China, an X-Files/Highlander crossover

April 1998 - January 2000

Disclaimer: some of the characters featured in this story aren't actually mine, but belong to 1013 Productions and Rysher Panzer Whatsit. I'm not infringing on anything, am I? This is Vyola's auction story from Connexions 1998. I have been dreadfully slow about it, and apologize most humbly. There are some small weirdnesses. The reader will have to ignore the fact that XF is a TV show in the HL universe, and my decision to fiddle with the timelines of the shows — I'm well aware that there is a discrepancy. For XF, this is set after the Reduxes; for HL, it's post-everything (no Raven). It's rated NC-17 for explicit sex, explicit violence, and moderately explicit experimental cooking.

Warmest thanks to Shoshanna, my editor, without whom there would be no continuity and no grammar. Additional thanks to Sorcha for geography and botany, elynross for character discussion and things HL-related, Dawn for more continuity and encouragement, Te for letting me rant and whine, and C and M, just because. All errors (and eccentricities of punctuation) are mine. Don't miss the cover illustration by Laura Shapiro. Feedback can be sent, should you feel so inclined, to Do not archive this story without permission.


The door to the attic was locked, of course, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. He worked carefully with a credit card, then muttered about rust and simply shoved, until the lock yielded to him with no more than a complaining squeak. He couldn't find a light switch, but it was daytime and enough sun filtered in through the narrow attic window that he could pick his way easily up the creaking wooden steps, painted a long time ago, now leaving little blue paint chips on the soles of his bare feet.

It was only natural, he supposed, that home owners hid choice items away when they decided to rent a house to strangers, but that didn't mean that he was going to put up with sleeping on a thin, lumpy mattress if there was a chance he might find a better one up here. The space under the sloping eaves was cluttered with decades of might-come-in-handy's, an obstacle course of odd chairs, moldy suitcases, rug piles and cardboard boxes, with unexpected open spaces in between where lines of dust trailed like grey feather boas.

He made his way carefully through it, pushing a few things out of the way, shuffling his feet to keep the grit from sticking to the soles. In the far right corner he struck paydirt: a bed standing against the wall, keeping its distance from the surrounding rickety sideboards and paper bags full of old stuffed toys.

He pushed at the mattress and felt it spring back against his fingers with satisfying firmness. Oh yes, that was much better. It wasn't that he couldn't survive a few hardships — his mouth curled up in a familiar ironic smile. He just didn't see the need to be any more uncomfortable than he had to. If the years had taught him anything, it was to get whatever he could from the moment.

Tugging at one corner, he worked the mattress free of the iron bedframe and began to drag it across the floor towards the stairs, leaving a clean-swept path behind. Dust and fine sand whirled up around him, and he sneezed and blinked.

When he reached the head of the stairs he heaved the mattress around and shoved it down, hearing it slither with little thumps along the steps. He'd have to beat the dust and paint chips out of it, of course. Then it would be perfect. He'd be comfortable here.

He cleared his throat in order to be able to whistle a cheerful little ditty as he went down.

Behind him, the smudged lines of fine sand, grey and black and reddish-brown, stirred again in an inexplicable little breeze.

* * *

Mulder was starting to screw up his twenty-seventh consecutive game of Tetris when the door to the basement office opened and Scully walked in with determined strides, ten minutes earlier than he'd expected her. She put her suitcase down by the wall, flexed her fingers and suppressed a yawn into an almost subvocal squeak. "So what is this mystery trip you've arranged for us?" she asked.

"I got an interesting piece of email yesterday." He looked up over the screen at her, admiring the way her red hair lit up the room. Scully walked up to the desk and picked the printout of the mail in question out of his outstretched hand, turning it around to read. He'd already missed too many falling pieces, so he shut the game down. Tetris required a relaxed, zen-like focus he was incapable of achieving right now. He was on edge, had been ever since Scully had been released from the hospital and returned to work. Frazzled, he watched Scully far too closely for her comfort. He knew he was doing it, he knew she knew he was doing it, but he couldn't seem to stop. "Caught Skinner at the crack of dawn when his resistance was low, we're clear to go."

The corner of her mouth twitched as she chose among various questions that presented themselves. Finally she settled for "Crack of dawn?" with a glance at her watch. "I know you called me at six, but—"

"He was in the gym." Mulder grinned, aware that he sounded smug. Getting Skinner to sign the 302 for this case had involved a certain amount of mental dexterity, but it would be worth it, Mulder thought, to get out of town on a simple, uncomplicated, unthreatening little case. He didn't want Scully to think he was coddling her, but... she needed a rest. "I think he'd have said yes to anything to get me to stop hovering over him and reciting baseball statistics from 1962 while he was doing situps."

Admittedly, the fact that Skinner agreed about Scully had made things easier, but Mulder didn't want to think about how Scully would react if he hinted that he and Skinner had discussed her state of health. Every time he looked at her, he saw her face not as it was now but as it had been when she'd lain in that hospital bed waiting to die, offering to lie for him with her last breath if he needed her to, convinced she wouldn't make it. And he'd been angry at her, and he'd wanted to hold her, and he'd wanted to destroy worlds and governments. Taking down a section chief hadn't been enough. Seeing his own beliefs burn hadn't been...

Scully went back to scanning the letter in her hand rapidly. "Which means we're going to — China? You told Skinner you wanted to go to China and he said yes?"

"That's China, Indiana, Scully. Surely you've heard of it. Home of the world's longest paper-clip chain. We're flying into Indianapolis," Mulder said, undismayed by the look on her face. "I've arranged for a rental car."

"To look into—" Her eyes, moving over the printout, stopped abruptly. Mulder had a fairly good idea of what she was looking at.

"Some unusual events that have occurred over the past couple of days," he said to egg her on, switching his computer off and standing to get his suit jacket off the file cabinet where he'd flung it earlier the same morning.

"Mm." It was a classic Scully moue. Rosebud pout. Very pretty. One day when he wanted to provoke her he'd have to ask her if she practiced it in front of a mirror, but not now, not when the pretty pout showed just how hollow her cheeks were. "A woman's hair turned green. Frogs appeared in the classroom during a history class." Scully shook her head. "Mulder—"

"Don't say it." He couldn't help smiling. It wasn't exactly up there with liver-eating mutants, or serial killers escaped from prison. But then that was the whole point, although he didn't intend to tell her that. She would figure it out anyway, but better that it remain unspoken between them. Like so many other things.

"Copper in the water will give a greenish tinge to blond hair. And the combination of school children and frogs seems obvious." She glanced up at him, inviting him to share the joke.

"There were over fifty frogs, Scully, and only twelve children. And then one of those children got caught in an extremely localized hot rainstorm and had to be treated for second-degree burns on her hands and face."

Now she did look more serious, but not convinced. "Mulder, child abuse—"

"She was standing in the middle of the road, and four of the other children saw it happen." Mulder held up a hand. "Yes, I know that eight-year-olds are not the most reliable witnesses, but I do think it rules out the child abuse idea. I think we should go and see what Sheriff Jackson is talking about here."

Scully tucked her hair back behind one ear and picked up the plane tickets lying on the desk. "We're going to Indiana to investigate frogs."

"I think it might be—"

"Frogs, Mulder."

"Yeah, but—"

She grinned abruptly, a blinding flare of a smile. "As long as they don't start raining down on me again."

"We'll bring an umbrella."

He was glad to see that smile appear again. There had been a time in the recent past when all her smiles had twisted into grimaces of pain, just as all his laughter had turned to tears. She was healthy again, he knew that, and still as ferociously capable as ever, he knew that too, but he still thought this case sounded ideal: low profile, low pressure, amusing and interesting.

"So," Scully looked at the email again, "the sheriff is a fan of yours, is he?"

"Apparently." Mulder had no memory of ever meeting a Sheriff Jackson, but the email said that the man had been following his career with interest. It didn't say what kind of interest, but given that the sheriff was asking for his help, some of it had to be positive. "There are people out there who consider me an unsung hero, you know, Scully."

"The ballad of Fox Mulder," she said experimentally, then shook her head. "Don't hold your breath."

He barely suppressed the impulse to stick his tongue out at her. There was so much unresolved between them, they needed this playfulness, something to ease the memory of the last few months. So he smiled and told her, "I'm waiting for the Hollywood version."

* * *

They drove south from Indianapolis once they'd gotten off I465. Mulder, at the wheel, munched sunflower seeds and let his mind drift. He turned the radio on, found a Golden Oldies station and tapped the wheel in time. It was a beautiful day, bright and sunny; the sky was an infinity of blue with only a few drifting white cloud fingers to mar its pristine perfection. When Scully turned the radio off in the middle of Heartbreak Hotel he looked at her reproachfully. "I was listening to that."

"You were singing along with that," she told him. "And if you'd kept it up all the way to China, Sheriff Jackson would have had a justifiable homicide to look into instead of frogs and hot water."

"I've never said anything about your singing voice." He aimed his best injured-little-boy pout at her.

"Mulder, are you aware that that particular facial expression makes you look like a weeping harlequin on a velvet painting?"

"Ow." He clutched one hand to his chest. "Scully, you wound me."

"I most certainly will if you keep that up." She reached out and turned the radio back on again at a lower volume. Elvis had been replaced by Aretha Franklin. "So what is your theory about this case?"

"I'm going into this with an open mind, Scully," he told her. "I think we need some more information first." The sheriff's email had been fairly terse, giving bare facts but very few of the surrounding circumstances. Sheriff Jackson clearly wasn't one of the great prose stylists of the age, but then Mulder was quite looking forward to making his own investigation.

Scully blinked, and raised an eyebrow. "Are you saying that you don't have a theory?"

"Well, it seems clear that we're dealing with some kind of magic or witchcraft, but I don't have any more specific theory yet. Not enough facts. We only know about the results, not how those results were achieved."

"I see." Scully leaned back in her seat and rubbed at the back of her neck thoughtfully. Right at the spot where the tiny little chip had been put back in. Mulder wondered if she was even aware that she was doing it. "If we assume that there is such a thing as functioning magic, why would anyone possessed of such an ability want to use it to call up frogs? The practical use of an ability to produce fifty small amphibians on short notice must be extremely limited, unless you're a biology teacher."

"Mm." He casually nudged the volume control of the radio a little higher. "But there's a symbolic value to it. Frogs are traditionally associated with witchcraft and devil-worship and have been seen as symbols of the devil, or as symbolizing unorthodox beliefs." Patsy Cline. It really was a beautiful day. "Not by everyone, of course. The ancient Egyptians saw frogs as a symbol of life and fertility and that positive view lived on in the Coptic church, where the frog was frequently used as a symbol for resurrection. And speaking of fertility, Freud would say—"

"Mulder, sometimes a frog is just a frog. Have you spoken to Sheriff Jackson since getting this letter? Do you know if he even interviewed the children? I still think—"

"Phallic symbols get you rattled, Scully?"

"Do you want me to tell you what Freud would say about your oral fixation, Mulder?"

Their eyes met, and he wasn't sure who grinned first. Mulder shook his head, still smiling, and dug into his pocket for another handful of sunflower seeds. "I've been in touch with Sheriff Jackson. He's expecting us. He talked to some of the children and they all said the frogs appeared out of nowhere, the same way the shower of hot water came out of nowhere."

Scully shook her head. "Nothing simply appears out of nowhere. I'd like to have a word with those kids." She settled into her seat and began to jot down a series of short notes — probably on how to wrap this case up in less than an hour and head back again. Mulder admired efficiency, and he had his own list, so he was pretty sure they weren't going to overlook anything.

He was also pretty sure that it would take more than an hour to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in China. In fact, he was counting on it. The incidents that Sheriff Jackson had described were intriguing in and of themselves, and both he and Scully needed a break.

Mulder had started to hum again by the time they drove past the Welcome to China! sign, but kept it low enough to drown in the sound from the radio, in deference to Scully's sensibilities. The road took them straight onto the main street, and the sheriff's office was just where the letter had said it would be and looked just the way Sheriff Jackson had described it over the phone ("it's grey"). He parked right in front, and Scully, who had been observing the place with a rather pleased expression on her face, gathered her notes together, unsnapped her seat belt and opened the door.

"It's pretty here," she said approvingly when he'd gotten out too and they were looking at each other over the roof of the car.

Mulder looked around and nodded. The sunshine was probably glossing over a few things, but what he could see of China was a collection of neat little houses, a clean street, a few tidy-looking people, lots of flowers in pots outside houses or spilling over the sides of window boxes. A well-kept little idyll. Even the sign pointing the way to the world's longest paper-clip chain was nicely hand-painted. They walked towards the door of the sheriff's office and it opened before they could reach it; a smiling man waved them inside. "You must be the Federal agents."

"Yes." Scully went straight to the point, flipping her ID open. "I'm Special Agent Scully and this is Agent Mulder. And you're Sheriff Jackson?"

"That's right. Pleased to meet you." He was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, looking so wholesome and honest that Mulder wondered why he hadn't gone into politics. Short blond hair, twinkling eyes, firm jaw, dimpled chin, and gleaming wedding ring. Mulder stopped himself from getting out his sunglasses. "I'm glad you could take the time to come down."

"You presented an interesting case, sheriff," Mulder said, shaking Jackson's hand. "We reviewed the material you sent me on the way here and we're ready to get started."

Scully nodded. She was all business, list in hand. "Sheriff Jackson, we'd like to—"

"Just call me Marion."

Scully's composure faltered for a moment. "Marion?"

The sheriff gave her a sunny smile. "My mom's a big John Wayne fan." Scully shot Mulder a sideways look and he suppressed a grin. "That stuff I sent you is a bit outdated now — things have turned serious. I could definitely use some help."

"Serious in what way?" Mulder asked. 'Serious' had been exactly what he had been trying to avoid in choosing this particular field trip. He'd been aiming for something easy and uncomplicated, an instant coffee kind of case.

Marion Jackson's smile was gone, replaced by a grave expression. "Robbie Tyler was found dead outside his home this morning. His lungs were full of blood, and there was a strange mark on his forehead."

In spite of himself, Mulder found his attention caught, his interest sparked. Instant coffee it wasn't, but this was starting to sound like serious X-file material. If he could have told Skinner about a mysterious body, he wouldn't have had to pull that little number with the baseball stats. He wasn't in the habit of apologizing, but he made a mental note to call his boss and make a progress report for once.

"Blood in the lungs could be caused by some kind of illness or trauma-related internal hemorrhaging," Scully said. "Does anything point to deliberate injury? Has there been an autopsy?"

"No," the sheriff said with an apologetic little cough, "we knew you were coming, so we waited for you. He's at the funeral home now."

"Who found the body?" Mulder glanced down at the report lying on the nearest desk, trying to read upside down, but it appeared to have to do with chicken theft, of all mind-bogglingly rural things. His mind shifted gears effortlessly, rewriting its to-do lists.

"His wife did," Sheriff Jackson said, "and then she came over to get me — we're almost neighbors. She said he just went out to get the paper and then she wondered why he didn't come back in again."

"But she didn't see anyone else outside the house, either when she found her husband or when she ran for help?" Scully asked.

"Not a soul till she got to our house." Marion Jackson had picked his hat up from the desk and was turning it between his hands. He looked at Mulder, shrugged. "You can see why I wanted your help, Agent Mulder — and yours, Agent Scully. It's completely inexplicable. When it was just frogs I thought it was more curious than anything else, then when Elsie Jones got hurt I started to worry. Now, well... we need to find out what's behind this before somebody else gets killed."

"You said there was a mark on Tyler's forehead," Mulder said. "Can you describe it?"

"Well, you'll see it for yourselves when you see the body, I don't want to give you any ideas before you—

The door opened again, letting in a gust of cool leaf-scented air and a short woman in a brown coat. "Honey, did you remember to— Oh! Oops!"

Sheriff Jackson wasn't perturbed by being called 'honey' while on duty. "Yes, Shirl, I remembered to tell Bob about the kitchen sink. Agent Mulder, Agent Scully, this is my wife, Shirley."

"Sorry to interrupt you like this," she smiled. She was pretty, sturdy, freckled and round-cheeked, with gingery hair pulled back in a ponytail and slightly crooked teeth. Right now the creases around her grey eyes spoke of worry. "I didn't think you'd get here so soon. But I'm glad you did — you've heard about poor Robbie?"

"The sheriff was just telling us about it," Mulder said. "You were there too when Mrs. Tyler came to get help, weren't you?"

"Yes, I was. She came running up to our house in her nightgown, she was so upset, so of course Marion and I went to see what was wrong, and there he was just lying in the front yard with the blood pouring out of his mouth. But I guess you've already heard all about that." Mrs. Jackson glanced at her husband. "I hope you can get to the bottom of this — whatever it is—"

"Shirl, you know what it looks like," the sheriff said. "I don't know why you're suddenly so skeptical." He turned his head to look at Mulder instead. "It looks to me like some kind of witchcraft."

"Witchcraft is a vague term," Mulder said, fighting the temptation to lecture. "It's not a word that provides any instant solutions or obvious suspects. I think—"

"I think I should take a look at the body," Scully put in, squaring her shoulders; it was a small involuntary movement, and Mulder thought he was the only one who noticed it. "Cause of death hasn't even been established yet. I don't think we should jump to conclusions simply because there's been an unexplained death coming right after what may be a couple of children's pranks."

Mrs. Jackson nodded. She glanced at her husband, who nodded too. "I guess you'll want to talk to Mrs. Tyler," he said.

"And that man who's rented the old Tyler place," Mrs. Jackson added. "That's the only other house that's near by." She tucked a strand of fine orange-gold hair behind one ear. "He only moved in a few days ago. You remember, Marion, it was the same day—"

When she broke off, her husband finished the sentence for her. "The same day Gina's hair turned green and those frogs appeared."

* * *

Methos contemplated the refrigerator for a moment. It was old, for a refrigerator, but hummed away merrily in its corner, as spotlessly clean as the rest of the kitchen. Avocado-colored, it clashed nicely with the Seventies orange cupboard doors. It was also empty. Bright sunshine was pouring in through the kitchen window and his stomach growled. He should have done some grocery shopping yesterday, but he'd still had a couple of beers left, and it had been a nice sunny afternoon that had faded almost imperceptibly into a nice shady evening as he'd sat on the porch wrapped in a blanket, doing absolutely nothing. He'd actually fallen asleep out there, waking around midnight to stumble inside and fall on the mattress.

Bare feet slapping against the linoleum, Methos padded across the kitchen and pushed the back door open. He stepped outside, into the morning sunshine — all right, noon sunshine — and stretched lazily. He'd slept for almost eighteen hours altogether and he still felt tired. That was all right, because there was nothing much to do here except sleep, and he could take another nap any time he pleased. Getting the hell away from everything and everyone had been a very good idea. Admittedly he hadn't quite expected to end up in China, Indiana; it was just the spot where his car had chosen to break down. But now that he was here, he thought he might stay for a while.

It wasn't as if he had a lot of other pressing commitments, after all. MacLeod had retired from public life, and Amanda had held off for about two days before sneaking off to join him in whatever remote corner of the world he'd chosen to hide in. Methos didn't know where they were, and he wasn't going to ask. Presumably they'd camp out together on holy ground until one of them drove the other crazy, and it was impossible to predict how long that would take, although he'd bet his sword that Amanda would give up first. Nor was it really any of his business, except that some habits were hard to break. After spending years trying to get the Highlander to keep a low profile, Methos was at a loose end for what to do now that he had succeeded.

Then he smiled wryly to himself, knowing full well that he couldn't take any credit for it. That it had, in fact, very little to do with him. He studied the tall grass intently, looking for clues in the way it swayed under the caress of a cool breeze. The apples that hung from the neglected trees were small, brown-spotted and sour. This garden had stood untended for decades. Nothing to do with him, really. Nothing to do with him, from now on.

Methos still felt a little thick-headed with the remnants of sleep, although he suspected that there were other factors involved, too. Initially he had told himself that he was pleased at MacLeod's decision to stop walking through life as a big fat living target. Much easier on his nerves. But after a while, when MacLeod had taken himself off without leaving a forwarding address, Methos had become aware of a feeling he really did not want to deal with.


Not that he had come to adopt MacLeod's beliefs as his own, not that he was looking to make himself a figurehead and fight the good fight — Methos snorted out loud — picking up where MacLeod had left off. Oh no. But he was angry, a low-key, blurry anger that covered the inside of his mind like ugly wallpaper. He'd left Paris, unwilling to let Joe catch a hint of what was inside him; gone back to Seacouver to tie up a few loose ends there, to store some things and sell others and ditch the Watcher Joe had planted on him, and then driven off with no direction in mind, no purpose except to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Anywhere except wherever MacLeod and Amanda were. He could do this, he was good at this, pulling up stakes, cutting all ties, starting from scratch. Except that every time he'd tried to do it over the past few years, he'd ended up going back again.

Not this time, damn it.

Methos yawned, scratched his head, shoved the flare of emotion down where it belonged and headed indoors again for a shower. The hot-water supply was more than a little erratic, and his rendition of Like a Hurricane was punctuated by several rather un-Young-like yelps and yowls. Methos told himself cold water was refreshing and invigorating, then cursed the hot water tank in Sumerian, and got out to dry himself on a lime and yellow striped towel with the words BEACH PARTY marching across it in bright blue. The cotton nap was all but worn away. He toweled his hair until it stood on end, put on jeans and a blue sweater, slung his coat over one shoulder and headed out to buy some food.

The house he was renting had been built in the 30's and painfully renovated in the early 70's, but the renovations hadn't extended to the exterior, much less the yard and the dirt road leading up to it. Methos tramped along on the grass and gravel until the road turned miraculously well-kept right by the house of his landlords, waved briskly towards the Tylers' kitchen window in case they happened to be around, and kept walking. China was a small town, and even though he was now living on its outskirts, practically in the woods, it took him less than fifteen minutes to get to the main street.

If he'd been in a different mood, he would have made arrangements to have his car towed to Indianapolis, instead of leaving it at Bob's Auto Repair and hoping for the best. The last time he'd seen Bob, there had been mutters about the ordering of spare parts, and other pressing jobs. This was going to take a while. But as it happened, that suited him perfectly. All he wanted to do was hang out and take it easy. This was the kind of place where nothing ever really happened, where no one ever went. He didn't want to retreat to holy ground, and it had nothing to do with not wanting to imitate MacLeod, he just didn't. It wasn't sanctuary he was looking for. All he wanted was to be far away from other immortals. Far from the madding crowd. Far from the people who had unaccountably taken over his life with their needs, their obsessions, their demands, their moral scruples, their... friendship.

