"Consider the lilies, how they grow; they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." - Luke 12:27
Northern Idaho was lush in spring and summer, but its dense forests and broad meadows became a wonderland in winter, the blanket of snow snuggling around the ankles of pine and aspen and oak, scrunching against the very edge of the rural lakes and streams. On bitterly cold days the water froze over, permitting an unbroken expanse of white, its fresh fall dressing the branches of the barren deciduous trees in the finery of wedding lace.
So many miles from any real municipality, not even a footprint marred the flawless crystalline carpet. Only the eagle soaring overhead could spot the one anomailty, the hand that reached out from beneath a deep drift, fingers curled around the single white lily that still bloomed atop its lush green stem.
The slender redhead breezed through the sea of men, ignoring the heads she turned. She wasn't a flirt, generally didn't give a fig about the adolescent pantings of half the population. A part of her felt like she was missing out; then again, she figured she could handle doing without the crude whistles and catcalls of the construction crew who leered at her from their perch on the roof of the restaurant-to-be.
Besides, she thought ruefully, it wasn't like the attention was deserved. She wasn't exactly a blond bombshell; her face was oval, her eyes okay, nothing to brag about. Auburn hair, a light sprinkling of freckles that peeked out in the right light, a too-small mouth, and god knew she'd been shorted when it came to bust size. The rough-and-tumble element were just looking for an easy target. She was the closest female, so she was singled out.
Once in a while, she thought wistfully, she really should give her partner his due. He had moments of crude humor and could occasionally be downright disgusting, but Fox Mulder had never once launched an attack at her for being a woman.
It was a fact of life that any female in a male-dominated organization had to work forty times as hard to be considered half as good. She smiled, murmuring the punch line to that particular joke, one she'd often shared with her late sister, Melissa. "Fortunately, that's not all that hard!" She smiled sadly. She hadn't thought of Missy in a while, and after all these years, her heart still constricted at the memory.
She took a moment to finger-comb her hair, composing a calm expression as she stepped into the little greasy spoon. She didn't even take time to look, knowing exactly which booth she'd find him in, sliding into its opposite seat, her hand snaking out to steal a French fry. She allowed herself an unapologetically mischievous grin, one matched by his own in return.
"Hey, Scully, feeling handy?"
She tilted an eyebrow at him, tacitly requesting an explanation.
"How about a foot in the door?"
She swiped another fry, swirling it in the catsup lake in his plate and popping the morsel into her mouth. She shouldn't be eating it. Of course, that didn't stop her in the least. "Okay, I'll play," she said. "And the answer is: really bad clichés with no point. Are we done re-enacting Johnny Carson characters yet?"
He leaned back, the light in his eyes telling her there was more to the quips than his usual enigmatic humor. She knew that look. She had learned to be very wary of that look. "What?" she demanded.
"We've got a new case. Skinner handed it to me on my way here. Double kidnapping in northern Idaho, with a twist. The victims eventually turned up, sort of."
"Well, partly, anyway."
She counted to ten, determined not to rise to the bait. He'd tell her in his own time, and in the meantime, she wasn't going to give him the ammunition he relished. She sat back, crossing arms in front of her, giving him the silence she knew drove him nuts.
Worked every time.
He jumped ahead to the next step in the intricate dance of wills. "Actually, the identifications are based solely on fingerprints. Hunters found the victims' hands and feet - and only their hands and feet - buried in the snow, a snort and hoot past nowhere, USA Nothing else, no hair, no fibers, nothing to match either to victim or killer."
"Well, then, Holmes," she quipped, "I guess the game's afoot."
The steely skies promised more snow as the commuter jet set down in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The plane's wheels bounced quickly on the runway before settling into a smooth rolling gait, gradually slowing to a stop a short distance from the modest terminal.
The aluminum bird disgorged a dozen passengers, most of whom still yawned, stumbling toward the buildings and the promise of the hyperactive jolt of a good cup of coffee. Or even a bad cup of coffee, thought Mulder wryly. Better yet, hot tea. Not as much of a shock to a system long without any real sleep.
The truth was, he and his feminine counterpart had just come away from a very intense case, a chillingly frightening encounter with a very dangerous creature too evil to rightly be called a man. The case was closed because Brian Devlin had ended a spree of torture and murder by taking his own life, only after he'd killed all of his hostages except one. Scully had managed to escape by means of guts and determinations, throwing her body through a window just seconds ahead of the blast that rocked the the old warehouse.
It was moments like that that caused Mulder to break out in a cold sweat. Scully's guardian angel must have pulled double duty, because she'd walked away with nothing but a few shallow cuts and scrapes.
Mulder's deepest fear was that someday her wits and courage wouldn't be enough to save her, and she'd become just another statistic to the rest of the world. Dana Scully would never in a million years become just a statistic to him, no matter what.
Her smile caught the corner of his vision and he returned the mental embrace, knowing they were again embarking into the unknown. For all that it exhilarated him, it still scared him shitless when he thought of all he had to lose with each turn into the bizarre and frequently terrifying world of the X-Files.
He straightened, setting aside that mindset, thinking ahead to a change of pace. Their destination was Lis des Champs, a private ski resort still several miles north, near the Canadian border. The brochures he'd procured painted a pretty picture. Maybe, he thought hopefully, this case would allow a little free time. He wasn't all that great on skis, but the thought of Scully in full ski bunny regalia was enough to convince him it was worth the inevitable time skimming down the mountainside on his a$$.
He was still trying to decipher the look on Skinner's face when the AD handed him the case file, though. The Assistant Director generally kept the poker face of all poker faces. It was the normal expression for him. Only Mulder could swear he saw a twinkle of something like humor in the other man's gray brown eyes at instant the manila folder changed hands. He invoked his nickname.
This really was a serious case, he reminded himself. A dual murder-kidnapping, dismembered bodies, backwoods podunk gone psycho. Yep, it was really, really important to stay focused.
He allowed his gaze to stray over to Scully again a moment after they walked through the door of the terminal.
Scully in snow bunny mode. Whew, it was REALLY warm in this terminal.
Snow was beautiful when it snuggled against the slopes with a clean, crystalline blanket, stark white against dark tree trunks and the turquoise skies.
It was another matter altogether to drive through the stuff when it was being flung at you pell-mell by Mother Nature. The two FBI agents were all too well aware of the dangers involved in continuing on, but the lack of visibility offered them no reprieve. Mulder was at the wheel, his shoulders locked and mouth glued in a tight line. They could barely see the road at all, even in the crawling speed they'd been forced to adopt, road signs were little more than passing blurs, and finding a safe turnoff was frankly impossible.
If they stopped, they would be stranded in the roadway, at risk of a too-close encounter with another vehicle. They'd also be stuck in the middle of nowhere to contend with such unpleasant possibilities as hypothermia. Scully knew that people died in this weather, knew that it wasn't even a particularly uncommon occurrence. She shivered at the thought. They were miles from anywhere, having turned off the main highway nearly an hour earlier. Lis des Champs was only supposed to be twelve miles from the highway, but the blizzard's fury had made the trip interminable.
She tried to keep her focus on the road, trying to decipher the road signs denied them by the storm, trying to do anything she could to help guide them to safety. The passenger seat offered precious little in that department. She stole a glance at her partner, her only concession to the part of her that was afraid.
She wouldn't do anything to distract him while he was steering through the deepening winter weather. He'd already managed twice to pull them out of fishtails on the slippery roadway. She hoped not to experience the heart-stopping feeling again, particularly not in this hilly, wooded region. If they went off the road into the trees, they might not be found until summer - if at all.
Still, the sight of him reassured her. In spite of his reputation as a rogue, in spite of the cavalier posture he generally broadcast, he represented a kind of off-kilter security blanket. She trusted him, trusted that he would find a way to get them to safety. A tiny voice in the back of her mind whispered that if he couldn't find a normal way, he'd probably find a paranormal one.
She knew they hadn't gone far enough when the majestic elk bounded in front of the rented sedan, forcing a quick application of brakes. Her heart dropped like a stone as the vehicle began spinning on the icy pavement. She saw the trees looming closer, until the dark trunks melted together into a solid wall of darkness that swallowed her up. The last thing she remembered was the sound of her own cry.
