letting the tension ebb
out of her shoulders. She crossed her arms over her chest,
rubbing the sleeves of her white shirt absently, as though for
comfort.

Turning now, she went to the desk where her laptop screen
glowed an otherworldly light. The autopsy report she'd prepared
for the meeting tomorrow morning stared back at her as she hit
"save" and closed down the machine, tossing her glasses
haphazardly on the table beside it.

Mulder was right, she thought as she breathed in the warm
smells of their meal. No more working tonight.

She was glad for the meal for several reasons. For one, she'd
worked straight through lunch. For another, she hoped this was
Mulder's way of putting his own work down, the piles of folders
he'd had stashed in the back seat of their car when he'd picked
her up. She assumed that the profiling work had put him in such
a halting, dark mood, and she wanted him to snap out of it. It
had the exact feel of being around someone who had something to
tell you but for some reason refused to do so. It made her
uneasy to be around him when he was like that.

Plus, she thought, as she made her way to the connecting door,
it was Christmas. And she wanted to be with him.

She opened her connecting door, knocked lightly on the door to
his room.

"Mulder?"

She heard a rustling of paper, then shoeless footsteps coming
toward the door. It opened and he stood before her, his eyes,
behind his dark-framed glasses, rimmed with a touch of red.
He'd clearly been reading for hours.

"Is dinner here already?" he asked as the aroma of steak and
turkey drifted through the doorway. Instead of answering, she
stepped out of the way to reveal the table.

"Good," he said with a shy smile. "They remembered the
candles."

She returned his smile, stood up on her tip-toes and kissed his
mouth softly, lingering there for a few seconds.

"Thank you," she whispered, watching his eyes reopen as she
withdrew her face a few inches.

"You're welcome," he replied, reaching up and smoothing her
hair down gently. They gazed at each other for a beat.

"Oh!" he said suddenly, holding up a finger. "I almost
forgot."

She watched him retreat into the room, caught sight of the bed
completely covered with open files, pictures strewn everywhere.
He went to the table where his own laptop glowed on the desk,
picked something out of a plastic bag with the name of some
store on it. It was wrapped in red tissue paper, a crinkled bow
hanging precariously on its top. Like her, he discarded his
glasses on the table, rubbed his eyes.

"Mulder....you know I didn't bring your present," she
protested, but a smile was tugging at her lips just the same.

"This isn't your present," he replied, kissing her again
quickly as he returned to the doorway. "This is a *substitute*
present. Now let's eat. I'm starving."

She stepped aside to allow him access to the room now, followed
him to the table. He pulled the two chairs over from the desk,
arranging them in front of the plates. Finally they sat, Scully
eyeing the present as she did so.

"Nuh uh," he said, covering it with his hand. "Not until we
finish eating."

She found herself grinning as she unrolled the silverware from
its thick napkin. Mulder reached for the bottle of wine, opened
it with the silver opener and poured them each a glass.

"Cheers," he said softly, holding his glass up. She did the
same, clinking their glasses together in the quiet. They
exchanged small smiles as they did so.

Finally, they began to eat in silence. Scully watched him over
the candle flames as they ate, saw his playful mood slowly
evaporate, his expression growing flatter and more serious as he
made his way through his steak. It made her concerned again,
uneasy.

"Mulder, what is it?" she asked softly. She put down her fork
and reached across the table, curling her fingers around his
forearm.

He stopped eating and looked at her. For an instant she saw
something almost like fear come across his features, but he
stamped it down immediately.

"Is it the case? The profile you're doing?" She wanted him to
talk, to reassure her that he was alright, that they were
alright.

"I don't want to discuss this over dinner," he said softly,
though despite his words, he put his fork and knife down now, as
well.

"Discuss what?" she asked, her eyes narrowing a bit in
suspicion. She knew now why his mood had struck her as so
similar to being around someone who wasn't telling her
something. Because that's exactly what he was doing. "What are
you not telling me?"

She saw him wince a bit, and knew she'd caught him. She
withdrew her hand, leaning back in the chair. "Damn it,
Mulder...."

"I was going to tell you as soon as we finished eating," he
hurried to reply. "I wanted you to have a nice Christmas and
not have to deal with any of this. It's bad enough that you
can't be with your family..."

"You're not protecting me by hiding things from me," she
replied sharply. "We've had this discussion before. It's an
old one." Her tone was frustrated, bluntly angry. "And it's
not your fault that I'm not with my family, Mulder. Stop taking
that on. I'm here because I want to be here. You know that,
don't you?"

"Yes, I know that..." He trailed off, took in a deep breath.
"All right, this is what I know. Skinner called me today, while
I was on my way to the Jefferson. He wanted to know what was
going on. He said he'd been told that we were being transferred
to the supervision of the NSA."

"But I assumed we are under NSA supervision," she said, and he
nodded.

"We are," he replied, and met her eyes. "Just not for the
reasons that we were told."

"Then why are we here?" she asked, incredulous.

He took in another breath. "Skinner said we're here for some
sort of undercover operation."

Scully blinked, looking at him for a few seconds in confusion.
"We're both going undercover?"

He shrugged slightly, speaking slowly, choosing his words with
care. "I think it's more likely that's it's going to just be
me," he said. "I've done undercover work with the CIA before.
I have experience working with domestic terrorist groups.
They'll most likely want you to handle the medical angle of
this, to work as support."

She sighed now, crossed her arms over her chest. "I can't
believe you didn't tell me this earlier. As soon as you knew."

"I didn't know what to say," he replied, looking dejected. She
could see in his expression the frustration he must have been
feeling all day, the conflict in him about it, and she felt her
angry feelings relenting.

"This is the first time you and I will be apart since we've
been...together, and I...I just didn't know what to say."

"Mulder, you tell me the truth. That's what you say. You
treat me like what I am -- your equal. You treat me like I'm
your partner and you don't keep things from me. Ever." Though
her words were chastising, her tone was not. He had looked down
as she spoke, as though ashamed to meet her gaze.

"All right," he said softly. "I'm sorry. I just didn't want
you to be worried any sooner than you had to be." He looked at
her now, showing her he meant what he said with his earnest gaze.

"I am worried," she murmured. "I think this is too dangerous,
what's going on with this group and with these deaths. I don't
want either one of us to get any closer to it than we have to.
And the thought of you possibly infiltrating this group...it
does scare me."

"That's what I was afraid of you feeling--" he began.