Don't go there. It didn't matter. There were no immortals in China, and the one pre-immortal Methos had come across would hopefully manage to keep himself alive a while longer. There was no one here who knew him, no one who cared who or what he was, and he planned to keep it that way.

Methos went into the store and picked up groceries, beer, a couple of really awful-looking paperbacks from a tiny display rack. No use getting too much stuff, he'd have to carry it all the way home. And that would be such a hardship, he told himself mockingly. Anyway, he didn't feel up to any advanced cooking. Bread and beer would keep him alive. He paid for his purchases, admiring the cashier's bright punk green hair if not her brusque manners, then got a good grip on the bags and walked outside.

The main street was as exciting today as it had been yesterday. A black cat was crossing the intersection over by the diner; a woman was pushing a pram down the sidewalk across from him, smiling at her child with the kind of dopey maternal affection usually only seen in diaper commercials. He half-turned, to take in the full picture of rural peace, immerse himself in it. The door to the sheriff's office opened, and Methos, craning his neck to look, saw a man and a woman come out along with his near-neighbors Marion and Shirley Jackson. He thought they had to be strangers; not that he'd seen every single one of China's inhabitants, but the locals didn't dress like that. It didn't go with the small-town image at all.

The woman was small, thin, lovely as an ivory carving, her companion less immediately noticeable, except for his clothes. When the man adjusted his coat over his shoulders, Methos paused for a moment of suspicion. But he'd felt nothing, no buzz, not even a hint. This was just someone who quite accidentally shared one of the essential wardrobe choices of an immortal. As Methos watched, the man took the coat off instead, turning his face up into the warmth of the sun. For a second his seemingly mismatched features cohered into something raw and gorgeous. Then he moved, talked, shattered the silent moment. The woman smiled up at him, her hair as dazzling as fall leaves in sunlight. They made a pretty couple.

Methos shifted one of the bags under his arm again and started to head back to the house. He walked one block further than he had to, to look in and see if Bob had made any progress lately, but the Back in 5 minutes! sign was up on the door, meaning that Bob Watson was out on another repair job. With a shrug, Methos backtracked, turned left and followed the slight upslope that would take him to his temporary home. He made lazy plans for the rest of the day: eat, read, nap, read, eat, read, sleep. A walk in the woods might be pleasant, but it could wait until tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the day after that. A yawn tugged at his jaw and he gave in to it. He still felt tired. He felt as if he could sleep for a year.

And sleeping and reading would help him not think about MacLeod, or why he was so angry. Admittedly there were better ways not to think, but sleeping and reading would do, for now.

The orange van parked at the side of the road looked familiar, and as he went past it he felt the faint whisper of a pre-immortal presence, so it was no surprise to him when he saw Bob Watson himself, loading equipment through the back doors and muttering half-hearted curses. Methos cleared his throat and Bob looked up. "Charlie! Uh, want me to give you a ride back with those bags?"

Methos looked up at the Tylers' house, at the road next to it that led back to his own temporary home. "I think I can just about manage." He eyed Bob's dark blue coveralls, which bore suspicious and smelly stains, as well as traces of carrot peel and egg shells and wet black feathers. "And what feats of bravery and derring-do have you been performing in the service of the citizens of China?"

Bob grinned. "My wife wants you to come over and read to her one night, Charlie. She says it'll be just like Masterpiece Theater."

"Does she, now." Methos shook his head. Masterpiece Theater indeed. Perhaps he should make an effort to lose the British accent, or at least not use it while he was in the States. He didn't know why that one had stuck with him for so long. On the other hand, it had its advantages here; as a supposed foreigner he had a little more room to maneuver, a few more reasons for ignorance, real or pretended. That suited him very well. As for Bob Watson and his wife, Methos had no intentions of socializing with the locals, despite frequently issued invitations complete with directions and a cheery come over any time. "Tell her I charge by the hour. Any news on those spare parts?"

"I've been talking to my cousin in Indianapolis; he'll send what I need. Might take another few days, though." Bob shut the van door and wiped his hands on the legs of his coveralls. "You're not in a hurry, are you?"

"Not really," Methos admitted. 'Not at all' was more like it, but he didn't feel he needed to do any further damage to Bob Watson's already dubious work ethic. He hoisted the bags higher. "I'll stop by in a couple of days, see how you're getting on with it." With a nod, he turned and walked back up past the Tylers' and onto the dirt road. It was more grass than dirt, really, but someone had been seeing to it, uprooting saplings and filling in the worst of the ruts and holes.

Back in the house, he put the groceries away except for a few slices of bread that went into the toaster, and some cream cheese to put on them; he ate standing up by the kitchen counter, watching dust swirl in the sunshine, thinking about nothing much. The food was so bland, he barely noticed he was eating it. Perhaps he ought to look for something to do, something to amuse himself with, a distraction. Perhaps he would, in a little while. Methos wiped the crumbs off his fingers, grabbed a beer and one of the paperbacks, and headed out to his chair on the back porch again.

On page twenty-seven, he fell asleep.

* * *

"If you tell us where the motel is, we can check in and leave our bags there before we start our investigation," Mulder said. He wanted some time away from the sheriff, a moment to confer with Scully about how to proceed. He wanted to make sure she was all right, even though she would resent it. He wanted to check whether the motel had cable... as if.

"I'm afraid the motor court is closed right now," the sheriff said apologetically, waving his hand towards one end of the main street. "They've been having some trouble with mold in the walls."

"I suppose we can drive back to Indianapolis at night," Scully began. Mulder sighed; it was a two-hour drive. There had to be a place closer than that. He mentally retraced their route, trying to come up with the memory of a motel sign. There had to be other small towns in between here and there. "Unless there's a bed-and-breakfast or something—?"

"No, there isn't," Mrs. Jackson said apologetically. "Indianapolis might be your best bet."

"But you're welcome to stay with us if you want to," Marion Jackson said. "We have a big house, it's no trouble. No need for you to take that long drive every day. Right, Shirl?"

"Oh! Oh, of course," his wife agreed, although she sounded a bit more cautious, like a woman who wouldn't have made the invitation on her own and who is trying to remember how many sets of clean sheets there are in the house. "I'd better get home and start to get the rooms ready, then."

"We can't impose on you like that." Scully was looking at Mrs. Jackson, clearly as aware of the reluctance in her consent as Mulder was. "You aren't prepared to have guests—"

"Nonsense, it's no trouble," the sheriff said, and began to list the reasons why they had to accept. He clearly wasn't going to take no for an answer, and in the face of such vigorous hospitality, Mulder and Scully had no choice but to say yes, despite Mrs. Jackson's mostly hidden disapproval. They exchanged glances, accepting the situation, dividing up tasks for the day.

All the same Mulder found himself saying, "I think we should both interview Mrs. Tyler first of all." He was reluctant to separate from Scully just yet. "If you could give us directions...?"

"I'll take you there," Marion Jackson said. "Like Shirl said, they're our neighbors. You can stop by and leave your things at our place and then just walk across."

"All right," Mulder said, still a little uneasy. He didn't like staying in other people's homes, not even bed and breakfast places, where the relationship between host and guest was regulated by money. This probably wasn't a good idea, but he wasn't sure how they could back out now. "Lead the way, Marion."

They came out into a near-empty street, where a brisk wind had begun to rustle the tops of the trees growing along the sidewalk on the other side. Mulder looked at the diner, the corner grocery, the potholes right in front of the sheriff's car. Despite the wind it was warm enough in the sunshine that he took his coat off; he'd been sweating in there, in the office. Now he enjoyed the small shivers the fresh air gave him. He'd never been to a small town like this and had it turn out to be entirely normal and exactly what it seemed. He wondered what that would be like.

Nothing was far away in China. It was only a four-minute drive to the Jacksons'. Scully glanced over at him as they followed the sheriff along the street. "This is irregular," she commented lightly.

"But better than driving back to Indianapolis."

"They're going to try to cook for us," she predicted, but smiled as she said it. "We don't both have to go to talk to Mrs. Tyler—"

"You can do the interview, I want to look at the place where they found the body," he said quickly, hoped it wasn't too quickly. "Then we'll split up. I want to have a couple of words with the mysterious stranger who's rented the 'old Tyler place'."

"The timing sounds too good to be coincidental." Scully rolled down the window an inch, and crisp fall air filled the car. "Maybe he's not a stranger after all."

Shirley and Marion Jackson had a large house for only two people; Mulder wondered if they had inherited it, or were planning on a lot of children. He and Scully parked on the street outside and got their bags, entering through a wooden gate and crossing a small front yard. The Jacksons were waiting for them outside the house. Mulder sniffed the air; it smelled good here, green and spicy.

"Has there been a series of similar events at any time previously in China, Sheriff Jackson?" He aimed the question at the sheriff's back as they were going up the steps to the front door.

"Not that I know of, no." Jackson looked back over his shoulder, hand on the door knob. "But I haven't been here that long."

"No? I thought you were a native." Not that he really had any reason to think so, Mulder admitted to himself, it was just that Jackson seemed to fit in so well with his mental picture of life in a small town.

"Oh, no. I met Shirl when we were at college together in Indianapolis, she got me to move here. Her family's lived in China practically since the town was founded — they practically did found it." Marion Jackson smiled. "If you want to know anything that's happened in China before my time, anything at all, you ask Shirl's grandmother."

"Why don't you come on in," Mrs. Jackson said, opening the door when it seemed that her husband might stand talking on the steps for any amount of time. "And honey, you shouldn't exaggerate like that, making my granny out to be an old gossip."

"That's not what I meant," the sheriff protested. "She usually knows what's going on around town, that's all."

Shirley Jackson frowned, but touched her husband's hand as he went past her and into the house. The rooms were large and cluttered, the kind of clutter that only comes from generations of packrats living in the same house. Mulder and Scully followed her upstairs and were shown to adjoining rooms; Mulder's had faded floral wallpaper and looked like the ultimate guestroom, furnished with the things that are too good to throw away but that no one who lives in the house actually wants to use. He put his bag down on the bed, which gave alarmingly, looked out the window and saw the back yard, the apple tree, the herb garden, the asters shining like small psychedelic suns in the flowerbed.

Going back out he met Scully coming out of her room, mouth tightening ever so slightly, and over her shoulder he saw a glimpse of pastels, stencilled animals. Mulder let her walk ahead of him towards the stairs and rested his hand in the small of her back for a moment. "Want to swap rooms?" he said, keeping his voice down so the Jacksons, downstairs now, wouldn't hear. "Pink doesn't go with your hair."

"I'll lend you the teddy bear that's sitting on the window sill," she muttered, but looked a little more comfortable.

"You always know just what to do for my nightmares." They came down together and were met by another cheery look from Marion Jackson. His wife was standing by the hall table, scribbling on a notepad by the phone; she dropped the pen and moved to open the door. Jackson and Scully went outside, and Mulder turned to Mrs. Jackson. "Thanks for agreeing to let us stay here. I hope we won't inconvenience you too much."

Then he took hold of the door and pulled it shut with her still on the other side. He didn't know how Marion Jackson did his job, but Mulder wasn't prepared to do his job with the sheriff's wife hanging over his shoulder. Scully, who had gone down the steps, looked back up at him with approval. He shot her a look back that said 'and how do we ditch Marion?'

"The Tylers' house is over there," Jackson said, pointing. "There's a path just by the hedge, it's faster than going around. I have to get back to my office until my deputy comes back from Indianapolis. Just call me if there's anything you need."

At least that was easier than he had anticipated. "Thanks, sheriff. We'll be in touch."

They followed the path in silence and went through a gap in the hedge into the next yard. The Tyler house was new, compared to most other houses Mulder had seen in China; it seemed to be a mid- to late 70's production. The yard looked young, too, contrasted with the Jacksons'. They came towards the house from the back and went around it on a neat paved path, bordered with a green cloverlike tangle dotted with pink flowers.

At the front of the house was an open square of gravel, and half of it had been sealed off — if you could call it that when the crime scene tape was strung up between a couple of kitchen chairs brought outside for the purpose. Scully walked up and ducked under the tape, crouching down next to the churned-up gravel and the bloodstain.

"She's probably watching us from the kitchen window," Mulder said, sotto voce, but he crossed the tape as well, stepping over rather than under. "What was he doing out here if he was only going to get the paper?"

Scully indicated the distance from street to porch with a jerk of her chin. "I doubt the paper boy can throw that far. And even if he can, maybe Tyler was just going outside to admire the roses."

"Check for aphids," Mulder muttered. It seemed that Tyler had thrashed around for a while before succumbing to whatever killed him, and it was hard to get a clear picture of what might have happened.

"A killer could easily get behind the hedge and be out of sight in no time," Scully commented. "The neighbors wouldn't see anything."

"No, but anyone looking out from the house would. I don't think there's a fast, simple way of jumping a man in his own front yard, drawing a strange sign on his forehead and filling his lungs with blood."

"We don't know yet that that's what happened." Scully straightened up again. "A stab wound that punctured the lung could easily give that impression." She tucked the hair back behind one ear. "Always provided that we're looking at a murder in the first place. It's much more likely to be a natural death."

"What about that sign on his forehead? I don't think they're talking about scratches from the gravel. Maybe I should go with you to look at the body, I want to see that for myself..." He rose to his feet as well. "Ready to talk to Mrs. Tyler?"

"I still think it would be better if I went to do the autopsy now," she grouched, but she came with him all the same.

The door opened as they knocked, proving Mulder's theory correct. Mrs. Tyler huddled in a brown cardigan, arms wrapped protectively around herself. Her hair was a faded shade between blonde and grey, and hung in untidy bangs about her face. She barely glanced at their ID's and her voice was tired as she asked them into the kitchen. It seemed that they had interrupted her as she hung up bunches of herbs to dry in the kitchen window. The kitchen was a mess, remnants of breakfast still on the counter, a spill of salt in one corner.

"Mrs. Tyler, could you tell us what happened this morning?" Scully began gently.

"I don't know what happened." The look she gave them was like the touch of a dead, dry leaf. "Robbie went out to get the paper, the boy leaves it wedged in the gate." Scully nodded. "I was frying eggs and when he wasn't back when they were ready I went out to get him and he was just lying there." The eggs in question still sat on a plate on the kitchen table, revoltingly congealed.

"Did you see anyone out in the street, anyone running away?"

"I wasn't looking at that. My husband was lying there dead, what do you think I was looking at?" It was like being bitten half-heartedly by a whiny mosquito. Then her voice gentled again into the same tired, hopeless cadences. "I didn't see anyone."

"Did your husband have any enemies?" Scully went on probing, asking the questions that had to be asked.

Mrs. Tyler shook her head. "No. Everyone liked Robbie."

Half an hour got them the information that Robert Tyler had been fifty-three, in good health except for a touch of joint pains in cold weather, and had made his living designing web pages for a company in Indianapolis, working mostly out of the converted second bedroom. No one in China had ever said a harsh word to him, according to his wife.

When Scully ran out of questions and energy, Mulder decided it was time for him to contribute to the interview. "What do you think killed your husband, Mrs. Tyler?"

"I told you, I don't know."

"You have no idea?" Mulder pushed on. Scully looked at him. "Then what are you trying to protect yourself against?"

"I don't know what you're talking about." The thinned lips and suddenly hard voice were striking enough that Scully's suspicious look transferred itself from Mulder to Mrs. Tyler.

"That's vervain and dill you're putting up in the windows, isn't it? And you've drawn a circle with salt water around the house."

"No!" She glanced quickly at the kitchen counter and then away again. "I don't know what you're trying to insinuate. I want you out of my house."

"I think you know very well," Mulder said, pushing harder.

Scully chimed in, "If you really want us to find your husband's killer, it would help if you told us what you're afraid of."

"Did you recognize that mark on your husband's forehead, Mrs. Tyler?"

"I want you to leave," Mrs. Tyler repeated, with the shrill beginnings of hysteria in her voice.

They exchanged looks, agreed wordlessly to leave it for now, come back later; in Scully's case no doubt armed with further information about the details of Mr. Tyler's death. Mulder got to his feet and looked around the kitchen, trying to see any other evidence of attempts at occult protection. It seemed that Mrs. Tyler was getting ready to push him bodily out of there, so Scully put a hand on his arm and they went out to the door together.

Coming out on the porch, they saw a white-haired woman just closing the gate to the street behind her and starting to walk towards the house. She wore rubber boots, a blue and brown polyester dress, and a sleeveless forest green padded vest. Mulder blinked. In one hand she held a covered dish that steamed slightly.

Mrs. Tyler came out behind them, and stopped. "Mother," she said, in the manner of an overwrought crusader spotting an infidel dog.

"I came as soon as I heard." The white-haired woman came closer and peered up at Mulder and Scully, utterly placid in the face of her daughter's agitation. "You're the FBI agents?"

"Yes. I'm Dana Scully and this is my partner, Fox Mulder. We're here to investigate the death of Robert Tyler."

Mulder half turned, looking back as he remembered what he had been intending to lead up to when Mrs. Tyler had started to hustle them out of the house. "Mrs. Tyler, there are a few more questions that I need you to answer. The man you've rented out your other house to, is he an acquaintance of yours? What's his name?"

"Charles Franklin. And no, he isn't." Mrs. Tyler retreated back into the house and slammed the door.

Her mother chuckled, a sound remarkably similar to that of gravel crunching under her boots. "What was your other question?"

"Where to find the house."

"It's up there." The white-haired woman gestured towards a road that led up into the woods. "The road gets bad, though, so mind where you put your feet."

"You don't seem all that disturbed by the death of your son-in-law," Scully observed coolly.

"Unlike my daughter, I don't show my private feelings to strangers." Mrs. Tyler's mother walked up to the door, then tossed a parting remark over her shoulder. "Be careful up in that house, now." Then she went inside.

"We should question her," Scully said. "That is not a normal reaction to the death of a family member."

"I'd definitely like to know what she's saying to her daughter." Mulder glanced up at the house. "And what her daughter is saying back. Too bad the kitchen window isn't open."

"We could just knock again." Scully looked down, then up at Mulder. "I need to get started on the autopsy, though. I want to find out what actually killed Robert Tyler before we go any further with this."

After a barely perceptible pause, Mulder agreed. "Yeah. And I think I'll start with Mrs. Tyler's new tenant, and come back later. I've been warned about the road, I've been warned about the house... I feel like a teenager in a horror movie. I have to go there."

"In that case, I feel I should add that you ought to be careful when you interview this Franklin." Although Scully was smiling, she added, "You heard Mrs. Jackson say that all the troubles started when he came to China."

"Like a gunslinger riding into a peaceful little town," Mulder said, cheerfully mixing his movie metaphors. "And you'll be all right on your own? With the autopsy and everything?"

"I'll be fine, Mulder. I'll see you later."

Scully turned and walked back along the path to the Jacksons' to pick up the car, and Mulder went out through the gate and up the road Mrs. Tyler's mother had pointed out to him. There was a van standing by the side of the road, painted with the lopsided legend BOB'S AUTO REPAIR; the door on the driver's side was open and a man in blue coveralls was sitting sideways in the driver's seat, legs dangling outside, smoking. Mulder nodded at him, and in response got a plume of smoke, and then, "Going up to the old Tyler place?"

"Yes." He slowed his steps. "Can you tell me how long it's been the old Tyler place?"

"Stood empty since '75," the man replied promptly. "That's when Robbie Tyler built the new house."

"Do you know if—"

"I have to be off, now." Tossing the cigarette out into the road, the man swung himself into the driver's seat again, closed the door, and waved out the window before driving off.

Mulder shook his head, wondering if that had been Bob himself. Then he walked on. He was soon in among the trees, losing sight of the other houses of China. It was a pleasant day to be out of doors, but after a while the road turned bad enough to make him wish for hiking boots. One side of the rutted road was tramped into a path, and there were fresh footprints in the damp earth, the ones going in Mulder's direction on top of the ones leading out, clear enough even for an inexperienced tracker. The mysterious Mr. Franklin appeared to be at home.

The road led out into a clearing. What had once been a lawn was now a meadow, and the hedge had run wild in some places and died in others. The house, solidly built, still looked respectable, with curtains in all the windows and the paint only just beginning to flake. It didn't look as if the Tylers rented it out on a regular basis, though. Maybe they only did it when the motor court was full. Or closed. Or when they knew who they were renting the house to.

Mulder walked through the wildflowers, scaring up a lone, late-season, jittery butterfly, and stepped up to the front door, raised his hand, and knocked. Hill House, here I come.

* * *

Methos woke up slowly, still feeling fuzzy-headed. There was a bird singing off to the left somewhere, and a gleaming, jewel-bright dragonfly hovering in the branches of the nearest apple tree. The book had fallen from his lap and lay in the sun, across a small gap in the boards, its gold-embossed cover looking much better than the contents deserved.

He stretched until the blanket slipped down from his shoulders, and then curled up again in a new comfortable position. It was good to be alone. Away from people. Away from Duncan damn-his-eyes MacLeod. Methos scowled. He'd very nearly been seduced into the moral life by a sweet-talking Scot with big brown eyes, and now the man himself had backed out, rejected all those commitments he'd been so fervent about, taken his katana and gone home.

MacLeod had been tired. MacLeod had been through a lot over the past few years. MacLeod had every right—

No, he didn't, damn it, Methos thought. He had no right to make me care, and then just give it all up and walk away.

Deciding that an apple and another beer might help, he kicked free of the blanket and padded into the kitchen. The apples sat in a bowl on the counter, looking like an ad for the country way of life. Methos let his hand hover over them, then went towards the fridge instead. He was touching the handle when there was a knock on the door.

It couldn't very well be Bob, unless spare parts had suddenly materialized under the repairman's bed when he wasn't looking. More likely to be one of the Tylers, although Methos seemed to recall that he'd paid them yesterday. Door-to-door salesman? Census taker? Jehovah's Witnesses? Methos pulled the fridge open and reached for a can of beer. There was another knock. With a sigh, he closed the fridge and went to answer.

He opened the door, and the lush-mouthed stranger he'd seen outside the sheriff's office was standing there, trenchcoat folded over one arm, squinting a little in the bright sunlight. The man held up a piece of ID. "Mr. Franklin? Charles Franklin? Special Agent Mulder, FBI. I'd like to ask you a few questions, if you don't mind." He sounded oddly bored, flat-voiced and quiet, and his face was expressionless. He looked like trouble, and the sooner he was out of here, the sooner Methos could go back to his porch and his beer and his book and his solitude.