Mulder stirred weakly, groaning, "Scully?" He heard other voices speaking in a language he didn't understand. He struggled to open his eyes, realized that he was in a bed, in a room he didn't recognize. A pair of concerned faces peered at him from either side. "There, honey, your friend's in the next room. How are you feeling?"
He drew a slow, shuddering breath and blew it out. "Like hell," he replied, almost surprised to find he could still talk. "Where's Scully? Is she all right?" He pushed himself up, gingerly taking inventory. He'd had better days, but he'd live.
The quarters were fairly small, decorated in what could best be described as understated Victorian style. It was a little difficult to see all of the decor, given that the only illumination a small kerosene lamp on a lace-covered bedside table. "Where am I - are we?" he asked, wondering if the room would stop rolling long enough for him to stand.
"You're at the Lis des Champs, son. I'm Gary Irish and this is my sister, Karen. We own the place. Quasimodo found your car and we pulled you out. I'm just sorry we couldn't get you to a doctor. Unfortunately, we're snowed in and nobody can get in or out. Power's out, phones are out, even the cells."
"Quasimodo?" Mulder replied, sinking back against the pillows.
Karen Irish smiled. "He's the most beautiful collie you ever saw, and the most spoiled creature on earth, next to my baby brother here."
The Irish siblings were a striking couple, their black hair shot with silver, bright blue eyes, and neither one standing over five foot tall. Karen's eyes searched Mulder's, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was seeing more than the signs of injury. Seemingly satisfied, she smiled at him. "Your friend is fine. She's been asking after you, too. I thought it best to let you both rest for a bit, but when you're up to it, I've got a nice beef stew simmering downstairs. I can bring it up here for you, along with coffee or tea or whatever you like. I don't generally serve my guests, mind you, but we don't usually encounter guests who arrive in your condition."
Scully hadn't waited for an invitation to come in. After appearing at the door, she moved stiffly, apparently having wrenched at least an ankle in the crash. She accepted the chair that Gary held for her, settling back into the cushioned rocker. "Thanks," she said softly as the portly little man stepped back a respectful distance. "How are you, Mulder?" she asked, trying not to convey too much concern. "Your vision okay? Are you seeing double or anything?"
He looked involuntarily at their hosts, with their matching coloring and Rubinesque figures, then back at her. "No, just got a splitting headache." It was the only admission she'd get.
Gary brightened. "I've got just the thing for that! One good shot should take care of it in a jiffy."
Both FBI agents stared at him, aghast.
The innkeeper grinned, "Not that sort of shot, children. Whiskey!"
Karen elbowed him in the ribs and glared. "Cut it out, Gare, you can't fix everything with alcohol!"
Gary straightened, replying soulfully, "Blasphemy, girl. Pure, unadulterated blasphemy."
Lis des Champs Resort
He was so predictable that the knock didn't even prompt Scully to look up from her notepad. "Come in, Mulder," she said, yawning.
His skin was rendered rich bronze in the dim glow of the hurricane lamp, and like her, he moved more slowly than usual, betraying the stiffness of bruises and strained muscles. She hoped that the goose egg at his temple was beginning to recede, as well. Even so... "You should be in bed."
"Thought you'd never ask," he chuckled, stretching across the foot of her mattress. "Ooh Scully, I've imagined this night -"
"Be thankful you've got a head injury," she retorted evenly. "I'm attributing that remark to delirium."
It was a dance they had performed many times before, in a hundred incarnations, the agreement to acknowledge their relationship without acknowledging the truth about it. There was no serious intent in his proposition, nor venom in her rejection. The rules had been laid out long before, for all that they'd never been voiced. They were partners and friends and nothing more.
That was their story and they were sticking to it.
For the moment, anyway.
"We need to call the sheriff the minute the phones are back on. Did your cell phone make it here?"
Mulder shook his head, intuitively leaping ahead. "They didn't do it, Scully."
"We don't know that. Both sets of remains - or more specifically, what remained of the remains - were found on Lis des Champs grounds. You can't ignore the connection. If they were involved, it would be very convenient for them to be certain that all outside lines were cut, including our cell phones."
He turned toward her, propping up on one elbow. "Do you think the Irishes steered that stupid reindeer at us, too?"
"No, of course not. Paranoia is your specialty, not mine. I just know that they're hiding something."
He smothered the urge to laugh. "I don't doubt it. I don't know too many people who don't have at least SOME deep, dark secret. That doesn't make them a killer."
She couldn't resist. She paused for effect before challenging, "Everybody, huh? What's YOUR deep, dark secret, Mulder?"
"I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours."
Before Scully could reply to her partner's less-than-subtle innuendo, a scream pierced the air. Both agents jumped simultaneously; Mulder reached for the lamp while Scully collected her weapon, and both ran as quickly as the limited light would allow, through the hallway, down the stairs and to the back of the renovated mansion. They found Karen in the middle of the kitchen floor on her knees. bent over and sobbing wildly, plainly terrified. She cried out again and again in the strange, unfamiliar cant that Mulder had overheard before, a tongue from which he could draw no reference.
The electricity chose that moment to kick in, and a blaze of light threw open a scene of utter destruction in the spacious kitchen. Shards of china and crystal mounded against the walls and glittered across the pale linoleum, broken wine bottles bled their contents into the mess, and once-white linens had been sliced into rags, the crisp lace now sopping up the crimson flow of wine. Every window in the room was cracked or broken, and silverware was bent and broken and stuck into the plaster walls, knives and forks and spoons spelling out the inexplicable warning, "REMEMBER THE LILY!"
Only their FBI training kept Scully focused on the diminutive woman and her keening wail. Mulder took the gun and walked through the room, checking closets and cubbies while Scully tried to pry any pertinent information from the distraught woman. It was a while before Karen could form a coherent thought in English, and when she did, there was an understated lilt to her voice, a whisper of an accent apparently revealed only in moments of dire stress. An old Gaelic lilt, an Irish accent. It was decidedly out of synch with the modern commercial kitchen done in stainless steel. It was almost like being transported across centuries, and continents, in the blink of an eye.
"They took him!" It was sob and whisper and prayer all sewn up together and wrapped in despair.
Scully drew their hostess to her feet, gently guiding Karen to a wooden dining chair in the next room. Mulder was poised near the door, unwilling to abandon the women even while his investigative mind insisted that he should check beyond the house for whoever carried out the damage. He reached for the telephone, frustrated to find it was still dead. Slamming down the receiver, his face composing an assurance he didn't feel, he murmured a quiet alert to his partner. "I'm going to look around outside. Get her upstairs and get my weapon."
Scully didn't say a word, allowing her eyes to communicate an admonition for caution. "Karen," she tried again, "Do you know who took Gary? Do you have any idea where they took him?"
Karen hugged herself, shaking her head. "It's the same ones who took Cecil and Emma, but I've never seen them, just heard about them, about the kidnappings and what they left. Not even enough for a decent burial." Tears flowed anew. "Sweet mother of God," she cried, "I'm the last one!"
*Cecil and Emma*, Scully realized. Cecil Byron and Emma Riley, the two homicide victims identified by their fingerprints. How did Gary and Karen Irish know the others?
Mulder was already out the door. Scully's mind was divided between the victim's sister, who was in shock, and Mulder, who had gone out alone to face an unknown assailant. "The last what, Karen?" she asked, only half listening for the answer.
Whatever answer there was, it was lost in the rapid repeat of gunfire and a series of shouts, at least three disparate voices, including Mulder's. The battle continued largely unabated for what seemed to Scully like hours, though her watch argued that the elapsed time was less than sixty seconds.
She fought the desire to fly to her partner's side, particularly AFTER the last echo died, but duty demanded that she stay to protect Karen Irish. The female FBI agent truly thought that her heart had stopped beating until she heard Mulder's voice, shaky but very much alive, drift up from the lower floor.
"We're up here!" she called, still collecting his shoulder harness and pistol, drawing the leather strap over her head and freeing the snap on the holster. Dana Scully had seen too much to take anything for granted. They were alone and facing off against a serial killer or - as it now seemed - killers. Mulder could be hostage, or it could be someone besides her partner, one of the creatures who could effectively masquerade as anyone at all.