"BUT..." she interjected quickly, cutting him off with both
her words and her look. "I would never stand in the way of you
doing your job. I mean, come on, Mulder. This is the second
time we've had this discussion today. Part of us being partners
-- and lovers, for that matter -- is that we have to respect
each other's choices. And one of the choices we've both made is
to be involved in the work that we do. Even though it scares me
to think of you doing this....I respect that you've chosen to do
it."

Now she reached across the table and took his hand. The
candlelight caught in his eyes as he gazed at her, as though
they burned with some interior fire. He smiled sadly.

"I *am* sorry," he murmured. "Please understand that I only
act this way because I don't want you to be hurt, or afraid....I
want you to be happy."

She smiled at him, caressing the back of his hand with her
thumb. "Having you in my life makes me happy," she whispered.
"You don't have to do anything else to make me that way."

With that, he leaned across the table around the candles, and
she met him in the middle. Their lips met. Then again. They
stayed that way for a long moment, their mouths searching each
other out, looking for and finding answers in the elemental
contact.

After awhile, he pulled back slightly, kissed her cheek, the
corner of her mouth. "I want to lie down with you," he
whispered.

She shook her head. "You know the rules," she said softly,
pressing a small kiss to his forehead. "Not while we're in the
field." He groaned, and she smiled.

"I didn't say anything about sex," he protested, his voice
still quiet, as though he was unwilling to break the mood they'd
spun around them. "I just want to lie down with you. Just hold
you."

She kissed his cheek softly, lingering. "All right." And she
snatched up the present from his side of the table and stood.
He made a grab for it, but she was too quick for him. "I've got
a couple of hours."

"Before what?" he asked, standing as well.

"I'm going to Midnight Mass," she replied. "There's a
beautiful cathedral here that I've been to before. I thought it
would be a nice way to celebrate while I was away from home.
One tradition I could uphold."

"Such a good Irish Catholic girl," he teased.

She smirked at him, then took his hand and led him to the bed,
pulling back the covers. She flicked off the lamp beside the
bed as he got in, laying on his side, holding the covers back
for her. She climbed in, pressing herself back into him until
every inch of their bodies was touching, their legs tangling
beneath the blankets. He curled an arm over her, his cheek
settling against her hair. She fumbled with the small present
as they settled down.

"Can I open it?" she asked, feeling him smile against her
hair.

"Sure," he said softly. "Don't get too excited. It's just a
little thing I picked up on the way to get you today."

She elbowed him gently. "Don't spoil it!"

With that, she tore into the tissue. In a few seconds she held
what it had hidden -- a small plastic snowglobe with a Dickens-
like scene secreted within it, complete with buildings,
streetlamps, and carolers whose faces were done up cheaply with
paint. The base proclaimed proudly of the piece's origins in
China.

"You got me a snowglobe," she said fondly, stating the obvious.
She shook it and sent the street scene into a swirling blizzard
of plastic flakes.

He leaned closer to her ear. "I wanted you to have a white
Christmas," he whispered, pressed his lips to the lobe of her
ear.

She felt tears welling into her eyes suddenly, blinked them
back as she rolled onto her back, holding his face with one hand
as she kissed him, closing her eyes against the emotions washing
over her. She felt his hand going across her middle to her
waist, pulling her gently against him as he returned the kiss.

"I love you," she murmured against his lips as they parted.
"Thank you."

"You're welcome," he replied, nuzzling her. "I love you,
too."

They met in another kiss, her arms going around him. At his
back, the snow continued to fall in the globe. They drew the
quiet over them, let the candles on the table chase away the
last of the darkness.

 

***********

CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED HEART
DECEMBER 25
12:38 a.m.

 

The cathedral smelled of oiled wood and incense, and Scully
breathed it in from where she knelt, just to one side of the
high cupola that was lined with tiles in blue and gold. The
lights on the altar illuminated the stained glass windows,
throwing the dark faces of saints into chiaroscuro relief, their
eyes staring down at the assembled crowd with inscrutable gazes.
As with most Midnight Masses Scully had been to, the place was
filled to capacity, despite the building's size.

Beside her, a white marble statue of Mary stood, her arms
spread wide as if taking in Scully and the entire crowd around
her. At the altar, dressed in a green robe over a crisp white
alb, his neck draped with a festive red satin hood, the elderly
priest held up an enormous host high in front of him for all to
see.

Despite the reverence of the moment -- this, the Consecration
of the Host -- Scully couldn't help but think of Mulder, how
innocent and vulnerable he'd looked as she'd disentangled
herself from his embrace, leaving him sleeping. He'd shifted in
his sleep, clutching a pillow to him, immediately filling the
space in his arms she'd left.

She'd stood, found her shoes, jacket and coat in the dimness of
the room. The candles on the table had all but burned down,
leaving small coronas of wax around their bases. She'd blown
them out as she made her silent retreat from the room,
downstairs to the valet who would bring their car around.

"He took bread, gave You thanks and praise, broke it, gave it
to his disciples and said: ^^Take this, all of you and eat it.'"
The priest was saying, his voice echoing around the vaulted
ceilings. "This is my body, which will be given up for you....'"

Scully struggled to remain focussed on his words, but she
couldn't help but think that as early as tomorrow Mulder could
be taken away from her, and the thought pricked at her chest,
filling her with concern.

She wondered for a moment what it would be like to be without
him by her side every day. Through the entire year since they'd
become lovers, they had managed to not be apart for more than
few days, and though they hadn't done this on purpose, she knew
there was some part of both them that didn't want to be alone
anymore. But thinking of Mulder with The Path.... She had to
close her eyes against the flood of dread that overcame her.

"Then he took the cup; again he gave You thanks and praise.
He gave the cup to his disciples saying: ^^Take this, all of you
and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, the blood of
the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and
for all men so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of
me.'"

Her fingers fumbled over the rosary beads curled around them.
She blew out a slow breath, chasing the feelings away and sent
them into a prayer, her eyes remaining closed as she whispered
it to herself. A prayer for her family, for Emily. For Mary
Rutherford. For Mulder. For herself, to have the strength to
bear up to her own words to him that night as they drifted back
to her again:

>

"For safety," she whispered. "For safe return."

She stood for the Lord's Prayer, grasping the hands of the
strangers beside her. She held their hands tightly, seeking
comfort in the touch, seeking reassurance.