"Please come in," he said, with a reasonably friendly air, knowing that cooperation would be the fastest way to do this. "I don't mind at all." He thought about making a few wide-eyed comments about how strange and exciting it was to have the FBI knock on your door, but decided not to overdo it.

The FBI agent followed him into the kitchen, and they both sat down at the kitchen table. Methos kept watching the other man, keeping his eyes focused on his face, trying to read what there was to read. A little tension, a little tiredness around the eyes and the corners of the mouth, lines across the forehead under the wings of hair curving down on either side. He noticed that the agent didn't fidget, but nevertheless managed to look around and take in everything about the hallway and the kitchen. Always nice to see a man who's good at his job.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," Agent Mulder said, "but we need to interview everyone living in the area."

Methos nodded, wondering when the man would get to the point. "I don't exactly live in the area," he said. "I've only been here a couple of days. If you've talked to the Tylers already, you probably know that this is their house. I'm only renting it for a little while."

Whatever is going on, I'm an innocent bystander. Methos was hard put to imagine what might be going on in China that would require the presence of two Federal agents. It sounded more curious the more he thought about it. He couldn't imagine China as a secret hideout for organized crime, or that someone was hiding a drug lab behind lace-curtained windows.

"What made you decide to come to China in the first place, Mr. Franklin?" The words were innocent enough, the voice a sleepily buzzing monotone. Methos wondered what it would take to put some life into it.

He shrugged. "My car broke down here." Then he leaned back in the rickety kitchen chair and smiled again, deciding to go on the offensive. "What made you decide to come to China, Agent Mulder?"

The agent didn't seem to be affected by either the words themselves or the tone in which they'd been spoken. "China isn't much more than two hours away from Indianapolis. Has your AAA membership expired? Or was there another reason you decided to stay in China after your car broke down?"

Methos sat back in his chair, still just as relaxed as before, and thought about what he was hearing. This sullen, sad-eyed man was treating him like a suspect. A suspect for what, exactly, he didn't know yet, but undoubtedly he would find out. He held himself back from cursing. His plans for peace and quiet weren't working out. Of course he could take the complicated way out, change his name, leave the country, but it seemed a little excessive at this point. Or he could try to be harmless and annoying, and get the FBI agent off his back that way. It would at least be useful to discover what was going on before he decided on a course of action.

"I just like the way it looks here," he said, gesturing towards the rural idyll of the kitchen window and the woods beyond. And he did like it; China was a very pretty little town and the surrounding countryside was pleasantly unspoiled. It was also, as far as he could tell, completely free of immortals, which truth to tell was probably the largest part of its charm for him.

"Mr. Franklin, are you aware that a man was found dead under suspicious circumstances this morning?"

If this FBI agent could be obnoxious, so could he. "No. Why don't you stay for lunch and tell me all about it?" Agent Mulder stared at him, ever so slightly disconcerted. "Nothing fancy, I'm afraid. Beer and sandwiches."

The agent recovered quickly. "I'm here to ask you some questions, Mr. Franklin, not to eat lunch."

"That FBI work ethic will give you an ulcer, see if it doesn't," Methos said and let his mouth curl in a smile halfway between sweet and sarcastic. "If I answer your questions, will you have dinner with me tonight instead?"

"The man who was found dead was Mr. Tyler."

It was Methos's turn to be disconcerted, although he didn't think he let it show. So that was why he was a suspect. He was going to have to be cautious; he didn't have the energy to deal with a murder charge, so he'd have to make sure that no charge would be made against him. The fact that he had nothing to do with Tyler's death wouldn't necessarily help.

"I'm sorry to hear that," he said, and meant it. Tyler had seemed like a nice enough fellow, and his wife had provided her new tenant with home-made cookies. "So how come the FBI's involved in this?"

"We're here at Sheriff Jackson's request," the agent said flatly. "Can you tell me where you were this morning, sir?"

"In bed," Methos answered at once. "Alone," he added with an ever so slightly wistful look.

"My condolences." The delivery was so dry, it took Methos a moment to hear what Mulder had actually said. Then he had to keep himself from grinning in utter delight, as his entire perception of Agent Mulder changed. Not bored, and certainly not boring. "Have you noticed any unusual events occurring in China during your time here?"

"I haven't noticed any events." Methos let himself sink down into a slouch again. "Well, I met Bob Watson just outside the Tylers' on my way back from the grocery store and he didn't say a word about what had happened to Mr. Tyler. Given the normal speed of small-town gossip, that strikes me as a bit unusual."

Something flickered in the agent's eyes. Methos wondered if it was possible to make him laugh out loud. He didn't look like a man who laughed often, and nothing disconcerted people more than having to act uncharacteristically. Methos didn't doubt that it could be done. This Agent Mulder might have a good poker face, but he hadn't been working on it for five thousand years.

"Nothing involving frogs?"

Methos checked that calm face again. "Frogs." This definitely wasn't in the questioned-by-the-FBI script.

"I take it that's a no."

"Unless this has anything to do with Budweiser commercials." Methos smiled, aimed it at the darkness in the green-hazel eyes. "Why don't you come round tonight and tell me about the FBI's Most Wanted Amphibians over dinner?"

He didn't get the laugh he'd been shooting for, but a smile, an honest-to-god smile in return, like turning on the lights in a Christmas tree. It was unexpected despite his ambition, and extremely appealing. "I don't know all that much about the FBI's most wanted," Mulder said, amusement clear in his voice.

"I find that hard to believe," Methos said lightly. And he discovered that he meant it; surely someone else had looked past the flat voice, the earnest demeanor, had seen that smile, the line of the jaw, the long legs, the humor lurking in eyes that at first seemed to droop with melancholy. Did the FBI really teem with gorgeous agents to such an extent that a man like this walked unremarked among them? He'd never heard that the US government recruited people for their looks. "Maybe I can help you out with that."

But the agent wasn't playing any more. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, to pin Methos in place with an earnest look. Earnest looked as good on Mulder as it did on — no, never mind that. "If you really want to help me out, Mr. Franklin, you can answer a few more questions about the death of Robert Tyler." And stop flirting, Methos mentally translated, thinking perhaps he should. He'd meant to distract and irritate Mulder, to come across as a trifling nuisance, nothing more.

"I don't actually know anything," Methos said, "but if I can't think of a good answer, I'll recite a limerick."

"Just the truth will be sufficient entertainment, thank you." Not a quiver in that voice, but the eyes... An FBI agent with a sense of humor. Who would have guessed. "Can you tell me about your previous acquaintance with the Tylers?"

"There was a young lady of Riga—" Methos broke off on seeing the look Mulder gave him. "I can't answer that. I don't have any previous acquaintance with them. I'd never met them before I came to China."

"Then why are you renting a house from them that's stood uninhabited for twenty-two years?"

"Because there's mold in the walls of the Blue China Motor Court." Methos got up and went to the fridge; he really was thirsty, and he wanted a moment away from the FBI agent's eyes. People who always stared straight at you were sometimes a little difficult to handle. "Beer? Coke? Coffee? I got my car towed to Bob's and asked if there was a place I could stay overnight. He told me the motor court was closed, but fortunately Robbie Tyler was there to complain about his plumbing, and when Bob asked him if I could rent his house he said yes. I was just starting to envision a night spent under a bush, having my nose licked by squirrels, so I leaped at the offer."

Agent Mulder didn't want to play. "And you'd never met Mr. or Mrs. Tyler before."

"You're almost as persistent as you are sexy," Methos said admiringly, still facing the fridge, and heard a choked noise behind his back. Gotcha. Now for god's sake stop taking me seriously as a suspect and take your investigation elsewhere. "That is perfectly correct."

"So it's a sheer coincidence that the unusual events that have culminated in the death of Mr. Tyler started the day after you came to China?"

"I don't know if it's a coincidence or not." Methos put a can of Coke down in front of the agent and was gratified to see him open it and drink without seeming to think about it. If Mulder was starting to lower his guard, his suspicions couldn't be quite so fervent now. "Maybe my Range Rover is sending out some really odd vibrations, maybe someone decided to kill Tyler for renting his house to a stranger." He sat down and stretched his legs out, did his best to look perfectly relaxed. "What exactly are these unusual events you keep talking about, Agent Mulder? Crop circles? Pink elephants? I'd be willing to get up at the crack of dawn and stake out a hayfield to see a pink elephant."

"With binoculars and a thermos of coffee," Mulder murmured.

"I don't think pink elephants commonly drink coffee," Methos said judiciously, "but it's a well-known fact that they carry binoculars, of course."

That got him a faint snort of laughter, and Methos realized that he was tempted to forgo his privacy and go on spouting absurdities for the rest of the afternoon just to get to hear it again. This was one of the more entertaining conversations he'd had in a long time. But the agent drank some more Coke and said, "No, there are no elephants or crop circles involved, Mr. Franklin. How do you feel about a hail of frogs?"

"Binoculars and an umbrella," Methos said. "Obviously there are more fascinating tourist attractions in China than I'd anticipated."

"The paper-clip chain pales by comparison," Agent Mulder agreed. He pushed the Coke can aside and leaned forward over the table. The intense look was back. Methos had to wonder about the witnesses Mulder normally interviewed, if he could take nonsense like this in his stride and assume that there was an intelligent person hiding behind it. As a character trait, it could possibly be unnerving. "If you saw someone putting up vervain and dill around the doors and windows, what would you think?"

"That that person had a decent herb garden and a lousy sense of decorating," Methos said. He'd made no agreement to be serious. "Dill isn't famous for its esthetic qualities."

"That's all it means to you?"

"I can also recommend new potatoes boiled with dill and a touch of—"

Agent Mulder drew himself up against the straight back of the kitchen chair and his eyebrows pulled together in a near-frown; his eyes narrowed as if he were staring at the sun. "Mr. Franklin. Four days ago—"

"Do call me Charlie."

"Four days ago," the agent refused to lose steam, "a woman's hair turned green. Fifty frogs appeared in a classroom, a child was scalded by hot water falling from a cloudless sky. And now a man is dead."

Methos tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. He remembered the green-haired cashier, of course, but... This was the basis of an FBI investigation? It sounded like something people would have called out the witchfinders for, a few hundred years ago, or tabloid reporters, in the present day. What were this agent and his partner doing here? And was this how Agent Mulder normally conducted an investigation?

"Are you sure these events are related?" Methos asked. "There could be simple explanations for most of these occurences. And even if they are related, they may not be related in the way you want to believe."

"What do you know about what I believe?" There was both bitterness and humor in the question. Agent Mulder's face wasn't so expressionless any more, but it was difficult to interpret his feelings. Something deeply felt hovered behind the flat hazel stare, something untouched and painful.

All the same Methos went on in his most matter-of-fact way, "You seem to assume it's a sequential progression of events, from minor to major. They could be entirely unrelated. Or the first incidents could have been staged by someone who wanted to create confusion around the death of Robbie Tyler."

Now Mulder looked wholly amused. "Read a lot of mysteries, Mr. Franklin?"

"You don't trust the ideas of people who aren't paid to think about the issue?" Methos smiled, too. He hadn't meant to get caught up in the problem. But now that he was... no, he wasn't going to think about this, he was going to be annoying and get the agent off his back. "Just offering a few suggestions, Agent Mulder. Will dinner at seven suit you?"

Mulder shook his head. "With the amount of research you've done in the genre, I'm sure you realize I can't have dinner with a suspect."

"Then you have until seven to prove that I'm innocent," Methos said cheerfully. The sooner the better. He'd rather not have been a suspect in the first place. "Do you like dill with your potatoes?"

"No. It would help if you'd try to come up with an alibi."

"Would it really?" Leaning back in his chair, Methos watched the man across the table with something akin to fondness. "Leaving aside the fact that apart from this morning, I'm not sure what times I should have had an alibi for, I don't think proving that I was in one place would exonerate me in your eyes from having produced a shower of frogs in another. Since you believe that there is witchcraft at work here—"

"I never said a word about witchcraft," Mulder said, and now his delivery was flat again.

"You don't have to spell things out to astute mystery fans." Methos let his smile grow more sharp. "Read a lot of Montague Summers, Agent Mulder?"

"'The Devil preached a sermon at the Sabbat, but nobody could hear what he said...' He never mentions dill, as I recall."

"The Devil?"

"Summers." Mulder grinned. It did things to his face, transformed it the way the sunshine had. He really was quite attractive. "I've never had any conversations with the Devil on the subject, and I don't exactly consider Summers a reliable authority. I believe something unusual is happening in China, something that can't be explained away with copper in the water and extreme microclimatic conditions. I want to find out what it is before anyone else dies." As cheesy as that line was, the agent made it sound sincere. He pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. "Thanks for the Coke."

Mulder walked towards the door, but halfway there he paused and looked back, trenchcoat casually slung over one arm.

"Go on," Methos said, "I can tell you're dying to say it."

"Not as much as you're dying to hear it," Mulder retorted at once. "Mr. Franklin, I must ask you not to leave town while this investigation is ongoing."

"Thank you." Methos grinned. "Considering that my car is missing some essential parts, I don't think you ought to worry about it." He got up, too, and followed his visitor to the front door. "Remember, seven on the dot. Don't be late."

Mulder shrugged into the coat, shaking his head. "I'm sure a well-read man like you is familiar with the phenomenon of criminals trying to involve themselves in the investigation. Highly suspicious behavior."

"I thought that was serial killers, not frog-manifesters." Methos leaned against the wall and prepared to delay the agent for another five minutes at least. "There's only been one death so far, and you don't even know that that was—" On cue, the cell phone in Mulder's pocket rang. Methos raised an eyebrow at it as Mulder got it out to answer. "I hope that isn't what I think it might be."

Mulder half turned away, speaking quietly, but not so quietly that Methos couldn't hear every word. "Yes... already? — His own blood? Any puncture wounds?" The agent's shoulders shifted under the trenchcoat. He moved lightly, with nervous grace; Methos found himself wanting to see Mulder dance, or run. "There must be a way to get it done faster than that." Quick pacing steps up and down. "Well, what do they smell like? — And the mark, what does it look like? — All right, I'll come down."

He slapped the phone shut and turned to Methos, who casually said, "Not another death, then."

But Mulder was all business now, the humor gone from his eyes, and he didn't respond in kind. "Mr. Franklin, do you know if anyone around here owns a goat?"

"I can't imagine ever growing tired of your scintillating conversation," Methos admitted. "I've never seen any goats in China, but that doesn't mean there aren't any." He straightened up as Mulder opened the front door. "Are you saying that a goat killed Robbie Tyler?"

"I think you'd get along well with my partner," Mulder muttered. Then, more formally, "Thank you for your time, Mr. Franklin. Call me if you think of anything that might be relevant." He handed over a creased-looking card that appeared to have lain buried in his coat pocket for a few weeks; it bore a partial thumb print in what Methos suspected was ketchup.

Methos tossed a final "Don't be late for dinner!" after the departing agent, and walked back into the kitchen. He felt hungry, sleepy and moderately amused. Food was definitely in order again, so he made crêpes and filled them with butter-fried apple slices, sugar and cinnamon, and ate them outside in the sunshine, pondering the mystery of Robert Tyler's death. Methos thought, between mouthfuls, that he'd give quite a lot to find out how the goat was involved.

The warm sunshine was soothing and he considered another nap, but then decided to go back to the store first. He was fairly certain that Agent Mulder would not show up for dinner, but all this talk about herbs and potatoes had sparked an ambition in him to actually cook dinner — something a bit more interesting than crêpes, or peanut butter. Besides, if Mulder did show up, peanut butter probably wasn't enough of a bribe to make a Federal agent give up details of an investigation in progress. Leaving the dishes in the sink, Methos strolled outside, locked the front door, and was halfway to the Tylers' before he realized that he'd left the back door not only unlocked, but wide open.

Methos paused, then shrugged and walked on. This was the country. Besides, maybe the goat would visit.

As he passed the new Tyler house, a white-haired woman in an extremely eye-catching dress came out through the gate. She was frowning, and when she looked up and caught sight of him her frown deepened; then her face cleared and she smiled. "You must be Mr. Franklin." The woman held out a small, wrinkled hand. "I'm Lucy Cobbler, Mary Tyler's mother." Methos shook her hand solemnly. "Are you comfortable up in old Wic- up in that old house?"

"Yes, it's fine," Methos assured her. "My condolences," the phrase reminded him of Mulder and he had to choke down an entirely inappropriate chuckle, "on your recent loss." He glanced up at the Tylers' house, saw a curtain twitch. "It must have been quite a shock. Particularly for your daughter."

Lucy Cobbler said something under her breath that sounded like stupid. Then she straightened her back until it looked almost painful, and plastered a sad smile on her face. "Yes, it was a terrible shock. I'd rather not talk about it, if you don't mind, Mr. Franklin." She'd closed the gate, but made no move to walk anywhere. "I'm glad to hear you're comfortable in the house — I seem to recall most of it has been closed off for a while, but I don't suppose you have any interest in going down into the cellar or up into the attic...?"

"Actually I spend most of my time out on the porch." Methos kept his expression noncommittal. It wasn't as though he ran up into the attic on a daily basis.

"I suppose Mary made sure you have everything you need," Lucy Cobbler went on. "I do hope she brought up linen and things from her own house and didn't drag down the stuff that's been sitting in the — in a closet for twenty years."

"Yes, she did," he said reassuringly, again deciding it was probably prudent not to mention that he'd made his own decisions about what to sleep on. Not that the things stored up in the attic had struck him as being heirloom quality, exactly, but people grew attached to the damnedest things.

Mrs. Cobbler's expression grew a little less strained. "Are you going into town?"

"Yes, I forgot something when I went grocery shopping this morning, and I thought I'd give myself the opportunity to admire the cashier's striking hairstyle again." Methos smiled blithely. "Unexpected on a woman her age, but interesting."

"You should tell her you like it," Lucy Cobbler said. "It would cheer her up, poor Gina. In fact, I think you should tell her now." Methos found that although the woman wasn't moving, she seemed to be hustling him down the street through sheer force of will.

"Can I offer you my arm into town?" he asked, exuding an air of old-fashioned gallantry.

Lucy Cobbler put her hand back on the gate again. "No, thank you, but — I think I must have left my bag behind in the house. Please don't wait on my account, Mr. Franklin."

She went through the gate and crunched her way across the gravel, and Methos saw the telltale curtain twitch again. Something was definitely going on in this town, some juicy local scandal, it seemed, that was being stirred up by the presence of the Federal agents. He wondered idly, as he turned and continued down the road, whether Tyler's formidable mother-in-law had had anything to do with his death. She didn't seem particularly griefstricken over it, although she was clearly disturbed by something.

Walking down the road, he looked for Bob's truck, but it was gone. China seemed less quiet than it had earlier in the morning, though; there were more people out, and they stood in little groups, talking. Inside the grocery store he caught murmurs of "Tyler" and "blood," "murder" and "wicked." Methos attempted to compose a dinner menu, wondering just how fresh the fresh fish was in a small town like China, aware that the locals were looking at him. The new kid in town, he thought with a private smile.

The lamb he finally settled on had lived out its short life less than two miles from the store, he was told, and there was a decent selection of fresh vegetables to go with it. Deciding he wasn't going to have a dinner guest, Methos followed his own preferences and hunted down honey, garlic and sage to flavor the meat with. He smiled at emerald-haired Gina as she rang up his purchases, and said, "That's a very interesting look on you."

Her hand closed tightly on his bag of tomatoes, until they started to burst, squeezed into red sludge under her tension-white fingers. Methos blinked. Gina's eyes were flashing; then she dropped her eyelids, hiding the anger. "Sorry," she said bitterly. "You'd better go get some new ones." Fortunately there wasn't a line behind him. He went, wondering if she destroyed groceries for everyone who mentioned her new hair color. That could turn out to be expensive for the store in the long run.

"I meant it," Methos said when he came back, handing her the new loosely tied bag to see if she'd do it again. "Goes with your skin tone. You mean it wasn't deliberate? Did your hairdresser pick the wrong bottle?"

"Don't pretend you don't know. Thirty-one forty-three."

Methos slowly counted out forty-three cents and chose his words carefully. "I don't know, actually. I don't hear much of the local gossip."

"And you don't live in old Wicked's — in the old Tyler house, either." Gina snorted, plainly not believing a word he said. "Paper or plastic?"

He wanted to loiter and ask her some more questions, but there were other customers coming up, and Gina was starting to look dangerous. Methos took his bags and walked towards the exit, wondering what he was supposed to know from living in the old Tyler house. It wasn't exactly a hotbed of gossip. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Gina and the next customer with their heads close together, and they were definitely looking at him in an unfriendly way.

Maybe Agent Mulder wasn't the only one who suspected him of dark and nefarious deeds. Methos pushed the door open and muttered some choice rude words under his breath. If everyone was intent on laying the blame for whatever was going on in China on his shoulders, maybe he would have to leave town after all. And just when he'd found such a nice, quiet spot, too.

He paused outside the store to get a better grip on the bags, and was just about to walk away from the nasty looks he could feel boring into his back, when he heard the first screams.

* * *

The small room at the back of the funeral parlor reeked of blood, with a subtle undertone of pine-scented Lysol. Mulder made a face, then schooled his features into something more neutral as Scully turned around. With blood up to her elbows and those huge protective glasses, she looked like a scientifically inclined bacchante. "It's definitely not his own blood," she said by way of greeting. "His lungs were intact, and it looks as though he died of suffocation," her eyes dropped momentarily to her hands. "I'm just not sure how the blood was introduced into the body."

"Wouldn't it have to be through the nose or mouth in that case?" Mulder said, walking over to look down at the remains of Robbie Tyler.

"Yes. But there are no discernible traces of blood in his mouth or throat, and no scrapes that would indicate the insertion of a tube." Scully frowned. "Even if Tyler were cooperating, which seems implausible, it would be very difficult to insert a tube through his mouth and down into the trachea without leaving marks on the tissue in the short time available to the killer — if Mrs. Tyler is telling the truth about how quickly this happened."

Mulder perked up. This was starting to sound extremely interesting. "Then we're dealing with an agency that can fill a man's lungs with blood in some way unknown to science."

"I think it's more likely that we're dealing with a few lies on Mrs. Tyler's part. We only have her word for how much time elapsed between the moment when her husband left the kitchen and the moment when she found him dead, and it seems clear that she's not telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth. She's clearly frightened of someone."

