By Vickie Moseley and Susan Proto
Art by XScout
Title: Trolling Authors: Vickie Moseley & Susan Proto STPteach@aol.com firstname.lastname@example.org Completed: Dec. 2000 Category: Xfile, MSR, MT Spoilers: None Summary: The partners investigate a case of a missing child and run into a couple of obstacles along the way. Archive: IMTP for the first two weeks, then MTA, the Garden, the Pyramid, Ephemeral, Gossamer, and any other site that has received prior written permission. All others, please contact the authors. Disclaimer: Mulder & Scully as well as all other recognizable character references belong to Chris Carter, Ten Thirteen Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox Television. They are used here without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. Unrecognized characters belong to the authors. Author's Notes: This was written for I Made This! Productions as one of the episodes of Virtual Season 8. IMTP can be found at http://www.i-made-this.com/. Thanks to Sally B. for the fast beta (and to Dawn for wanting to beta! Real life is something else, isn't it? *GRIN* ) and to our artist and trailer maker, Xscout and Mairead, for making the story visually appealing too! Feedback: YES! Trolling By Susan Proto and Vickie Moseley Prologue Allegheny National Forest May 25, 2001 8:35 p.m. The wind howled through the near leafless trees, tangling the branches into webs to catch the skittering clouds. A moonless night, the stars shone cold above the spider's lair of tree branches. A pair of small tents huddled against a stand of pines, seeking shelter from the wind and the sounds of the autumn night. A long figure, moving with exaggerated quiet, moved into one of the tents. A single flashlight was craftily hidden under a blanket so that only a small circle of light peered out into the near pitch-black interior. Silently, the figure pulled a small case from backpack and reverently fingered the clasp that held it shut. It was forbidden, but so alluring. The figure, now leaning over the case and finally illuminated by the spill of light, smiled a tender smile. A young girl, no more than twelve, chewed on her lip and again ran a bitten- nailed index finger over the glistening plastic surface of the case. Her hesitation taking flight, she quickly opened the clasp and started partaking of the illicit items held within. The wind blew a tree branch against the trunk of a nearby oak and the resulting squeal of wood caused the young girl to jump, snapping the case shut and hastily shoving it back in its resting place. She sat silently, not moving, not breathing, until she was sure that the sound was only that of the wind in the trees. A shadow, silhouetted in the flaming glow of the campfire outside the tent, appeared before her, large and ominous. She froze in her actions, her only movement a quiet trembling. She'd seen the shadow the night before, when everyone was sleeping and she'd awakened by the unfamiliarity of sleeping in a tent. Now it was back and she was certain it meant to do her harm. She didn't breathe, didn't move except for her silent quaking. The shadow loomed larger as it grew closer to the tent and the girl's trembling took on renewed energy. Her thoughts were a tumble of trying to figure out a way to run, but there was only one way out of the tent and that was the way the shadow was coming. Her eyes cast about for any weapon or means of escape. A pile of books, forgotten in the corner of a sleeping bag, attracted her attention. The first book was too thin to be an adequate source of protection. As her eyes focused on it, she bit her lip in dismay. The title seemed to reinforce her fear. The large letters in the dim light of the flashlight looked red like blood. She stifled a scream, fear freezing it in her lungs till it came out only a moan. The shadow moved away and she felt a tear slip down her cheek. Outside the tent, the stars twinkled above the wooded campsite. Pine trees reflected the orange light of center of the scene, a family huddled against the chill night air around a burning pit. The fire crackled merrily as dried oak and maple limbs gave up their existence to the flames. The faces surrounding the fire glistened in shades of amber and yellow. "One more s'more, Mom, please?" begged a tow-headed boy of about 7 years of age. The unmistakable remnants of chocolate encircling his lips spoke to the amount of the sugary confection already consumed. The boy rubbed his hands in anticipation and to get some warmth. "Sorry, Jeffrey, we're out of graham crackers. Scotty must have finished them off," replied a weary looking woman with her gray streaked hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her tired expression and tone of voice spoke to the difficulties of even just one night camping out with small children. Almost as an afterthought, she looked around the campfire. "Speaking of Scotty, where is he?" When no answer was forthcoming from either the boy or the man currently intent upon placing one more log on the fire, threatening to topple the base, she kicked a large work booted foot where it stuck out next to her. "Jim. Where's Scotty?" she repeated, her voice growing more urgent. Without looking up, the man shrugged one shoulder. "Chrissy was taking him to wash up. They should be back by now. I bet they're in the tent." Sighing, the woman stood up and looked toward the two-room dome tent across the campsite. A small florescent lantern cast eerie shadows on the nylon walls inside the tent. The woman shook her head, tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and walked over to the tent. "Chrissy? Are you and Scotty in there?" she asked, unzipping the outer flap of the tent door. Inside, Chrissy sat wide-eyed among an assortment of makeup, lipstick smeared over previously pale lips. She wiped hurriedly at her face, smearing make-up with tears to further add to her garish look. "Umm, Mom! Hi!" she squeaked and attempted to stash the make up accessories behind her. Too late, the woman had already seen enough. "Young lady! What have I told you about getting into my things? And where is your baby brother?" the woman demanded, arms crossed in front of her chest and a scowl on her face. The girl blinked and looked confused. "Isn't he out there with you, Mom? When we came back from the bathrooms, he said he wanted you. I came in here by myself." The woman's anger turned to fire. Chrissy! He's a baby! You can't just let him wander around the campfire! He could fall or pick up something and try to eat it. How many times have I told you, you have to watch him constantly! Now get out here and help me look!" The woman and the girl made a quick circle of the small campsite. They looked in both tents, under, behind and inside the family SUV, finally drawing the attention of the other members of the party. "Denise? What's the matter? What are you looking for?" asked the man, rising from his crouch near the fire to go to his wife. She was looking inside the tents again. The scowl that had been firmly in place during her search quickly morphed into frightened anguish. "Jim? Jim!" the woman cried, backing out of the tent and scouring the area with narrowed eyes. "Jim! Scotty's missing!" As Jim grabbed for the nearest flashlight, Chrissy remembered the shadow against the tent and started to cry. The family immediately started searching the area, frantically and in all directions at once, organization fleeing as panic took over. No one took note of the rustling of bushes off to the north end of the campsite just on the edge of the deeper woods. No one saw the bright-eyed 2 1/2-year-old, smiling, put his hand in the enormous furred paw of an unseen creature, and gleefully skip away.
Rip Van Winkle Campgrounds Allegheny Forest, New York Daybreak May 26 The sheriff's department cruisers were still flashing their blue and red lights. Emergency Search and Rescue teams stood near team leaders who were handing out copies of maps of the surrounding woods. Sitting sideways in one of the cruisers, Denise Lempke wiped her eyes again, and shook her head at the offer of coffee. "I know you're scared right now, Mrs. Lempke, but we're used to having kids wander off around these parts. They always turn up, usually not far from where they were to start with. He probably just got turned around and cried himself to sleep under a tree." That was obviously the wrong thing to say when Denise let up another anguished wail and Jim shoved the well-meaning deputy aside to comfort his wife. "Uh, guess I'll go see what's up with the search," the deputy muttered sheepishly. He squared his shoulders and marched over to a cluster of men just a few feet away. "How's it goin', Tom?" he asked a tall man with an orange deer hunting hat perched at a tilt on the back of his head. "Damned fool city folk!" came the under the breath reply. "Well, we picked up a couple of foot prints, but they ran all over the place last night trying to find the kid in the dark. Messed up most of the prints. There were some animals prints in the area, too." "Bears don't come down to the campsites this time of year, Tom," the deputy said warningly. "Not unless they're provoked," Tom sneered. The deputy swallowed and bit his lip. "Don't be sayin' that too loud. The mother is a might skittish." "I'm not gonna go tellin' them that," Tom said with a scowl. "But we need to keep it in mind." The deputy looked up and around, at the Allegheny Mountains surrounding him and prodding their tips into the pink tinged clouds. Here they were, in one of the most civilized countries in the world, and yet there were still plenty of wild things that couldn't be controlled. He startled when there was a persistent tug on his sleeve. Looking down, he found a young girl and a younger boy staring up at him with forlorn expressions marring their features. The young girl glanced over at her brother hesitantly and then slowly handed a children's storybook to the deputy. Billy Goat's Gruff. Act I J. Edgar Hoover Building 7:35 a.m. Monday, May 28, 2001 Mulder tossed his key ring up in the air as he stepped off the elevator and caught it just as it passed his eye level. He was in a good mood, it was a beautiful day full of the promise of spring and he was, for once, well rested and ready to face the world. Part of the reason his week was starting on such a high note, he was certain, was the way he'd spent his weekend. It had started on Friday night, and by most bachelors' standards had been inordinately tame. Thai food and watching a rental copy of Ghostbusters. He knew the movie by heart, had been an avid Ivan Reitman fan for years, but it wasn't the movie that had made the night so special. As had become the habit of the last several months, Friday evening was spent with his partner and that made all the difference. They'd had plenty of time together in their seven plus years of partnership. Unfortunately, most of that time was spent on work -- reading case files, searching through libraries for leads, writing reports or even just jointly digging through garbage bins in the hope of retrieving the one receipt they needed for the most recent expense report. That had changed not long ago, and now they had a standing date. He smirked at that thought as he felt a chill run through him. A date. A standing date with Scully. Would wonders never cease? Sure, their "new" relationship wasn't going to break any land-speed records, but they weren't lovesick teenagers threatened by the end of the summer. They were adults, they had been working together for