Two men trudged through the door single-file. Unlike the female FBI agent, Karen Irish wasn't the hesitant type.
"Gary!!!!!!" she crowed, flinging her arms around her brother, whose slightly round face reddened slightly.
He patted her back, replying gruffly, "It's okay, Karey, it was just the Harrison boys on a binge. They had one too many and decided to celebrate without benefit of their brains."
Scully turned toward her partner, whose six-foot frame made him look positively gigantic among the three much smaller people. He gave her a slight shake of his head, discouraging any further inquiry in the presence of the reunited siblings, a signal that promised an explanation in private.
Karen stepped back, her smile fading. "Gare? You - you weren't taken. I'm not complaining, mind you, I don't understand. The kitchen's a disaster area and I didn't even hear the glass breaking. The monsters ruined Mama's silver, plugging it into the plaster. It said to remember The Lily."
FBI training eventually kicked in even in the most bizarre and outlandish situations. "What about the lily?" Mulder prompted gently. "I assume it means something to one or both of you."
Gary turned to the other man, explaining quietly, "THE Lily, Mr. Mulder. Her maiden name was Lily DuBois, but she was such a beauty that everyone began referring to her as 'The Lily.' It was something of a title in its own right. When Papa bought this place, he said it was fate, because lilies of the valley grow wild all over the meadow in summer, so thick you can't step between them, the air thick with their perfume. While the literal translation is a bit of a shift, the French name for the flower is lis des champs. But The Lily was our mother, and she was the first one taken, all those years ago. They left nothing of her but pieces." The little man shuddered at the memory.
Lis des Champs
12 hours later
It had been a restless night for all concerned. They had agreed to take turns sleeping, each of the FBI agents acting as guard while the Irish half of the team took stock of the ruined kitchen. Only a few pieces of the china and crystal had survived, and none of the beautiful silverware. There was some stainless flatware, serviceable if dull, and other than a few dents, the rest of the eating and cooking materials had survived more or less intact. The brother and sister team bristled at Mulder's insistence that the mess be left for evidence, but they ultimately agreed to let it go.
Their agitation was certainly understandable, thought Mulder. There was more, though, far more than met the eye when it came to the familial ties. They still reverted to their Celtic exchanges from time to time, mostly commentary that was interpreted by the anger or anguish on their faces. Then their brogues pretty much disappeared again overnight, melting seamlessly into the smooth cadence of the northwestern U.S. Much like the decidedly old-fashioned personas they'd exhibited during their emotional reunion.
The Irish duo were chameleons, able to change to suit themselves or their surroundings, Mulder wasn't sure which.
The telephone was in and out of service as technicians apparently worked on the lines. It was enough for a couple of calls to the local sheriff, who kept his promise for a full team of deputies, though the reinforcements didn't arrive until after first light.
Mulder had taken photographs, using the Irish's old brownie flash camera to document the destruction. With a limited supply of film, he tried to focus first on the freakish manifesto, then to allow his instincts to guide him. He'd had to wait for the sheriff's officers to track fingerprints. Brushes and powder revealed that there was plenty of the latter.
Mulder also pondered their hosts, his instincts marking a growing number of inconsistencies. Aside from the utter lack of sound to give away such a catastrophic ruination of the kitchen, other, lesser things came to his mind.
If there had been no transportation, how did the diminutive couple manage to collect both Scully and him and get them to the lodge? And what children could live on in a place where their mother had apparently been murdered? Why would they still be plagued by an attacker like that, one who taunted them with his crime in such a chilling and enigmatic fashion?
His discomfort level jumped considerably after he caught a ride into the small town of Sandpoint, where he picked up a sheaf of updates to their files, updates which threw even HIM for a loop.
There were blood and tissue tests back on the victims' severed limbs. The tests stated the obvious and probable cause of death, along with what was noted only as an "anomaly" common to both. They weren't human. Nor, he discovered as he read on, did they fit what he knew of alien physiology.
The resort was an architectural gem, its refurbished Victorian painted lady standing proudly in the center of the snowy field. A few yards beyond, the barn wore a new, crimson coat. A fence corralled a trio of Shetland ponies, their plush winter coats rich with the sheen of careful brushing, their prance as showy as a thoroughbred's. A collie nuzzled against the fence, his nose touching that of a placid sheep opposite the wire enclosure.
The peaceful moment didn't escape Scully's notice, nor did she miss its incongruity with the previous night's violence. The snowy slopes were visible a mile or so beyond, the ski lift quietly poised in expectation of boisterous passengers.
This really was a beautiful place, Scully thought wistfully. It was difficult to reconcile the pristine pastoral scene with the tragic history carried by Lis des Champs.
Mulder had disappeared, as he frequently did, to delve into public record, leaving her to pore over the Medical Examiner's report on the admittedly abbreviated autopsies. According to toxicology reports, there was no sign of drugs in either victim, though each had apparently imbibed a significant portion of alcohol shortly before his or her death. The blood alcohol levels were high enough to prompt Scully to mutter, "Sheesh, these people weren't murdered, they were pickled!"
Mulder had been right about one thing; the victims' genetic patterns were so far removed from human norms as to qualify as a separate species. For the first time since her inauguration into the X-Files, Scully actually wished she could attribute the anomalies to extraterrestrial origins. It was preferable to the uncomfortable implications raised by the decidedly unique results.
She sighed, stretching to relieve the kinks that persisted in her muscles. A doctor's exam had confirmed her initial assessment of strains, sprains and bruises, along with her partner's mild concussion. Mulder naturally refused to concede the necessity of rest so long as there was a mystery to tantalize him, and she just as naturally followed him where angels feared to tread.
Scully smiled. She'd pretty much stopped trying to justify her actions. She was just as hooked on the X-Files as Mulder was, maybe more so.
She wandered toward the animals, reaching out to pet the accommodating Shetlands, extending her attentions to the appreciative dog and sheep, her own frayed nerves slowly yielding to the simple motions. The docile creatures radiated their trust in her, and their faith buoyed her hand, raising it to touch the tiny gold cross at her throat, symbol of a different kind of faith. The metal was warm where it rested against her skin, and her fingers curled over it, claiming anew the faith that encompassed religion, life affirmation, and the shape of a future she barely dared to dream.
She hadn't required psychic powers to read the play of emotions over Mulder's face as they'd traipsed through the airline terminal.
She still had her snow bunny suit, she thought, a smile slowly spreading over her face.
After they solved the X-File, of course.
The rental agency had been understandably reluctant to release another vehicle to the man whose previous rental was wedged into a copse of ponderosa pines. The sheriff's report finally persuaded the clerk, that and the fact that Mulder carried an FBI badge.
Mulder acquired a jeep on this outing, rather enjoying the way the four-wheeler handled on the back roads. Snow plows, salt, and time had cleared the main highway, and the ribbon of state maintained road to Lis des Champs had been opened by the plow, as well. He got a kick out of operating the manual transmission, experiencing only a momentary twinge of guilt in the knowledge that Scully hated a stick shift. It was, he reminded himself, a matter of priority. He had no intention of being stranded again if things turned hairy.
It had been a productive day in more ways than one. Scully was going over the medical files, he'd acquired a mountain of information on Lis des Champs and the Irish clan, police reports - official and otherwise - and dozens of historic accounts to support the theory he was composing. It was enough to generate a broad, goofy grin on his face, because he knew it was going to make Scully nuts. And if that wasn't enough incentive, it was also nicely spiced with paranormal elements.
He pulled into the drive of the rural lodge, frankly a little peeved to find that new guests had begun arriving. After the snow, of course, it was to be expected; Lis des Champs was a ski resort, and the Irish siblings' livelihood. Three days after the frightening incident in the commercial kitchen, the dishes and silver had been replaced, the ski lift was operating, the brilliant emerald and sapphire chairs marching up and down the cables in stately order as the first wave of visitors descended the slopes.
His mouth twisted into a decidedly more crooked smile, wondering if Scully would still consider a run down the trails, and wondering if he could find a way to impress her without leaving the bunny hill.