"Or something." Mulder dragged his gaze away from Tyler's chest cavity and looked at the face, as yet intact. The mark covered most of the dead man's forehead and was sharply delineated, as if— "It looks as if it's been burned into the skin."

"Yes, it does," Scully agreed. "I'll have to take a closer look at it, but in appearance it's consistent with a burn mark. Which is another reason to think that Mrs. Tyler isn't telling the truth about the time that elapsed between the moment when her husband left the kitchen and the moment when she found him dead. Whoever did this was carrying a lot of equipment, including a large red-hot brand and several liters of blood. That's not your usual hit-and-run."

"Especially not considering the mark." Mulder looked at it again. "Has it occurred to you that we may be looking for a goat with red-hot hooves?"

One of Scully's eyebrows shot up. "No, Mulder, it hasn't. All other considerations aside, that mark is much larger than a normal goat's hoof. Unless we posit a goat with elephantiasis—"

"But you said you'd found goat hair on the body."

"Yes, I did." She nodded towards an evidence bag and Mulder picked it up, looking at the coarse grey and black strands. "I assume that whoever killed Tyler brought it along."

"Are you sure that it's ordinary goat hair?" Mulder asked, turning the evidence bag over between his fingers.

"I can't be one hundred percent certain until it's been analyzed, but," there was a tiny smile on Scully's face, "it definitely smells like ordinary goat hair."

"How come you know so much about goats, Scully?" He put the evidence bag down again and returned to study Tyler's face. The large mark of a cloven hoof seemed obscene against pale, dead skin. It seemed fairly clear to him that Mrs. Tyler was terrified by whatever agency had burned that mark into her husband's skin and filled his lungs with blood in a matter of minutes. "I know for a fact you didn't grow up on a farm."

She didn't bother to answer that, just snapped her latex gloves firmly and elbowed him out of the way. Scalpel in hand, she glanced up at him as she asked, "Did you meet the mysterious Mr. Franklin?"

"Yes, I did." Mulder almost smiled as he thought about the mysterious Mr. Franklin and his dinner invitations. "He confirms Mrs. Tyler's story — that he didn't know the Tylers and is only renting the house because his car broke down here in China a few days ago."

Scully was starting in on the stomach. A new unlovely smell joined the others in the small room. "So why is he still here? Presumably he must have been going somewhere before his car broke down. Isn't someone expecting him to arrive there?"

"I didn't actually ask him about that," Mulder said, reconsidering his conversation with Charles Franklin. There were a lot of things he hadn't asked. He'd been sidetracked by remarks about pink elephants and dill, and only now did it occur to him that that must have been a deliberate effort on Franklin's side to keep him distracted with nonsense. The man had been asking him questions, damn it. "There's definitely something strange about him," Most Wanted Amphibians, hah, "but I don't think he's behind this."

"Does he have an alibi?"

"No." He thought about relating Franklin's comments regarding alibis, but decided it might be better not to let Scully know how badly out of hand that interview had gotten. The more he thought about it, the more it annoyed him.

"In that case he definitely stays on the list of suspects, Mulder." Scully gave him a stern look through the protective glasses. She looked so small behind them, under the cap, her face so thin and pale, he wanted to walk around the remains of Robbie Tyler and just hold her, blood and all. Instead, he just nodded as she went on, "We need to talk to him again, and Mrs. Tyler's mother, and I need to send this off for analysis."

"I'll bet you pizza and a movie that it turns out to be goat blood," Mulder said.

Scully shook her head. "No bet. I think you're right." He didn't have time to be surprised before she went on, "Whoever is doing this appears to be very thorough in his approach. I'm only surprised we didn't find hoof prints by the body, although they may have been there originally and been destroyed when Tyler churned up the gravel."

"But you don't think we're dealing with a horned beast."

"No." Well, she hadn't believed it that time either, so he wasn't surprised. "I think we're dealing with a human agency relying on local superstition. It does seem as though Mrs. Tyler believes that she can protect herself somehow through the means you commented on, and the sheriff obviously has no problem with considering supernatural agencies. I think we should find Shirley Jackson's grandmother and ask her about the history of China and whether there have been any incidents that are part of local folklore that might explain why the killer has chosen this particular method. I also think we should investigate Franklin more closely. You only have his word for it that he has no local connection."

"His word and Mrs. Tyler's," Mulder said, "and the Jacksons don't seem to have heard of him before, either. But I'll call the regional office in Indianapolis and ask them to run a check on him for us. I suppose he could be someone's long-lost cousin, although this doesn't seem like the kind of town where you could keep that a secret for more than five minutes."

"There shouldn't be many people here in China who are capable of an elaborate setup like this," Scully said. When he didn't answer, she looked more closely at him. "Mulder. Do you think we're dealing with a horned beast? I thought witchcraft was your theory of the day."

"The two ideas aren't incompatible." Mulder looked at the mark on Robbie Tyler's forehead again. "According to tradition, witches have had a lot of interaction with horned beasts. No one's come forward to tell us any stories of suspected witchcraft, and I think that's a strong argument that we're dealing with genuine practitioners here, who are trying to shield each other."

Scully put her scalpel down. "That's ridiculous, Mulder, and you know it. No one's come forward to tell us they've seen a large furry bipedal hominid either, but I don't consider that a strong argument that Bigfoot is living in somebody's basement." She shook her head. "I think we should try to find out what family feuds there might be in this town, and whether anyone has told stories about devil goats at any time."

"I'll start by trying to get hold of Shirley Jackson's grandmother, then," he said, "and ask her about the history of China and any events in the past that might shed light on this." Scully was right, there should be something in the town's history that explained this, whether they were dealing with a maniac armed with a branding iron or an actual manifestation of a goat-creature of some kind.

"I'll call you when I'm finished with the autopsy." She smiled at him, as if looking forward to the bloody work, and he forbore asking her if she was all right. Instead, he headed for the door. She was all right. No longer confined to a hospital bed, no longer bleeding, no longer dying second by second; at least, no more than anyone else, his morbid mind amended. And no longer telling him that yes, it was his fault, it was because of him that this was happening to her.

They hadn't talked about that again, and he forced himself not to think about it now, knowing how it crippled him. He needed his attention focused on the case. And what a case it was. Mulder admitted to himself that it was possible that Scully's theory was correct and that they were indeed dealing with a human agency attempting to imitate a supernatural one. But it seemed like such an unnecessarily complicated explanation. If it looks like a goat and smells like a goat...

Out in the funeral parlor, he looked around for the man who had let him in, and tracked him down in the small office. A familiar-looking, swimsuited Miss July 1992 smiled from one of the walls; Mulder could only assume that she was taken down when customers appeared.

He leaned against the door jamb and cleared his throat. "I need to find Mrs. Jackson's grandmother. Can you tell me where she lives?"

The funeral parlor manager looked surprised. "Lucy? Sure. She lives in the big yellow house on East Street. But she's probably with her daughter right now."

"And her daughter lives...?" Mulder asked patiently. People in small towns had, in his experience, a way of assuming that even strangers who'd arrived a few hours ago knew everything about everyone.

The funeral parlor manager looked even more surprised. "I thought you'd been there already, Agent Mulder."

"Been where?"

"At the new Tyler house."

Mulder got the strong feeling that if he had been a cartoon character, a lightbulb would have appeared over his head. "You're saying that Mrs. Jackson's grandmother is Mrs. Tyler's mother." The other man nodded. "So Mrs. Tyler is Mrs. Jackson's mother."

"No, her aunt. Mary Tyler's never had any children, it's a shame, she says she never wanted any but my Hilda says—"

"Thank you," Mulder cut him off, "you've been very helpful." He turned around and left the small office, walked past the coffin displays and the small plastic floral arrangements, and went outside. The breeze had strengthened and made his trenchcoat snap in the wind, so he pulled the coat close and belted it.

Mulder couldn't think of a single innocent reason why Mrs. Jackson would not have told them that the murdered man was her uncle, or why she had referred to him as 'Robbie Tyler' and talked about his death so easily. The degree of distress she'd shown was perhaps appropriate for a not-so-close neighbor; definitely not for an uncle, even if he was an uncle by marriage. And why hadn't the sheriff said anything?

It was time to have a little talk with the Jacksons, Mulder decided; the grandmother could wait until later. He walked along the main street towards where he'd parked his car, outside the sheriff's office. Might as well see if Sheriff Jackson was in, too. The sheriff and his wife had some explaining to do.

Only the deputy was there, though, staring at a small blank computer screen and cursing. Mulder resurrected the vanished data and was rewarded with the information that Marion Jackson was out following up a lead on the chicken theft case. The deputy went back to his two-fingered typing, and Mulder perched on the edge of the desk and called in a request for information on Charles Franklin. Then he went outside again and was walking towards his car when he became aware of a commotion on one of the side streets — loud voices, children screaming and crying, a dog barking frantically.

He ran down the street, past the gift store, and rounded the corner, almost colliding with Charles Franklin, who was standing on the sidewalk holding two large bags of groceries and watching the chaos. The small red building on the left had to be China's elementary school, and there were children standing in groups in the street, children still running out of the school, their shrill voices sounding almost panicked. A couple of teachers were trying to round up the kids, trying to restore order, and failing. There was Shirley Jackson, coming out of the school building as well, frowning and shaking her head.

"What's going on?" Mulder asked.

"I have no idea." Franklin put his grocery bags down and turned towards Mulder. "More frogs?"

"I don't think so." Watching the scene, Mulder became more and more convinced that something was really wrong. "Those children are frightened of something." A lot of them were crying, holding on to each other and to the teachers. Several of the earlier incidents in China had occurred in and around the school; this might not be a coincidence. "Stay here," he instructed Franklin curtly, and tried to ignore the amused half-smile he got in return before he walked towards the school.

Shirley Jackson was standing just outside the door, apparently trying to count the children. Mulder felt no qualms at interrupting her. "Mrs. Jackson, can you tell me what happened here?"

"Agent Mulder!" She looked almost as upset as the children; her eyes were wide with a kind of bewildered shock, and she was pale beneath the freckles. "I — I don't know. I was in the supply room getting some more pencils for the children when I heard them start to scream and run out. This isn't — I don't understand it at all." Shirley Jackson ran her hands nervously over her hair. "I don't know," she repeated in a weaker voice.

He thought about asking her about her aunt and uncle and why she'd deliberately withheld that information from him, and why she'd never thought to mention that she was a teacher at the school where several of the incidents had occurred. It was tempting, but Mulder decided it was better to start with finding out what had happened here and whether it actually had anything to do with his case. Another of the teachers was standing at the gate to the schoolyard, preventing more kids from running out into the street, while the third was trying to herd back the ones who had already gotten away. Mulder left Shirley Jackson and went up to the woman at the gate instead.

"What happened here?" he asked again.

"Something spooked the children." The woman sounded a little stressed herself as she looked out into the street. She had one hand on the gate, and the other arm around a little girl with short dark curls and a powder-blue cardigan. "One of them panicked and ran, and the rest followed."

"Did you notice anything yourself?"

The teacher hesitated, and the girl who was clinging to her looked up at Mulder. "It smelled bad," she volunteered.

He nodded, and crouched down so he didn't have to loom over her. "My name is Fox. I work for the government and I'm here to find out what's wrong. What's your name?"


"Can you tell me what it smelled like, Jenny? Can you describe the bad smell?"

"Like an animal," she frowned, "but icky, like... like when the trash compactor stopped working. And there was something walking on the other side of the wall." She shuddered suddenly, turned her face away from him and pressed closer to her teacher.

"It's all right, Jenny." The woman frowned down at Mulder, who straightened up again, feeling his knees creak. "I noticed the smell, too. I thought there might be a problem with the plumbing."

He went back to the building and past Mrs. Jackson, in through the door, and sniffed the air carefully. Nothing. Going through the classrooms and the corridor, he found no sign of whatever had frightened the children. The smell was gone; there were no marks, no tufts of hair that he could find.

When he came out again, Mrs. Jackson had gone to help round up the children and get them away from the street and back onto the playground. Mulder tried to ask some of the children as they came back what they'd heard or smelled or seen, but most of them were more incoherent than Jenny, or didn't want to talk at all. After working his way through the crowd in the street he found himself back next to Charles Franklin again.

The man was standing with both hands deeply in the pockets of his coat, wrapping it around himself now that the sun had vanished behind a cloud; he looked suddenly younger than before, chilly and uncomfortable, his face strikingly pale against his dark hair. "Well? Is this going to be added to your list of mysterious occurrences, Agent Mulder?"

"You never told me where you were going."

Franklin looked surprised, and bent to pick up his grocery bags again. "I was going back to the house," he said. "I still am."

"I didn't mean right now, I meant when your car broke down here in China." Mulder rescued a pound of tomatoes sliding from the top of one of the bags. "You've been here almost a week now. Where were you going originally, and why aren't you in any hurry to get there now?"

"Because I wasn't in a hurry to start with." When Charles Franklin smiled, his eyes narrowed and laugh lines appeared at the corners of his mouth. One second he looked like an insecure kid, the next, completely self-assured. "I just wanted to experience a traditional American road trip. Ending up in China means that I get to experience a traditional American small town."

"You're a tourist?" Mulder didn't bother trying to hide his disbelief.

"I prefer to think of myself as a world traveler," Franklin said loftily. "I've submitted some stuff to the Rough Guide editors, and I'm expecting to hear back from them any day."

"Why don't you tell me exactly what you do for a living, Mr. Franklin?"

Hearing running footsteps, Mulder turned around quickly, but it turned out to be a jogger who slowed down by the school to exchange a few words with one of the teachers. All the children had been herded back onto the playground, although it looked to Mulder as though they were refusing to go back into the school building. It was probably time for the kids to go home now anyway, Mulder thought, and that would give him a chance to collar Shirley Jackson.

"Come round at seven and I'll tell you a lot more than that."

"Don't drop those tomatoes again," Mulder said and turned his head to catch another quietly amused smile. "And I don't like dill," he added before heading back to the school again. As he'd thought, the teachers were sending the children home; they had to go into the building and bring out coats and bags, and Mulder offered to help them out, casually falling into step next to Mrs. Jackson. Once again he went into the small school house, although he didn't really think he'd find anything there this time either.

"That's Johnny's," she said, hanging a jacket over his arm, "that's Steve's, that's Lisa's. Can you take a few more?"

"Pile 'em on." He sniffed the air again and noticed nothing apart from Shirley Jackson's lilac perfume. "It's come to my attention that you've recently lost a family member, Mrs. Jackson." Mulder didn't miss the abrupt way her hands clenched on the next little coat. "Why didn't you tell us that Robert Tyler was your uncle?"

"I — I didn't think—" She twisted her hands in the fabric, then turned towards him. "Everyone knows, here. I know it sounds stupid but I didn't realize that I had to tell you. I — I was sure Marion would have mentioned it." Shirley Jackson took half a step closer and attempted a smile. "You're not angry at me, are you?" To Mulder's horror, there was a trace of a little-girl coo in her voice. The panicked glint in her eyes was more promising.

"Did you get along well with your uncle?" he asked. "Were you close to him and your aunt?"

"Oh, yes." Again there was something not quite genuine in the way she widened her eyes and nodded. "Aunt Mary is like a best friend to me. We spend a lot of time together."

"But you don't seem particularly upset that Mr. Tyler is dead." In fact, Mulder thought, no one seemed particularly upset that Mr. Tyler was dead. His widow was agitated, but with fear more than grief; his mother-in-law appeared preoccupied with something else; and his niece by marriage had 'forgotten' to mention the relationship. Maybe they were all in it together.

"I am! But—" Mrs. Jackson turned and headed for the door, and Mulder followed her, laden down with children's coats and trying not to drop them. She went outside, carrying school bags, and the children came running up to get them and to grab their coats away from Mulder. Over their heads, she went on, "Can't we talk about this later?"

His instinct was to push, but she was holding some of the children, using them as a shield. They were upset enough; they didn't need to be forcibly separated from their teacher by an annoyed FBI agent. But this was yet another incident that involved the school and the children, and it had to be investigated. Mulder narrowed his eyes. "Later," he agreed. "For now, maybe you can tell me which of the children witnessed the shower of hot water?"

She looked away from him, then back. "The O'Brian brothers, and Jenny Hamilton, and..."

"Jenny Hamilton's that little girl over there, with the short dark hair?" Mulder waited for Mrs. Jackson's nod. "Was she present when the frogs appeared as well?"

"I — I think so." Shirley Jackson's eyes widened. "But surely you don't think she had anything to do with it?"

"I just want to ask her what she saw," Mulder said, and wandered back to the little girl. She had let go of her teacher and was leaning against the fence, still only wearing her cardigan, shivering a little. The wind had picked up during the afternoon. Mulder took his coat off and held it out to her. "Jenny?" She looked up at him, and he wrapped the trenchcoat around her. "If you tell me what your coat looks like, I'll go in and get it for you."

"I can get it myself," she said, somewhere between statement and question. "I'm not scared to go back in." She looked at the schoolhouse, and then down at her feet. "You went in."

Mulder nodded. "We can go in together if you want to. There wasn't anything in there. No smell, nothing."

Jenny looked up cautiously through dark curls; she seemed to be missing a hair clip or two. "Okay." She grabbed his hand and led him across the schoolyard, towards the door. His coat trailed on the ground, and Mulder was grateful it hadn't rained recently. "My coat is blue," she volunteered as his hand was on the door handle. "My mom bought it for me. In New York."

"Really? I bet it's a great coat," Mulder said, opening the door so they could both walk inside, "if it comes all the way from New York."

"No," Jenny told him mournfully. "It's ugly."

It was, actually, Mulder had to admit once they found it, but it seemed to be warm enough, and it got him his own coat back. He brushed off the dirt and dried grass, and looked around the hallway. Still no strange hoofprints. Still no strange smell. It was as if nothing had happened. "Jenny, do you remember the day when the frogs appeared?"

"Of course I do! I don't have," she hunted for the word, "Alzheinie!"

Mulder suppressed a grin. "No, you don't. Can you tell me a little about what happened that day? Can you show me where it happened?"

"It was in there." She pointed towards the nearest door, and when he walked that way she followed, so he made a show of opening the door carefully and checking inside. Then she skipped past him into the classroom and sat down in the second row. "I was sitting right here, and Lisa was sitting right there, she's my best friend, and Miss Haigh was writing on the blackboard, and I looked down and there was a little frog sitting on my pencil case."

Mulder wandered around the room. There were no open air vents that the frogs could conceivably have come crawling through; the windows were high enough over the ground that not even a champion pole vaulter of a frog could have made it inside through them. "What did you do when you saw the frog?" he asked.

"I was going to tell Miss Haigh, but then there were frogs everywhere, and they started to jump around, and everyone was shouting and Miss Haigh sent for Bob and we got the rest of the day off." Jenny smiled. "Johnny O'Brian brought a frog home in his coat pocket and showed his parents!"

The school was too small for a full-time janitor; Mulder suspected that it was Bob of Bob's Auto Repair who had collected the frogs and returned them to the great outdoors. He went to sit down where Lisa usually sat, folding his legs awkwardly. "Did you notice anything else strange when the frogs appeared, like smells or sounds?" Jenny shook her head, still smiling. Apparently no one had been frightened by the frogs. "Jenny, you were there when the hot water fell on your friend Elsie, weren't you?"

Jenny flinched, not smiling any more. "She screamed," she said. "She stood in the street and her face and her hands got red and she screamed."

Mulder put his hand over both of hers; her fingers were cold. "I'm trying to find out what happened," he said, "so no one else gets hurt that way. Did the water just fall from the sky?" Jenny nodded. "Who else was there?"

"Johnny and Timmy O'Brian, they're twins, and Alissa Howard, she's one of the big girls." Tugging at her hair, Jenny added after a moment, "And there was someone watching inside the school, I saw someone at the window."

"Can you tell me which window it was?"

Her face scrunched up with concentration, Jenny held up her fingers and wiggled them experimentally. "The one without curtains," she said after a while. "On this side," she indicated her right hand.

"Thanks, Jenny." He struggled to get out of the chair and overturned it as he rose; she giggled. "Do you want to come with me and look in that room, or do you want to go back outside?"

"I want to go home," Jenny said and overturned her chair too, getting up, and while Mulder picked the chairs up she walked ahead of him out into the corridor and tossed a hasty but polite "Bye!" at him over her shoulder before leaving.

Mulder turned left and went to see where the watcher had been standing. The room at the corner of the building was the teachers' lounge, with two windows — gingham curtains and geraniums. Next to it was a supply room: rows of shelves, a copier, a haze of chalk dust in the air, and a naked curtain rod over the window. Mulder went to look out and there was definitely a good view of the street outside. He noticed that the crowd outside had dispersed and the children were being sent home, and then he turned his back on the window and studied the room again. It was breathtakingly ordinary, and he didn't expect to find anything as he scanned the shelves and crouched down to peer at the floor.

But by the copier, almost hidden under it, was a small piece of black feather and a smear of red.

He looked at it and smiled sharply, and his cell phone rang. "Damn it. Mulder."

"This is Charles Franklin. Agent Mulder—"

"Look, I don't want any dill, okay?"

"Agent Mulder, I just found a line of bloody hoofprints on the kitchen floor, and I mean that literally. I believe you had a theory about goats?"

* * *

Scully had borrowed a camera from the funeral parlor, and Mulder hovered behind her, aiming his flashlight to supplement the overhead light as she took pictures of the feather and the stain before removing anything. "It looks like blood."

"It could be blood," Scully said, putting the camera down and getting out her evidence bags. "Did you tell Mr. Franklin not to touch anything before we get there?"

"Yes," Mulder said firmly, although he couldn't remember. Franklin was, after all, a mystery reader. "The little girl I talked to before, Jenny Hamilton, she says she saw someone in here right at the time when the shower of hot water occurred. And now we've found evidence of some kind of ritual—"

"We've found a feather fragment and something that may or may not be blood," Scully said, poking lightly at the dried-in stain. "Even if it is blood, the most likely explanation is a paper cut or a nosebleed."

"And the black feather?"

"This is a rural community, Mulder. Plenty of chickens. Someone probably dragged it in on his or her shoe." Scully picked the feather up with tweezers and bagged it. "But I'll have this shipped off to a lab as soon as possible, along with the autopsy samples and whatever we find in Mr. Franklin's kitchen."