over seven years. If it took them a little longer to reach the next level, so much the better. They weren't in a race, for goodness sakes! They both seemed to have an unspoken agreement that they were "in it for the long haul." Mulder was jiggling his keys as he reached the door to his office, searching in the blinking light of the almost deceased fluorescent bulb for the right key, when he noticed the door was partially open. He froze in his tracks. He remembered distinctly locking the door on Friday as he left. Seldom did an open door to his office on Monday morning bode well for the rest of the day. Cautiously, he shoved the door the rest of the way open with the toe of his foot, all the while pocketing his keys and reaching for his weapon. As the door moved out of his line of vision, he stopped again, this time in surprise. Scully stood in the middle of the back room, squinting in the light of the projector and sliding small little squares in the projector's wheel. "Am I in the wrong alternate universe?" he asked, shucking off his jacket and hanging it on his coat tree as he moved into the room. Scully looked up at him and smiled. "Hey! Have a good weekend?" she asked playfully as she continued to line up the slides in the projector. "Who taught you to use that thing?" Mulder asked, ignoring her question for one of his own. "Chuck Burks," she answered without looking up. "We're meeting clandestinely every Saturday afternoon. Next week he's going to teach me how to split sunflower seeds with my tongue. Jealous?" she smirked. Mulder stared at her for a full moment, then reached out and poked her in the shoulder. "OK, who are you and what have you done with Scully?" he demanded. "What? Can't I be in a good mood?" she asked, stopping her actions to look up at him and put a fist on her hip. "I heard you whistling as you came off the elevator," she accused. "I was not whistling!" he objected. "I couldn't find a clean handkerchief this morning. Now, c'mon, Scully. You're never this chipper on a Monday. And what are you doing with the slide show?" "New case. Sit down, take a load off," she offered him the corner of the computer table and moved to the right of the lighted rectangle on the wall that served as a makeshift projector screen. She smiled at him and clicked the first slide into place with the tiny remote. "Allegheny National Park, upstate New York," she said as the wall was filled with a panoramic view of miles of pine and other trees, limbs naked from the winter. "Pretty," he commented but she'd already clicked the remote and a new slide rattled into place. Two brightly colored tents stood on opposite sides of a firepit, recently used. "This is the campsite of Jim and Denise Lempke, of Albany. They and their three children were camping at the park on Friday of this weekend." "Kinda cold to be camping up in upstate New York, wasn't it?" Mulder asked, relaxing into his new role of 'observer' and reaching into the top desk drawer of the computer table for one of his many stashes of sunflower seeds. "Not really," Scully said with a shake of her head. "As a matter of fact, the temperatures didn't go below 40 at night and it was 63 on Saturday." She clicked the next slide, showing a cherub-faced toddler no more than two to three years old with blond curls and a toothy grin. "Scotty Lempke, age two years, 8 months, the Lempke's youngest child. He wandered off from the campsite sometime between 7:30 and 8 on Friday evening." Mulder closed his eyes for a second. Not another abduction case. But if that were the case, why was Scully the one with the slide show? She hated abduction cases as much as he did, more so, if that were possible. He only did them out of his own neurotic need to keep looking for clues to her own abduction, and his sister's. He shook his head and looked back at the wall. The slide had changed again. This time it was a wooded area, the tents and campsite far off in the distance. Mulder stared at the image. He looked at the treetops, searched the ground for scorch marks. "Scully. There doesn't seem to be any evidence of alien abduction," he said, slowly moving closer to the wall so he could squint at the blurry images. "No, there isn't," she agreed. "So what am I looking for? For that matter, if this is just a missing child, why are we even bothering with this? Doesn't the New York State Police handle missing children?" "They do, but Mulder, there is ample reason for us to take this case. Look closely at the lower right hand of the screen. That muddy area there. See any impressions?" she prodded. Mulder moved so he could squint in the region she directed. He pulled back when he thought he'd found what she was referencing. "Footprints," he said, still not sure of himself. Smiling in approval, Scully clicked the next slide into place. "Here's a closer look," she told him. Now there was a close up of the footprints. One set were obviously the prints of a small child's shoes complete with a fairly good imprint of Tigger tossing a ball to Piglet. The other set were deeper but not that much larger. The unusual aspect of the second set, however, was that the person, or "being" as the case may be, was barefoot and had only three toes. Mulder stared at the footprints, chewing first on one side of his cheek and then the other. It was several seconds before he opened his mouth. "Scully, those woods are pretty secluded. I mean, sure, there can be a lot of wild animals--" "A local zoologist from SUNY in Albany claims those footprints could not have been made by any animal species currently known to live in those woods," Scully rattled off with a tilt of her head that usually indicated she was ready to beat off any challenges he might launch at her. The only problem was, she still hadn't presented a theory for him to challenge. "A deformed homeless person?" Mulder offered, feeling rather meek at how lame it sounded even to his own ears. Scully snorted and shook her head. Mulder was getting perturbed. "OK, what's your big theory, Agent Scully?" he demanded, crossing his arms over his chest defensively. The smile Scully had been presenting all morning faded just a touch. She drew in a deep breath and walked back to the projector, flipping it off and plunging them both in to relative darkness. She had walked all the way back into the front part of the office before she turned to him to answer. "Mulder, what do you know about trolls?" He tossed his head toward the ceiling and stroked his chin. "Well, they're a bitch to deal with on Internet newsgroups," he retorted. "Not quite the kind I had in mind," she replied. "Try again," she challenged. "OK. Scandinavian legend speaks of people, woodsfolk, who roamed the hills doing various nasty deeds. Trolls are credited with causing mischief, wrecking outbuildings, even with stealing children." He looked at her as the realization hit him. "Scully, you aren't seriously suggesting . . ." He let the accusation hang in the air as he hooted with laughter. "God, Scully! That's a good one! You really had me going. I mean, I'm used to some of your tricks by now, but I never expected this one. You got me. You got me good, G-woman!" She wasn't smiling. He swallowed the last chuckle and stared at her. "You're serious?" he asked. Without giving her a chance to answer, he walked over to stand next to her, invading what little space was available in the cramped office. "Scully, look at me and tell me you're proposing that trolls have stolen that little boy," he said roughly. She looked up at him, square in the eyes. "Mulder, I'm proposing that trolls have stolen that little boy and I think we're the only ones in the whole Eastern Seaboard who are going to take the possibility seriously." He bit his lip. "You have more to go on than just footprints," he said hesitantly. She nodded and handed him the case file. "Statements, from both Chrissy Lempke and her brother Jeffrey. Both children testify that they saw a 'squat looking man, all hairy, with big hands and big head' lurking around the campsite Thursday night. Chrissy even goes so far as to say she could 'smell' the man and that he smelled 'bad'." "Scully," Mulder interrupted, placing a hand on her upper arm. "That would support my suggestion of a physically deformed homeless person," he added gently. "Mulder, this isn't the first time there have been sightings of trolls in those woods," Scully exclaimed in a tone that gave voice to her obvious exasperation at her partner's disbelief. She shoved a tidy pile of case files into his arms. "Some go back decades. One of those sightings has been as recent as four years ago." He glanced through the files, nodding. "These are from our files?" he asked. She nodded curtly. "You were digging for these this morning? Good grief, Scully, when did you get up?" "I was here by 6:30, but Mulder, you're avoiding my point. I know there are trolls in those woods!" Mulder licked his lips and moved around her to sit in his chair and lean back. "There's a big something you aren't telling me," he stated and then sat there, waiting for her to start her story. "When I was 7, Mom got the chance to fly to Hawaii and spend a week R&R with Ahab. Of course, she didn't want to take us and she couldn't leave us alone in Newport News -- that's where we were living. So she packed the four of us up and sent us by train to stay with her elderly aunt who lived in upstate New York." "Anywhere near Allegheny National Park?" Mulder offered. Scully shot him a wicked look and he determined his best course was to remain silent during her tale. She paced as she talked. "Charlie was 4, Bill was 11 and just as obnoxious as he is now and Missy had just turned 9. We were stair steps and very excited to be on 'our own.' Aunt Mildred lived . . ." "Mildred?" he gasped out and quickly realized his error when her glare cut him short. "Sorry. I just never knew anyone who actually had an Aunt Mildred," he apologized. "She wasn't my aunt, Mulder. She was my great-aunt, and a very lovely woman. In her own way, she probably would have liked you, and you know that's a rare trait among most of my family members," she added pointedly. "I get along great with your mom," Mulder mumbled. "It's just the men . . ." "May I finish this, please?" she asked sternly. "Sorry," he muttered dejectedly. "Please, continue." "Anyway, Aunt Mildred lived on the edge of the woods. It was a really pretty house and a very pretty little plot of land, with a stream that ran through the back yard, which was about two acres big. We used to play in the yard, but Aunt Millie always warned us not to wander into the woods." "I'm beginning to see where this is headed," Mulder said, hoping he'd spoken quietly, so as not to earn her wrath again. "Probably. Billy decided it was too great an opportunity to pass up, there were these really great woods and trails all through them. Deer trails, Aunt Millie called them. So, on a regular basis, he would leave the three of us behind and take off down the paths through the woods, circling around and coming back into the yard another way. Missy wanted to go with him." "But he said she couldn't because she was a girl?" Mulder offered. "Scully, why didn't you just smother him in his sleep when you had the chance?" "I've asked myself that question more times than you can count, Mulder," Scully replied with a shake of her head. "And yes, you guessed it. So of course, Missy went into the woods after him one of the times he ran off. And she didn't come back out. We waited and waited and waited. "Bill came back and when he