He spotted her near the barn, her attentions focused on the domesticated creatures, and for a fraction of a second he saw himself in their place. Had he become 'domesticated'? Had working with the infuriatingly logical, scientific, skeptical, challenging woman shaved off his edge? She turned to him, her lovely face lighting as their eyes met, and he realized that being domesticated actually held a certain appeal. If some part of him WAS gone, it was because he had discarded it willingly.
He closed the gap between him with long strides. He wanted to tell her what he'd found, wanted to share his newly birthed hypothesis. She would argue every step of the way, and in the end she'd never admit that he was right. One day, he vowed to himself, he'd change that.
Three hours later, the lodge was packed, the earlier calm fleeing in the face of multigenerational revelry. The FBI agents were decidedly uneasy at the thought of more potential victims, even while they found themselves caught up in the contagious party atmosphere. The Irishes were spectacular hosts, any lingering apprehension so carefully concealed it was easy to believe the entire horrific scene in the kitchen had been nothing but a bad dream.
Mulder reached out and caught his partner's hand, not so much an expression of affection as sheer pragmatism. He didn't want to get separated in the constantly shifting crowd. At least, he thought ruefully, there wasn't an issue of being overheard. Between bad karoake singers and the hubbub surrounding the big-screen Seahawks game, they had to shout in order to communicate face-to-face.
They had intended to eat dinner and retreat to their rooms to compare case notes, plans that had gone awry from the instant they walked into the dining hall. The main building housed two dozen or so people, while another twenty, smaller cabins nestled against the woods to the west of the converted home, each done in the style and color of the central complex. Apparently Lis des Champs was booked solid for the entire weekend. The arrival of new guests also prompted an influx of staff, extra hands required to meet the needs and demands of the increased population.
The football game reached a rousing conclusion, signaling similar end to the sing-along, and the Irish duo literally took center stage, along with a handful of their staff members. Mulder hated to admit it, but after all of this time, it was the first he'd noticed the dais in the corner of the huge hall. Apparently most of the guests had been here before and knew what was coming, because tables and chairs were pushed to the outer perimeters of the room, each face turning expectantly to the small live band.
He glanced at his partner, surprised to see the same look of anticipation in her eyes. It dawned on him that Scully was really enjoying this. Her rapt expression spoke volumes, reminding him anew of the growing list of simple pleasures she had laid on the altar of his obsession. Dana Scully had grown up in a loving household, with a family who supported and cherished each tenant. Aliens, vampires, monsters and conspirators were the stuff of fantasy in her world. Her skepticism was the natural outgrowth of a healthy, nurturing past.
He permitted himself a moment to suspend his own point of view, genuinely curious, trying to employ his own profiling capabilities to put himself in the shoes of a *normal* man. It was a foray that hit him in the midsection with the ferocity of a hungry lion. For years, he'd convinced himself that the quest for the truth was his destiny.
Suddenly he was staring an alternate destiny in the face.
Scully wasn't sure exactly when the change took place. It might have been the drinks - heaven knew they'd had their share and more. It might have been the challenge to learn and compete in the amateur dance competition. Whatever provoked it, her FBI partner, the man whose sole joy in life was ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night, became a human being.
She had seen him smile occasionally, a quick upturn of full lips that faded nearly as soon as it began. Once in a great while he'd actually prove one of his outlandish theories, in which case he gloated insufferably for days, sometimes weeks. But laughter ... That was something truly alien to the Fox Mulder she knew. And here, in the middle of a still-unsolved murder case, one in which the culprit or culprits had made another very pointed threat, Mulder was laughing so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks, painting wet stripes over the flush already there.
He was actually enjoying himself.
Correction. *They* were enjoying themselves.
Karen Irish beamed at them, as though she were somehow responsible for the transformation, as though Mulder's corny, touching expression of irrational joy were enough to overcome the pall that still lurked around the proverbial corner. Gary was likewise aglow with the spirit of the moment, his glance at Scully clearly ordering to permit her own sublimated joie de vivre to surface.
She couldn't dismiss the challenge it implied. She threw back her head and whirled in place, letting the carefree moment carry her along. She felt lightheaded from the liquor and knew she'd be chanting a Catholic girl's litany of guilt for the next month, but for right now, in this place, in this time, Special Agent Scully took a back seat to Dana. She was transported to a sweet memory, the recollection of a time when she was nine, when her father, in full dress whites, set aside his decorum to teach her to dance. It was a precious landmark in her heart, one she'd never shared with anyone, yet she could have sworn that tonight it had been given to her all over again, like a tinsel-wrapped present.
A little voice nagged at her consciousness, scolding that their focus should be on stopping the killing spree. That this was wholly out of line given the all too real danger to the people she and Mulder were charged with protecting. That she was going to have one mother of a hangover the following morning.
She raised mirthful blue eyes and saw ten years fall away from her partner's face, his paranoia truly missing in action for the first time since she'd known him.
She told the little voice to shut up.
Karen's rich mezzo-soprano poured out the soulful lyrics in the auld language, its words and music as smooth and sweet on her tongue as fresh churned butter. She truly loved this place, despite all of the pain and anguish it had hosted. This was her home, the center of her existence in ways few could understand. It was why she and Gary stood firm, refusing to yield to threats, though there had been enough of them over the years. Once more she was tempted to confide in one or both of the FBI agents.
They'd never believe her. They might even have her committed as a crazy old woman. Maybe she WAS a crazy old woman. Who would believe such things in this day and age? The things she once took as gospel, she now dismissed out of hand. They were simply untrue, or perhaps no longer true. She was never sure which. Sorting out past, present, and future, she thought, was never easy.
Walter had been right, bless his soul, these two young people were badly in need of the healing. And if they did indeed, during the course of their stay here, put an end to the horrors ...
The guests were food to Karen's soul, their presence restoring her heart every season. And for the sweet gifts they provided, she offered up her own in return, she and her brother weaving hope into the hopeless and joy into the sorrowful. It was their talent, their destiny, and their haven.
Mulder was breathless, having just learned to do a very BAD approximation of an Irish jig. Or, as Gary had said, an Irish Irish jig. The FBI agent was a little lost in the semantics but at that point he no longer cared.
He was feeling something he thought had been permanently excised from his heart: the carefree joy of a child, the boy he had been before the X-Files. Before Scully's abduction, before his father's murder and his mother's suicide, before his encounters at Oxford, before Deep Throat and the Lone Gunmen and conspiracies and aliens had become a part of his tangled life.
A glance at his petite companion told him that she shared the same thrill. Scully's porcelain complexion and tiny stature, combined with the subtle leafy pattern knit into her soft olive sweater, imbued her with an otherworldly aura. She was transfigured, becoming a wood sprite come to dust him with magic.
Funny, he didn't even have the desire to feel guilty about it.
He should, he reminded himself. They hadn't solved the mystery of this place, of this strange family, of the serial murders. His foray into the local records had raised literally hundreds of questions. He should be seeking answers, not dancing like a fool and inviting a morning lost to hangover. He should ...
He couldn't help it. A little light had wedged itself in the door to his psyche on the day that Scully had walked into the office of the X-Files, a flickering illumination that stubbornly refused to dissipate. With each passing year, the door yielded more ground, until now he was engulfed in the brilliance. Was this what he had denied himself - for what? A chase that led to ignominy, to ruination of his career, to lives lost, friendships shattered, family murdered?
Fox Mulder's guilt wasn't so easily dislodged, though he willfully set it aside for this one night. The intoxication of the moment was too tempting a feast for a starving man.
Gary roughed a hand over Quasimodo's furry head, an effort that brought a joyful bark from his canine companion. The animals had all been fed, the wood stove in the barn was stocked, the water troughs were full, and order had generally been restored to Lis des Champs.
Hands in the pockets of his jeans, he waded through the snow, making his rounds to check the perimeters of the compound, as he did every morning at sunrise. The FBI couple had been discreet, he had to hand it to them. Unlike his sister, he'd been against bringing in outsiders, though the latest desecrations had shaken him as profoundly as it had everyone else in the vicinity.