She produced a scalpel blade and began to delicately scrape the stain off the linoleum, looking for all the world like a forensic Martha Stewart. Mulder wondered whether you could get bloodstains out of linoleum by rubbing them with half a lemon. He got up and put the flashlight away, rolled his shoulders back. "Have you made arrangements to get the stuff out of China? Maybe we can ask Marion's deputy to—"

"Actually, I thought I'd take the car and drive up to Indianapolis myself."

Mulder leaned back against the window. "That's four hours of driving, Scully. You don't have to do that." She looked tired already, he thought, something around the mouth, in her eyes.

"I've been cooped up in the funeral parlor all afternoon. I'd like to get out." The scrapings of red went into the bag, were neatly sealed away and tagged with a squiggle from the pen she always carried.

"Are you sure? Will you be okay?"

They were both very still for a moment, listening to his question.

"Mulder, I was cleared for active duty two weeks ago. If you don't even trust me to drive to Indianapolis on my own, do you actually trust me to work with you on a case?"

"I do. It's just that—" He looked away from her face, up, and found himself squinting against the overhead light. "I keep seeing you like that. In the hospital bed."

She got up, standing close to him, so close it had to be uncomfortable for her to look up at him. "The cancer has gone into remission. I'm fine, Mulder. And I need to work." Scully pulled off one of her latex gloves, and brushed her fingers against the back of his hand. But she went on, "You have to believe that I'm capable of that."

"I know you are." And he did. The rational part of him knew that she wouldn't be beside him now if she hadn't been given a clean bill of health, if she hadn't proved that she was once again fit, in every way, to be a field agent. And not trusting her, not believing in her, would be a betrayal. The faith he had in her was still strong. But he worried. Something in him shivered at the thought that she had walked hand in hand with death, the same part that remembered the days of her abduction.

He couldn't keep her safe. She had been used to feed his deluded beliefs, her cancer as ugly a creation as a rubber alien. And it had taken an equally ugly truth to save her.

"Let's go take a look at Mr. Franklin's kitchen floor," she suggested, tugging off the second latex glove as well. "It might be that he's trying to avoid suspicion by planting clues."

"Now who's jumping to conclusions?" Mulder asked and she smiled and widened her eyes at the same time, a comedienne 'who, me?' face that drew an instant smile in response from him. "We'd better drive there, then you can take the car as soon as we're done, and I can walk down to the Jacksons'." Scully's smile turned even warmer; she collected her evidence bags and the camera and walked out of the room. Mulder caught up with her in the corridor, and his hand was in the small of her back as they left the schoolhouse.

Early evening light decorated more than it illuminated; the eastern sky was a deep clear blue, offset by a thin silver shaving of a moon, while the setting sun lit the trees into red-gold torches. As before, Scully rolled the window down during the drive. The air smelled good here in China, crisp and clean. In a place like this, a lot of people might get back-to-the-country aspirations. Those aspirations might even last for as long as it took them to first encounter a road as rutted as the one leading up to the old Tyler place.

"Did you find Shirley Jackson's grandmother?" Scully asked.

"No." There was a rasping noise as the underside of the car scraped against a rock hidden in the grass, and they both winced. "But I found out something interesting. Mrs. Tyler is Shirley Jackson's aunt, and neither she nor the sheriff mentioned that the victim was a relative of theirs."

Scully looked thoughtful. "They can't have hoped to conceal it," she said. "It's possible that they just forgot to mention it." She met his eyes as he parked the car and turned the engine off. "Possible, but unlikely."

Mulder nodded agreement. Getting out, he looked at the old Tyler house, admitting it was more like a traditional haunted house now at dusk, with shadows lengthening everywhere and only one window lit up — the kitchen window, he assumed. "I think they were just trying to keep the connection from us as long as possible. Marion Jackson might just be trying to protect his wife."

"I can't believe he's called Marion." Scully crouched down in the grass, trying to see under the car. "I don't think anything got damaged. We'd better go look at this supposed hoof print on the kitchen floor."

As they walked up to the house, the front door opened and Franklin stood there leaning against the doorjamb, loose-limbed and easy, with flour stains on his sweater. "I'm afraid dinner isn't quite ready yet," he said. "I thought you wouldn't like it if I got dill on the evidence."

* * *

Methos had to suppress a smile when he saw the look in the redheaded woman's eyes, the look that said, you didn't tell me he was crazy! So Agent Mulder had kept a few things from his beautiful partner. She didn't seem surprised, though, and had almost gotten her momentary annoyance under control when Mulder said, "I didn't expect it to be ready — it's not seven yet, is it?"

That made her draw another deep breath before stepping forward and up the front steps. "I'm Dana Scully," she said, "Agent Mulder's partner." Her handshake was firm, her fingers surprisingly cool. "What was it you wanted us to look at?"

"Marks on the kitchen floor." Methos stepped back and let her walk past, turning to follow; he heard Mulder walk in behind him and close the door. "I left the back door open when I went out earlier, and when I came back I noticed I'd had a visitor. Agent Mulder mentioned that there was a goat involved in your investigation—"

"I didn't exactly say that," Mulder said, at the same time as Agent Scully said, "We're not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation."

She stopped at the kitchen door, and Methos looked over her shoulder. He could have looked over the top of her head; she was tiny, as small as Alexa. The red marks on the floor were a little duller now than when he had first seen them, as the blood was starting to dry out. The smell was no longer noticeable over the scent of the lamb roasting in the oven.

"—but I don't think a goat did that," Methos went on, pointing at the nearest hoof mark. "It's the wrong size." A goat with hooves like that would be too large to get in through the kitchen door.

Agent Scully stepped into the kitchen, walked carefully around the marks and crouched down next to the clearest one, looking up to say, "Mulder, did you bring the camera from the car?"

"I've got it right here. Excuse me, Mr. Franklin—"

"Of course," Methos said, stepping aside just slowly enough that Mulder had to brush up against him. He caught a whiff of sweat and fading expensive cologne, wool dustiness from the suit underlying the warmer human scents. It was hard to get a clear idea of someone's personal smell in these hygienic days. With all the differently scented shampoos and soaps and shower gels and hair sprays and deodorants and aftershaves and moisturizers and lotions and eaus de toilette, a lot of people smelled like a perfumer's nightmare. "Sorry," he added insincerely as Mulder glared at him.

Agents Scully and Mulder at work made an attractive tableau to watch. Admittedly, they would have been attractive to watch no matter what they did, but there was something very appealing about their interaction. She was methodical, one thing after another, at a pace not so much brisk as tireless. He was impulsive, turning from this to the next without rhythm or obvious reason. But they meshed, meeting in the occasional exchanged word, look, trading the results of their findings. Methos wondered how long they had known each other. Would more years together give them deeper knowledge and familiarity, or would they stop where they were and never reach any further?

When he looked closer at Scully, he saw that despite the obvious differences, she had more in common with Alexa than just her diminutive size. She had the same lines around her mouth, and something of the same look in her eyes. Methos hitched his shoulder up against the doorpost, shifted his weight. Maybe there wouldn't be any more years.

"I'll turn this in with the other samples," Scully said eventually, packing up evidence bags and tubes. She looked up at Methos, then got to her feet before addressing him. "Sir, at what time did you discover these marks?"

Methos looked at his watch. "A few minutes before five, right before I called Agent Mulder. I came back here, went out into the kitchen and there they were. I was out of the house for about an hour and a half altogether, but the marks were still wet when I first saw them."

"Was the door locked when you returned?"

"The front door was locked, yes, but I'd accidentally left the back door open — not just unlocked, wide open. Anyone could have come in and done this while I was in the store." He watched Scully exchange a peculiar look with Mulder, ending in them sharing half a smile.

Then Scully turned back towards him again. "Do you have any idea why anyone might want to leave this type of mark on your kitchen floor?"

Methos shrugged, thinking that Charles Franklin's shrug was very similar to Adam Pierson's, and so was his innocent, bewildered, not-a-clue face. "No." And it was honest — he really didn't have a clue. He let his eyes widen a fraction. "Would it be all right if I cleaned the floor now? I was just cooking dinner," he glanced sideways, artfully, "for Agent Mulder."

One of Scully's eyebrows moved. "Yes. I have the blood samples, so go ahead. We'll take a look at that open back door." She went out past him, and Mulder perforce followed, glaring as he passed. Methos stayed where he was and listened, and heard Scully's light, teasing, completely unbelieving, "I didn't know you had a dinner date, Mulder." He smiled to himself and went to get a mop and bucket.

Scrubbing the blood off the floor was relatively easy. He'd had a lot of practice with bloodstains. While he worked, he thought about his current situation. Something strange was happening and he was, like it or not, in the middle of it. Should he stay longer, disappear at once, wait and see, cut and run? It didn't seem to Methos that the situation presented any physical danger for an immortal. The real problem would be if his current persona was investigated too closely by the FBI. He'd hoped to get a few years at least out of Charles Franklin. He hadn't killed off Adam Pierson yet, he could always just switch back, but Adam Pierson had his own set of problems.

China's promise of peace and quiet had been broken, but Methos was rather intrigued by the bizarre events, by the agents, by whoever was managing to pull off the strange pranks. As long as no one really thought he was involved, it might be amusing to see what happened.

Stay, then, barring any new complications. Methos went into the dining room and fetched the mixing bowl from the table; the dough had risen nicely. He checked the lamb in the oven, dug out an assortment of pots and pans and placed them on the stove, then started peeling onions. When Mulder and Scully returned, he was able to present a properly domestic picture. "We have some additional questions, if you don't mind," Agent Mulder said.

"Of course not." Methos calmly went on with his onion-chopping. He might have only a brief acquaintance with Agent Mulder, but additional questions were pretty much a given.

"Why don't you take care of that, Mulder?" Agent Scully suggested, car keys dangling from her hand. "I'd like to get on the road before it gets too dark." It sounded both completely plausible and utterly untrue.

"Try to get the information I called them about, too," Mulder said, hand on her shoulder, pushing her towards the door with a not entirely graceful sweep of the arm. "Don't forget to have dinner."

She turned her head and smiled blindingly over her shoulder. Maybe the FBI really did recruit for looks. "I won't. And I'm sure you won't either, with Mr. Franklin to remind you." Agent Scully's heels beat a fading farewell tattoo on the hall floorboards, the front door opened and closed, she was gone.

Methos waited until he heard the sound of the car engine, then said, "So what did you want to ask me about?"

"Your secret recipe for — what are those things?" Agent Mulder wandered into the kitchen and sat down, unexpectedly, on a wooden chair left behind from the kitchen's pre-Seventies days. "Never mind. Can you think of any reason why someone in China would want to threaten you, Mr. Franklin?"

"No." The onions hissed as he slid them into the hot oil and stirred with quick turns of the wrist. "You think this was a threat?"

"Either that or a hit-and-run by a psychotic interior decorator."

Methos grinned. "As I have tried to make clear, I don't know anyone in China. I don't see why they'd want to threaten me." He turned from the stove to look at Mulder, who was the wrong size for the chair and had turned into sharp angles of knee and elbow, trying to fold his arms and legs into comfort. "And if it's a threat, what is it meant to accomplish? No one's told me I have to leave my credit cards in the hollow of the blasted oak at midnight or else they'll stencil new patterns on my kitchen floor."

"Some people might feel motivated to leave the house after this," Mulder suggested dryly.

"I suppose they might." Methos returned his attention to the onions. "Have a beer, they're in the fridge." There was a slightly loaded silence behind him, and he imagined he could hear the tiny gears in Mulder's mind turning. Then the fridge door opened, and there was the sound of a beer cap being twisted off. "On your own time now?"

"Law enforcement never sleeps. I'm just susceptible to bribery and corruption," Mulder said, sounding considerably more cheerful after a long beer-drinking moment. "Beer, with that steak in the oven?"

"It's leg of lamb. And beer goes with everything." Methos didn't normally enjoy having an audience while he cooked, but Mulder just lounged, undoubtedly focused but not on the transformation of raw materials into a feast for a one-time god. More sage, the onions and tomatoes practically melting together as he stirred and the conversation drifted.

After a while he opened a cupboard and found dark green, thick-glazed plates. Mulder stirred, came to rummage in drawers and fished out cutlery with clunky wooden handles. "I like the time warp motif." Tap of fork against countertop. "Looks like they just moved out and left everything behind."

"Can't say I blame them," Methos said. "Science has proved that this particular shade of orange kills more brain cells than cheap whisky." He pulled the lamb from the oven, flooding the whole kitchen with the aroma of honey, garlic and sizzling meat. Just right, and so were the slim rolls he'd baked next to the main course. With the quick gestures of a short-order cook, which he had never actually been, he filled the two plates with food and picked up one, grabbing knife and fork and his beer bottle with the other hand. "Let's eat."

Mulder ate like a man who hadn't seen food in a month. Somewhere in the middle of his second helping, he lifted his head to say, "This is really good." Methos laughed, and drank beer straight from the bottle. It was good. It had been a while since he'd gotten seriously into cooking. Sometimes he wanted no part of it, the endless cycle of hunger, food-finding, eating, only to become hungry again. It took so much time. And then he would look at this impatience of his and laugh.

"Eating is surviving," he said out loud, earning a strange look from Mulder. Of course he could always choose to die.

"After a dinner like this I could live forever," Mulder said, and Methos shook his head but didn't answer. He raised his beer bottle in a thank-you salute. Mulder returned the gesture and speared another chunk of lamb before asking, "You don't give cooking lessons, do you?"

"Not very often." Methos tilted his head to one side. "Let me guess, you can boil an egg, you once cooked bacon in the microwave and got someone else to clean it up, and the dijon mustard at the back of your fridge has gone moldy."

"So you're a great cook and you're psychic." Mulder actually looked a little flustered. Then he shrugged. "There are limits to the number of hobbies a man can have."

"True," Methos agreed mildly. "And what are yours?"

"Oh, pornography, conspiracy theory, abnormal psych research..." Mulder leaned back in his chair and looked consideringly at his plate, then mopped up a puddle of tomato-and-onion with a chunk of bread. "I run. I swim. I play basketball. Sometimes, when I'm feeling intellectual, I read books. And what do you do, Mr. Franklin?"

"I watch the Discovery channel," Methos said.

Mulder nodded understandingly. "And look at the pictures in National Geographic?" Methos nodded back, all enthusiasm, and they clanked their beer bottles together in a cheerful toast.

Mulder came very close to having a third helping, but never quite made it off the chair to go get it; instead he spent some time picking his last piece of bread apart and eating it crumb by crumb. Eventually, sated, they left the plates on the table and moved out onto the back porch. Methos didn't know what drew him outside; it was chilly now, they'd definitely need blankets if they wanted to sit out here. Agent Mulder leaned against the railing and looked up at the sky. His face was calm, but not relaxed. He seemed to be watching for some old, familiar adversary.

"Your partner," Methos said out of the blue, saw shoulders stiffen beneath fine wool, "is she dying?"

"No." Conviction rather than knowledge rang in Mulder's voice. "No, she isn't. Not any more." His hands clenched around the edge of the railing as if holding on to life. "What made you think—?"

"She reminded me of someone." In a slower cadence, "Someone I knew."

Mulder didn't speak the words, but it was there in his eyes when he turned his head: I'm sorry. And Methos found it easy to believe that this was someone who knew grief, knew it intimately and well. "She's not dying," Mulder repeated, saying it as if it were something he said every day, every hour. "That was the deal. She went into remission. She's not dying. She's fine."

There was a considerable step between going into remission and being well enough to work as an FBI field agent, not to mention between going into remission and being cured. Methos just nodded, wondering what deal Mulder was referring to. If Agent Scully was back at work, then presumably she was, indeed, fine. The word seemed to describe her in more ways than one; she was fine-grained wood, the fine edge of a blade.

All the same, Mulder was wrong. She was dying. Methos heard his own words again. "People die, MacLeod. Immortals die." Everyone dies, he'd learned that much from outliving them all. Eating might be surviving, but death comes in the end.

Not yet, though.

He joined Mulder at the railing and looked out over the meadow again. The trees lurked out in the tall grass with crooked grace, faintly lit by moonlight. Beyond them, the woods were lovely, dark and deep... death had infiltrated his thoughts. "I'm glad to hear that," he said.

"Your friend," Mulder said, hesitantly, "she died?"

"She died." For the first time in too long, Methos let himself think fully of Alexa, let her walk in his thoughts again as easily as she'd walked into his heart. She had shed fear like an ill-fitting skin in their brief time together. She'd died, but they had been happy. He wondered if Mulder and his partner were happy.

"It doesn't seem like enough," Mulder said, breaking into his thoughts.

"What doesn't?" he asked, preoccupied with happiness.

"'Six feet and seventy years,'" a twisted smile, "'to see the light.'"

Methos hitched himself up on the railing, half sitting, half leaning. "If you can count on that much," he said. He studied Mulder's face, aged it in his mind, tried to see the other man at seventy. All nose and ears, he decided with a small smile, provided his inquisitive nature hadn't gotten him killed by then.

Meeting his look, Mulder cocked his head to one side, drew breath to say something, changed his mind, and finally asked with thoughtful calm, "Did I suddenly lose my sex appeal over the last couple of hours?"


"You've stopped flirting." It was hard to interpret Mulder's tone of voice. That had to be something he cultivated, Methos thought, that flatness, the unreadability. Useful for someone who wanted to acquire information without giving any away. "Why did you really come to China, Mr. Franklin?"

Methos gave in to temptation and rolled his eyes. "You never give up, do you."

"I'm famous for that. Or maybe it should be infamous." In the moonlight, Mulder looked more cheerful. "I just want to know the truth."

"It hasn't occurred to you that I've been telling you the truth?" Methos asked acidly. Not that he had, or not entirely, but that wasn't the point. Looking back, he tried to decide when he'd stopped flirting. During dinner, or maybe earlier than that, at whatever point he'd realized that Agent Mulder's conversation was just as bizarrely entertaining without provocation.

Mulder shook his head, but apparently it wasn't entirely a no. "It was your arrival in China that set off this chain of events. There has to be a connection. But I suppose," he said with an air of reluctant speculation, "it doesn't have to be a conscious connection on your part."

"I'm glad to hear it," Methos muttered. "Will you stop talking about this if I start flirting again?" But he didn't really want Mulder to stop, he realized. It was intriguing to speculate about whatever was going on here in China. It was fun to watch Mulder, the way his eyes lit with the thoughts moving behind them, the way his blank face turned expressive with ideas. "Whoever is doing this has to be after something. Did Tyler have any money?"

And that was also one of the reasons he'd stopped flirting. He no longer wanted to drive Mulder away. Not, Methos reflected, that it had worked in the first place... now there was an interesting thought.

"It all goes to his wife," Mulder said, "but there wasn't much. No brand new life insurance policies, either. And if you assume that the murder of Robert Tyler is the central issue here, what do you make of the incidents at the school?"

"They could be unrelated pranks—" Methos fell abruptly silent as Mulder held up a hand.

"Did you hear that?"

"No." He meant to continue when Mulder gestured at him with near-comic exaggeration to be quiet. Just as he was about to comment on this Stars of the Silent Age routine ("don't give up your day job, Agent Mulder"), he did hear something: the snap-back of branches, rustle-and-crack of movement among the trees.

"Something's out there," Mulder hissed unnecessarily.

Methos could only agree. Something relatively large, that either wasn't trying to be quiet, or wasn't succeeding very well in its attempts — either way, that meant it was most likely a human being. The porch boards creaked next to him. Mulder was moving away, digging into the pockets of his suit jacket and cursing under his breath, then ducking into the house. Methos listened to Mulder crashing around in there, and someone else crashing around out there, and felt fairly amused.

When Mulder emerged onto the porch again, he was carrying a small but powerful-looking flashlight. He didn't pause, but headed straight for the steps and ran out among the apple trees. It appeared that Agent Mulder was just a trifle impulsive. A moment's thought reminded Methos that the agent was also in all probability armed. He pushed away from the porch railing, leaned in through the back door briefly to grab coat and sword, and followed Mulder out into the woods. If Mulder was going to shoot a poacher, Methos wanted to be there for it.

It didn't take him long to catch up with Mulder, who was running along relatively quietly for a city boy — more quietly than whoever he was chasing, at any rate. That was strange. Maybe they were chasing a tourist, not a poacher. Methos touched the agent's elbow to make his presence known so he wouldn't get shot by mistake, then ran along, carefully dodging the branches that were bent and then released at Mulder's passage. Whoever was ahead of them was fast, and they kept up a quick pace, until Mulder came to an abrupt halt and Methos crashed into his back.

"You need to get your brake lights fixed," he muttered.

"It's not ahead of us any more." Mulder vibrated with tension, turning his head this way and that. The small playing beam of the flashlight caught only tree trunks and green leaves turning red and yellow. "I don't hear anything."

Methos drew breath to suggest a return to the house, preferably at a slower pace, when he choked on the air. "Christ!" he coughed. "Did you have to drag us right into someone's midden—"

"The smell!" Mulder sounded unnaturally happy, considering the circumstances. "One of the teachers said it smelled like bad plumbing." There was another crack and rustle, and Methos began to revise his first estimate of the size and shape of whoever was out here in the woods with them. Those steps were too heavy, suggested too much bulk. "Behind us! How did it get behind us — come on—"

The sound that shook the trees was somewhere between a growl and a roar, so deep it travelled through the earth straight up into Methos's bones. Every hair on his body tried to rise. Not, most definitely not, a poacher. He clamped one hand around Mulder's arm. "Come on," he echoed, and moved away, dragging Mulder along.

Mulder seemed oddly reluctant and Methos pulled harder; there was no way he was going to let the agent trust his little handgun against what sounded like a very large and very angry bear. Nor did he want to find out what he could accomplish with the Ivanhoe in an environment where he was more likely to hit a tree than an enraged, furry opponent. Then rational thought fled as another roar slammed into them and he could feel, hear, whatever, those steps come closer. There was a hitch in Mulder's breath and then they were both running, crashing through the trees together in wild, panic-driven flight.

The beam of Mulder's flashlight leaped this way and that, and then vanished, but Methos heard the man running next to him. He wasn't sure if the thunder in his head was his pulse or his footsteps; his eyes struggled with the darkness and the occasional glimpse of moonlight. They were fleeing up a slope, and gradually the trees thinned out until they reached the top and nearly tumbled down a twenty-foot drop into a stream-carved ravine. "Shit," Mulder hissed.