realized that Missy was in the woods and probably lost, he went back in to find her. That left me and Charlie standing in the back yard, hoping that both of them would come back soon." "But they didn't," Mulder continued. "No, and it was starting to get dark." Her lips started to tremble at the memory, but she swallowed visibly and took a breath before starting off again. "So I went in and told Aunt Millie, who was just about ready to call us all for supper." Mulder could see how the memory was difficult for her and it squeezed his heart. He stood up and walked to the front of his desk, where he could be closer as she paced. Finally, she stopped just in front of him. "Aunt Millie called the neighbors and they searched and searched. They found Bill, he was cold and scared and had gotten turned around in the woods. But they didn't find Missy. Finally, about midnight, Aunt Millie made the three of us go to bed." She stopped a moment and Mulder was sure he saw tears glistening in her eyes. "When I woke up, I was so sure I would look over and see her in the bed next to me, but I was alone in the room and I just cried and cried." Mulder put his arms around her for a second, but she pulled away and stood in the middle of the room. "Scully," he said tenderly. "I'm really sorry. But how does this prove the existence of trolls?" She wiped at her eye and looked at him. "Because Missy told me she saw them. She hid from them. That's why the neighbors didn't find her. She was hiding. She came back the next morning." "Scully," Mulder said, biding his time to find the right words. "Isn't it possible that Missy saw the neighbors looking for her and thought they were trolls?" Scully nodded, pursing her lips. It was an expression Mulder had seen a thousand times, and every time he wished he had a flak jacket or a sturdy wooden structure to hide behind. "Mulder, my sister described the trolls perfectly. And for your information, she saw these beings not after it got dark, but in bright daylight! They were foraging or something, not five feet from where she was crouched behind a bush. "She told me they were about five feet tall, the tallest, and the shortest were about three and a half feet tall. They walked upright on two legs, they were covered with brown fur, and they had big noses that hung down over their mouths. "They had long arms that hung down by their knees. And they had tails, Mulder. Now, do you think that describes any neighbors of my aunt? For that matter, does it describe any creature you've heard of in the woods of upstate New York?" Mulder nodded, realizing it was foolish to continue his arguments. She was not to be dissuaded. "Well, Scully, when do we leave? And are you going to requisition the really big Billy Goat, or am I?" Rip Van Winkle Campgrounds Allegheny Forest, New York Late Afternoon "Scully!" he called after her as he climbed out of the rental. "C'mon, Scully, you can't give me the silent treatment forever!" She turned around and sent a piercing glare that immediately shot that theory down. As she resumed walking toward the throng of people that had gathered at the campsite, Mulder tried his best to prove his innocence. "Look, you can't blame me for this one. You just can't. I kept my mouth shut the entire time you presented the case to Skinner, didn't I?" "And that, Agent Mulder," began Scully in a tone that was dripping with venom, "was the problem." "See?" he responded with a smile, "I knew you couldn't ignore me forever." "Mulder!" came out Scully's exasperated reply. "You could have backed me up!" "Scully, I did," he responded, but with a great deal less confidence than he would have liked. "How, Mulder? How did standing in Skinner's office with what appeared to have been a sudden case of elective muteness 'back me up'?" "Look, he asked you questions about your theory, and I allowed you to answer them." "But you didn't support me, Mulder," came a frustrated retort. "Of course I supported you, Scully. I agreed that everything you proposed was within the realm of extreme possibilities." "And then you promptly started laughing. Hysterically," Scully reminded in a monotone. "I did not!" retorted Mulder, "Skinner started laughing first, and _then_ I got hysterical." Scully stopped so suddenly Mulder practically ran right into her back. She said in a low, hurt voice, "Mulder, in the years I've worked with you, I've never laughed at your theories." "What?" replied her incredulous partner. "Scully, you have to know how much I respect you, don't you? But you are apparently beginning to suffer from what my Uncle Benjamin called 'senior moments.' I've lost count over the number of times you've practically keeled over laughing at one of my leaps." "Yeah, well, maybe, but..." "But, what?" he replied softly. "But did you have to do it in front of Skinner?" "I'm sorry about that, Scully. Really, I am. It was a knee-jerk reaction, and once I started, I just couldn't stop. You're right," he soothed, "that was pretty shitty of me. I'm sorry, partner." He placed his index finger under her chin and gently lifted her face up till her eyes met his. "I really am sorry, Scully." She looked at him and realized that as much as she had a right to stay angry, she couldn't. She managed to contain her smile; she wasn't about to let him off the hook completely, at least not yet. She nodded slightly and the two of them headed over to the campsite. They were immediately inundated with questions from a loud and pushy group of television, radio, and newspaper reporters. The barrage of questions ranged from asking the duo to identify themselves to what new information could they provide. Both agents repeated over and over again 'no comment' and continued walking until they arrived at the small conclave of sheriffs' cars that formed a barrier against the media blitz that stood within yards of them. "Can I help you?" asked the officer in charge. Both agents quickly and efficiently pulled out their identification. Mulder purposely remained quiet. This was his partner's case; she was going to take the lead in this one. Scully picked up on Mulder's intent immediately and introduced herself and her partner. "FBI?" remarked the sheriff. "What the hell is the FBI doing out here in the Allegheny Mountains?" "We received word, Sheriff, that there might me some unexplained phenomena that led to this little boy's disappearance." "Unexplained phenomena? What kind of unexplained phenomena are you talking about? I'm sorry, Ma'am, but the only thing we're looking at is the probability that little Scotty Lempke was nabbed by a renegade bear that smelled the food at the campsite and decided to go for the full, five course buffet, ya know?" "Can you explain the footprints, Sheriff...?" Scully began. "Brennan. Sorry about that. The name is Tom Brennan. This is my deputy, Jerry Springer." At that the agents did a double take, to which the deputy replied, "Please. Get it out of your system now so we can get on with our work." "Look, I'm one to talk," responded Mulder. "My first name is Fox." "You're kidding?" Deputy Springer commented. Mulder shook his head, and there seemed to be an instantaneous camaraderie between the two men. Meanwhile, Scully cleared her throat. "Oh, sorry, um you were saying Agent Scully? Something about footprints? What footprints?" asked Sheriff Brennan. "The ones in these photos," Scully replied as she opened her briefcase and pulled out the images she'd shown Mulder back in the basement. "Oh, well, they must be bear prints, Agent Scully," offered Deputy Springer. Scully shook her head and offered the testimony of her SUNY at Albany expert. "No, they're definitely not bear prints, Deputy." "Well, if they're not bear prints, then what are they?" asked an exasperated sheriff. "Those pain in the ass media people aren't going to leave until they've gotten some answers, and they're not above making it up if they have to!" "Well," began Scully tentatively, "there's quite a few legends about these mountains." "Sure there are; I mean we've got local lore that can compete with the best of them," agreed Brennan. "Has there ever been any substantiation of the lore? Any eyewitness testimony?" asked Scully. "You mean proof?" Scully nodded. "Agent Scully, proof of what?" "Of the legends, the folk tales, the local lore," answered Scully with as much professionalism as she could muster. Even she knew she was in, as much as she hated to say it, "alien territory." "Oh, Christ Almighty! You are not thinking this was some kind of 'troll kidnapping,' are you?'' guffawed the deputy. "Sheriff, she thinks it was some kind of troll that stole away that kid!" He then turned to the FBI agent and asked, "Lady, where the hell do you get your theories from?" Mulder placed his hand on the small of Scully's back and as he led her away from the laughter that soon erupted, said, "If you don't mind, we're going to take a look around at the physical evidence. We would also like the opportunity to meet with the parents as soon as possible." "Sure, sure," laughed the sheriff, who was now wiping tears from his eyes. "Whatever." Mulder could feel the tension in Scully's body as he led her away, and as he leaned down he whispered gently into her ear, "Well, Scully, welcome to my world." The two agents walked across the campsite area towards a cordoned off area. Mulder pointed to the left and the pair soon found themselves peering down on the footprints that had engaged Scully's attention in the first place. "Damn, Scully, this sucker is big." Mulder bent down to get a closer look, while Scully held onto Mulder's shoulder for leverage and leaned down for a better view. "He's not very tall," she observed, "he is heavy. Very heavy." "What makes you say that?" asked a new voice. Not missing a beat, Scully went on to explain, "Well, look at the distance between the footprints. There's very little; the strides are rather short, but the imprint in the ground is extremely deep. That suggests the UNSUB is a rather short, stout figure." "UNSUB?" echoed the as yet to be identified voice. "Unknown Subject," explained Mulder, who then asked, "And you are?" "Oh, Carla Pulowski," she replied extending her hand to the two, now upright agents. "The sheriff's department seems to believe it's a bear. Damnedest bear tracks I've ever seen if it is." "You don't work for the sheriff's department, Ms. Pulowski?" asked Scully with a tinge of suspiciousness. "I work out of a county office," was her quick reply. "County?" echoed both agents in a murmur. "I assume you guys aren't locals, or I would have recognized you," deflected Pulowski. "We're out of D.C.," confirmed Mulder. He introduced both himself and his partner. "The Bureau?" Upon seeing their affirming nod, Pulowski quickly asked, "Why the hell is the Bureau involving itself in a case of a lost child? Seems to be a little out of your jurisdiction, doesn't it?" she countered. Suddenly the trio heard a loud muttering of expletives and Carla Pulowski immediately reacted by turning her head toward the noisemaker. "God damn it, Pulowski! Why the hell aren't you behind the tape along with all of your other hyperactive pain in the ass media assholes?" "Media?" asked Scully with some exasperation. "Tom," began Carla, "I want to get the facts on this case, so I came right to a reliable source. Who could be more reliable than agents from the FBI?" "Media?" repeated Scully. "We were talking with you under false pretenses. You have no right to print anything we told you." "Agent Scully, I never gave you any false information. I