He knew Karen had decided to talk further to the young folks, and it was there that Gary was obliged to interfere. Too much water had passed under their family bridge, too much time and heartache and misunderstanding. Nothing would bring any of the victims back, and stirring up the inevitable hornet's nest could spell an end to far more than his sister knew. They might lose Lis des Champs, losing themselves in the process.
His plan was loathsome, and he hated that he'd had to enlist the trigger-happy Harrison brothers to carry it out. That Mulder fellow already suspected Roy and Byron Harrison, anyway, and had arranged for matching warrants, little official missives charging assault on an officer. Humph. THEY weren't the problem. Yeah, Roy and Byron went a little overboard on the beer now and then, and they really needed to exercise a little more common sense when it came to firing into the air. They generally didn't come so close to the grounds, and never before when there were guests.
Come to think of it, he hadn't actually SEEN the duo in the woods the other night, though it had to be them. Nobody else would trudge this far out into the woods on a night when the roads were still blocked, except maybe the power crew. And the Electric Company had better things to do than shoot at the moon.
Walter was right about one thing: this Scully and Mulder were good at what they did, and they *did* need a little touch of cheer in their lives. It had been a sweet thing to watch the two of them on the dance floor like normal tourists, their minds and hearts drawn away from their 'case'.
Unfortunately they were a little too good at what they did. Gary couldn't let them discover the truth. Karen would never forgive him, but he had to stop them.
She was never, never ever going to drink again.
Scully remembered very little of what had happened the night before, and she had a feeling it was just as well. It didn't help her mood to find Mulder passed out on the floor of her room, curled up in a all next to the chair. At least, she thought ruefully, they were both dressed. Their relationship was complex enough now without the added snarl of a physical entanglement. Granted, the thought had crossed her mind. She'd even daydreamed about it. She just couldn't cross the line, couldn't let Mulder cross the line.
She ignored a mental reminder that she'd considered the idea just the day before. And the day before that, and the day before that, and ...
Mulder had returned from town with a paper blizzard of information, including the assessor's history of the Lis des Champs ownership, birth and death records, newspaper reports, and updates on the lab results from the two recent autopsies. He'd also had some documents faxed from Washington, including something from immigration archives. She hadn't read any of the reams of paper yet, though it was perched precariously at the edge of the roll-top desk.
Swearing under her breath, she stood, biting her lip to keep from crying out. Of all the idiotic, irresponsible, stupid, unthinking things to do, to get roaring drunk in the middle of a murder case! It was small consolation to remember that Mulder had done the same. At that moment, she'd have done almost anything to eliminate the freight train still tearing through her skull. Aliens and conspiracies and flukeman monsters? No problem, she'd fight 'em all, real or imagined! She tiptoed to the bathroom, splashing water on her face, groaning at the reflection in the mirror. She looked like hell. No, worse: she looked like she felt.
She was still trying to sort out what she did know about the case. She gritted her teeth against the onslaught of water in the shower, gingerly pulling on a turtleneck shirt and soft wool trousers. And somebody must have put her boots on and zipped them up when she wasn't looking; because with this hangover, there was no way on earth SHE could have bent over to fix them.
The coroner's office had noted some anomalies in the tissue samples early on, sending them on to the labs in Boise. The techs there were apparently stopped in their tracks, too, because they pushed things a step further, ordering DNA testing. The comparisons were eerie, when it came down to it; to all outward appearances the body parts were human. One tech scribbled a handwritten note in the margin, in effect asking if they'd found Bigfoot.
Actually, Scully realized, aside from the fact that she didn't believe in all the hoopla surrounding mythological creatures of the Great Northwest, that this couldn't be Bigfoot. Bigfoot, Sasquatch, or whatever you called it, was supposed to be the missing link between man and animal.
The genetic results of these people, or creatures, or whatever they were, suggested that *humans* were the missing link between animals and them.
Mulder opened one eye, moaned, and let his cast-iron eyelashes shut it with a clang he swore he could hear. This was not the way he should be waking up. Actually, the way he felt, he figured there should be a wake going on around him. Specifically HIS wake. He heard another person shuffle by him and long-nurtured paranoia forced him to look, against his body's better judgment.
He had a worm's eye view of Scully, her movements suggesting she was about as happy with life as he was just then. Unlike his partner, Mulder recalled at least a hazy account of the previous night, though it was small comfort to the remnants that assaulted him this morning. Still, some twisted part of him managed to push the corners of his mouth up. Hey, he might have been out cold on the floor, but he was out cold on the floor of Scully's room. And for the first time in more years than he could count, he remembered what it was like to be genuinely happy. I wasn't like he'd expected it to last, anyway.
He couldn't quite focus on Scully's travel alarm clock, though he knew it was long past time for them to be up and working. They still had a murder case to solve, a mystery wrapped in an enigma and tied up with a puzzle. They should have been showered and done eating breakfast and well into an argument about his latest controversial proposition. Yet enough of the previous night's experience clung to him that he was giving serious thought to a proposition of another sort.
Not this morning, of course, since the thought of attempting any kind of movement gave him a shudder.
He drew a deep breath, ignoring the fact that it echoed like a hurricane inside his cranium, and he propped himself up on his elbows. That was as far as he could manage for a good five minutes, until finally Scully whispered hoarsely, "I read some of the stuff you brought back, Mulder, and I don't believe it."
He grunted, "You don't believe what?" How did he manage to stand up? His legs were protesting violently, but they were under him.
"You're telling me that these people were fairies?"
His brow furrowed. Maybe he DIDN'T remember what happened last night, after all. "Um, Scully, I'm not sure what you're talking about. Just how many men did I dance with?"
She shot him a look that was pure murder. "Not funny, Mulder. Neither is this this. You can't be serious. The timelines, the whole idea is preposterous. You're trying to tell me that the victims were leprechauns or faeries. I'm willing to consider a lot of things, but this - this is over the line. We have a murder investigation. People were killed and dismembered, and you're playing Hans Christian Anderson with the evidence!"
On impulse, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Let's hope for your sake that my theory grows up to be a swan."
Breakfast turned out to be lunch, fast encroaching on dinner. The brother-and-sister team of Karen and Gary Irish were either immune to the effects of alcohol or they had exercised more restraint than most of the guests at the prior night's jamboree. The ski slopes were busy enough to suggest further that most of the guests hadn't downed as much as the two FBI agents, much to the agents' chagrin.
Once the physical misery began to subside a little, embarrassment set in. The collective memories of the hundred or so party-goers gladly supplied what Scully and Mulder's memories had elected to omit. One very friendly young woman was even thoughtful enough to provide a copy of the videotape. Scully gritted her teeth behind the smile as she realized that another copy was playing over on the big screen TV. Even Mulder had the good grace to blush.
Unfortunately, the general assumption was now that Mulder and Scully were party animals, which made it extremely difficult for them to carry out their investigation. They were beset at every turn by some gregarious soul who insisted on slapping Mulder on the back, pumping Scully's hand, demanding a repeat performance tonight, or generally making a nuisance of him- or herself. As yet another guest turned the corner and headed for them, Mulder muttered out of the side of his mouth, "We were framed, Scully. Set up."
Stepping into the frigid outdoor air permitted no reprieve, either. A tenacious knot of would-be friends followed them to the barn, to the woods, onto the slopes - where Mulder's prophecy about his skiing abilities became self-fulfilling in front of a slew of witnesses. Finally desperation won out and the frazzled duo jumped into the jeep and pulled away. Mulder cheerfully assured their *friends* that he would shoot anyone who followed. If said friends thought he was kidding, none was willing to risk being wrong, because no cars followed them along their drive.
Scully still nursed the last rumblings of the headache, but she couldn't help it. The whole thing was so ludicrous that it hit her: they were sitting in the middle of what she dubbed a "real-life John Belushi movie", lacking only the togas, in which they were dealing with the mentality of a frat party and looking for leprechauns. Her giggles erupted first, followed by a string of snorts that became full belly laughs. It was contagious, she discovered, because Mulder had to pull over to keep from driving them back into the trees. His heartfelt guffaws brought back the positive aspects of their previous night's adventures, and when they could talk again, they agreed that it was worth a little inconvenience.