Beside her, the statue of Mary looked on, seeming to glow in
the light of the offering candles gathered at her feet. Her
hands were frozen in place. Her expression was dim. And,
ultimately, unreadable.

**********

END OF CHAPTER FOUR. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER FIVE.

***********

THE JEFFERSON HOTEL
11:38 a.m.

The glass turned over on the table as Mulder reached for it with
jerking, trembling motion. Water ran in rivulets in all directions
and Richard Jessup stood with his folders, shaking water from them.

"I'll get a towel," Jessup said to the table, and retreated into the
bathroom. For his part, Mulder sat stone still, his eyes boring into
Padden's. The water soaked momentarily into the preliminary profile
he'd prepared for the meeting before Scully reached from beside him
and moved it out of the way.

They were an hour into the meeting when Padden dropped the bombshell
on them. Scully was taken completely by surprise. She took small
consolation in the fact that the men on either side of her seemed
more so.

"Dr. Padden, I want to formally protest this," Skinner said from
beside her, fresh from his drive from Washington. His jaw muscles
were rippling. "I object strongly to one of my agents being
^^volunteered' for covert operations without going through the proper
channels, including notifying me, her superior, in advance."

"We're sorry for the unusual nature of the assignment, Mr. Skinner,"
Padden replied from the head of the table. "We've been trying to keep
the knowledge of Agent Scully's involvement as secret as possible. We
felt that informing you before this juncture might have jeopardized
the viability of the mission." He sat back as he spoke, effectively
dismissing Skinner's protest. Skinner heaved out a frustrated breath
and glared.

She could sense Skinner about to say something else and headed him
off. She had her own concerns about the idea, and didn't need him
speaking for her.

"Dr. Padden," she said quickly. "I'm not sure how it is that I make
the best qualified candidate for this operation. It seems someone
from Counterterrorism, someone with knowledge of the I.R.A. and The
Path's workings would be better suited for this particular undercover
assignment."

Beside her Mulder finally moved. He sat back, as though satisfied
with her response. Scully could still feel anger coming off of him in
waves. Jessup returned, the fringe of hair around his balding head in
disarray, and began mopping at the table with a crisp hotel towel.

"That's just it," Ben Anderson responded from Padden's left. "We
don't want someone from Counterterrorism. We want someone who can
pose as a civilian in this, as someone not involved with the
political aspects of The Path and its workings."

On his other side Scully noted a newcomer to the group, a young
African American man -- younger than she and Mulder, by the looks of
him. He was built small, muscular beneath his black suit. He was
listening intently, but his eyes, rimmed in silver glasses, weren't
on her. He was watching Mulder.

Phillip Grant piped up from the other side of the table. "You see,
Agent Scully, there are too many gaps in our knowledge about their
leadership, their operations. There would be no way to adequately
train someone to pose as an actual member."

"So you're sending her in BLIND?" Mulder spat, his voice low and
angry.

Beneath the table, Scully moved her foot surreptitiously over,
pressing her toe gently against Mulder's ankle. She knew he must be
having the same feelings she was having last night at Mass, the same
overwhelming concern. She also knew he was angry in that protective
way that she had grown so wary of recently. She wanted to calm him,
and was frustrated at how public they were, how she couldn't get to
him, despite the fact that he was sitting right beside her.

"Essentially blind, yes," Padden replied, directing his response not
at Mulder but at her. "It's the best way to ensure your protection.
You'll be less likely to expose your cover if you're posing as,
well...basically yourself."

"As myself?" Scully replied, confused but holding her expression
neutral. There must have been ten men around the table, all watching
her.

Padden looked to the slightly built, middle-aged man to her left.
Scully remembered him as Duncan Hall. He nodded and began to speak.

"We have a contact involved with the Campaign for a Free Ireland in
Boston," he began, leaning forward and folding his hands in front of
him on the dark wood table. His voice was thick Irish. "He's placed
very high up in the organization and lets us know from time to time
where money is being allocated, what requests for supplies have come
in from the I.R.A. groups working within the U.S., that sort of
thing. Requests that require C.F.I. funding or other intervention."

He started a file around the table to Scully. Skinner handed it to
her, still holding his tongue. She opened, glanced at the contents.

"Three weeks ago our Boston contact received this e-mail from
Curran."

Scully read it aloud, for the benefit of Skinner and Mulder.
"^^Require doctor or person with medical background. Must be placed at
Medical College of Virginia Hospital in some capacity. We are taking
care of a problem with our current contact.'" She put the folder
down. "It's signed ^^O.C.'"

"Rutherford was a nurse, working at Medical College of Virginia
Hospital at the time of her death," Hall added.

"That's how you deduced that she -- and subsequently the others --
were murdered," Scully said, the pieces falling into place "Because
you assumed they were calling in a replacement for her specifically."

"That was our thought, yes," Padden replied. "It turns out that this
was, in fact, the case. We're not sure why they need someone with a
medical background -- whether it's to treat the members of The Path
who have been exposed to this unknown compound, whether it's to gain
access to the compound's components themselves....we just don't know.
That will be your first task -- to discover how exactly they plan on
using you, and for what purpose."

Scully nodded. "I understand," she said softly, and saw Mulder turn
to look at her now, his expression angry and more than a little
surprised. "So I'm going to pose as this doctor they're requesting.
What will be my complete cover?"

Padden opened a folder he had sitting in front of him and began to
read aloud.

"Your name is Dr. Katherine Black. You're an internist in Boston who
recently lost your license to practice due to professional
misconduct. You've been recruited by the C.F.I. with promises of
money -- which you badly need, having lost your position -- and with
the falsified reinstatement of your license to practice in the State
of Virginia. We've already arranged with the medical college to put
you on staff in the outpatient clinic at the hospital and to allow
you to use whatever resources you need for the completion of the
operation."

Ben Anderson spoke up now, fingering the garish tie around his
pencil-thin neck. "This also works out perfectly for us, because you
will have close contact with the members of The Path and hopefully
this compound that they're developing. And as you've already proven
today with your report on the complete lack of serotonin in the
victim's bloodstream, only someone with your medical background and
access to the labs in the hospital could isolate what they're using
and assess whether or not it's a terrorist threat."

Padden nodded. "That is your second task. Your third responsibility,
a tertiary one for the purposes of this, will be to gather as much
information as you can about Curran and The Path's members and
activities while you are exposed to them. We want names of members,
contacts, locations of safe houses, that sort of thing. You will
bring back this information at regular intervals to the task force we
will assign to monitor you."