told you I worked out of a county office. That is no lie. My newspaper's office is right smack dab in the middle of Allegheny County. I never said I was a law enforcement officer." "But that's what you implied," Scully argued. "No, Ma'am, that's what you assumed," retorted Pulowski. "Carla," interrupted Tom, "the pissing contest can stop right now. You lost, understand? You know you had no business crossing over the rope, so anything that was said is not open for publication at this time." "But the public has a right--" "Ms. Pulowski," Mulder cut her off quickly, "before you even hint that the public has a right to be privy to information about this case, I hope you'll keep in mind that this is a 2-year-old boy that's gone missing. "Now, we may not know exactly who," and then looking at Scully, he added, "or what, took him, but the fact of the matter is, there's a child's life at stake. I strongly urge you to reconsider printing any information that might give the advantage to the UNSUB and lessen the chances of us finding that small child alive." Pulowski appeared to think Mulder's words over and, after a few moments, replied that she would hold off for now. "I'll keep a lid on the information for forty-eight hours, Agent Mulder. But after that, unless you can provide me with solid proof that it would be detrimental to the boy's safety for us to go public, I will write and publish the story." Mulder made eye contact with both Scully and Brennan, and noted that they were all willing to agree to Pulowski's proposal. "Very well, Ms. Pulowski." "Pulowski, no Ms., just Pulowski." Mulder and Scully couldn't help but smile slightly at the little bit of familiarity they just heard. May 29, 2001 1:44 a.m. She was already in bed, undressed, when she heard the key in the lock. God, she hated these late nights. But she hated the hiding even more. She hoped no one saw him when he was standing outside the motel room door. She glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It changed to 1:45 a.m. as she watched. Small chance they would be discovered at this hour. He didn't even speak as he came into the room. She blinked when he turned on the light in the bathroom. At least he wasn't so inconsiderate as to turn on the bedside lamp. Obviously the last time, when she'd yelled at him, had taught him some manners. She'd have to remember that, for future reference. Like when she got up to go to the bathroom after him in the middle of the night. But right at that moment, she couldn't be mad at him. She watched in rapt amusement as he struggled with his holster, placed it with the gun still encased in the top drawer of the nightstand. Then her arousal increased exponentially as he slowly did a strip tease in front of her. He wasn't looking at her directly, but she knew, she just knew it was all for her benefit. And she was benefiting greatly. When he was completely undressed, she pulled back the covers as an invitation to join her. She almost laughed at his boyishly charming blush as he crawled happily across the sheets to wrestle her into his arms. Her giggles soon turned to amorous moans as he started kissing her head to toe. Some time later, he was lying on his back as she was snuggled in the crook of his arm. His left hand was stroking her hair and she could tell he wouldn't be awake for very long. Still, as tired as she knew he had to be, she had an equal need for information about the case. She'd let him sleep a little later in the morning, but now, she had him right where she wanted him. "What took you so long?" she asked, idly drawing circles on his bare chest. "Hmm," he moaned sleepily. "You said you'd be here by midnight. It's after 2. What took so long?" "The mother is an idiot," he said and punctuated the sentence with a huge yawn that threatened to dislodge her from her comfortable embrace. "She's a mother. She's worried." "The kid's back. What's to worry?" he asked, turning so that they were lying face to face. She was quiet for a moment. "Was anything wrong with him?" she asked, fearful for the first time since she'd heard about this case. He shook his head and kissed her on the nose. "Not a damn thing. We had him checked out over at the hospital. The head of Peds says there is absolutely nothing wrong with that kid. Nothing that a good bath wouldn't cure, that is." She bit her lip. "But he was missing for three days. Could they get anything out of him?" He chuckled. "Yeah. He wants to watch Thomas the Tank Engine when he gets home. Face it, he's a baby. He doesn't know what happened, and it obvious it wasn't bad. So it's best to close this case and go on to the next one." "But the mother doesn't think so?" she asked, worrying her lip. He shook his head in mild disgust. "She's spouting all this stupid stuff about him not acting right. Hell, the kid just spent three days in the woods. I wouldn't act right after that. I don't act right after I spend one night in the woods," he added and kissed her on the crown of her head. She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "But she says there's something strange going on?" He flipped onto his back. "Yup." "What do the others think?" she asked, moving his arm to snuggle up into her former position. It was warmer, with her bare shoulders outside of the covers. "Those damn fools for brains? What do you think! They believe the mother! Think they want to go crawling in the woods! Damn if I'm spending another night in the goddamn woods!" "They believe her? Why?" "How the hell should I know? Now, if you don't mind, I do have to get up early. Unless you can think of something more productive to do, I'm going to sleep!" 2:55 a.m. She pulled her ever-present laptop onto the bed with her while her partner slept fitfully. It amazed her how he could go for weeks on but a few hours sleep when he was on a case and still manage to function. She moved as quietly as she could so as not to awaken him as she hooked up her computer and got down to business. She couldn't help but wonder what was with the crackpots they called law enforcement nowadays. A child had been missing and everyone seemed to simply be wringing their hands but not doing a whole helluva a lot about it. Well, she was going to do something about it and if it meant running over a few cops in the interim, then so be it. She was damned if she was going to let some egos get in the way of finding out what happened to that child. And if she were to get a little credit for doing her part, well so be that, too. It wasn't very often, but sometimes it did get to her that she appeared as nothing more than a shadow to his work. Sure, she always signed her name to her reports, but it seemed no one ever knew just how much of the legwork she accomplished to help crack these cases. Hell, she wasn't even allowed to let anyone know they were sharing the same bed. She thought that was perhaps the most difficult part of their relationship to deal with; its clandestine nature took a lot of energy. "Mmm, you okay?" he mumbled sleepily to her. "I'm fine. Go back to sleep," she replied. She gently moved an unruly lock of his hair that had a habit of falling into his eyes, smiled momentarily, and then refocused her energies onto her screen. She went to her favorite search engine and typed in a name. She had no idea if anything whatsoever would show up, but she figured she had nothing to lose. She only had to wait but a few seconds before several hits came up. As she scanned the proposed sites, she was amazed at the number of stories this guy was involved in. He didn't seem like the type; he was quiet and somewhat unassuming. Granted, he wasn't bad looking, but he was certainly no GQ man. The eyes were too small and the nose was too damn big. She clicked on one of the twenty plus sites that popped up and watched it download immediately. She thanked her lucky stars for cable modems; in her job she needed access to information fast, and this sucker did the deed for her quite nicely. As she scanned the first article, and then a second, and a third, until she'd read almost all of the stories that were posted on that guy, she realized this guy was no ordinary cop. He wasn't any ordinary fibbie either; Spooky Mulder had a reputation to fit his unusual nickname, and Carla Pulowski was going to get to the reason he and his partner were involving themselves in a simple case of a lost child in the wild woods of the Allegheny Forest. And why were they sticking around when the lost boy had been found more than seven hours ago? She reached over to her jacket pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She then brought up her address book on her laptop and found the name that she'd relied upon so often in the past. She dialed the Maryland number. She then brought the cellular into the bathroom and closed the door, while she waited for someone to pick up on the other end. "This better be one helluva tip, or your ass is grass," mumbled the sleepy voice. "Oh, c'mon J.J., don't even tell me you were asleep already," teased Carla. "Shit, Carla, what the hell time is it?" responded a now more awake J.J. Jackson, reporter for the Maryland Sun Times. "It's nighttime," she replied quickly, "Now listen to me! I need to know the scoop on some DC fibbies." "Carla, that's not my beat," she whined, "I've got to get some sleep." "Yeah, yeah, I know, but listen, I gotta feeling you'll know the one I'm talking about," she pleaded. "Carla," she warned in a pseudo-annoyed tone. She never could stay angry with Carla Pulowski, her best friend since the sixth grade and co-captain of the cheerleading squad at Allegheny High. When Carla decided to stay in Allegheny and Janie Jackson left for college at American University, they both thought their friendship would have ended. Instead, it thrived. Jackson worked for a small paper in Arlington, which was close enough to the D.C. area to get all the political scoops she ever needed. At least that's the way Carla perceived it. Whenever something big in Washington was going down, J.J. knew to expect a phone call from her very own personal upstate New York leach. Of course, she didn't really see her that way, except perhaps at three o'clock in the morning. "Who?" she asked succinctly. "Mulder, Special Agent Fox Mulder, otherwise known as--." "--Spooky," Jackson completed for her. "So you do know who he is!" Carla practically squealed. "Yeah, I know him. In fact, I got to interview him and Mrs. Spooky after a Maryland serial murderer was caught because of his profiling and her forensics skills." "You're kidding?" Carla asked amazed. "No, really, I interviewed them." "She's known as Mrs. Spooky?" Carla countered. "Oh. Yeah. That's because they usually investigate this paranormal shit. The amazing thing is that their solve rate is supposedly one of the highest in the Bureau. Look, I just work for a dinky little local paper, but even I know where Mulder and Scully go, something weird is going on. Okay," J.J. continued, "I'll bite. Why'd ya wanna know?" "We've got a little boy, a 3-year-old, missing in the forest, and guess who showed up this afternoon to add their two cents?" "You're kidding," she replied with a hint of awe. "Must be one helluva weird case for Mr. and Mrs. Spooky to be on the job." "That's just it, J.J.," she answered, "it seems to be a run of the mill child wanders off and gets lost scenario. Well, other than the fact there're the mother of all mother animal tracks next to the campsite where the kid was staying with his family. Tom thinks they're bear tracks, but they're the wrong