"I don't think it's following," Methos said and they stood frozen, panting, listening. Nothing. Then a distant growl, and they were running again, downstream, away. It was easier here where the moon lit the path for them and Methos felt the rhythm of running soothe him, unkink the twisted spiral of blind fear. He watched Mulder, ahead of him, who ran in a suit as if it were made for it. The stream led them to a pond; they had to slow their pace to clamber down to where the moon played with its mirror image in still, silent water.

Mulder looked around, face alive with excitement and exertion. So this was what he really looked like, when his eyes gleamed, when his blood was up and he forgot to guard himself. "Maybe if we creep back, we can sneak up on it," he said. "We should at least go back and look for prints, compare them with the ones in the kitchen and—"

"The ones in the kitchen?!" Methos said incredulously. He shrugged out of his coat to cool down, slinging it over one shoulder. "Mulder, what the hell do you think we were running from here?"

"There is something here," Mulder gestured into the woods, "that at least partly has taken on the shape of a goat—"

"That was not a goat."

"No, no, it's not a real goat, of course, but it manifests itself as goatlike, or at least with goat's hooves, as the devil was popularly thought to appear at the witches' sabbat."

Mulder paused, as if struck by a new inspiration, and Methos thought, any minute now he's going to say that we were chased through the woods by the devil. He wanted to laugh. Looking at the sparkle in Mulder's eyes, he said, "You're out of your mind. It was a bear," reached out with his free hand and grabbed Mulder around the back of the neck, dragged him close, and kissed him.

They were of a height, they fit together, mouth to mouth, easily. And there was something oddly magical about this, this simple act that no centuries could dull the edges of, the skin-tingling thrill of a first kiss. He could taste startlement on Mulder's lips, a bubble of surprised laughter that burst between them as they moved closer. Teasing the soft mouth with the tip of his tongue he was met with a moment's gentle, confused yielding, and then a rising fervor that matched his own. Mulder's lean body pressed against his, Mulder's hands gripped his shoulders, fingers digging in hard. It was good in the way that the quick-paced beating of his heart was good, and Methos was tempted to just wrestle the man to the ground, to push closer and closer and closer and closer.

Instead, Mulder broke out of the kiss to say, "There aren't any bears in Indiana." He was grinning again, pure exhilaration. "I think we'd better get back to the house. Maybe it was trying to lure us out, trying to get at something in there—" He tugged Methos with him along the edge of the pond, still gripping one shoulder, sliding the other hand down to the small of his back.

Methos dug his heels in. "You're going the wrong way." He pulled back, hauling Mulder past him and then pushing him in the right direction, letting his hand slide down as Mulder's had, but lower, to stroke the curve of a taut buttock. His fingers felt a suppressed quiver before moving away. Methos thought about testing the agent's devotion to duty with a few other choice touches, but there was something to be said, actually a whole lot to be said, for comfort, as opposed to a quick and dirty fuck out in the woods. "So you think you're going to find a devil goat creature rifling through the underwear drawers?"

"I take it," Mulder ducked under some low branches, "you don't believe in the paranormal. I mean, most people just ask me to shut up."

"I don't believe in giant goat creatures," Methos said with a slight grin. "But you're welcome to try to prove their existence to me."

"How much proof do you need? You saw those prints in your kitchen," Mulder said contentiously. "You heard that creature chasing us. There's nothing else it could have been — there are no bears in Indiana, there are no other wild animals that big, and you noticed what it smelled like."

"If a bad smell is evidence of a paranormal event, what's your opinion of old socks?" He wasn't going to let himself be drawn into a discussion of whether or not there was more between heaven and earth; it was none of Mulder's business what he believed, and hopefully never would be. Besides, immortality was one thing, devil goats something entirely different. He tugged his coat on again as he walked, feeling the reassuring weight of the sword. They were out on more open ground now, and he drew level with Mulder. "Show me your goat and I'll believe in it. But you believe in what you haven't seen. What would it take to make you change your mind and accept a mundane explanation?"

Mulder's face stiffened like clay in a kiln, his eyes going flat and losing their sparkle. "Evidence," he said shortly. "Proof of just how these — effects — were created."

The sudden cold in Mulder's voice and the way the agent shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his coat made Methos realize he'd probably just blown his chance at getting laid. He sighed. He hadn't meant to push a button, not this time. It seemed inconceivable that a man who professed a belief in witchcraft and goat manifestations wasn't used to dealing with the occasional skeptic. "You must live in a different world from most people," he commented and got a snort from Mulder that was annoyed and at the same time just a little bit amused.

It would make sense to be wary around Mulder. This was a man who would have no problem believing in immortals — who would presumably prefer that explanation to any other more 'rational' one. Looking at it that way, Methos told himself that any closer involvement, such as, say, a bout of wild and uninhibited sex, would be a mistake. Mortals found bite marks and hickeys embarrassing and inconvenient the next day; for immortals it was the lack of marks that was difficult to explain away. Lovers grow suspicious when passion-clawed backs are once again smooth and flawless in the morning. Methos had always considered this the perfect excuse for the one-night stand. No lingering and snuggling, no sleeping together, no cosy breakfast for two the next morning. Have sex, leave. Mulder might leave, but he'd be back — with more questions.

"I've seen evidence," Mulder said, in the talking-to-myself voice so many people used for painful revelations, "that challenged — changed — some of my most deeply held beliefs. That made me doubt myself, made me doubt everything I had learned and believed to be true. But in the end, I — I found it a fair exchange for what I got instead."

Not looking at Mulder, who sounded as if he needed the privacy of darkness, Methos probed carefully, "And that was..."

"Scully's life." It was only a whisper. "I feel as if I traded one thing for another, I lost my beliefs, but I was given the cure she needed. She's not going to die." Mulder's head turned abruptly and Methos found himself caught by that interrogator's stare, the one that pinned the victims in place like the lights of an oncoming semi would pin a baby rabbit. "When your friend died. You would have done anything for her, wouldn't you?"

And abruptly he was slammed back to that time, that feeling, the same damn raw desperation, and Mulder's pretentious babble of beliefs and exchanges was revealed for what it was, the shock of someone who had gotten what he wanted against all odds, and his heart broken in the process. "I would," he hissed, "I tried," and for a moment he wanted to kill Mulder for having found what he'd sought. "I wanted her to stay with me forever."

There had been moments, painful as flesh cut to the bone, when he'd wondered if that was really true; if he had really wanted forever with her, the kind of commitment he had always shunned in the past. He'd loved before, loved desperately, but the knowledge of his lovers' coming death had been safety as well as grief to him. With Alexa, though, something about knowing how little time she had left, something about the tired grace with which she faced that time, had moved him, and it was he, the immortal, who had been desperate in the face of death, while she had gathered her courage and looked it in the eye.

They walked on silently, letting the night bear the burden of the emotions they'd unloaded. Methos glanced up now and then through the trees to check the stars and the slow progress of the moon, wondering where Mulder would have ended up had Methos allowed him to choose his own way. Federal agent lost in wilds of Indiana, mauled by bears... oh, right, no bears. Mauled by incarnation of the devil. Presumably Mulder, like MacLeod, had no trouble believing in demons, either.

Mulder didn't seem to find anything strange about walking through the woods at midnight wearing a very expensive suit. Methos was thankful for his hiking boots, his jeans, and, now that the heat of the chase was being sucked out by the chill of the night, the thick knit sweater he wore under his coat. Thinking about MacLeod brought an additional coldness and he rubbed his fingers together as if to warm them. He found a trail that looked as if it might reasonably be the one that came out into the far end of the orchard behind the old Tyler house, and Mulder followed him silently.

There was no more MacLeod in his life, and no reason to think about MacLeod. He could go back to running his life the way he preferred, no longer caught up in any of Mac's quests and causes, his moral decisions, his care for and involvement in other people's issues. Mac had given it up, after all, Methos thought, listening absently for sounds of anything large and odoriferous moving in the woods around them. MacLeod had finally come to his senses and realized what a target he'd made of himself and his friends, had come to understand where a desire to fight the good fight inevitably led you. Had run away to hide — had sensibly run away to hide, Methos amended, with a small growl.

To hell with MacLeod, anyway. This parting of the ways was going to be final. There was no need to be angry. There was no reason to be angry. From now on, Methos could lead his own peaceful low-profile life: caught up in a murder case, trudging around with a Federal agent, planning how best to seduce said agent, flinging lumps of raw, unfiltered emotion at him. He choked on not-quite-laughter.

The trail did come out exactly where he'd thought it would, and through the apple trees he could see the lights of the house. Mulder touched his shoulder. "I don't remember any lights being on upstairs when we left. I think you have an uninvited guest."

Methos nodded. "But would a supernatural goat creature really need to turn the lights on?" He shifted his shoulders minutely, made sure his coat was hanging comfortably open. There was no whisper of presence at this distance, but carelessness wasn't a habit he needed to pick up at his age. They walked up to the back porch, where Methos was chagrined to notice that the door had once again been left standing open. Mulder had drawn his gun, and as he moved towards the door he made stay-back gestures at Methos with his free hand.

When Mulder had gone inside, Methos counted to twenty and followed. Not that he wanted to get shot by mistake, that would be hard to explain away, but he was extremely curious about who the intruder might be and what Mulder would do. The agent had already checked the ground floor and was heading upstairs at a slow pace, when there was a thump from somewhere above, the sound of something heavy falling or being dropped. Mulder leaped like a deer and began to run, taking the steps two at a time, and Methos went after him.

In the upstairs hallway all the doors were open and the rooms were empty. Mulder darted from one doorway to the next and Methos followed slowly, his eyes on the blue stairs at the far end of the hallway. There was a creak of wood and then a steady clunk, clunk of feet descending the steps. "Freeze!" Mulder yelled, gun held steadily in his hand. "FBI!"

The feet were clad in rubber boots, and the polyester hem that appeared above was blue, with brown flowers. "Agent Mulder?" Lucy Cobbler didn't freeze, she came down the stairs and walked towards them, eyeing Mulder's gun with distaste. "You're not going to shoot me, are you? Mr. Franklin, I apologize for coming in here in your absence. When you didn't answer the door, I thought I would just run up to get a few things from the attic."

"What things?" Mulder asked, pointedly looking at the woman's empty hands. He'd holstered his gun again, though.

"I'm going to need my black dress for the funeral." Lucy Cobbler shook her head. "But I couldn't find it here. I'm sorry to have intruded on you, Mr. Franklin. I'll just see myself out." She walked past them both and headed downstairs.

Mulder looked after her, brows drawing together; then he shook his head and went towards the attic stairs. Methos watched him go up, admiring the view, and then reminded himself again of all the reasons why this particular man was not the ideal one night stand. A Federal agent with a penchant for believing ten impossible things before breakfast was about the worst choice possible.

* * *

He got his flashlight out again and turned it on out of habit, but found that Mrs. Cobbler had left the attic lights on. There was no sign of any frantic search; it was a well-ordered storage space crammed full of what looked like the normal range of objects to be found in a country-house attic. Mulder wandered around slowly, trying to determine if there was anything unusual up here. The floor was dustier than he would have expected, but other than that...

Rounding a high pile of packing cases, he came upon a small cleared area around a dilapidated-looking old bedframe. When he walked up to look at it, sand gritted under his shoes. It was such an unexpected sound that Mulder stopped in mid-stride and looked down. There was a lot of sand on the floor here, but rather than dull brown and beige it was a mixture of grey, red, and black. He crouched down to get a closer look. It appeared that the sand had originally been three separate lines, forming a pattern of some kind. The pattern didn't resemble anything he was familiar with, and it had been disturbed, smudged out, right where he'd come upon it.

Mulder straightened up again for an overview. Despite the gap, which was about five feet wide, it was clear to see how the pattern had originally run — it had surrounded the bedframe. But what did the pattern mean, and why it had been drawn around such a harmless-looking object? He walked up to the bedframe, put a hand on its wooden headboard, shook it a little. Nothing. There were no suspicious stains, nothing carved in the wood. He prowled around a while longer, trying to make sense of it.

Probably, he thought, these were the remains of some kind of containment ritual, but he couldn't see why anyone would want to contain an old bed. It was too bad Mrs. Cobbler had left; he really wanted to ask her what she had been doing up here. And he would have to have a talk with Mrs. Tyler about the contents of this attic, too. She was clearly both a believer and a practitioner, and might be able to shed some light on the symbolism of the sand pattern — if he could get her to talk.

He went down the painted stairs again, turning ideas over in his mind, once again revising and expanding on his mental 'to do' list. This process came to an abrupt halt once he came down far enough to see Charles Franklin leaning against the wall in a casual slouch, hands deep in the pockets of his jeans. Mulder swallowed. This, too, was something that needed to be dealt with. Somehow. And how could a guy who was wrapped up in a huge wooly chastity belt of a sweater look so sexy, anyway?

Closing the door to the attic stairs behind him, he said, "I think she was lying to us."

Franklin cocked his head to one side. "You don't think she's going to go to the funeral?"

"Lucy Cobbler is Mrs. Tyler's mother. Why would she have a dress in the attic of a house that her son-in-law moved out of twenty-five years ago?"

"Why not?" Franklin shrugged. "Maybe she lives in a small house. This one's been abandoned, it's all so much storage space." The shrug turned into a shoulder movement that pushed him away from the wall and closer to Mulder.

Mulder realized he was doing it again — talking far too much about the case to someone who was essentially still a suspect, just to distract himself from the effect the man had on him. He found himself wishing that he hadn't come so close to laughter out in the woods, that there could have been something hot and reckless between them there. Now, of course, he had come to his senses, and hopefully so had Franklin.

"Maybe," he said neutrally, instead of explaining to Franklin how wrong he was. "My partner or I will be back tomorrow to check the contents of the attic more closely." If things had changed, he could at least be certain then that Franklin was involved somehow.

He turned towards the stairs down, and was stopped by Franklin's hand on his arm. "On the other hand," Franklin said, "you could stay a while longer and we could concentrate on the interesting parts," the last word accompanied by the other hand once again stroking softly over Mulder's ass.

"What made you decide to start flirting again?" Mulder asked a little thickly.

"The fact that I really want to fuck you." It was so gently, easily spoken that Mulder barely reacted at first, and then he felt a hot flood of embarrassed desire rush through him, and saw Franklin's eyes gleam on seeing his response. Come to his senses. Right.

The hand on his arm tugged him closer, closer, and when they stood once more body to body Mulder gave up the pretense that he was going to leave this house without getting laid. He gave up on lining up arguments in his head for why this was a bad idea. Instead he leaned in and rubbed his cheek against Franklin's, enjoying the catch and burn of stubble. When he thought about being with a man, he always thought of that feeling, stubble on skin, and it made him shiver.

Franklin brushed against him too, pushed, turned his head until their mouths met again. A little careful nibbling at first, then Mulder tugged at Franklin's lips with his own, parting them, slipping inside, searching for the surge of wet-tongued passion he'd felt out in the woods. Yes. There. A hand around the back of his neck, holding him in place — it seemed Franklin really enjoyed kissing and wasn't going to stop any time soon. Mulder felt himself grow hard, rocking against a muscular thigh that had slipped between his own. He pushed his hands up under the thick sweater, worked the shirt underneath free of the jeans and stroked warm skin.

It had been so long since he'd actually touched anyone, except for the few careful embraces he'd shared with Scully during her illness, feeling half afraid she could come apart in his arms, and wholly afraid that he could even have such a thought about her. This was different; here was a strength he did not have to doubt, the way he had doubted hers and felt guilty for it.

And it had been even longer since he'd experienced an erotic touch, the sheer charge of body meeting body with sexual intent. Intoxicating, the way Franklin's hands caught his hips and rocked him even closer... too much too soon, and Mulder pulled himself out of the heated kiss, breathed, and said as casually as he could, "I could go for another beer."

Franklin did the eyebrow quirk thing again. "Don't tell me a proper young FBI agent like you is into water sports."

Even as he snorted with laughter, Mulder had a feeling that he could probably be into just about anything that would get him more intimate physical contact with Franklin. Still, he shook his head in response. "No. Unless you can't live without that, maybe you could tell me where the bathroom is, too."

"Right there." Franklin made a casual gesture towards the nearest door. "I'll be in the kitchen."

The bathroom, like everything else in the house, was wonderfully dated, with dark green tiles on the floor and slick-looking brown wallpaper, and a fuzzy orange seat cover on the toilet. The towels, Mulder noticed when he got round to washing his hands, were much older, fraying linen with embroidered monograms. What light there was seemed to get sucked up by the walls and floor, but all the same Mulder could make out his own face in the mirror, the gleam of excitement in his eyes, the flush of, well, carnality. He looked soberly at himself. Are you really going to have sex with that man?

His mirror image grinned back. Hell yes.

So that was settled, then. Mulder straightened his crooked tie and went out to meet his fate. The house still smelled pleasantly of food, more strongly the closer he got to the kitchen, where he found his host scooping leftovers into tupperware containers with matching green and orange lids. There was an open beer bottle standing on the counter, presumably Franklin's; Mulder appropriated it and drank deeply, and then, feeling a need to push his luck, leaned in for another kiss. "This one was for me, right?" he said against Franklin's mouth.

"In the old West, they used to hang people for beer theft," Franklin grumbled, returning the kiss with swift intensity and then pushing Mulder away to finish the cleanup. "In these enlightened days, though, you could probably get off with just doing the dishes."

Mulder moved to stand behind the other man, pressing his face against the warm nape of Franklin's neck, nibbling softly just above the collar. "I think there are more interesting things to be done here than dishes."

He was a little amazed at how easy it was, once he'd allowed himself to let go, to want. Then he noticed the reaction, the quietly indrawn breath, the small shudder. Experimentally, he grazed Franklin's neck with his teeth, and got a soft growl and an elbow pushing into his stomach. Mulder backed off and watched Franklin move across the kitchen floor, stuff the containers into the fridge, and then turn around, pale skin looking almost green against the avocado background. "I think you're right." Franklin could smile with just the corners of his mouth, like an Etruscan sculpture. "Bring the beer," and with that he walked out of the kitchen, and Mulder grabbed the beer bottle and followed.

Mulder had expected a return upstairs, but it seemed Franklin slept on a mattress on the floor of a small unfurnished room next to the living room. There was a reading lamp by the mattress, and a pile of books, that was it. The simplicity added to the thrill of desire Mulder felt. He couldn't wonder why he was here. There wasn't a single etching to look at.

He went up to Franklin, who was standing in the middle of the room after having turned on the lamp, and proffered the beer bottle, watched Franklin drink, drank himself and bent to set the empty bottle down. Then he was pulled up into another kiss. He liked the taste of beer, in the other man's mouth and in his own. He liked the firm, confident, easy way Franklin touched him, hands roaming down his back, along his arms, over the back of his neck, not too fast, not too slow. Once again they were standing close, moving closer, shifting back and forth, almost like slow dancing, the only music heartbeats and deep irregular breaths.

As he had done up in the hall, Mulder got his hands under the knitted sweater, but this time he tugged it carefully upwards until Franklin raised his arms like a child, with an amused glint in his eyes, and allowed it to be removed. The shirt underneath was plain and boring; through it Mulder felt the heat of skin. He undid a couple of buttons, stroked the exposed skin and brushed his fingertips up over the hollow of Franklin's throat. Yes. There was another of those small shivers, right there. "Would you like it if I bit your neck?" he asked, already anticipating how much fun that would be.

"I would like it if you took your clothes off," Franklin shot back, loosening the loop of Mulder's tie and pulling it over his head, and then divesting him of his suit jacket. Mulder nodded agreement and undid his own shirt buttons with more speed, shrugging out of the shirt and letting it fall to the floor. He wasn't wearing an undershirt, and when the back of Franklin's hand brushed over one of his nipples, it was his turn to tense up at the sudden spark of pleasure.

Stepping back, bending down, he untied his shoelaces and then straightened up to toe his muddy shoes off while he unfastened the suit pants. Mulder pushed them off, catching the socks as he pushed the pant legs over his feet. About to strip out of his boxers, he looked at Franklin and paused at the look in the other man's eyes. "What?"

"You don't have to stop now," Franklin said, sounding at once amused and aroused. So Mulder took off the boxers and walked up to Franklin again, moving in close so he could kiss the smiling mouth. It felt good to rub up against the other man, cotton on his nipples, rough denim teasing his erection.

Franklin's hands gripped his shoulders and then stroked down his back, sometimes gently, sometimes with harder pressure that sent surprising thrills through him. Strong hands, and the unexpected scrape of calluses... Mulder caught an arm, pulled the hand towards him and inspected it closely. "You're sure you're a writer?"

"Kendo," Franklin said, curving his fingers and rubbing them over Mulder's palm. At first it only tickled a little, and then the sharp chill of it went straight to his cock. Bokken calluses, yes, that sounded about right. Mulder brought the hand up to his mouth and licked at it, tracing hardened skin and soft lines, and Franklin's next breath was slightly jagged, and it really was about time the man got naked.

"I would like it if you took your clothes off." He sucked at the tip of the index finger, then slid his tongue out to roll around the middle finger as well, drawing both into his mouth. Subtle layers of tastes, meat and garlic, earth, metal, soft sweet tang of resin, sweat.

"If you let go of my — hand, I can take my shirt off." The faint flush looked good on Franklin, even though it made him almost disturbingly young. Mulder wanted to rub his face against that short dark hair, and then against the stubble again, just for the contrast. "I thought I was trying to seduce you."

Mulder shrugged. "So I'm easy." He wondered if that was true. People didn't often try to seduce him. In fact, 'almost never' would be closer to the mark. If they tried it all the time, would he react like this? Only, he thought, only if they were all like Franklin.

"Easy on the eyes," Franklin said, and then leaned forward and breathed against Mulder's ear, just breathed. "Fucking gorgeous, actually." Tongue tip lapping softly around the rim of his ear, then darting inside, and he shivered so strongly that he almost wrenched himself out of Franklin's hold. In fumble-fingered cooperation, they managed to get the shirt off Franklin, the jeans unbuttoned and partway down before they spotted the problem. "I could leave them on."

"I'm not turned on by hiking boots and white socks," Mulder said firmly. He knelt down, unlacing the boots, and pulled them off one by one, then the socks, then the jeans. Looking up at the other man, he grinned and bit the inside of one thigh before sinking down onto the mattress. "You can do the last bit yourself." Mulder fought the urge to stroke himself as Franklin pulled off his boxers. He looked different naked, there seemed to be more of him... in many ways, Mulder admitted, watching and thinking about touching.