Now he turned to Mulder. "Agent Mulder, you will be on that task
force, working sometimes undercover to contact Agent Scully and bring
back information that she relays. But your primary task will be to
work closely with Agent Granger here -- " He gestured to the young
black man seated beside him "-- to develop a more complete profile of
Curran, based on Agent Scully's observations of him. We're hoping the
two of you can give us some idea of what his motives might be, what
he might be planning."

"I don't need a new partner to do my profiling, SIR," Mulder
replied, his voice and manner tight as a bowstring. He gave Granger a
withering look as he said it, and Granger met his gaze and then
looked down at the table. "My place in this *should* be with Agent
Scully, working with her undercover. I'm perfectly capable of doing
my profile in that capacity. In fact, I could do a more complete
profile if I had access to Curran myself."

Now, Scully noted, it was Skinner's turn to look satisfied.
Apparently, Mulder had taken the words right out of *his* mouth this
time.

"We thought of all that, Agent Mulder," Padden replied. "But we
can't risk inserting both of you into this. We can't come up with a
plausible cover story for your involvement. This assignment is,
however, perfectly suited for Agent Scully and her qualifications.
The profiling aspect of the operation, as we've seen already from
your excellent preliminary profile, is perfectly suited for yours."

Again, there was that tone, Scully noted. Not quite condescending,
but one which made it clear that Padden would entertain no argument.
It sounded like how someone would talk to an idiot or a child, and
she could see Mulder chafing. She was proud of him, however, that he
kept quiet about his feelings. She knew that for him, it took
enormous restraint.

Padden leaned back, taking in the table. "Now if that will be all,
Agent Scully, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Jessup will be working with you
tomorrow morning, making up your identification materials and going
over your background in more detail. Agent Mulder, we've already
assembled our task force of agents, and Mr. Hall will go over your
duties in that capacity at a meeting at nine a.m. Now if no one has
anything else to add?"

"I'd like to speak to you in private, Dr. Padden," Skinner said from
beside her, and Padden nodded.

"Of course," Padden said graciously. "I think we can let everyone
else go enjoy what's left of this holiday then."

With that, there was the sound of seats being pushed back, everyone
rising. Mulder shot up out of his chair as though it were on fire,
grabbing for his files and then his coat draped over the back of his
chair.

"I want to speak to *you* in private," he said to Scully quietly,
firmly, leaning over her. She looked down, not meeting what she knew
would be his angry glare, nodded and stood, gathering her things.

From their right, Agent Granger came forward, a game smile on his
face as he approached Mulder.

"Agent Mulder," he said. His voice was deep, resonant. Self-
consciously, Granger adjusted his glasses, put a hand out. "I'm Paul
Granger, with the CIA. I know these aren't the best of circumstances,
but I wanted to tell you how much I'm looking forward to working with
you. Your reputation as a profiler is the stuff of legends over at
the Agency."

His hand remained poised in front of him as Mulder looked at him.
Without saying a word, Mulder reached out, shook Granger's hand once,
hard, then put his hand on Scully's back to usher her forward. They
brushed past Granger, Scully giving him an apologetic smile.

"I want to see both of you in your hotel rooms in one hour," Skinner
said as they passed. His face was still red, his hands folded tight.

"Yes, sir," Scully replied, and Mulder followed her out the door.

 

**********

RICHMOND MARRIOTT
1:14 p.m.

 

Mulder tossed his car keys carelessly on the dresser in Scully's
small hotel room, peeling out of his coat. He remained silent, as he
had been since they'd left the meeting. She'd allowed the silence to
continue, wondering if it had given him time to perhaps cool down
before they had the discussion she knew was coming. As soon as he
opened his mouth, she realized it had had the opposite effect.

"How can you even think about doing this?" were the first words out
his mouth. His voice sounded like it had risen an octave in the past
hour.

She took her coat off, too. Slowly. Choosing her words carefully as
she spoke them, keeping her tone measured, calm. "Well, for starters,
I don't recall being given a choice," she replied.

"You could refuse," Mulder replied. "When I went in with the New
Spartans I knew I could have backed out at any point, just by
refusing to go forward with it." He was pacing now, not looking at
her, a caged animal desperately looking for an exit.

"But you didn't." She stopped him with her tone and a stern look.
"Because you knew that the work you were doing was important. And
this is important, too."

But Mulder wouldn't be dissuaded so easily. "Scully, you don't
understand," he said, something desperate in his voice now. "I've
studied this guy Curran. If even half the things they think he's
linked to are true, he's a cold-blooded murderer. He kills without
conscience. There'd be no way to protect you from him if things went
bad."

"Then we'll just have to make sure things don't go bad," she replied
firmly. "Mulder, this is exactly the reason I joined the F.B.I. Why I
chose not to pursue my career in medicine. I knew that my skills
would give me the opportunity to make a difference, that I could
distinguish myself. This is the perfect opportunity for me to do
that."

She'd approached him now, laid a hand gently on his arm. "Mulder,
it's going to be all right. From the sounds of it, I'll have regular
contact with you. You'll be able to see that I'm okay." She leaned up
and pressed a soft kiss on his lips. "I remember how hard it was for
me to stand back and watch you with August Bremer. But you came out
of that fine. And I will, too."

He looked down at her, the concern etched deeply into his face.
"Scully, I barely came out of that operation with my life," he said
softly. Now it was his turn to reach down and take her arm, gripping
it as though she were slipping away from him. "If it hadn't been for
ONE man's split loyalties, I'd have been executed in that field. I
told you that. I was lucky, that's all. *Damn* lucky."

"That operation was very different," she said.

"Yes, this is deep cover," was his quick reply. "This is much more
dangerous."

"Mulder," she murmured, reaching up to stroke his cheek. "I really
need your support on this. I need to know that you'll have your
feelings backgrounded enough that you'll be there for me if I need
you."

Finally, she saw him relent, his face growing resigned as he blew
out a breath, turning his face slightly away for a moment. Then he
said: "You know I'll be there for you. Always. And I won't let my
feelings get in the way of doing my job."

Just then, there was a knock at the door.

When Scully opened it, Walter Skinner came in as though he'd been
shot out of cannon.

"Sir," she greeted as she closed the door behind him.

His tie had blown up over his shoulder and he was slightly out of
breath. "Agents, I'm afraid I can't do anything to stop either of
your transfers to the NSA Operations Division. I've tried everything
I know, but they've got you both locked in tight."