shape." "Well, something's got the fibbies' attention, Carla. If they're involved, then it's definitely not a run of the mill little boy lost in the woods case," informed J.J. "That's what I wanted to hear. I guess I'll have my work cut out for me then," Carla said. "Carla, listen to me. Think before you get yourself mixed up in this. When these two are involved in a case, it usually means some really weird shit is going down." "Jane Marie Jackson, you know damn well I can take care of myself," she retorted haughtily. "Yeah, I know you can," J.J. appeased, but then added softly, "under normal circumstances. I'm telling you Carla, Mulder and Scully never involve themselves in the mundane." When she heard her friend sigh in response, she knew she wasn't going to convince Carla otherwise. So, with a heavy sigh of her own, she said, "Just be careful, kiddo, okay?" When the alarm rang, Tom tried his best to muffle the noise with a pillow over his head and a plea to his lover to 'hit the damn snooze.' Unfortunately, his pleas were being ignored, and he finally had to come up for air to do it himself. As he reached over across the bed, he realized he was lying in bed alone, and apparently it was for quite some time, as the sheets were cold. He turned the alarm off and sat up in bed. Tom scanned the room to look for signs Carla was nearby, but any and all proof of her presence last night had vanished. He noted her clothes were gone as well as her own personal security blanket, the laptop. Tom checked the time once more and realized since it was only 6 a.m. now, Carla must have left a whole lot earlier. The only things he couldn't figure out were where and why. He got out of bed, went into the bathroom to take a leak, and found his first clue as to what the hell was going on with his girlfriend. There were some notes scribbled on toilet paper. "The woman doesn't know when the hell to quit," he muttered aloud. "Spooky. Mr. and Mrs. Spooky." He shook his head and tried to figure out what the hell it meant, but he didn't have a clue. The only thing he did know was that it left him with a bad feeling. A real bad feeling. Act II Allegheny National Forest 6:15 a.m. Scully pulled the backpack out of the trunk of the car and tossed it to her partner. "Hey, how come I get the one with the tent?" he asked, with a devilish twinkle in his eye. "I thought this was the new millennium, where men were to be cherished and put on pedestals." She tried to hold back the smirk that threatened to break out on her face. "I do put you on a pedestal, Mulder. But I want you to feel 'manly.'" He grinned at that. "Oh, if this is for my ego's benefit, then I guess I can't complain." He checked his own holster and ankle holster. "You still think this might be a bear?" Scully asked as she tightened the straps on her own backpack, which hung heavy with provisions. "I don't know what it was, Scully, but I'm not going into any forest without a couple of extra clips and a box of waterproof matches," he said then grinned at her with an added wink. She sighed and dug a small map out of her back pocket. He watched her turning it around, trying to orient it to their location of the parking lot when he finally couldn't stand it any longer. He reached into one of the pockets of his jacket and pulled out a small electronic device with a gray green screen. He handed it to her with both hands as if it were of great importance. "What's this?" she asked, looking at the device suspiciously. "A pocket GPS. The guys got it for me for my birthday." "I don't remember you mentioning that they bought you a GPS device, Mulder," Scully replied with a raised eyebrow. "They don't know they gave it to me, yet. You know how bad Frohike is about taking inventory," he answered with another grin. "You seem to be in a good mood today, Mulder." "Why not? The missing child was returned to his family yesterday, the worse thing wrong with him was a tear in his Blue's Clues overalls. We're just trying to figure out what happened. Why shouldn't I be in a good mood?" "The fact that the mother called us not two hours after her son was returned and claimed that the boy was not her son doesn't bother you at all?" she asked sullenly as she booted up the GPS and used it with the map to determine their location. "Scully, the woman has been through hell the last couple of days. The kid is a toddler, sure he's probably acting out now that he's back home. This was a traumatic experience. I'm not discounting that. But it's nothing a couple of counseling sessions won't overcome. And besides, Scully, she was a bit of an interview hog," he added. His partner turned on him, outrage on her face. "Are you implying that she's doing this because of the publicity? Fox Mulder, of all the inconsiderate, insensitive, absolutely unimaginable . . ." Mulder realized immediately that he'd said the wrong thing. "Scully, calm down. I mean, I don't think she's the type to make a guest shot on Springer, but face it. The press was all over her when she stood outside the hospital and announced that the baby in her husband's arms was not her child." "She was hysterical! She had to be sedated, Mulder!" "You believe her," he said, hands on his hips. Scully stared off to the treetops, squaring her jaw. Finally, when she thought she was calm enough to speak without ripping her partner's head off, she looked at him. "She is the boy's mother. A mother would know her own child." Mulder closed his eyes when he figured out exactly what she was saying, and what he had done. Of course a mother would know her own child. Hadn't Scully known Emily was hers, even before she had any proof, any evidence to support that knowledge? And he was as much as questioning how that could happen. He knew he had major fences to mend and fast. "Scully," he said gently. "I'm not really doubting her. I'm just saying that the suggestion that her son was 'exchanged' with a 'changeling' is a little far fetched. She could be experiencing some serious psychological effects of the disappearance. It's not unheard of. She could be feeling guilty that the boy wandered off to begin with. And the kid seems perfectly healthy. I mean, the father suspects nothing." "So you're saying we just pack up, go home, ignore the mother's charges and close the case?" she asked, now putting her hands on her hips. She had that tilt to her head. She was thinking about where she could put the bullet so that blood didn't splatter on her white parka with the fake fur trim, he could tell by just looking at her. He was trying to mend the fence and the tear just kept getting wider. What was he doing wrong? Oh, he remembered. He was still talking. That had to be it! "I'm not saying any such thing. We're in the woods, Scully. Let's take a walk. Lead on, MacDuff!" They searched the camping area for a few minutes before heading out into the meadow where the prints were found. Scully knelt down and poked at the footprint with one gloved finger. Slowly, she rose and shielded her eyes with her hand as she stared into the woods. "The prints end here, but would indicate they headed into that stand of oak over there." "That's an oak tree?" Mulder asked, then shrugged and grinned boyishly at her raised eyebrow. "Well, let's head that way." Scully stood still even though her partner was already making his way toward the bare oak trees. When he finally noticed she hadn't moved he turned and then came back toward her. "Scully? What did I do now? I'm walking, I'm not talking, what?" Scully was shaking her head, her lips pursed. "Scully, cut me some slack, huh? I know I can be an insensitive slob . . ." "All true, but not what's the problem," Scully said, her forehead crinkling in concentration. "Aunt Millie said trolls were masters of mischief. I doubt sincerely they would leave a trail to follow." Mulder bit his lower lip. "Trolls again," he muttered, but glanced up quickly, afraid his partner would have overheard. He was in enough trouble already. "OK, then what do we do? Go the opposite direction?" She took that under consideration for a moment, then shook her head. "No, they'd think of that." Mulder rolled his eyes in exasperation, but kept quiet. Suddenly, her expression brightened. "We go this way," she said firmly and started off in a direction perpendicular to the trees and to the left. Mulder sighed, shifted the pack on his back until the tent pole no longer dug into his right kidney, and started off after her. 5:45 p.m. The sun had decided it had spent enough time out in the open and was currently hiding behind very dark and heavy clouds. The wind had picked up and now was blowing the fake fur trim of Scully's coat into her eyes with annoying regularity. "Scully, I think the temperature is dropping," Mulder commented, the first words he'd spoken since they'd stopped for lunch. In complete innocence, he'd made a casual reference to 'goat's milk cheese' on his sandwich and she had refused to speak to him for the ensuing three hours. "I suppose you want to go back," she growled, stopping long enough to glare back at him where he stood near a towering pine. He sighed again, something he'd been doing all day long. "I'm not saying that, Scully. And would you please try to be less argumentative? I'm just saying, maybe we should look for some shelter. It's getting dark, there's a storm coming up and we're too far back in the woods to get all the way to the car. I'm just saying let's hole up here somewhere." She blinked and sighed herself. Why was she so short- tempered? Surely not because they were on opposite sides. That was the norm, not the exception. Was it because this time she wanted him to believe her outlandish theory instead of the other way around? She couldn't be positive of anything. Even the old stories that Aunt Millie had spun by the dinner table during their stay with her had seemed unbelievable at the time. It was only months later, when Missy woke her up with a nightmare and the two girls lay on their beds, shivering in the cold winter night that the whole story had been revealed. In the cold and the dark, with the branches of the maple tree scratching a rhythm against the roof, trolls and all they entailed had seemed more real than her cotton sheets and wool blankets that she huddled under for protection. Even now, standing in the middle of a forest with an impending storm, she couldn't help feeling like they were being watched. "OK, we set up camp," she said, struggling to keep any trace of animosity out of her voice. She wasn't mad at Mulder. He wasn't doing anything that he didn't usually do. As a matter of fact, she'd noticed his silence during the long afternoon. She knew he was trying to keep from getting on her last raw nerve and she smiled inwardly. An attentive and considerate Mulder. Would wonders never cease? But she berated herself for such thinking. Mulder was frequently surprising her with his tenderness and his devotion to her. She needed to focus on those moments more often, instead of all the times she was ready to fill him full of lead. "There's a group of smaller pines over there. We could use them as a windbreak. I'll get the tent out if you'll sweep the area. I hate waking up with branches in my back." Scully nodded and set about her task. In a little under a half an hour, the tent was up. Just as the first raindrops started to fall. They quickly moved into the tent, a three- man dome and started setting up their sleeping bags. "Hey, Scully. It's raining. We have sleeping bags," Mulder said with a suggestive leer and she couldn't help but