No embarrassment in him, though; Franklin just smiled on seeing Mulder's open appreciation, and then lay down, and the sudden feeling of warm skin against his own all the length of his body made Mulder close his eyes and sigh in pleasure. There was nothing else like this, nothing like touching another human being all over. Franklin's hand caught his jaw, turned his head into more kisses, and they moved against each other in a lazy rhythm, slowly rolling over, until Franklin lay on his back in the middle of the mattress with Mulder sprawled loosely over most of him.

Mulder licked at the prominent bones of the other man's face, bit the jaw where it was at its squarest and then moved down underneath the sharp line of jawbone, seeking thin and sensitive skin. He dragged his lips wetly along the line of muscle and tendon down from Franklin's ear and felt the body under his own move in response. Settling in, Mulder began to explore all of that pale throat, with lips and tongue and gradually teeth; when he bit down, Franklin began to thrash in earnest, sucking his breath in with a wonderfully harsh sound. "Wait."

"Mm?" Mulder said interrogatively, but when he didn't get an answer, sucked like a vampire over the jugular. Franklin moaned. Mulder began to bite him a necklace, and heard the sound of those moans change, grow almost desperate; he wondered how far he could take this, went on nibbling. Franklin's moans reached a desperate pitch, and his fingers dug sharply into Mulder's shoulder. A series of quick flicks of the tongue, a hard nip, and Mulder felt Franklin convulse, choking on a cry, trembling underneath him for long moments and then turning into a soft, boneless heap.

Lifting his head, Mulder looked at the pale face now flushed in the aftermath of orgasm, at bright greenish eyes that looked part embarrassed, part extremely satisfied. "You always react like that when someone kisses your neck?"

"Only when people try to make a four-course meal out of it," he got back. Franklin smiled faintly. "That was unexpected."

"Tell me about it," Mulder agreed, grinning. Fun, though — he'd never been with anyone so sensitive before. He rolled off Franklin in response to a hand pushing firmly at his chest, and watched as the other man stripped the pillowcase off one of the pillows and used it to wipe the semen off his stomach. "You got any more places like that that I should know about?"

Franklin's smile turned suddenly predatory. "I think it's time I find out if you have any." Tossing the pillowcase aside, he turned towards Mulder and looked him over slowly, then reached out and with just the tips of his fingers brushed along Mulder's left shoulder, arm, wrist, then back up again, alighting unerringly on every spot that had produced a reaction. Then he bent in and tasted what he'd touched, biting carefully in places. Mulder didn't think his arm was anywhere near as sensitive as Franklin's neck, but he was starting to wonder.

The slow exploration went on, hands stroking his torso, his hips, his legs, finding other things he hadn't been aware of; light grazes that ought to have tickled made him tingle instead. A soft kiss to the hollow of his throat unexpectedly made him breathe faster, and when Franklin licked across his nipples, Mulder squirmed. He got a warm chuckle, and then licks and nips, distributed evenly as Franklin's dark head moved over his chest. Almost wicked pleasure, and he wanted to touch right back, but hot air breathed into his navel made him squeak in undignified surprise and then Franklin was lower, pushing at one thigh.

Mulder sighed deeply, voluptuously, and spread his legs as directed. He could feel Franklin look at him, long before the look translated into touch, and it made his skin feel hot. It made all of him feel hot. Fingernails scraped up the inside of his thighs, skimmed over his balls, then Franklin's mouth moved over his knee, tongue probing the fold, one hand coming down to stroke the sole of Mulder's foot and press and "oh God," he said, unable to hold the words inside, "what the hell are you doing?"

"Just checking," Franklin said, his voice muted in between kisses moving up now and Mulder was caught between two equally strong impulses, to drag Franklin's mouth higher still and to spread his legs even wider, "just checking, did you like that?" and the soft tongue grazed his balls, lapped at them, much too lightly, almost no touch at all, and Mulder found wordless noises were better than trying to talk. Touches like snowflakes and lit matches, brush of heat, brush of ice, he couldn't hold himself still, he found he was pulling his legs up, arching his back. The pulses of breath against his damp skin could be laughter, and then Franklin withdrew, sat up, and before Mulder could protest said, "Turn over."

And he did. Turned over, and without being asked raised his hips just as Franklin shoved the pillows underneath, then relaxed into the reassuring touches in the small of his back, on his ass, the touches that said yes, he could have what he wanted, what they both wanted. Mulder closed his eyes and felt the warm stroke of a determined hand up his spine and down again, felt breath, and light brushes at first, and then strong fingers holding him open as he was tongued slowly and relentlessly and oh, so well, it was so good, good enough to make him cry, maybe, and he knew he moved again, that same leg-spreading, hip-raising movement and that felt good too, to be open, to be open about it, to show what he wanted, to want, simply and unashamedly.

He quivered, drawn taut with pleasure. Something about Franklin's touch made him feel free, wanton and greedy and nothing but honest about it, eager for everything he could get. He loved this, loved how it felt and Franklin was giving it to him with such utter, easy perfection. The tongues of men and angels, Mulder thought, clutching convulsively at the sheet beneath his hands as his body spasmed. With eyes squeezed shut, he saw colors that changed with every new rush of sensation. Mulder rocked against the pillows. There wasn't enough friction, but that was okay, he didn't want to come yet. When he thought that, Franklin's mouth was no longer on him and he protested at this misdirected mind-reading, found no words except a hopeless, exasperated, horny "What?"

He was soothed by the dance of fingers on the skin of his ass and thighs; one hand moved up and down along his back, with subtle variations in pressure, and Mulder found that this touch, too, was strangely and almost chillingly erotic. It wasn't like being rimmed, but it would do for the moment, and he pushed into it with a catlike demand for more. Franklin kept on stroking him, and moved over him, dipping the mattress this way and that and then settling back again.

The first cold smooth probing touch made Mulder jump and moan, and then he opened himself to Franklin's fingers as he had to his tongue, first just one finger pushing in carefully, then two, stroking in and out at a slow steady pace. The other hand, Franklin's free hand, wandered over Mulder's back in scorching leaps like a grass fire. Every touch drove him higher, while the steady rhythm of the fingers in his ass just drove him insane.

"This is a good look on you," Franklin said thoughtfully, and Mulder could see himself lying there, spread out like an all-you-can-eat buffet, gasping and breathless and half a breath away from begging. A good look. "That wholesome all-American slut look." And those fingers kept stroking, and Mulder tried to laugh and moan and raise his hips for more all at once.

Beyond rational thought, happy to be there, he moved against long, rough-knuckled fingers and felt his nervous system send up emergency flares. He needed more of this. He needed this to be more. The sensation of those fingers stretching him, sliding over his prostate over and over, built to a steady burn that left Mulder near speechless with pleasure, breathing into the mattress in the sexually syncopated rhythm of pure lust. But it was the hand touching his back and thighs that provided the grace notes, both maddening and distracting, sensations so exciting they were almost painful. "Yes," he whispered, trying to make the word mean all that and more.

"Spread your legs a bit more for me," Franklin said softly, and Mulder felt the breath catch in his throat at the casual comment and at his own willingness to do anything, everything, legs already moving and Franklin's touch inside him didn't falter. He tried to push back against the fingers fucking him but didn't have enough leverage to raise his hips up, not with Franklin's hand in the small of his back, settled there now to hold him firmly in place and God, that made him so hot, just the feeling and then the thought of how it must look, Franklin's control and his own complete abandon, made him moan. It was so damn perfect.

More pressure on his back as Franklin shifted; the fingers were removed with a final twist. For a moment he lay there open and waiting, and then Franklin came down on him, pushing into him, sinking deep. Mulder felt his breath catch and then release as Franklin stretched out on top of him, skin to skin, chest to back, molding them together. Caught between the firm mattress and the warm weight of bone and muscle, Mulder squirmed, feeling himself pinned in place by Franklin's body, Franklin's cock. It was so heady, this rush, this feeling of sexual luxury, of security, getting everything and being promised more.

The first movements were small and gentle, tiny pushes that brought no real friction, Franklin barely moving on top of him. Incredible control, Mulder thought fuzzily, for someone who had come hard and fast before just from having his throat licked. Or maybe it was that first orgasm that let Franklin keep such a tight rein on himself now. Mulder didn't really care, he just wanted to benefit as much as possible from it.

He pushed back, then relaxed, did it again and again as the soft strokes inside him slowly grew more determined. With his eyes closed he could easily see Franklin covering him, hips moving in a driving rhythm. Amazing that a learned pleasure could feel so utterly necessary. Like coffee, he thought dreamily, like cigarettes, things he'd first hated and then come to love. Excitement was building in him and he tried to relax, to let go of the tension so he could let it build again, and again, in response to the steady stimulation. Franklin breathed against his neck, and then bit him. Surprised, Mulder sucked his breath in as a sharp sizzle of want flared through him, bucking his hips against Franklin's weight, making demands for harderfastermore.

Deeper thrusts, and a tongue teasing his ear, creating smaller, softer shudders that built on each other to make him choke out a sound deep in his throat. He tightened his muscles in hungry demand on Franklin's cock. Franklin might want to go slowly after having taken the edge off, but Mulder could feel his control going, could feel it crumbling like a sandcastle when the tide comes in... not that it made much of a difference. Franklin kept his control, and Franklin was in control, fucking Mulder a little faster and a little harder now because he wanted to, not because Mulder had asked for it.

The thought turned Mulder on so much that he didn't care if it was true or not. He found one of Franklin's hands braced against the mattress next to his face and licked at it, tried to pry a finger loose with his tongue so he could suck on it. The hand clenched and then eased, and the index finger slipped into his mouth; he tasted the many flavors of Franklin's skin again before the finger was withdrawn. And then returned, slipping in and out, moving in his mouth in perfect counterpoint to the thrusts in his ass. He would have rolled and writhed with pleasure if he'd been able, but then the fact that he wasn't was a large part of making the pleasure what it was, and just rocking softly against the mattress brought him breathless delight, friction against hard flesh.

"Fuck me," he said almost dreamily, licking the words onto the fine fingerprint whorls, and Franklin's teeth nipped at his ear.

"You think I'm not?" Laughter in that crisp voice. "You think I'm not fucking you, Mulder?" Honey-slow slide inside him, fingertip rubbing his tongue. Mulder breathed out on a purr. Franklin's thrusts grew deeper and heavier, still just as slow, pushing Mulder harder against the mattress and the firmness of floor beneath. Two fingers in his mouth now, sliding in firmly to the second knuckle and then out again, as assuredly as the fingers on the other hand had pushed into his ass before. Franklin's voice dropped to a whisper. "Then I guess I'd better do it right."

The fingers left his mouth with a lingering brush against his lower lip, and Mulder felt Franklin push himself up, shifting back and pulling out to kneel between Mulder's legs. Following that movement, Mulder drew his knees up and raised his hips, shoulders and arms still resting on the mattress. He considered getting up further, on all fours, but Franklin's hands gripped him again, thumbs on his inner thighs, fingers fanning up over his ass, holding him still for the hard shaft pressing in again, deep, oh yes, and he curved back trying to take it deeper still and then they moved together, setting a new pace.

I don't have sex often enough, he thought. Franklin ran a hand over his back again, leaving a trail of crisp curvy tingles, and suddenly Mulder was so close he felt he was digging his toes in on the brink of a precipice. Breath came irregularly to him as he wrestled with sensation. He couldn't help following Franklin, answering every stroke — that he'd asked for, asked for — with a push of his own, and the very act of moving his hips like that felt so sexy and so right that he made a sound against the bunched-up muscles of his forearm. He wanted to feel like this forever, die of starvation like a lab rat wired for orgasm, choosing pleasure over food every time.

The next sound out of his throat was louder, caught him by surprise. Franklin's hand slipped down Mulder's side, over his sweat-slick belly, folded around his cock and he thrust against it. For a moment their rhythm was off and then they found each other again, fast and hard now, deep and dark as thunder. Mulder sucked in air and felt his muscles start to contract as lightning played through his body, he was wound tight, tighter, and then loosed like a quarrel from a crossbow, his own wild yell taking him by surprise as he was released to shoot into the darkness, into the pleasure, into Franklin's warm knowing hand.

Slumped over and fuzzy with residual ecstasy, he felt Franklin thrust into him with shorter, more jagged movements that built to the last hard, shuddering strokes. And then they were both still.

Later, they pulled apart, and Mulder felt empty but satisfied. He rolled over on his back and looked through barely-open eyes at the man lying next to him. Not a good idea, he thought, then shrugged. It wasn't the first time he'd had sex with someone he'd met less than 12 hours ago. It wasn't the first time he'd had sex with someone who was involved in a case he was working on. It was the first time he'd actually screamed out loud during sex, and that made it hard to regret what he knew had been a somewhat unwise choice of partner. Maybe it should have been embarrassing to remember being so uninhibited, but the pleasure had been... his stomach growled, interrupting him.

Franklin turned towards him, leaning up on one elbow. "Leftovers in the fridge. I could use another beer, myself."

"Mmm," Mulder agreed sleepily. "I guess you don't have any iced tea." He felt relaxed all the way down into his bones, soft with the languor that comes after a satisfying workout, loosened by release into an unexpected comfort. When he shifted his shoulders he realized all the knots and tensions had been worked out of them; his back felt like new, not the most usual side effect of that particular position. He smiled. "Sexual healing."

"You're not going to sing, are you?" If Franklin felt any post-coital moodiness, he hid it well. "I'll just go hide in the bathroom till you're done." Franklin got to his feet with uncommon grace and went naked to the door, throwing a slanting smile at Mulder over his shoulder before disappearing.

Mulder stretched, arching his spine. He reached out and grabbed the pillowcase Franklin had used before, swiping it gingerly over his stickiest and most tender parts. He really needed a shower, or at least a quick wash-up, but it seemed like so much trouble, and he wanted to move before he fell asleep here on the mattress. Getting to his feet, he rummaged for his boxers in the tangle of clothes on the floor, and slowly started to get dressed.

Out in the kitchen, with his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, he listened to the rumble of water through old pipes and munched on a roll, dipping it in the cold tomato sauce. The well-scrubbed kitchen floor yielded no further clues. Mulder put his feet where the bloody hoof marks had been and wondered if Franklin's life was in danger. The same creature that had killed Tyler was now focusing on Franklin, or at least the house that Franklin lived in — wandering the kitchen, lurking in the bushes outside, chasing the man through the woods. Mulder smiled fleetingly at the memory. The creature hadn't started chasing them until after they'd chased it. No, it was something about the house. Something about those sand patterns in the attic. And Lucy Cobbler seemed to stand at the heart of the mystery in her green rubber boots.

Mulder had finished the first roll and started on a second when Franklin came into the kitchen, barefoot, wearing frayed jeans and an oversized long-sleeved t-shirt in a washed-out shade of green. Washing down a mouthful of bread with the apple juice he'd scrounged from the fridge, Mulder cleared his throat and asked, "When you rented this house, did the Tylers specifically tell you not to go up in the attic?"

"No." Instead of looking in the fridge for a beer as Mulder had expected, Franklin walked over to the counter and poured himself a glass of apple juice. "The door was locked and they didn't give me a key. Much the same thing, of course." He drank, emptying the glass and putting it down.

But someone had been up there recently, disturbing the sand. Mulder put his glass down, too. "Have you noticed any signs that someone might have broken in here earlier?"

"You mean apart from the blood on the kitchen floor?" Franklin refilled his glass and topped up Mulder's. "No. Not a thing."

Mulder nodded, took his glass and drank the juice down without tasting it. "I have to go," he said, pushing away from the counter and putting his suit jacket on. When he looked down he saw that there was a small hole in his left sock where the nail of his big toe had worn through the fabric, which meant that it was time to throw this pair away and that he'd left his shoes in Franklin's bedroom, if you could call it that. He left the kitchen, was sidetracked by the realization that he really needed to use the bathroom, but eventually went back to the small room on the ground floor where the tangled sheets told a story of time well spent. Bending down to tie his shoelaces, Mulder let his eyes wander over the mattress, seeing the two of them there as they would have appeared to a watcher: sweaty, intensely focused, pleased. The bottom sheet had come loose and left one corner of the mattress bare. On the floor by it was a smudge of sand.

Seeing that, he dropped down on both knees and looked more closely. It appeared to be the same reddish sand that decorated the floor up in the attic. Mulder lifted the corner of the mattress and saw traces of grey sand as well. The mattress must have come from the bed in the center of the pattern, which meant that Franklin had definitely been up in the attic, locked door or no locked door. It was Franklin who had broken the pattern. But had he done it on purpose, to free whatever had been bound by it? And what exactly was it that had been bound there?

Mulder frowned, tied his other shoelace, and got to his feet again. He didn't think Franklin knew, and if Franklin did know, he would be the wrong person to ask. Then again, he'd lied about not having been up in the attic. Out in the hallway again, passing the kitchen, Mulder leaned in around the doorframe to say, "You still can't leave town."

"I don't mind," Franklin said over the rim of his juice glass, eyes gleaming. "I find I quite like it here. Never a dull moment." Mulder moved away from the door before Franklin could see him laughing, grabbed his trenchcoat as he walked through the hall, and went out through the front door.

It was colder outside now, or maybe it was just that he wasn't heated from running and from kissing a suspect. The fine white mist of his breath dissolved into dark air. Mulder dug his flashlight out again and switched it on as he went down the rutted road. He couldn't hear anything suspicious out in the woods, nothing big moving, just the faint rustling of wind in the treetops, and some night-living bird calling softly over on the other side of the old Tyler house. The high grass was wet now and started to soak through his pant legs as he walked.

When he came to the new Tyler house, he left the road and took the shortcut that Mrs. Jackson had showed him and Scully earlier. The plants that bordered the path still smelled good. There was a light on in the kitchen, behind the drawn curtains, and he wondered if Mrs. Tyler's mother was there with her and what they were saying to each other. Then he was past the hedge and into the Jacksons' yard, stepping carefully around the asters, walking along the side of the house and rounding the corner.

It wasn't until he stood on the porch that he realized it was the middle of the night and he didn't have a key. Mulder cautiously tried the front door, and to his relief found it unlocked. A small lamp on the hall table was still lit; assuming that it was for him, he turned it off and crept up the stairs, hearing them creak softly under his feet. When he came upstairs, the door to the nursery-to-be was standing ajar and Scully was looking at him, a nighttime Scully in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt. She jerked her head in a 'come in' gesture and he crossed the hall to step inside.

"Must've been some dinner," she said when he'd closed the door.

Mulder was well aware of how he looked, rumpled and dazed and probably still flushed from one of the most spectacular orgasms of his life. He licked the corner of his mouth, stretching the tip of his tongue outside to soothe the stubble-chafed skin, and she turned around and caught him at it. One eyebrow quirked up.

"The food was pretty good," he offered. Meeting Scully's eyes, he broke into a reluctant grin. "Lots of garlic." About to say that she could probably smell it on him, Mulder changed his mind, thinking about what she was more likely to smell. Besides, there were more important things to talk about. "That creature was out in the woods tonight, Scully. It was chasing us."

"What were you doing out in the woods? You decided to have a picnic?" She sat down on the bed, pulling her legs up and crossing them so that her bare feet vanished from sight under the long hem of the t-shirt. Mulder sank down on the floor and leaned against the wall, looked up to see pink little animals capering over his head.

"The teddy bears were already out there. I heard something in the woods and went out to investigate. Franklin came with me. Whatever was out there was big and heavy and smelled like an open sewer, the same smell the schoolchildren described this afternoon. It has to be the same creature that made those prints in the kitchen."

"Did either you or Franklin get a good look at it?" Mulder shook his head. "How much beer did you have at dinner?"

"Not enough to hallucinate being chased by a devil goat." Mulder rubbed at an itching spot on his neck, then wondered, as Scully's eyes followed his fingers, if he had a hickey. "Will you come with me out there tomorrow and look for tracks?"

She nodded. "And we should get the lab results tomorrow as well. I requested a full tox screen on Tyler, and close examination of the blood from his lungs and the stains on the floor. I'm going to check with Marion if anyone around here keeps goats."

"And I think we should have another talk with Mrs. Cobbler," Mulder said.

"Yes." Scully shifted, seemed to think about reaching for pen and notebook, then settled back again. "I think there might be some kind of family scandal or feud at the bottom of this somehow, Mulder, and she's the right age to know all the details. I went for a stroll in the churchyard when I came back," the raised eyebrow dared him to comment on that, "and I found one Thomas Eugene Tyler, who died in 1975, the same year the Tylers moved out of the old house. There might be a connection."

"How old was he?"

"Fifty-four. I asked Mrs. Jackson when I came back — he was Robert Tyler's father. But she didn't want to tell me how he died."

"Did you ask Marion?"

"Marion Jackson has gone with his deputy to look into an attempted burglary. He seems very devoted to duty, but I hope for both his and his wife's sake that he doesn't work 18-hour shifts every day."

"Maybe he's trying to impress the Federal agents?" Mulder grinned. "Let's review what we know about this case so far. First, the frogs. According to my source, they just suddenly appeared out of nowhere, all at the same time, and had to be removed by the local auto repair guy, who doubles as school janitor."

"Your source?" Scully had got out pen and paper and was making notes, slotting facts into neat columns.

"Jenny Hamilton. She was in the classroom when the frogs appeared. She says she remembers it so well because she doesn't have Alzheinie."

"Miss Hamilton seems to be a very observant girl." Scully smiled. She didn't say anything about children being unreliable witnesses. "I'm not convinced that the other incidents are related to the murder of Robert Tyler, but—"

"Come on, Scully! What are the odds of a series of paranormal events like that being unrelated to each other?"

"—but I suppose they could be a smoke screen," she raised her voice to say, "so I'll agree to proceed as though the frogs are part of the same case. That makes the green-haired cashier the second event. Have you spoken to her?" Mulder shook his head. Scully made a note. "Another thing to do tomorrow. Nothing anyone has said so far has suggested that there is any connection between her and Robert Tyler, though."

"People seem to try to conceal their connections in this town," Mulder said. "Look at Shirley Jackson. I don't believe that she 'forgot' to mention Tyler was her uncle by marriage. She's hiding something."

Scully looked amused. "You think the sheriff's wife did it?" Her pen was still moving, but Mulder suspected her of doodling flowers on her notepad. "The third incident was that of the child who was burned by hot water that seemed to fall out of nowhere. That happened right by the school, and Jenny Hamilton says that she saw someone looking out of the window of the supply room at the same time."