"That's all right, sir," Scully replied softly. "I realize this has
come as a surprise to us all, but Mulder and I are both willing to go
forward with the operation."

Skinner looked at Mulder, who was standing with his hands on his
hips. He shook his head, let his head fall forward, avoiding
Skinner's probing gaze.

"Well, I have managed to do a couple of things. For one, I've
involved the F.B.I. in on the surveillance team. There will be agents
from the Bureau on the team monitoring you, as well as all Bureau
tactical resources at your disposal." He paused, straightened his
tie. "The second is that I've gotten myself on their lead task force.
I'll be working with Dr. Padden on a consulting basis, so at least
I'll know if anything gets fishy, anything that might endanger either
of you unduly."

Both agents nodded. "Thank you, sir," Scully replied. "I'm sure I
speak for Agent Mulder as well when I say that we appreciate your
involving yourself in this situation."

Skinner nodded. "I'm just sorry I didn't know about this sooner,
when maybe something more could have been done to keep you both out
of it completely. These inter-agency operations can be a little
twitchy. I'd feel more comfortable if I had been consulted at the
operation's inception."

"What do you know about Padden?" Mulder asked, sitting now at the
foot of Scully's bed. Scully stood next to him, her arms crossed over
her chest.

"That's the one positive thing I can say at this point," Skinner
replied. "He has a very good reputation. Ph.D. in Criminology from
Georgetown. Worked as an agent in the NSA for 15 years or so before
being recently placed in the director's position. He's done a lot to
clean up the NSA's operations, including all but shutting down the
NSA's involvement with the School of the Americas. I believe that
he'll at least be straightforward with me about the aspects of this
mission as it unfolds."

"That's what I thought about Leamus when he approached me about
getting involved with the New Spartans, if you'll recall," Mulder
said quietly, anger creeping back into his voice. "And look how
^^straightforward' he turned out to be."

Skinner nodded. "It's true, there's no way to know for certain.
Leamus was sort of an unknown quantity. I knew nothing about him
before working with him on your undercover operation. Padden I do
know. I think he can be trusted."

Mulder nodded, acquiescing, though Scully could tell he still didn't
buy it, didn't trust Padden. For her part, she found some comfort in
Skinner's words. There was a part of her that trusted Padden, too.

"I'm familiar with most of the people on that lead task force,"
Skinner continued. "And I've worked with Jessup before. He's a
workhorse over at the Bureau. I think they're on the up and up about
this so far. Which is not to say that I feel comfortable with this
operation. Not in the slightest. I still think the way this has been
handled is odd, not going through the proper channels. It's enough to
raise a red flag for me."

"Then I'm glad you're going to be involved with this, sir, because I
think you're more likely to get straight answers out of these people
than we are," Mulder replied.

Skinner nodded, turned his attention on Scully. "You're really
prepared to go forward with this, Agent Scully?"

Scully raised her chin, nodded, her arms still tightly crossed over
her chest. "Yes, sir, I am," she replied firmly. "I feel that the
information that can be gained warrants the risks involved."

Skinner put his hands in his pockets now, relenting. "All right,
then. This is going to move quickly from what I understand. They're
talking about flying you out to Boston in 72 hours. You'll have just
enough time to get your credentials and ID in order and for you and
Mulder to return to Washington to gather your things. You should
probably pack for the long haul, Agents."

He turned, went towards the door.

"Thank you again, sir," Scully said, letting him out.

"If you need anything else from me, I've gotten a room here. I'm in
312." He nodded to Mulder, who nodded back in acknowledgement. "Oh,
and Merry Christmas to you both," he added as an afterthought.

"Merry Christmas, sir," Scully replied, and closed the door behind
him.

 

****************

END OF CHAPTER 5A. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 5B.

***********

DANA SCULLY'S APARTMENT
DECEMBER 27
5:36 p.m.

 

Scully had always been nostalgic about Christmas trees. Mulder knew
this, having seen her leave the tree up for far too long after the
holidays before. It seemed to give her some sort of comfort, and he
found it endearing.

She hadn't waited five minutes after they'd entered the apartment
before she'd plugged in the tree's lights, lighting up the angel at
the top and sending the desiccated tree into a dance of sparkling
white. Boxes of gifts still gathered around the tree's base, not yet
delivered to their recipients. Mulder spied a large box with his name
on it, wrapped in silver foil paper and topped with a blue bow.

He could tell turning on the tree had cheered her up a little by the
fleeting smile that came across her face as the lights came on, and
he was glad to see it. The past couple of days had thrown a shroud of
serious intent over her. He couldn't remember seeing her smile since
the night of their dinner on Christmas Eve, when he'd given her that
dopey snowglobe, the one she was now playing with idly as she talked
on the phone with her mother. He could glimpse her in the kitchen
from the living room where he'd retreated to give her some privacy.
He knew the phone call would be difficult.

"I'm sorry I can't say more, Mom," he could hear her saying. "I wish
I could. But I can't. I'll just be out of touch for awhile." A pause.
"No, I don't know for how long...yes, I know. If something urgent
comes up, you can call the Bureau and leave a message with Assistant
Director Skinner's office. He said he would make sure the message got
relayed to me."

She continued talking as he zoned her out, spreading his arms across
the back of the sofa, leaning his head back and releasing a long
sigh.

It had been an exhausting two days, full of strategy meetings for
him, background meetings for Scully. They had, in fact, seen very
little of each other, managing only to sneak a couple of late dinners
at their hotel. Even during those, he could feel her withdrawing. He
recognized it as part self-protection, part distraction, but he was
disturbed nevertheless. He wasn't used to her being so distant.

"I love you, too, Mom," her voice drifted back into his awareness.
"I will be. Try not to worry, all right? Okay. Goodnight." She hung
up the phone, came back into the living room, still carrying the
snowglobe. She stopped in front of him. He reached a hand towards
her, and she took it. He was relieved when she brought it to her
mouth, ran her lips lightly over his knuckles.

"You want to come into the bedroom and help me pack?" she murmured
against his fingers. Her voice gave away her fatigue. He knew they
were both already running on fumes, and the operation hadn't even
started yet. It was a fact he didn't like.

"Sure, " he replied, followed the gentle tug she gave his hand until
he was standing. She led him into the bedroom.