laugh. "No, Mulder. It doesn't count," she replied, digging into her pack and coming up with some plastic-wrapped sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. "Coffee's still warm. Want some?" "I'm freezing. Sure, hit me," Mulder said, holding out his collapsible cup from his own pack. "I didn't mean that literally," he added. She could tell he was still treading lightly around her. "Mulder, I'm not mad at you," she told him firmly. "But I've said some pretty stupid things today, Scully. I mean doubting Mrs. Lempke and . . . well, bringing up stuff that should be left alone . . ." "Mulder," she said, glaring at him. "Yeah, Scully?" he answered hesitantly. "I'm forgiving you. Don't blow it." "Sorry. Right. Forgiveness accepted." He smiled that smile which never failed to melt her heart and dug in his pack a little farther. "Hey, the flashlights don't get hot enough to roast marshmallows, but we can still eat the Hershey bars," he said as he produced two large brown and silver wrapped bars with a flourish. "Mulder, I just remembered why I always manage to forgive you," Scully said with a smile as she gratefully accepted one of the bars. The storm raged around them, but the trees did their job and kept the wind from taking the tent away. After a while, the early morning and the long walk started to take their toll on both agents. By mutual agreement, the flashlights were extinguished and they snuggled into their respective sleeping bags to fall almost immediately asleep. Only to be awoken hours later by an ear-shattering scream. Scully immediately grabbed for her light and shone it toward her partner, who was mimicking her actions. "That wasn't you?" they both asked in unison when another piercing howl tore through the night. "Mulder, how could it be me?" she demanded, but he shut her up with a hand in the air. "It was outside the tent," she whispered, but he wasn't listening to her. He was pulling on his boots and coat. "Mulder, what are you doing?" she hissed in lowered tones. "I'm going to find out who's out there," he replied, clipping his holster to his hip and checking his ankle holster. "I'm coming with you," she said evenly, pulling on her boots. "Good. I couldn't figure out a 'manly' way to ask," he replied with a grin as he unzipped the tent and made his way out the opening. The rain had stopped but it was a moonless night. Their flashlights barely made a dent in the gloom of the overhanging trees, still dripping with water. With a nod of his head, he directed them just outside and to the right of the tent. She followed, shining the light to the sides while he shone his directly in front. After a few feet, his flashlight went out. "Goddamnit!" he muttered. She reached over and started to hand him her light when her pant leg got caught on a branch and she had to stop to tug it free. Mulder kept walking in the same direction he'd been headed. "Mulder, wait up. Wait till I can get some light- -" The splash surprised both of them, Mulder more so than Scully. One minute he'd been walking on solid ground, the next minute he was over the side of a bank and into a stream running rapidly with freshly melted ice and cold rain. "Mulder!" Scully yelled and finally got her pants leg free. She shone the light in front of her and had no trouble seeing that they had strayed right next to a small stream, now flooded with the rains. Mulder had slipped off the bank in the darkness and was now floundering to pull himself up out of the water, using a tree root for purchase. She dropped the flashlight to the ground, illuminating the air directly above where Mulder was splashing and casting him in shadows. "Mulder, grab my arm," she called to him. "No way, Scully. I'll pull you in," he warned. "Mulder, just take my damned arm," she ordered and this time he grabbed on and she was able to leverage them both up and Mulder onto the bank where he lay on his back, gasping and sputtering from the cold and the wet. "You're soaked," she observed. Even in the dim light of the flashlight she could make out his look of total derision. "Come on, we have to get you back to the tent." "Sc-sc-scully, one word about hy-hy-hyp-pothermia and I'm st-st-stuff-ing you in my sl-sl-sleeping bag!" he stuttered. "In p-p-pieces!" Scully ignored him and wrapped her arm around him as they walked both to steady him because of his now constant shivering, and to try and provide some warmth. After a few minutes, she knew something was wrong. "Mulder, where's the tent?" she asked, when they made their way back to the little stand of trees that has served as their windbreak. "Mayb-b-be we g-g-ot turned ar-r-round," he suggested, his voice shaking so badly she could barely make out what he was saying. "No, I remember those trees. And that big maple over there," she assured him, shining her light up toward the trees. "And look, there's the indentation on the ground." Sure enough, the grass, though winter weary, was flattened in the shape of the bottom of their tent. "So where . . ." "Sc-sc-scully. Shine th-th-that light up-" a spasm of shivers stopped him from speaking but he was able to wave his hand in the general direction of above their heads. Their tent fluttered in the light breeze, caught in the branches of a tall oak, about fifty feet off the ground. "Then where are our packs and sleeping bags?" Scully demanded and let go of Mulder, who dropped to the ground like a frozen sack of peas. "Ohmigod," she exclaimed as she found items of their belongings scattered among the undergrowth and hanging from the tree limbs. Most of Mulder's clothing appeared to be hanging higher than either of them could reach. One pair of gray boxers teased her about thirty feet from the ground. About fifteen minutes later, she managed to retrieve one sleeping bag and her own sweat suit. She quickly spread out the sleeping bag and pointed to it. Mulder stared at it forlornly. "Strip and get in there. Now!" "Honey, I have a headache," he whispered hoarsely. "Mulder, so help me God, if you don't get out of those wet clothes and get in that sleeping bag, I will take your own gun and shoot you where you sit!" "They're both wet. Probably won't fire," he whispered back. Now, she was getting seriously worried. He'd stopped shivering and appeared lethargic and sleepy. Even in her own warm coat she could tell the temperature hovered near the freezing mark, maybe below. "Mulder, c'mon, I'll help you," she told him, changing her tone to one of calm reassurance. If he were slipping into shock, screaming at him would do no good. She struggled with him, noting with concern that he was attempting to help, but weak as a kitten and really no help at all. Finally, she had him tucked in the sleeping bag. "You've been waiting three years to get back at me," he whispered in her ear after she'd donned her extra clothing and pulled him into her lap with her parka covering them both. It took her a minute to understand what he was saying. She had vague recollections of mere seconds of consciousness on the ice flow in Antarctica. One of the nurses at McMurdo Station had confided in her that it was quite a shock to the hospital staff when she was found nude under the oversized ski pants and coat she was sporting when she'd been rescued. Equally puzzling was her partner's condition of no coat or protective outerwear and no socks, just boots on his feet. Scully had refused to give an explanation that the nurse would accept. "Just don't quit breathing on me, Mulder, and we'll be fine," she told him as she hugged him close. Another nice night, camping out in the forest, she told herself with sarcastic disgust. "And don't expect me to sing, this time." "I learned my lesson on that one," he whispered just before his breathing evened out and he let out a soft snore. Scully woke up with a sore butt and an armful of partner. It might have been a pleasant experience, if the sounds that greeted her had been the birds chirping or even the traffic outside her bedroom window. Instead, it was the very labored breathing of her partner, who had grown much warmer during the night. Tentatively, she put her hand against his forehead. No, warm was the wrong word. Hot. His forehead was definitely hot. Scully cursed their luck under her breath and tried to figure out how she was going to get him back to civilization. And that's when she heard the other noise. It sounded like someone snoring. She looked down at her partner. No, his breathing was labored, but this snore was not from him. It was farther away and seemed to be coming from another stand of trees not far from where they were sitting. Scully looked around at the tattered remains of their campsite and suddenly saw red. Someone had been following them, that same someone had very likely trashed their belongings and that someone was unlucky enough to still be in the vicinity. Gently laying Mulder on the ground, she checked her weapon and got up to do a little reconnaissance. Act III 6:15 a.m. "Sonofabitch! What the hell have you done?" Carla Pulowski awoke with a violent start and found herself looking down the barrel of a Smith and Wesson 9-mm. "Jesus H. Christ, Agent Scully, put that damn gun down! You wanna kill somebody?" Scully hesitated just long enough to give Carla pause to think that perhaps the federal agent was angry enough to do just that. "C'mon, Agent, put that thing away. I'm not going anywhere," the reporter pleaded mildly. Scully lowered the weapon, but she did not put it away. "Talk." "Talk?" "Talk. What the hell kind of shit did you pull on us last night? Do you realize because of your stupid antics to *make* a story, Mulder's probably developed pneumonia?" informed Scully. "Look," Pulowski began, "I didn't do anything to give Agent Mulder pneumonia. I didn't do anything more than follow you guys around. I wanna know what happened to that little boy, too, you know." "Bullshit," Scully retorted. "That's bullshit and you know it! You were the cause for our belongings finding their way up in the damn trees. Our tent was destroyed by you, all because you wanted to break the big story! Damn you, Pulowski, you really screwed us over!" "For crying out loud, I didn't do anything! I told you; I just followed you. I followed and saw you get your pants caught in the damn tree limbs. I heard the splash the same time you did when Agent Mulder fell into that melting spring. I heard him say that he didn't want to pull you in, and I heard you basically tell him to cut the crap and you pulled him out. "I followed you back to the site, and I watched you practically carry your partner back there. " Scully relaxed her shooting arm totally and then put the gun back in her holster. "Damn it, Pulowski, if you were right behind us during the entire walk back, why the hell didn't you offer to help. My partner was really hurting." "Because I didn't want to become part of the story. Look I really didn't have anything to do with it. I saw the disarray the same time you did. I didn't have anything to do with it, Agent Scully. Not a damn thing, but I want to know as much as you do who the hell did that to your site," Pulowski concluded. "Not who, what," Scully muttered under her breath. "Excuse me?" "Nothing," Scully replied quickly. "Agent Scully, assuming you believe that I did not wreck your campsite last night, just who do you think did?" The blood curdling screams cut off any attempt on Scully's attempt to answer. Without hesitation, both women ran quickly back to the agents' campsite. Scully looked over to where their sleeping bag was, and discovered