"Seriously, Mulder, I'll admit there's a lot I can't explain, but come on, this is out there, even for you."
"You said it yourself, Scully. Look, there are myths of magical creatures in virtually every culture. Now stay with me here. What if those myths are simply fanciful interpretations of something that really exists? You saw the reports. You explained the whole thing to me, the genetic markers, all of it. Come on, you have to admit it's possible that another life form has evolved beyond humanity, isn't it?" He knew that she'd never agree outright, but he'd take whatever concession he could get.
Karen tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, impatiently murmering the words from an old spell her mother had favored.
"Tà se raite..." It has been said …
She dusted snowy powdered sugar across the dark surface of the gingerbread, watching the subtle glitter generated by the runes come to life.
"Tuilleadh ..." More.
Her mind canted the clumsy American translations for the lilting words, a language that swept through her heart with poignant reminders of her mother's beautiful, musical incantations.
"Mise Karen ..." I am Karen. Always a name, always let the powers know who's speaking, always keep the faith burning in the breaths you draw each day.
She permitted herself a solitary tear, her only concession to the ache that clung to her whenever she chanted alone. Gary was her brother, but he never fully understood the magic so deeply imbedded in her, nor was he interested in its sweet nuance. Since her mother's death, it was her duty, and she never neglected it.
She reached for a small bulb, its skin brown in the midst of winter's sleep. In her hand, it sprang to life, green shoots knifing outward and unfurling into a thick cluster of tiny white bells, the lush fragrance of the lilies wafting through the modern kitchen, carrying away the melancholy mood that threatened to ruin the spell.
Gary thought she was ignorant of his plans. In a way, she wished she were. She understood his reasons, knew he intended only to protect her and their home, yet she couldn't allow him to go through with his notion. He didn't know the extent of her sight, his own being deeply colored by his human blood. She knew he meant only to discourage the couple they'd been charged to help.
He didn't know that his plan, if Karen didn't intervene, would result in something that would open a chasm, a void that would never be bridged, a fissure that would swallow up everything living and dead within miles.
The skies threatened another storm by sundown, though this time Mulder was taking no chances. The jeep pulled back into the parking lot at the lodge just as the first flakes began drifting to the ground. The icy wind insinuated itself into every breath, managing to bite through woolen coats and hats and fur lined boots. The earlier blizzard had dropped the heavy, wet snow of early winter. This was the real McCoy, promising the ski haven's perfect powder, but only after a monstrous chill that would make life miserable for anyone unlucky enough to be caught outdoors.
Scully drew her collar up over her face, welcoming any respite from the dramatic drop in the mercury. She had no great desire to encounter the ebullient crowd inside. Pragmatism simply took priority at times, and this was one of those times. Almost anything was preferable to freezing to death.
Mulder's gloved hand found its spot at the small of her back, a position that shifted to catch her arm when her foot met an icy spot on the pavement that threatened to drop her to the ground. His touch was all it took to restore her balance, and she welcomed the security he offered.
Both were inordinately tired, no surprise given their previous night's early morning conclusion. Each agreed that even if it meant offending someone, they were not going to be sucked into another party. They instinctively knew that they needed to sleep while they could. The hair stood at the back of dual necks, warning of impending change.
The main hall was just as crowded tonight, prompting the FBI agents to tiptoe past the outer door and up the stairs to their neighboring rooms. There was no exchange of intimacies, not even anything that could be called a pleasantry, but none was needed. Each felt the silken cords of their unspoken connection, silent words that offered hushed assessment of what their shared consciousness knew.
*I can feel it, too. Something has changed, something dangerous.*
*Be careful. I've got your back and you've got mine.*
"Good night, Scully." Mulder broke the silence, his voice soft enough to evade detection by anyone beyond Scully's earshot.
She smiled. "Night, Mulder."
They knew instinctively that their peace would be short lived.
"You baby, you're the only - " Clunk! "- one for me!" Crash!
Scully opened her eyes to glare at the darkness, the only illumination the pale green glow of her alarm clock telling her it was much, much too early for the barbershop quartet's serenade. The masculine voices might have blended well in their drunken rendition of the pop song, but the noisy punctuation of overturned chairs were about as enhancing to the rambunctious love song as the ungodly hour of the performance. She drew the thick down comforter over her head, doing her best to ignore the slurred harmony altogether.
Her hope lasted about seven seconds, right up until the loud, insistent knock at her door. "Miss Sculllleeeeee!!!!!! Come out and play!!!!"
She resisted the impulse to reach for her weapon and empty its clip into the door.
She yelled, "Go away!" At 2am, courtesy be hanged!
The pounding grew more aggressive, the voices more boisterous. The female FBI agent wasn't in the mood to be serenaded or disturbed, and she had had about enough. She slammed palms against the mattress to propel herself out of bed, grabbing her robe and pulling it on as she stomped toward the portal. She imagined her grip on the doorknob to be a nice, close chokehold on the entire noisy crew so intent on keeping the world awake.
She flung the door open, primed to launch a vase at the revelers, but a powerful hand reached in to drag her out, and she was wrapped in something dark and heavy that rendered her silent and immobile.
Mulder willed his limbs to move, demanding his body comply, and his body blithely refused his orders.
He heard the same outlandish, alcohol-driven concert launched at Scully, heard the thunderous pounding on her door, gathered that things hadn't gone as they should when her angry shout calling an end to the invasion had suddenly stopped, just like the voices, the pounding. Careless footfalls, stomping and shouting gave way to silence, an finish too abrupt not to be calculated.
His instincts hadn't been enough to prevent his incapacity. He didn't even know what was causing it, whether drug or spell or some concealed physical restraint system. All he knew was that Scully was at the mercy of who knew what, and he was so helpless he couldn't even twiddle his thumbs.
He damned himself for letting his guard down. You were dancing and drinking when you should have been watching. He let himself be carried away in an all-too-brief moment. But Scully was happy. I was happy. The darkness now closed in on him, a darkness far deeper than night, a depression that gnawed at his soul, reminding him of his own ineptitude.
He felt an angry tear slide down his cheek and his molars ground against the clamps that cut into his psyche. His mind flew out, silently screaming her name, and screaming for help he knew wouldn't arrive in time.
Only something amazing happened. Almost in the same instant his consciousness cried for help, Karen stood over him, her fingers brushing over his wrists and ankles and wiping the tear away.
Without prelude, his seized muscles worked again. A little stiffly at first, admittedly, but becoming smoother with use. He worked his jaw from side to side. "I think I know how the tin man felt," he said slowly, not altogether certain what had just happened and unable to fully shake the cobwebs that clung to his brain.
Karen reined in her grief, straightening. "You have to find them, Mr. Mulder. They don't know what they're doing. It's supposed to be no more than a bad joke, but they don't know what they're unleashing."
Mulder nodded, standing now on unsteady feet, moving as quickly as his disorientation allowed, trying to collect winter clothing. "She's out there," he surmised. "She'll die."
Karen hugged herself, her blue eyes brimming with tears. "We'll all die if you fail, and there will be no more. Find them, Mr. Mulder. Stop them." Before he could duck through the door, she caught his arm. "He doesn't know, Fox," she whispered. "Gary meant no harm. But where they're taking her ... "
Mulder felt the color drain from his face. "It's where the murders happened, isn't it?"
The jeep had been an investment, Mulder thought as he plowed over the rough landscape. He'd hardly spoken to Karen, other than trying unsuccessfully to dissuade her from accompanying him. She had been just as adamant that she would come, and piff on his male chauvinism. Her steely determination heartened Mulder; it reminded him that Scully was not exactly a helpless female, as long as Karen was right about the kidnappers' intent.
Just for a moment, he permitted a hint of a smile to float over his features. He wouldn't want to be in the shoes of the pranksters if they came out of this alive.
He negotiated carefully, executing a sharp turn that angled through the thick copse of ancient, gnarled oaks. He knew he was dancing on his own grave right now, and suddenly he blurted out, "I know about you, Karen. You and Gary and Lily and Lis des Champs. I saw the pictures taken at Ellis Island in 1847. You were younger, but it was you, not your great-grandmother or aunt or cousin. You and Gary looked then like you were about twenty, but you were considerably older, weren't you?"