He sat down on the edge of her bed, on top of the striped comforter.
It was warm and he pulled his sweatshirt up over his head as he sat,
revealing his favorite grey t-shirt tucked neatly into his dark
jeans. He pulled one knee up onto the bed, turning a bit so he could
watch her work on the other side.

Scully bent over and pulled two suitcases out from underneath the
bed, unzipped and flopped the tops over onto the bed. Wearily, she
began to open drawers, pulling out already neatly folded contents and
placing them carefully in the dark cases. He gave a small smile when
she folded the snowglobe carefully in between two shirts.

"I guess I'll just do what you did and pack everything that'll fit,"
she said absently. "Since I have no idea how long we're going to be
gone." She opened another drawer, basically emptied its contents a
piece at a time into the other suitcase.

He watched her in silence, the sight of her packing her things
making him profoundly sad. This was real, he thought. She would be
leaving for Boston in the morning and then returning to Richmond
undercover, leaving him, going into a situation where he wasn't sure
he could protect her, where he wouldn't know if she would be safe.
Where he wouldn't see her for days, perhaps weeks, at a time.

He felt a lump rising in his throat and his eyes begin to burn. He
swallowed and blinked the impending tears back quickly, but the
thoughts remained, stabbing at him.

She was in her closet now, taking things off hangers and folding. On
one of her last trips from the closet to the bed, she stopped and he
felt her eyes on him, though he'd long since looked down,
concentrating on a random spot on the comforter.

"Hey," she said softly. He looked up, struck out of his
introspection. "You still with me?"

He nodded, but he knew his face gave away what he was feeling.
Placing two pairs of shoes into the suitcase, she came around the
bed, standing in front of him. Her hands came out, cradling his head
between them, her thumbs stroking his temples. He closed his eyes,
reveling in her touch. He felt her take a step closer, now between
his knees. He reached out and found her waist, her hips, without
opening his eyes.

"I know this is hard for you," she whispered into the quiet. "It's
hard for me, too." Despite her words, there was still something flat
in her voice, distant and a little numb. He couldn't tell if it was
from fatigue or something else.

Leaning forward, he pressed his forehead into her belly, taking in a
deep breath. His eyes remained closed as his hands began stroking her
waist absently. He tilted his chin up, rubbing his cheek, nosing
through the flap of her untucked white blouse. When he encountered
the warm skin of her belly, he kissed her there, lingering.

Her fingers wove through his hair now, stroking a bit more
insistently, urging him wordlessly. His hands came around to her
front, slowly undoing the buttons one at a time, starting at the
bottom, revealing a widening triangle of creamy white skin. Then the
lace of her bra. The shimmering, small shape of the cross resting
against her chest. The stark outlines of her collarbones.

His lips now roamed freely, slowly, his teeth gently nipping. She
took another step closer, holding his head against her body. His legs
squeezed lightly around her thighs, his hands roaming over her back
and buttocks.

When his mouth reached her breasts, his hands came up beneath her
shirt in the back, fingering the clasp of her bra. He undid it,
smoothing his arms around to cup her breasts beneath the now-loose
fabric.

They didn't speak. He knew there was no need for words, no real way
for them to express the maelstrom of emotions churning in them. As
his thumbs traced the bottom curve of her breasts, teasing her
nipples as they moved, she leaned down to kiss him, her tongue
slipping between his lips to slide over his. He stifled a moan,
relishing the quiet.

He stood now, their lips still together, pushed her blouse down her
shoulders and away to the floor. He tugged on her bra next, and she
removed her hands from his cheek and neck long enough to discard it,
as well. His hands went to the waist of her pants, his fingers
fumbling with the button just below her navel.

Through it all she remained still, letting him undress her in the
silence. He stooped to pull off her shoes and socks, then pushed the
legs of her pants off one at a time.

She stood before him nude now, her gaze still on him, though she
made no move to undress him. Seeing her stillness, feeling the
distance that it seemed to imply, he pulled his own t-shirt over his
head, returned his eyes to hers. Then he pushed his own pants and
underwear down, kicking off his shoes as he stepped out of them. He
pulled off his thick socks.

In a few more moments, Mulder had moved the suitcases, and they were
beneath the covers on her bed. Her arms curled almost automatically
around his back as he rolled over on top of her, balancing himself on
his hands on either side of her head so he could look at her. Meet
the longing but far away look in her eyes, the smooth mask of her
face.

She had pulled so far away from him already, he thought, leaning
down to kiss her cool lips, feeling her legs bend at the knees,
cradling him in her hips. He watched her face as he entered her. She
did not close her eyes.

 

*******************

END OF CHAPTER FIVE B. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER SIX.

*****************

BOSTON POST ROAD
OUTSIDE BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
DECEMBER 28
2:36 p.m.

Scully couldn't remember the last time she'd ridden in a limousine.
And she was fairly certain, without even doing a cursory search of
her memory, that she'd never ridden in a Rolls Royce of any make. Yet
here she sat, her gloved hands folded in her lap, looking out the
window of the elegant silver car at the snow falling on the frigid
Boston afternoon.

She glanced to the side again, taking in the profile of the man
sitting next to her, searching for some change in his expression. She
found none. She concluded that Malcolm Flaherty was either the most
rude and dour person she'd ever met or that he had taken an immediate
dislike to either her or the situation she presented him.

Considering the first thing he'd said to her, after his name, was
"Nothing until we get to the house, please," it was hard to tell
which was the case.

She'd gotten off the plane and was approached by him, a dapper, bald
man in a black cashmere overcoat and black derby-style hat. He
carried a cane made of dark wood, though he had no discernable limp.
He'd taken her arm, uttered those words, then led her past the gate
and down to the baggage claim area.

"The car is out front," he'd said curtly, glancing around as though
afraid he was being watched, then disappeared out the automatic doors
to the airport.

Now he was staring at the back of the driver's black-capped head,
his face set, a craggy sculpture. She found the silence unnerving and
vaguely annoying.

She honored his instructions however, and kept to herself as they
wove through the streets of the city, the snow falling heavy, a
blinding white.

Against her will, an image of Mulder flashed into her mind, his body
over hers, his back arching, his bottom lip caught between his teeth,
his eyes a smokey gray as he pinned her with his gaze. A drop of
sweat running off his chest onto hers as he moved.

She closed her eyes against the memory, finding something sad in it.
He had tried so hard to reach her last night, to break through the
wall she was building a brick at a time between them to make their
separation bearable. He had succeeded only for a moment, when tears
overcame her at her climax, her emotions -- frustration, fear,
sadness -- giving in as surely as her body did to pleasure.