it to be missing. There was no sight of Mulder, anywhere. "I have to go find my partner." "Okay, let me gather my gear, and we'll get going," responded Pulowski. "No." "No? Whadda ya mean, no?" asked the incredulous reporter. "Agent Scully, this is a big story and I'm not about to lose it." "Ms. Pulowski, please. I have no idea who," and after a moment's hesitation she added, "or what, has taken my partner. All I know is the man was on the verge of developing full-blown pneumonia. He was in no condition to travel, and if I hadn't discovered you here, I would have gone off on my own to find help. He couldn't breathe while at full rest, much less walk and breathe at the same time. "I've got to go find him as soon as possible. But I need backup. Ms. Pulowski, Carla, please. I need you to go find the sheriff as quickly as possible so they can notify the EMS. Please, Carla. My partner needs your help. I need your help," repeated Scully in a small, but forceful voice. Carla Pulowski knew she was probably walking away from the biggest story of her career, and it was all because Mrs. Spooky pleaded for her help. The reporter nodded her head slightly and gathered back up her supplies. She marveled as she started back to the original campsite where all the media and spectators were still keeping vigil. Pulowski wondered just when the hell had she'd become an adult and learned how to behave maturely. It was certainly a new feeling; and one that she prayed didn't turn around and bite her in the ass later on. 7:15 a.m. Mulder woke up and immediately decided it was the wrong thing to do. His chest hurt, his head hurt and he felt like at any minute, he was going to start tossing his cookies. But he hadn't had any cookies, not since the night before when he'd had the sandwich and coffee with Scully. The memory of the food was enough to turn his stomach all the way over and he rolled to his hands and knees as the retching took control of his body. It took a long time for it to be over, or so it seemed. When he could finally look around, Mulder realized a very vital piece of information. He was alone. Scully was no where to be found. He looked up at the trees, seeing his clothing flapping in the light morning breeze. Then he saw the shredded remains of their tent, also making an interesting flag imitation in the nearest oak tree. Without a second thought, he grabbed his still damp clothing and pulled them on, shucking the sleeping bag that had been his only protection against the chill morning air. A wave of dizziness washed over him as he stood, but one thought steadied him. He had to find Scully. He heard a scream and headed in that direction. The scream had faded and he had no way to know where it had come from. He was just wandering, not really knowing where he was going. He looked at the path ahead of him for some sign that Scully had taken that route, but all he could see was a blurry vision of dancing dried leaves and dead stalks of weeds. He wiped the sweat off his forehead as it threatened to drip into his eyes. He hadn't gone far when he saw the entrance to a cave. It was in the side of a hill, hidden almost by dead bushes and a fallen pine tree. For some reason known only to his fevered mind, Mulder was convinced he would find his partner somewhere in that cave. Without a second thought, he scrambled over the dried foliage and entered its darkness. 7:35 a.m. The cave was dark, but not as cold as the wind outside. Mulder's fever had been kept at bay with the strong morning breeze, but in the still air of the cave, it seemed to smother him. He pulled at his damp coat, drawing it off his arms and dropping it to the floor of the cave. There was a light toward the back of the cave and Mulder headed in that direction, stumbling on stalagmite and banging his head on stalactites from the low ceiling. Moisture from the ceiling of the cave dripped on his head and mingled with the sweat on his face and ran down to sting his eyes. The light wavered, but he kept moving closer. Now he could hear noises, grunts and growls and animal sounds from beyond a narrow opening in the room of the cave. Suddenly, a distinctly human voice echoed off the rock walls. "I wanna 'nana!" Mulder may not have understood the significance of that statement, but he definitely recognized the voice as that of a small child, more than likely a small missing boy by the name of Scotty Lempke. He crouched down on his hands and knees to get a better look into the opening and almost fell forward in astonishment at the sight before him. It looked like a small, one room house. A table set against the far wall, crude dishes and eating utensils in place around it. A small cooking fire was in an indentation in the stone wall, almost like a fireplace or hearth. No smoke filled the room, it disappeared up a crack in the wall. Other pieces of furniture, fashioned from split logs and rough-hewn tree stumps were arranged around the room and mats of straw were situated along another wall. Four mats, from what Mulder could see in the dim light of the fireplace. That was incredible enough, but what caught Mulder's eye and caused his breath to still in his lungs was the creatures in the room. Two of them, about five feet in height, covered in long fur. Their faces were turned away from the opening he was looking through, but in profile, Mulder could see noses that would give his own a run for its money. Upon closer inspection, the paws, or hands of the creatures were graced with three fingers and an opposable thumb. The feet had three toes. "Trolls!" Mulder hissed and it was just enough to disturb the phlegm in his throat and lungs. He immediately started to cough. The taller of the two creatures spun on its heel and stormed toward the opening, grabbing Mulder by his shirt collar and dragging him in the room. "Graahhhhh!" growled the creature. Mulder couldn't stop coughing long enough to protect himself and the creature took full advantage of the situation. It tossed the agent like so much laundry on to one of the straw mats and then towered over him. "Grahhhh!" it reiterated. "He wants to know who you are," came a soft voice and Mulder searched the room for the source. A girl, probably no more than eight or nine, stood next to the smaller of the two creatures and held a young boy by the hand. The little boy was wide-eyed and trembling, but the little girl showed no fear, whatsoever. "I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder with the FBI," came the reply, and not quite as confident as Mulder would have liked. "I'm seeking the whereabouts of Scotty Lempke." At the sound of his name, the little boy grinned. "Scott- ie, Scott-ie," he sang and clapped. "Me Scott-ie!" he added gleefully. The little girl hushed him. The smaller creature placed a protective hand on the Scotty's shoulder and growled something to the girl. She nodded and turned to Mulder. "Why do you want him? He's safe here." "His parents are worried about him," Mulder stated, looking first at the child and then at the two creatures. "His mother wants him home." There was grumbling and growling from both creatures at once and the little girl looked anxiously from one to another. At first, Mulder assumed she was frightened of their anger, but then she growled in reply to some noise they made and they almost seemed to be conferring. Finally she smiled at them and turned to Mulder again. "They weren't very good parents. They left him wandering in the woods. He could have been eaten by the bears. We are taking good care of him. He likes it here. We'll keep him." Mulder dropped his jaw in utter astonishment. "It doesn't work that way! You can't just 'take' a child away from his parents!" "Humans do it every day," the little girl answered with narrowed eyes. "Even when the children don't want to go." Mulder wasn't real sure what she was talking about, but was wise enough to realize he was setting his foot on a landmine. "He's only 2. How can he know where he wants to go?" The little girl looked down at Scotty and smiled. She grumbled a few noises and the tiny boy grinned at here. Still smiling, he looked directly at Mulder. "Wanna stay! Scotty stay here!" Mulder knew when he was fighting a losing battle. He looked at the smaller of the two creatures, the one he now assumed to be female, if this was indeed a family unit. "What would you do if a human came and took your child?" he asked her/it. The little girl frowned, but translated Mulder's words into growls. The creature shied back, clutching Scotty to her. She growled loudly toward Mulder and shook her fist. "Well, that's exactly how his mother feels," Mulder assured her, not giving the little girl a chance to translate. "And what about your child? The one you left in this one's place?" The small creature looked over at the larger one and then lifted her head and howled. The larger creature seemed to be shaking his head and grumbling toward the floor. "You can't keep both of them," the little girl explained. "I think this is a pretty bad system, if you ask me," Mulder said to the smaller creature. "Do you really want your child raised by a species who can't be trusted to watch their children?" As the little girl translated, obviously with some reluctance, the small creature's howling grew louder and more plaintive. The larger creature covered his ears. The little girl just stood there and glared at Mulder. "I think we should exchange them back. Everyone gets what they started with," Mulder suggested. The little girl said nothing. Mulder looked at her and restated his comment. "We put things back the way they are. Tell them. Tell them what I just said." "I like Scotty," she said defiantly. Mulder felt that foot on the landmine getting heavier and heavier. "But he doesn't belong here," he reasoned. "Neither did I, at first," she told him, crossing her arms over her small body. "And I won't go back!" Now it was starting to come to Mulder, the understanding that had been eluding him since he first set foot in the cave. The little girl was human, he was sure of that. She'd had a home, a family. But for some reason he didn't know, other humans had taken her from that home, not trolls. And somehow, she ended up here, with these creatures. It was obvious that she'd found a home here. But that wasn't the case with Scotty. Scotty had to go back to his real family. "Look, I really think the best thing for everyone is to just put the boy back with his family and for you to take your, uh, child back with you. I know they let him wander off, but it was an accident," Mulder assured them. At the little girl's translation, the larger creature let out a loud roar that told Mulder exactly what they thought of such "accidents." But Mulder could sense the smaller creature was softening up to the idea. Grumblings and growlings went back and forth for several minutes. The little girl made no attempt to translate, it was not for Mulder's ears apparently. Scotty gave up any pretense of following the ranting of the adults, including Mulder, and went off to forage around the cooking fire, coming back with an apple in his chubby little fist. Finally, the smaller creature wiped at its eye with one furry hand and nodded to the other creature. Mulder was hauled up by his collar and dragged through the cave, knocked and bumped countless times before he was thrown several feet through the air to land in a heap away from the mouth of the cave. 7:30 a.m. Scully stopped and worked on controlling her breathing. If she were to be of any help to Mulder, she had to get