She turned distant eyes in his general direction. "Walter told me you'd discover our secret, child, and that unlike him, you'd accept it without pause." Her voice, like her vision, placed her miles away. "I no longer feel like that's a bad thing. I only wish I had more time ..."
Mulder pounced on that. If she was in the mood to talk, he was determined to soak up everything she'd disclose. "Walter? Walter Skinner? How do you know him?"
That captured her full attention. Her cheeks turned pink at the memory. "He was a strapping young thing, back then, and I was of a mood to do something careless and wild. You might say I *initiated* him into the more, um, ... delicate magics." She smiled, and for a moment, the younger man caught a glimpse of the beauty that still glowed from her fuller form. For that small instant, Mulder experienced a wave of jealousy directed squarely at Skinner.
He nodded slowly, taking it all in. "Are you and Gary -- Leprechauns? Brownies? Faeries?"
She chewed on an escaped wisp of hair. "Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Bhuddist? Names merely categorize the larger whole; same flesh, same blood, different locales and traditions. My family was among thousands fleeing the scourge of the potato famine. We came here because it was then a wild land, untamed and free, and safe. Back then, you risked all on the accusation of witchcraft, and only the devil cared to look at the difference, even among Gaelic bloodlines. Besides, there are no pure folk any more. We've become more human over the ages, and what few of us remain are scattered so far we don't know who's who. I married once, had a lovely little girl a few years after we arrived. My precious Shannon succumbed to malaria and my Brian to the shots fired by rebel soldiers." She turned away. "After the war between the states, Gary took me in again, and I never sought out another until Walter came along."
She smiled, confessing, "And then I felt so guilty about corrupting a young thing that I never let it go further. Sometimes I wonder if that wasn't the biggest mistake I ever made."
The majestic trees kept a respectful distance from the graves, limbs folded in reflective silence. The last light from the setting moon embroidered silver over the landscape, silhouetting the stones against the mounded snow and illuminating the way across the snowy meadow. The storm had abated in its intensity, though the cold grew more profound with every step.
Scully was beyond freezing. Her captors were either uncaring or too drunk to notice that she was dressed in pajamas and robe and slippers. Her feet had gone so numb that she could no longer feel her steps. She would have tumbled to the ground, but the four men prodded her onward, picking her up and dragging her when her legs wouldn't carry her. She clutched the terry cloth robe around her, grateful for it even while wishing it were a down comforter or a sleeping bag. Her fingers cramped from their relentless grip on the fabric and from exposure to the elements.
The doctor in her calculated how long until hypothermia would become life threatening, how far her feet and hands and face had already gone into frostbite. Anything at all but contemplating whatever fate her kidnappers had planned. She was shivering violently, nonstop, the unmistakable signal that her body would soon enter full shutdown.
Mulder, where are you?
Her vision blurred and she wanted to dash the threatening tears away, but she was permitted no such luxury. Gary was the leader, his warm baritone twisted and sharpened to a prickly musical sneer in the midst of an alcoholic bender. He waved a hand in a grand gesture, pointing a wavering finger to one of the headstones. "You ," he slurred. "You and your kind, you did this. You killed her, just like you tried to kill my sish- shish- sh- Karen. Such a pretty thing, too, more's the pity." He reached out and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.
She shrank away instinctively. How could she have been so wrong about this man? How could Mulder have been so wrong? Gary had been a little off the beaten path, with nothing to suggest anything this sinister. And the other men - who were they? What did they want with her? She shuddered, closing her mind to the things she had seen during her tenure at the X-Files. She couldn't let those memories overwhelm her or she would be truly lost.
Keep your wits about you, Scully. Mulder is coming. He has to be coming. He won't leave you out here. Where is he?
She straightened, fighting for the strength of purpose to keep going. "Whatever you have planned, please don't leave me out here to freeze. You're dressed warmly. I'm not." She did her best to sound authoritative, determined. It wasn't easy when she was speaking through chattering teeth.
One of the other men leered at her. "Gary didn't tell me you were such a little sweetie, hon. This is going to be fun."
Gary didn't realize what his co-conspirator was doing until the other man threw their victim onto her back in the snow and flung himself over her.
"No! Stop it, Roy! This wasn't part of the plan!"
Roy nodded to a third member of the group, who drew a pistol from his jacket. "You never got it, did you, Gary god-almighty Irish? We have our own plan."
"Cuirfear tus le mhillte althuair..."
Mulder's eyes never left the road, though the woman's soft, mournful voice was as riveting as flame. "What does it mean?" he prompted gently. "Karen, I don't speak - whatever it is you're speaking."
She swallowed. "To paraphrase, it means Destruction will begin again. It's Irish, or Gaelic, if you will. I'm sorry, Mr. Mulder. It's automatic to revert to my native tongue when I'm nervous."
Nervous, thought Mulder, was an understatement. He didn't have to look at her to know that she was coming out of her skin. He echoed the sentiment. "Destruction. You know what killed your people, don't you?" Your people. Was it possible to be politically incorrect with a faerie - or whatever she called herself?
Pale silver light outlined her profile, highlighting the faraway glint in her cobalt eyes. There it was again, that distance. It nagged at Mulder, tapping into his gut and warning him of something critical he was missing. Not mistrust, not fear, but -
"I know from the legends, not from a personal encounter. Among us, there's no telling what's god's truth and what's embellishment. The stories tell of a monster that collects the unwary, stealing heart and soul and mind and leaving behind the feet that stray from the old ways, the hands that do evil. The creature may appear human, or animal, or demon, or just a black orb that swallows up all it touches. Even with my sight, I've never seen his real form." She plucked at the scarf that covered most of her head, her fingers trembling like leaves in the wind. "He's drawn by blood, Mr. Mulder, so Gary thought they'd be safe. He never meant for anyone to be harmed, merely frightened away. But the Harrison boys brought guns, and they are seconds away from using them."
As if on cue, the sharp report of a gun pierced the night, and Mulder's heart plummeted.
For a moment, no one moved. Gary had lunged forward in desperation, grabbing Roy's collar and yanking him up off of the female FBI agent. Guilt now mingled with fear and horror as blood blossomed dark and steaming from would-be rapist's chest.
"Oh my god, what have I done?" breathed the shooter as he watched the life flowing from his brother's body. This wasn't supposed to happen. The gun wasn't supposed to be loaded. They were going to have fun with the woman, that's all.
Shock and freezing temperatures robbed Scully of her mobility. She was no longer in pain; the agony in her limbs and face had subsided, and now all she wanted was to sleep. The men's shouts interfered with that goal, waking her each time she tried to doze off. She wanted to tell them to shut up, but her mouth wouldn't form the words, and besides, the quartet weren't speaking English. They were really becoming annoying, too.
The waning moonlight was blotted out suddenly, and all five faces raised to gawk at the shadow that raced toward them.
Karen's head jerked up at the scream that ripped a gaping hole in her heart. Her lip trembled. They were going to be too late.
The FBI agent was driving like a maniac already, and every muscle in her body leaned forward, as if somehow she could propel them along even faster. She couldn't speak; her tongue had become a stone that refused to manipulate the words she coudn't express, anyway. The beauty of their deceptively serene surroundings became a mockery to her. She knew that the stately pine and maple and elm blocked her way. ... a bhì i ndìn don ... Her mind spelled out the truth she had tried to avoid. She was fated for this. She knew that she, Karen Irish, was the she in the prophecy.
She had always known it.
The tall, willowy stranger at the wheel had become an integral part to their interwoven destinies, his quest dovetailing with her own. The difference was that he never hesitated to play his part in the tapestry of his life. He ignored fears to rush into the threads drawn by the fates, accepting both the joys and the grief that colored his life. The slender auburn-haired beauty he sought was no less a critical yarn in the rendering of a thousand lives, a million souls. If the woman fell victim, it would open the gates of hell for humanity everywhere.