He'd held her for a long time after that, murmuring to her about how
he was right there, how he'd always be right there, that this was
nothing, nothing but a few weeks apart...anything that he thought
would be soothing.

But she was not soothed; she simply stopped crying, growing numb
after awhile, returning to the safe shell of her self-imposed
control. She'd risen, leaving him in the bed with a mumbled apology
about how they were going to be late. She'd watched his back, tense,
as he threw his legs over the side of the bed and reached for his
jeans. Then she'd gone to shower, the water washing the last of him
away.

At six this morning, she'd left him standing in her room in jeans
he'd pulled on in haste, his hands on his hips, his expression the
most concerned she'd ever seen on his face. A simple goodbye --
nothing more to be said -- and she was gone, into the back of a
yellow cab that took her and her two enormous bags to the airport.
She boarded a plane, heading into a winter storm that had all but
socked in the Northeast.

The car glided into a residential area now, the houses set far off
the street, guarded by iron gates at the driveways. A snowplow
lumbered by, spraying an arc of salt behind it that the car ground
through, moving deeper into the tree-lined streets. Finally, they
turned right onto the lip of a driveway, halting as the gate slowly
opened. The uphill driveway had been plowed and was easily
traversable, leading in a U to the front of an enormous mansion set
at the top of the rise. The car stopped at the large double front
doors.

The chauffeur got out, pulling an umbrella from the floor of the
passenger seat. He rounded the car. He opened Flaherty's door first
and the old man stepped out, using his glass-topped walking stick as
a ballast. When his door was shut, the chauffeur came around to
Scully's side and opened the door, holding the umbrella over her head
as she climbed from the car.

"Bring the bags to the north guest room, Charles," Flaherty called
behind him as he led Scully into the house. A maid had opened the
door when they arrived. Scully pulled off her gloves and placed them
in the pockets of her coat as the maid took it. A butler saw to
Flaherty's hat, coat, and cane.

"Would you like something to drink, Dr. Black?" Flaherty asked
stiffly, and Scully started a bit at the use of the name. It was
going to take some getting used to to hear herself addressed that
way. She hoped it caught on to her ear soon.

"Yes, some coffee would be fine," she replied, and Flaherty nodded
to the maid. "In the study, Maureen," he said, and gestured for
Scully to follow him through the huge living room to a pair of dark
sliding doors. He opened them, revealing the study, the walls of
which were lined with books, expensive paintings, dark wood. A fire
was blazing in the fireplace, in front of which a circle of armchairs
sat with a cluster of small tables beside them.

"Please, take a seat, Doctor," Flaherty said, and there was nothing
warm in the invitation. He slid the door closed behind them.

"Thank you," Scully replied, and sat in a large red chair right
beside the fire. The room had high ceilings and carried a slight
chill. Flaherty sat in the chair opposite her, crossing his legs and
regarding her seriously for a long moment. A clock ticked somewhere
in the room. The fire crackled. Scully sat motionless, meeting
Flaherty's gaze, her chin coming up a bit.

"I did not expect someone so young," he said finally, the last word
dripping a bit with distaste.

She arched an eyebrow at that. "I can assure you that I have the
experience and the preparation to take on this assignment, Mr.
Flaherty," she replied, her voice chilly but not defensive. "But I'm
sorry if my appearance offends you."

One corner of his lip went up. "No, you're not. But you are
attempting to defer, which I appreciate. That is a skill that will
come in handy with our Mr. Curran, to be certain."

Scully studied him for a beat. His voice was precise, but without
accent, his clothing and manner impeccable, right down to the small
diamond tack buried in his forest green tie, the exact lines of his
tailored shirt and suit.

"Scully..." He said the name as though he were trying it out for
size, to see if it fit her. "You're Irish. Though I assume you're one
of those Americans who couldn't care much less about this fact."

"I never gave it much serious thought, no." Her voice was measured,
her eyes unflinching.

He smiled a bit more, clearly pleased by her honesty. "And I was
told you are Catholic, as well?"

Scully nodded, though she wondered where he'd found that fact out.
She hadn't listed that on anything but her medical authorizations.
Padden and his cohorts had been thorough, she thought.

"Yes, I am," was all she said aloud.

"Hm," Flaherty said, his hand going to his chin, one finger touching
his lip. "That's a stroke of luck." He was still regarding her as
though he were a scientist looking at a new species of mold, and she
was irritated by it. "So hard to teach that to someone on the spur of
the moment, as you can imagine."

There was a knock at the door.

"Come in, Maureen," Flaherty called, and the maid entered, carrying
a silver tray. A gleaming coffee pot sat atop it, as well as two
coffee cups and saucers, a squat sugar bowl and a creamer. She set it
one of the larger tables, reached to pour. Flaherty shooed her away
like a gnat.

"I'll see to it, thank you," he said, and the maid retreated,
closing the doors behind her. Scully watched her go, noting how
easily she took her commands.

Flaherty rose, went to the tray, poured the coffee.

"Cream and two sugars, please," Scully said without being asked.
Flaherty's lip curled again, but he said nothing. He reached for the
sugar cubes with a tiny pair of silver tongs.

"You say you have the experience to take this on, Dr. Scully," he
said casually, dropping the cubes into the coffee. "How many
undercover operations have you been on, if you don't mind me asking?"
He poured the cream in, sending up a stormy swirl of white.

She crossed her arms at her chest. "Am I being interviewed for this
position, Mr. Flaherty?" she asked. "Because I was under the
impression that I already had it."

She meant what she said, but there was another part of her that was
being evasive. She suddenly wished she could say that she'd done what
Mulder had done, risking so much with August Bremer and the New
Spartans.

She pushed the thought down immediately -- she'd been warring with
this nagging feeling of insecurity since being given the assignment,
but hadn't admitted it to anyone.

And she certainly wasn't going to give it away to Flaherty, or give
him room to play on it.

"I see," he replied simply, and brought her the bone white cup
sitting in gold-rimmed saucer. He picked up his own cup -- the coffee
black -- and returned to his seat. He blew on the hot liquid
delicately, took a sip.

"To answer your question, you are not being interviewed. The die is
cast as far as your placement is concerned. I've spent a great deal
of time making up a plausible cover story for you, giving you a
background that won't arouse suspicion." He leveled his gaze at her.
"In short, I've risked a great deal already, Doctor, and I just want
to be certain I haven't placed such a sizable bet on...shall we
say?....a questionable horse?"