herself calmed down and make a plan. That's what Scully did best. Make a plan. She walked back to the site where she and Mulder had slept. She took an extra moment or two and surveyed the area. There had to be a clue somewhere. She bent down next to the sleeping bag she had wrapped Mulder up in last night. Footprints. Mulder's? No, there were others. Strange footprints, similar to the ones that were by the Lempke's campsite, but smaller. Scully imagined that just as Scotty was led away from his campsite, somehow, so was Mulder. "Oh, Mulder, what have you gotten yourself into now?" she whispered to the wind. 7:55 a.m. Carla's legs ached as she pushed herself through the forest brush that tried to impede her progress. She knew she had to find Tom, though in truth she felt some trepidation at seeing him. He was not going to be happy that she'd ditched him, but Carla figured that if they were going to have a future together he was going to have to get used to it. She was a reporter and the story always came first. Except this time. Why except this time? Carla tried to figure out what it was about Agents Scully and Mulder that caused her to throw away possibly the biggest story of her career. She couldn't put her finger on it, only that Mulder was most likely in some kind of trouble and it was up to her and his partner to help him. As she moved on Carla thought she heard something, given the nature of the story she'd been following, it made her just a bit nervous. However, when she heard shouts of "Springer, where the hell does the damn trail lead?" the reporter let out a sigh of relief. "Tom! Tom, over here!" Carla called out. Suddenly she felt herself surrounded by a multitude of people, including the entire Lempke family. "Where the hell have you been, Pulowski?" demanded Tom. "I'm fine, Tom," she responded, knowing full well that was the intent of the tirade. That was confirmed when she saw him let out a sigh and his face relaxed somewhat. "But I think Agent Mulder is in trouble," she added. "Agent Mulder? Damn fool! And what about his partner, damn fool number two? Where the hell are they, Carla?" he asked more annoyed than ever, having been reminded of the reason he was stuck out in the damp, cold, raw forest at the crack of dawn. "They'd set up camp about two, maybe three miles from here. Then he fell in a stream, but their campsite was wrecked--" she started to explain. "--Wrecked? By who?" asked Deputy Springer. "More like, by what, Jerry," she answered. "I can only imagine what caused the havoc back there. Everything was strewn about and mostly hanging from tree limb. High up in the trees, I might add. I don't think an ordinary 'who' could have done that kind of damage." "Yeah, right," interjected Tom, "so why aren't they with you?" "Agent Mulder is missing." "Oh, shit!" shouted Tom. "Damn it! I want this case to be over, do you hear me?'' Tom Brennan was a picture of frustration. He looked quickly over at the Lempke family who had insisted upon following the sheriff and his men into the forest to search for the missing people, as well hopefully find the child they claim was truly their own. As much as Brennan tried to talk them out of it, the entire family decided it was their right to traipse into the woods right along the law enforcement officers. "Carla, where have you been? And what the hell are you running from?" he asked angrily. "I'm sorry, Tom. I woke up this morning to find Agent Scully's gun pointed directly between my eyes--" "What?" Tom practically squeaked. He may have been ticked off with Carla for ditching him, but he certainly didn't want to hear she was in harm's way at the hands of a damn fool fibbie. "Tom, forget it. She thought I was the reason behind their site being messed up, and she was worried about Agent Mulder being sick and all." "Sick?" "Tom, c'mon," Carla responded exasperated, "I'll explain on the way. Scully and Mulder need our help. Let's just go already." Tom tried to get more of an explanation out of his secret love, but she would have none of it and took him by the hand to lead him and the rest of the search party to where Carla had last seen both agents. It pissed Tom Brennan off to no end. But not half as much as when Mr. Lempke poked him in the shoulder and admitted sheepishly, that little Scotty had already gone running off down the path in the same direction Carla had just come. 7:40 a.m. Scully followed the footprints all the way down a beaten path into rocky area. She found herself staring at a cavern opening. She stooped down and walked inside all the while listening intently for any signs of life. Backing away from the cavern, she looked to the surrounding hillside. All appeared silent, but she tentatively called out her partner's name. When she heard no answer, she stepped outside again and tried calling to him again. "Mulder? Mulder, answer me!" she called a little more desperately. "Boo-boo," called out a young voice that seemed to be coming from behind a battered yew bush. "Scotty?" responded Scully hopefully. "Me Scotty!" the child shouted back happily. "Where are you, sweetheart?" "Scotty here. Him gots boo-boo," said the rather forlorn little voice. "Keep talking to me, Scotty, so I can find you," Scully encouraged. The child complied and the anxious agent was able to find the toddler and her partner in a matter of seconds. When she came upon them, her heart did a flip at the picture before her. Little Scotty Lempke sat by her partner's prone body, and patted the injured man's hand in an attempt to offer some comfort. Scully moved in a quick, but fluid motion to her partner, as she didn't want to startle the child. "Hi, Scotty," she said with a smile. "Thank you for watching my friend." "Boo-boos," the toddler announced, pointing to various bruises already forming on Mulder's cheek. "Yes, I see," she replied, and she really did see. Mulder's forehead had a nice little gash that was bleeding profusely. It didn't cause her all that much concern, as Scully knew head wounds tended to bleed more than others. What did cause her to worry was his glistening skin, moist from fever, as well as the barking cough that he emitted every few seconds. Not to mention the slightly odd angle his shoulder appeared to be in. "Mulder, talk to me partner," she urged. He opened his eyes briefly, saw it was his partner, and managed something akin to a grin. "Hey Scully, you were right," he rasped out. "What was I right about, Mulder?" "The trolls. There be trolls in these here woods, Scully. You were right," he rasped out between the hacking coughs. "Oh, Mulder," she sighed as she wiped his perspiring face, "you've got a case of bronchitis if ever I've seen one. It's the fever, Mulder. Scotty is here, safe and sound." "I'm tellin' you, Scully, I saw trolls! I talked to 'em. Well, not exactly talked, they growled and I listened, but the little girl, she understood what they said. They were just taking care of him Scully, but I convinced 'em to bring him back." He would have continued but wracking coughs were making it difficult to speak. "Mulder, we'll deal with all this later. Right now, we have to get you somewhere warm. Carla was going off to get help." On cue, the entire posse, including the Lempke family, surrounded the three. Denise Lempke took one look at the small child still crouched beside the fallen agent and immediately scooped him up into her arms. "Scotty! Oh, Scotty, don't ever scare Mama like that again!" she cried as tears streamed down her face. Tom Brennan looked around him at the scene. Silently, he counted heads. Yup, he had the same number he started with, plus two more. He didn't care if the fibbie himself was a changeling, as far as Brennan was concerned, the case was now closed! Epilogue Mulder's Apartment Hegel Street Alexandria, VA "I don' wanna," he complained. "Mulder, you have to eat something, and the warmth will make your chest feel better. Try some, please?" "Scully, it hurts." "I know, you have a big boo-boo, Mulder," she teased, borrowing a phrase from little Scotty Lempke, "but you need some nourishment to get better. Now, stop giving me an argument about this, Fox Mulder, and open your damn mouth!" "Gee, Florence Nightingale, your bedside manner leaves a lot left to be desired." "Oh shut up, Mulder, and open wide," she said with a smile. She knew how uncomfortable he was, but Scully also knew that with a little time and TLC, this too would pass. The shoulder separation was a mild one for a change, and though bronchitis was a pain, it wasn't life threatening if he took care of himself. He was home now, and that's exactly what he was going to do, even if she had to kill him to make him do it. They'd finished their report in Allegheny in record time, mostly because Sheriff Tom Brennan wanted all paperwork finished as soon as possible. The lack of hard evidence of the so-called "troll perpetrators" left the agents little choice but to close the case with the return of the supposedly "real" Scotty Lempke. Brennan hadn't argued with the parents' assertions that the toddler found with Mulder was indeed the real Scotty. The fact that Denise Lempke insisted the child was wearing a different shirt from the one that she'd put on the changeling that morning didn't hold that much water for the sheriff. The purported changeling had disappeared, so there was no hard proof that there'd ever been more than one Scotty Lempke. Brennan had demanded that the agents sign off on the report his deputy wrote up and then bid them a not so fond adieu. He was obviously eager to get his piece of the world back on an even keel, and Brennan felt that the sooner he could get the fibbies on their way back to DC, the sooner his life could get back to normal. And that meant he could finally take the time to give a certain wayward reporter a piece of his mind, as well as other parts of his body. He'd made an important decision that day. Life was too short, and it was time to bring their relationship out into the open. He didn't like not knowing where Carla was, or whether or not she was safe. Life sometimes has a way of biting you in the ass if you're not careful, and sometimes it does even when you're too careful. Tom Brennan had decided he was ready for the world to know about him and Carla Pulowski. Whether the world would survive no longer mattered; the risk was well worth it. The agents had received a warmer farewell from Carla, who had the most lopsided smile as she said goodbye. Scully wasn't sure what that was all about, but for some reason Mulder seemed to understand, though he was hard pressed to put that understanding into words. All he could say was she reminded him of someone, but he wasn't sure of whom. Of course, she'd no sooner said goodbye than she'd taken off again, much to the alarm of Sheriff Brennan. Both Scully and Mulder wondered if there were other reasons that Brennan went ballistic when he'd learned that Pulowski had ditched them all, especially when he'd lamented, "Not again, damn it!" So now, as Scully fed her bedridden partner his chicken soup and endeavored to make him all better, another partner was traipsing about the woods looking for a clue to a mystery unsolved. And just as she was about to call it a day, Carla Pulowski looked toward the small beaten path to find two small figures holding hands and skipping along in their slightly awkward, plodding manner. One fur-covered hand clutched tightly to a smooth skinned hand of about the same size, just a touch smaller. "Oh, my," whispered an awestruck Pulowski, "oh, my." The end