"Hurry, Mr. Mulder! Until now, he's tasted no human blood. If he does, he'll not stop." Was that *her* voice speaking? The quivering, foreign words that hung on the wisps of vapor in front of her lips as she formed them? "Men and their wars ... He'll gorge himself, feeding until there are no more." It was too late, her mind whispered in agony. Her heart was no longer beating; instead, it marched forward, drumming out a funeral dirge, carrying her toward the site of her mother's death, the place where even eternal rest was stolen away in the name of hatred and prejudice, cruelty and evil.
Mulder put aside his own fear and sorrow to reach over and stroke her cheek. "We'll find them," he assured her through the shadows of his own doubts.
Her tears were carried on the winds that rose with every passing second, and where each drop landed, the ice and snow parted, giving rise to a glistening silver lily atop green skin, luminous against the snowy surroundings. She smiled gratefully, then straightened. She couldn't change either of their destinies, but she could gift him for the sweet, gentle desire he'd shown to ease her grief. She leaned over and laid a hand over his heart.
Gary was frozen, not by the cold, but by the overwhelming evil that reached out from the dark, advancing figure. The evil was a palpable thing, a force that clutched at the soul, constricting like a vise, a malicious, bestial power that Gary knew would swallow up everything and everyone in its path.
He understood now, too late, what his own insecurities had wrought. He was resigned to his own fate, accepting fully the responsibility for his actions, and he held no regrets for the Harrison brothers, who had shown their true colors in their treatment of the woman. The fourth man, a distant acquaintance, had not raised protest at Roy and Byron's reprehensible behavior, so Gary didn't waste regrets on the silent co-conspirator. But the frightened, half-frozen girl was innocent in this, her only crime to be stolen from her bed in the middle of the night.
There was no time to make amends, no hope of undoing his own folly. He could only hope that *all* of the legends were true.
Roy Harrison's life was already forfeit to the bullet. Gary collected the injured man, heaving the body over his shoulder and letting the gore pour over his own coat and trousers, Harrison's blood running sticky over Gary's own hands. "MISE GARY!" he shouted to the dark apparition. "Go ithean diabhal do mhamaì!" ** May the devil eat your mama! ** The defiant phrase bolstered his courage somehow, giving him the strength to step toward the demon, ignoring all of his instincts to run.
The creature halted, seemingly confused. Gary stared up at the living shadow, an outline of a giant man whose inner lines shifted and seethed with shades of black, an inky ocean that shone out like the perversion of light. The headlights from the approaching jeep were no match for darkness that emanated from the vile creature.
Gary continued to advance on the enemy, ignoring the weight of the other man, ignoring the shouts and cries from his sister and from Mulder, ignoring everything but the sense of purpose that arose from a part of him he hardly knew existed. He smiled, and the smile widened when he realized that the demon cringed in response.
The moonlight was present again, Gary realized. He took another step forward, his head high, when he was pushed - physically shoved aside, and his sister's voice rang in his ears. "No, Gary! Get away!"
Mulder didn't know what Karen intended. He rushed to his partner's side, kneeling in the snow to gather her up in his arms, enfolding her in his own jacket and praying she wasn't lost to him.
She was so cold ...
Her skin was colorless; she didn't respond to him, not to his voice, not to his touch. He carried her to the jeep before turning to look at the confrontation going on behind him. He crawled into the narrow back seat with his partner, drawing her close, rubbing her feet and hands, begging her to come back to him, softly pleading for the circulation to return, petitioning her for a word, a motion, anything at all to signal that it was not too late.
Mulder didn't see when Karen flung her brother aside, but he turned just in time to watch the woman run headlong into the monstrosity before anyone could stop her. He cried out her name, horrified as she was absorbed into the entity, her small form swallowed up by the enormous, roiling ebony beast contained within the bodily form of a man.
The instant Karen entered the black miasma, several things occurred simultaneously. The onyx apparition screamed, a thunderous howl of an animal in the throes of death, magnified a million fold. And in the middle of impenetrable blackness, a tiny light appeared, pushing back the obscurity, spreading outward and overwhelming the cruelty, overtaking the evil and replacing it with good. Where before stood a fiend now stood an angel. Pure white light poured out from the blinding pillar, melting the snow across the meadow to reveal a thick carpet of sprouting lilies.
The male FBI agent was too grief-stricken to fully appreciate the beauty of the scene that unfolded. He was aware of it, knew instinctively that Karen's sacrifice had saved them all, wished desperately that he could tell her. It didn't register for a moment that precisely when Karen embraced her destiny, the slender woman in his arms drew a deep, shuddering breath and whispered his name.
Lis des Champs
12 hours later
"I'm all right, Mulder!" It was the fiftieth time she'd repeated the assurance since the doctor gave her a clean bill of health. She only half remembered the events of the previous night, just a vague recollection of being bundled off into the cold and an encounter with something - or someone - dark and ominous. It was fate, her partner decided. Scully encounters something magical or paranormal and she's unconscious. Never failed.
Roy Harrison survived, against all odds, his body healing far faster than it had a right to do. His trial would be postponed until after he recovered. He'd been arraigned in the prison hospital, on accusations ranging from assault and kidnapping of a federal officer, to attempted murder. His brother, Byron, was already cooling his heels in a 10 x 10 cell, awaiting trial on comparable charges. The fourth member of the group was missing, having disappeared without a trace from the center of the meadow. There were no tracks, nothing to indicate a path of escape, and the other three men claimed never to have met him before the previous night. No one even knew his name.
Gary's participation would undoubtedly earn him a sentence. He asked for no reprieve, though both FBI agents filed appeals for leniency on his behalf. He'd taken Scully's hand immediately after her ordeal, apologizing profusely at what had been done to her.
The lodge would continue to operate; a friend of distant family arrived from Ireland to keep things open, a tiny wisp of a thing with a long sweep of strawberry blond hair and a musical voice. Suzannah Morrow made no attempt to hide her Gaelic lilt. She looked to be in her late twenties; Mulder suspected she might be much, much older. There was an exchange between her and Gary that further suggested the magical lineage might not be as over as Karen supposed.
Mulder's concerns over his partner's well-being were underwritten by a fragment of memory that clung to him, a small gesture that was nothing, something Karen had done ... While they drove, she laid her hand over his chest. He could have sworn that he'd seen a glitter of lights in the periphery of his vision, had felt warmth flood through his chest. It was more than that, though. It generated a change, one he couldn't identify. He was still the same person, wasn't he?
J Edgar Hoover Building
"Mulder, are you whistling?" Scully glanced up, staring at the man who was as familiar to her as the back of her hand. Only suddenly, she wasn't so sure she knew him at all.
Oh, he looked the same, and he still expressed the same fanatic bent toward the X-Files, and he treated her as he always did, thoughtful one moment and utterly asinine the next. But since their trip to Idaho, something fundamental had shifted within him. He smiled more frequently, she realized, even when there was no paranormal monster in his sights. Just as he was smiling at her now, his face lit from some inner source. She smiled in return, unable to help herself.
He tilted his head over her shoulder. "What are you doing?" he asked as he hung his navy jacket on the coat tree in the corner. He eyed the little bone china creamer warily, as though it housed something truly frightful.
"Actually," she said, deftly employing a plastic spoon in place of a spade, "I'm planting something. Gary and Suzanna found out how much I loved the scent of lilies of the valley and they sent me some of the tubers." She held out her palm, showing the tiny bulbs, their filmy brown winter wraps wrinkled around the pale green centers. "They assured me they're tougher than most people think. And they told me that lilies of the valley don't need much sunlight, so they should grow fine even in the window allocated to the FBI's most unwanted."
Mulder shrugged. Flowers weren't his specialty, Scully figured. Not unless they became man-eaters, in which case he'd probably make an exception.
Scully was having a problem, though. Without looking up, she pushed the bulbs into his hand so she could maneuver the soil the way she wanted it. "Hold these," she muttered.
"Ah, Scully - "
Something in the tone of his voice caused her to look up. His hazel eyes had gone round, his mouth open slightly. When he opened his hand, the tubers had sprung to life, green shoots knifing outward and unfurling into thick clusters of tiny white bells, while the lush fragrance of the lilies wafted through the basement office of the X-Files.