"I was under the impression that you had risked this for your own
sake, sir, not for mine," Scully shot back. "I believe it was YOU who
decided to be a source of information for the agencies involved in
this."

"And let's not misunderstand that, either," Flaherty returned, his
voice sharp and rising just a touch in volume. "My loyalty is not to
the U.S. government in this, but to the Irish Republican Army and to
Ireland herself. My affiliation with the government is merely a
convenience. I have risked this for Ireland's sake, not yours. This
operation serves MY purposes, not the government's."

"And what are those purposes, if I may ask?" Scully set her coffee
down on the table beside her. She refused to keep up the facade that
they were two acquaintances having tea any longer.

Flaherty heaved out a breath, regaining his composure. When he
spoke, his voice had returned to its previous control. He rose,
placing his cup down on the table. He went to the fire, pulled back
the elegant screen and picked up a brass poker from the stand.

"I have spent the better part of my adult life working for Northern
Ireland's interests here in the States," he said conversationally,
poking at the fire. "I've spent a great deal of my hard earned
fortune funding various I.R.A. causes, raising money, heading the
Campaign for a Free Ireland. I've watched Northern Ireland's people
pay the terrible price for this destructive conflict, and have done
what I can to help their cause in any way that I could."

"You've funded murder," Scully said under her breath. She couldn't
help but make her true feelings known.

Flaherty only smiled, looked back at her over his shoulder. "Exactly
the naive American response I expected from you, Doctor. It's all so
easy to look at from here, isn't it? You forget your own history. You
forget that this country once went to war for its own independence
against the British, and for many of the same reasons as Northern
Ireland does now."

"That was war. This is terrorism."

"Terrorism is what happens when the enemy ensures that war is not a
feasible option," Flaherty responded blithely, turning over an orange
log. Scully felt a blast of new heat and the old man's face flared in
the bright light.

"I see I cannot change your informed opinion on the subject." His
voice held more than a hint of sarcasm. "I would recommend, however,
that you attempt to at least see the other point of view in this.
After all, you're about to become a loyal soldier in the name of the
Cause." He looked back at her again. "Or so it will seem." He smiled
wryly again.

"I've been fully briefed on the political situation in Northern
Ireland," Scully responded, and she picked up her coffee again, took
a sip. "Considering it is part of my cover." She emphasized the last
word. "A small part."

Flaherty stood now, replacing the screen. Outside, the snow
continued to fall.

"Yes, you're going to play the ignorant American, which shouldn't be
hard for you, I gather," Flaherty said, settling back in his chair.
"The brash idealistic Irish-American doctor who joined the C.F.I. out
of loyalty to her heritage, and who has now, in disgrace, been
recruited for a little task by some of the I.R.A.'s finest." He said
it all with great drama, as though he were retelling the plot of
novel.

"I'm going to be a doctor," Scully said simply.

"You're going to have to be more than that if you intend to get
close to Curran," Flaherty said. "He is not a man who trusts easily,
or often."

"You know him then?" Scully asked, her curiousity piqued. Despite
her briefings on him by Mulder and the others in the task force, she
knew little about him. It made her nervous.

Flaherty nodded, took another sip of his coffee. "I've met him on
one occasion, yes," he replied. "Before the Path's split with the
I.R.A. He's a very intense man, very magnetic. The kind of man who
can easily influence people to his way of thinking. And he gets his
job done, that much is for certain. Though it's a job for which he is
no longer needed, which he does not seem to understand."

"I would think you approved of his methods," Scully replied, her
coffee cup in front of her lips.

"There was a time when I did, yes." Flaherty said softly, placing
his cup on the table beside him and leaning back. His eyes did not
leave Scully's face. "And make no mistake, if the peace process
fails, I will again. But Northern Ireland has been decimated by this
conflict."

He gazed into the fire, the light throwing his face into shadows and
orange light. His eyes looked faraway, and for an instant Scully saw
his sadness, his exhaustion, the toll the years of conflict had
taken.

"I've had friends -- good friends -- die or be imprisoned. This
peace accord currently underway with Britain is the best opportunity
we've had, or are likely to get." He paused, took in another tired
breath. "Most of us understand this. Owen Curran does not. He
therefore threatens that opportunity."

He looked at Scully now, his expression serious. His voice was
quiet. "Thus, I am forced to resort to alternate methods to stop the
destruction of this peace."

Scully gaped at him. "You're doing this on your own. This isn't
through the Campaign for a Free Ireland at all."

Flaherty nodded grimly. "If your true identity is revealed to
Curran, it is not only your life that will be in danger. I am the
only connection between you and The Path. There will be no one else
to blame."

Scully nodded, letting a beat of silence pass as she considered his
words. "I understand," she said quietly.

 

Maybe that was what this whole thing was about, she thought later,
bundled up in her coat and gloves and winter boots, carrying a black
umbrella one of the maids had loaned her. She huddled beneath it, a
stark figure in black against the landscape of still-falling snow.

Sacrifice.

She turned the word over in her mind as she walked through the
immense garden on the grounds behind the house, trying to clear her
mind. Trying to center herself after the whirlwind of change that had
swept her up over the past few days, much as the snow was now being
swept up by the cold wind into dim lights lining the snowy pathway
that led through the barren trees.

As she made her way down the path, her boots making soft crunching
sounds as she walked, she found her thoughts inexplicably drawn to
her father. She thought of the sacrifices he'd made, the years of his
children's lives he'd missed, the time he hadn't been with her mother
when he spent those long months at sea. She thought then of how he'd
disapproved of her choice to join the F.B.I. and wondered how he
would feel about that choice now, seeing how much she was willing to
give up, to risk, in the name of duty. Duty to the work she had
chosen to do.

Still pondering this, she found herself in front of a small square
maze of low bushes, a sharply cut, flat-topped hedge cutting an
intricate path in the middle of a small clearing. Entering the maze,
she made her way to the center, where a Celtic cross, carved in
stone, stood, shouldered with snow. She stopped before it for a long
moment, studying the figures carved into it, listening, drinking in
the quiet. The wind began to blow and her eyes teared up. She blinked
them away.

She could see it now so clearly. The loneliness her father must have
felt standing on the deck of a ship, so far away from anyone or
anything he loved -- except the sea.

**************

END OF CHAPTER SIX. CONTINUED IN CHAPTER SEVEN.