"The room where we found a bloodstain and a piece of black feather." Mulder rolled his head against the wall, stretching his neck out of habit, although it felt better than it had in a long time. "The injured girl, Elsie Jones, doesn't have any obvious connection to the Tylers. Then the fourth incident is the murder of Robert Tyler, who died by having his lungs filled with animal blood and with traces of goat hair found by his body."

"We have to get an early start tomorrow," Scully said. "We need to interview the cashier and the school janitor, Mrs. Tyler, Mrs. Cobbler, check the records to find out more about the death of Thomas Tyler—"

"—search the woods for tracks." Mulder smiled up at her. "What time tomorrow will you hear from the lab?"

Scully shrugged. "Should be before lunch." She smoothed the t-shirt down over her knees, stretching the frayed material even more. "What about Charles Franklin?"

"I think there's something going on in that house," Mulder said. "When we came back from the woods, Mrs. Cobbler was there, coming down from the attic where she claimed to have been looking for clothes. I think she was up there to check on something. There's a strange pattern on the floor that seems to have been disturbed recently."

"We already know we have to talk to Mrs. Cobbler," Scully tapped the pen against the notebook. "But, Mulder, what about Charles Franklin?"

"I think he might be the one who disturbed the pattern. He's definitely been up in the attic, even though he's trying to hide it."

"I don't know why you think the attic is significant. You can explain that to me later. But I take it you agree with me that he's still a suspect?" She looked up from her notes and he couldn't avoid her gaze.

"Yes," Mulder said slowly. "He's still a suspect."

Scully shut her notebook with a brisk little clap. "I think we should go to bed. I've set my alarm for seven. I'll knock on your door if you're not up." He got to his feet, looked down at his partner and brushed the backs of two fingers against her cheek. She smiled. "Good night, Mulder."

"'Night, Scully." Mulder closed the door behind him as quietly as he could and stood for a moment in the hall, wondering when Marion Jackson would come back and if the sheriff would be awake enough tomorrow morning to join them for breakfast. He should probably go downstairs and turn that lamp in the hall back on again. When he moved the hallway floor creaked under his feet. He creaked his way to his room, creaked out again to get to the bathroom, creaked back and went to bed.

* * *

Methos made himself a sandwich with chunks of lamb, sliced banana and black pepper, and ate it wandering around the house. He went upstairs and looked at the door to the attic, but decided it was too much trouble. Whatever Lucy Cobbler wanted up there, she was welcome to it — it wasn't as if it was his house, and as long as she didn't tell Mrs. Tyler about any unauthorized mattress-stealing, nothing would come of it. Mrs. Tyler presumably had other things to worry about.

Whatever Agent Mulder wanted up there, he was also welcome to it. Methos sighed, and caught a stray piece of banana with his tongue. When he'd decided to stay in China for a while, he hadn't really seen himself keeping open house for the neighbors, or for Federal agents. Or for whoever, whatever had been making those marks on the kitchen floor. Devil goats. He shook his head. Agent Mulder certainly had a unique world-view.

Mac might have said that he believed him. MacLeod, the demon fighter. But MacLeod wasn't here, nor was he likely to call out of the blue for a nice little chat about the paranormal, and Methos felt that Agent Mulder didn't need any further encouragement. Frowning, Methos went back downstairs and made sure both the front door and the back door were locked. There weren't going to be any more visitors tonight if he had anything to say about it. Heading into the kitchen again, he poured more apple juice, drank, poured more, drank, until he realized he'd finished the whole carton while standing by the counter staring out of the kitchen window. The woods were indeed lovely, dark and deep. So what? I'm going to bed, he told himself firmly, and went to brush his teeth and put clean sheets on the mattress.

Once he was lying comfortably with the pillow scrunched up just the way he liked it and his sword within easy reach, Methos reviewed his day. His car was still non-functional, he was a suspect in a murder case, he'd been chased through the woods, and he'd gotten far too close to an FBI agent who wouldn't have any trouble believing in immortals. On the plus side, dinner had been pretty good and the sex had been amazing.

He couldn't really decide if he was in trouble or not.

Closing his eyes, Methos tried to put himself in the agents' place. Would they focus on him? He didn't think he was at the top of Mulder's list of suspects, but neither did he imagine that Mulder was the kind of person who would let a good fuck be an acceptable substitute for a good alibi. Not to mention that Mulder's partner would have no such motivation to consider. Maybe he should cut his losses, leave his car behind and go, but if he left, he'd be more of a suspect, his car would be dusted for prints, and he'd be in a lot more trouble down the road if he ever came to the attention of the US authorities again. He didn't particularly want to try to hack into a Federal database to erase all trace of himself, or to stay out of America until the present government collapsed and its records became obsolete. Better to remain here, then, and make sure the agents discovered his innocence — and that they didn't discover anything else about him. He'd just have to make sure Mulder understood it had been a one-night stand.

Besides, he wouldn't mind finding out who had killed Robbie Tyler in such a peculiar and complicated manner, and why this person had messed up the kitchen floor in Tyler's old house afterwards. It seemed crazy, and China was too much of a friendly small town for someone as crazy as that to remain invisible for long. Which, Methos thought, was probably why he made an ideal suspect. He was a stranger and no one knew him. But when people were murdered, it was usually by someone who did know them, and he hoped the FBI agents would focus on that. Or on goats, for that matter, as long as they didn't focus on him.

With a yawn, he decided that things might look better in the morning, and he might as well get some sleep. Some pleasant dreams to go with it would be nice, too, but he knew from experience that you couldn't have everything. Although Fox Mulder was definitely the stuff that pleasant dreams were made of; he was weird, attractive, and uninhibited, all things that Methos found appealing.

He tried to distract himself from his musings on what the FBI looked for in its employees by curling up on his side and closing his eyes more firmly, and was on the verge of drifting off when he became aware of an annoying feeling somewhere between sound and sensation, as if the old springs in the mattress were creaking faintly with his every breath. Methos scowled and rolled over on his back, eyes still firmly closed. Then he noticed a soft scuffling noise coming from somewhere outside the room.

He tensed up, opened his eyes to darkness and carefully eased himself out from under the covers. Rolling off the mattress, he knelt on the floor and picked his sword up, then got to his feet and listened carefully. There it was again, the faintest suggestion of shoes on a linoleum floor. No buzz. No suggestion that this was an immortal intruder rather than a human one. Still, he felt no inclination to put the sword away as he moved to the door, pressed against the wall and listened again before slipping out into the hallway.

The sound had come from the back of the house. He was certain he had locked the back door once he and Mulder had finished their little nighttime stroll, and he doubted this was Mrs. Tyler or Mrs. Cobbler paying a late-night visit. China might be a town full of eccentrics, but even they had to get some sleep. Methos padded silently down the hallway and found that he was sniffing the air, checking for the revolting smell of whatever had been out in the woods. It seemed as though Mulder's peculiar theories were infectious. There was a faint hint of something in the air, something that hadn't been there before, unpleasant but elusive, so that he wasn't quite sure he really did smell it.

Getting to the end of the hallway, he saw that the back door stood open. The old-fashioned lock didn't look damaged, although he didn't want to take the time to examine it closely while there was an intruder in the house. Nor was it the kind of lock that could be opened with a credit card and a little patience, the way he'd gained access to the attic. It seemed that whoever was in the house had a key.

Methos paused where he was and listened again, trying to figure out where the intruder was, and what he would do with him once he found him. Or her; women made excellent burglars, as he had good cause to know, although he doubted that this was a simple break-in. That would be too much of a coincidence for him to believe in.

A dull thump overhead made him freeze for a second. Up on the second floor, then. Methos went back along the hallway, towards the stairs, wondering how the intruder had managed to sneak past the room where he slept. There was a second thump, followed by running footsteps, the slam of door against wall, more steps. A dark figure came careening down the stairs, crashed into him and sent him staggering into the wall with a touch that ran through him like a burst of static. All he got was a glimpse of a pale face before the intruder continued down the passage, ran out the back door and disappeared into the night, leaving behind the faint tingle of a familiar sensation.

Methos rubbed at his shoulder and muttered darkly to himself. He went to the door, looked out and saw nothing. He wasn't going to run out and go on another chase through the woods at this time of night, particularly not as... he looked down at himself... particularly not as he wasn't wearing anything. Wandering around naked with a sword in his hand would definitely get him in trouble. He closed the back door firmly, went back to his bedroom and put on his jeans again, and dug in the right-hand pocket for the keys to the house. Not that locking doors seemed to do much good around here.

This time he turned on the light in the hall, and found that the intruder had left something behind in his flight. Methos locked the back door, and then crouched down to look at the floor. Feathers. Black feathers. They looked as if they'd been very wet at some point and then had dried in scraggly spikes, and when he picked one of them up and sniffed at it, he was rewarded with a healthy whiff of the unpleasant smell he'd been trying to track down before.

There wasn't any blood on the floor, though, or any funny marks of any description. He went back to the stairs and looked at the floor there, then walked up, and found the door to the attic standing open, having been slammed into the wall hard enough to leave a mark. Methos looked up the attic stairs to the darkness above and wondered if he ought to go up there or not. He wasn't familiar enough with the contents of the attic to be able to tell if anything was missing; he hadn't exactly taken a thorough inventory the one time he'd been up there. And he was suspicious of the kind of burglar that would break into a house and go straight for the attic.

Shaking his head, Methos returned to the hallway, looked at the feathers, and decided to leave them where they were. They did provide something of a hint at the identity of the burglar. Admittedly he hadn't gotten a look at the man's face, but the odds that there were two pre-immortals in China who both had managed to get feathers on themselves yesterday had to be pretty low. Methos sighed. On the other hand, it wasn't impossible, and why would Bob Watson want to break into the attic of the old Tyler house? Did he think there were valuable spare parts lying around up there? What the hell was going on?

The whole thing would be best turned over to his favorite FBI agent. But it was almost two in the morning, and Mulder had led rather an active life lately — Methos grinned to himself — so it might be better to let him sleep and call him in the morning, rather than wake him up now with a story of housebreakers and bad smells. There was always the alternative of calling the sheriff's office right away like a good citizen, but Methos decided against it. He wanted to tell Mulder; it would be a lot more fun.

The best thing would probably be to get some sleep himself, but Methos knew he was too wired by now for that to happen. He scrounged around the house for something to occupy himself with and eventually ended up in the kitchen with a stack of old Readers Digests, eating bananas slice by slice and wishing he'd bought more books at the grocery store. Even a film novelization would have been better. But there was no TV, and he had to do something to pass the time. Maybe he should give up on the reading material and jerk off, but he felt no particular interest in another orgasm, not after the way he'd come with Mulder. Particularly the first time. FBI agents really were trained to observe and investigate. It had been a long time since anyone had done that to him.

Maybe a second date wasn't out of the question after all.

By the time it was light outside, Methos had eaten four bananas, finished three cans of Coke, read his way through fourteen Readers Digests, and changed his mind eight times about the idea of having sex with Mulder again. He checked his watch: six-thirty. They'd better be up, he told himself, finally grabbing his cell phone and dialing.

"Mulder." The agent's voice was fuzzy with sleep.

"Morning, Agent Mulder." Methos grinned to himself, taking some pleasure in sounding revoltingly wide awake. "I thought you might like to know that someone broke into the house after you'd left."

"What? Who?" There was a rustling sound, as of a Federal agent sitting straight up in bed. "Was it that creature—"

"No, it was definitely a human being," Methos said, "leaving a trail of black feathers behind."

This time, there was a thump of feet hitting floor. "We'll come as soon as we can. Don't go anywhere." Mulder hung up abruptly, and Methos was left to look at the phone in his hand and chuckle to himself. Maybe he should have mentioned the smell, to see if that would have made Mulder run all the way up to the old Tyler house in his jammies.

He ate some cold meat and bread for breakfast, which made a nice change from the bananas, then wandered out on the front steps to sit in the sun and wait for the agents to arrive, wiggling his toes and enjoying the crisp morning air. It had been thirty-five minutes since his call when he finally saw them, so he deduced that Agent Scully had insisted on taking a shower and eating breakfast before going anywhere. Just looking at the way they walked gave him an odd feeling of pleasure. Scully's brisk steps and Mulder's longer, lazier strides matched perfectly, as if they were so used to keeping the same pace that they didn't have to think about it. Methos smiled at them as they came up to the house. "Thanks for coming so quickly," he said with some degree of innocence, and got to his feet.

"I understand there was an intruder in the house last night?" Dana Scully looked up at him with her head slightly tilted to one side.

"More like this morning, actually," Methos said. "Around two, I think. I was nearly asleep, and then I heard something, went to investigate and found the back door open. There was another noise and someone came running, shoved me into the wall and ran away."

"Did you get a good look at the intruder?" Mulder asked. "Can you describe him?"

Methos shook his head. "Not really. I'm fairly sure it was a man, my height or a bit shorter, not extremely bulky or extremely thin, but that's not much of a description. He was wearing dark clothes and rubber-soled shoes." He could have named Bob Watson, could at least have described him, but he hadn't seen a face, wasn't absolutely sure. It would be better to just plant the idea and let them investigate it on their own. Opening the front door, Methos gestured for the agents to come with him. "I haven't touched anything," he said and saw a faint hint of a smile from Mulder.

"Was the door locked?" Scully asked.

Methos nodded. "Yes, it was, and so was the door to the attic, but—"

"The attic?" Mulder interrupted. "The intruder tried to get into the attic?"

"He did get up there," Methos said. "The noise I heard came from somewhere overhead, and then he came running down the stairs, and when I went up I found the door to the attic stairs open," he found himself talking to Mulder's back, as the agent made directly for the staircase, "but I didn't go up there."

Scully nodded. "So you don't know if anything is missing?"

"I wouldn't know anyway," Methos said as they went up after Mulder. "It isn't my attic." It occurred to him that Mrs. Tyler would have to be informed, and that she would definitely notice that he'd borrowed the mattress. Unless he dragged it back upstairs once the agents had left. "Although it seems to be very popular with visitors."

Mulder was standing by the open attic door. "It doesn't look as if anyone's tampered with the lock," he said, "but anyone could have this open with a credit card in twenty seconds."

Methos refrained from nodding in agreement. Once again he watched Mulder go up the attic stairs, this time followed by Scully. He waited about five seconds, then admitted that curiosity was getting the better of him, and went up as well. Everything looked much as it had the last time he'd been up there; he couldn't see any marked change in the arrangement of crates, boxes and furniture, and he wouldn't have known, even if he had seen something, whether the change had been due to the intruder or to Mrs. Cobbler's search for her black dress. The agents were standing over by the bed, looking down on the floor.

"I suppose it could be deliberate," Scully was saying, bending down to peer more closely at something and then straightening up again, "but I don't see the connection."

Coming up to join them, Methos looked down at the sand on the floor and then up to find Mulder's eyes on him. "You took down the mattress that used to be on this bed, didn't you?" Mulder asked. Methos nodded. With the empty bedframe right there in front of them, denial would have been disingenuous. "Why?"

"Because the mattress in the guest bed is lumpy and about this thick," he held thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. "I suppose I really should have asked Mrs. Tyler, but, well, I didn't."

"And you didn't think twice about breaking the pattern."

Methos looked down at the floor again. The sand did form lines here and there, although mostly it was just smudges in different colors — colors that did not, he thought, match the soil around China very well. "Pattern?" He tried squinting. "I'm sorry, I don't see any pattern. And when I came up here for the mattress I wasn't looking at the floor. But I'd swear the bed had all four bedknobs when I saw it last."

Mulder looked startled. Scully's lips narrowed for a moment, then curled into something that was very nearly a smile. "So, we have a burglar who breaks through two locked doors in order to steal a brass bedknob. Maybe he's a collector."

"Could be," Methos agreed cheerfully.

Instead of acknowledging their comments, Mulder looked more closely at the bed, inspecting it from head to foot and back again, even getting down on his knees to look under it, then sneezing from the dust and hitting his head on the underside of the bedframe. When he eventually turned back to Scully and Methos, his face gave nothing away. "I think we should look at the tracks the intruder left behind," he said.

They trooped downstairs again, with Methos leading the way and Mulder trailing behind. At the back of the house, there were only a few signs of the mysterious nighttime visitor. The man had tracked in a little mud — or, Methos thought, perhaps he and Mulder had done that earlier. The feathers were still there, at any rate.

Mulder instantly crouched down and picked up a feather. "Look, Scully, it's just like what we found yesterday. Unless the citizens of China are always walking around covered in black feathers, it can't be a coincidence."

She picked the feather from his fingers with tweezers and stuffed it in an evidence bag. "There aren't any other marks, though," she said, looking at the floor. Methos wasn't sure what she might be looking for; there certainly were not any more bloody hoofprints, but there hadn't been any feathers in the kitchen, either.

"The only person I've seen wander around all over black feathers lately is Bob," Methos said, sounding as casual as possible while calling up yesterday's roadside encounter in his memory.

"Bob?" Mulder looked up. "As in Bob's Auto Repair, that Bob?" At Methos's confirming nod, Mulder got to his feet again. "Did you ask him why?"

"No, I didn't. But he wasn't engaged in an unspeakable act of demon worship, he had his van parked just down the road here and he was carrying his tools." Methos leaned back against the wall, and winced a little as if to suggest pressure on a bruised shoulder. "I assumed he had been cleaning someone's clogged drain." And why would he then take up housebreaking, wearing his work clothes? Maybe someone had stolen Bob's overalls and then... no, that was just too far-fetched.

Mulder seemed to be trying not to scowl and not to grin at the same time. Scully bagged the last piece of feather and turned to Methos. "Would you excuse us for a moment, Mr. Franklin?" The firm voice and the look in her eyes wasn't something he could tangle with without coming across as a very different person from who he wanted Charles Franklin to be, so he just nodded and smiled and went back to the kitchen, where he stopped just inside the door and strained to hear what they were saying.

"I know he's a suspect," Mulder said, "but I really don't think he's planting all the stuff in this house. It's someone else."

"I think we should talk to Bob." Scully's voice was still just as firm.

"Come on, Scully. He was probably just fixing the Jacksons' kitchen sink — remember, they talked about it yesterday when we got here?"

"Yes, I remember, and I think it's very likely that that's where the feathers are from. I don't believe they have any occult significance, but I do believe that we're looking for someone who leaves a trail of feathers, and Bob seems to be a good candidate." Methos nodded in silent encouragement. There was a short pause, and then she went on, slightly aggrieved, "They even smell like something out of a clogged drain."

"There was a bad smell in the school yesterday, and out in the woods."

"Bob works as a part-time janitor at the school, doesn't he? He had access to that storage room, he had access to the classrooms, he has access to people's drains, and now it looks as though he's also got access to this house — there's no sign of forced entry, and if we can believe Mr. Franklin, the door was locked..." Her voice trailed off, and then she picked up again, "If Bob is the odd-job man in China, as he seems to be, he probably has the right kind of tools to deal with locks, too."

"Scully, it wasn't Bob who was running around out in the woods last night."

"No, it was you and Charles Franklin. Look, Mulder, all I'm saying is that if you're convinced that these incidents are related to Rob Tyler's death, I'd think you would want to talk to him. He's a possible suspect and he's relatively easy to investigate, which your mysterious creature is not."

"You said you'd come out with me and look for prints," Mulder cajoled.

There was a smile in her voice as she said, "All right, I will."

Methos pictured Mulder leading Scully four miles in the wrong direction, and shook his head. He strode across the kitchen just in time to stand casually looking into the fridge when Mulder appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Franklin?" Mulder looked all business. "Would you mind coming with Agent Scully and myself to retrace our excursion in the woods last night?"

Methos grinned. "Just let me get my boots."

With boots and coat on, sword a comfortable presence inside the lining, he led the agents through the overgrown orchard at the back of the house, heading for the place where he and Mulder had run in among the trees last night. The fall foliage was beautiful in the sun, leaves looking as sharp and bright as dragon scales, shimmering in the light breeze. Methos followed the tracks of Mulder's wingtips and his own boots, wondering how the woods could have seemed so dense to him last night. It was certainly much easier going now, in daylight, at a sensible pace.

He had to admit, though, that last night's crazy chase had been oddly enjoyable. Not the parts where branches had slapped back in his face as Mulder raced ahead, maybe, but the exhilaration of running, of having a serious adrenaline rush that had nothing to do with swords, of grabbing Mulder and kissing him just because he was there and he had a great mouth and sometimes, damn it, it was good to act first and think later.

Methos smiled a little to himself and took a longer step over a muddy patch. Now there was a sentiment that his friends would probably not even believe in, coming from him. MacLeod would be Scottishly skeptical, and Joe would just give him that look, the look Methos had seen so much of while they'd chased Amy. Well, contrary to what they believed, he could be impulsive, he could do things without any elaborate plan or complex motive. Once every millennium or so.

It was a little chilly under the trees, despite the sunlight filtering down through the branches. Methos did up a button on his coat, feeling pretty sure he could get it undone again if there was a hostile immortal lurking down in the ravine he and Mulder had practically fallen into. Behind him, Mulder asked, "Did we really come this far before we came close to it?"

Methos slowed down a bit and scanned the ground again. He wasn't going to bend down and get intimate with the footprints; he was a travel writer, he reminded himself, maybe a travel writer with a very good sense of direction, but nothing more than that. "It was over there somewhere," he said, waving his hand vaguely to the right.

He stayed where he was as both Mulder and Scully walked 'over there' and started to look around. It wasn't really any of his business if they found anything. Leaning against a tree trunk, he turned his face up into a patch of sunlight and relaxed. Leaf shadows danced over his hands and throat. He loved this weather, neither warm nor cold; loved this time of year, too short to be called a season, when nature balanced on the cusp of change. It was too beautiful to ignore, even knowing it would come again, and again. It was—

"Are you sure it was here?"

With a blink, Methos refocused on the agents. Scully was walking in a slow, methodical zigzag pattern over the area he'd indicated; Mulder was just standing there, one hand in the pocket of his coat. "No," Methos said. "It was dark and we were running. I think it was somewhere around here, but I forgot to carve my initials in a tree to mark the spot."

"Mulder, I can't find anything," Scully said, "and there's plenty of bare, muddy earth. Are you sure there was something out here? Maybe you just heard some birds, or some small animal—"

"No." Mulder shook his head. "That was not a small animal, Scully. It was out here, and it chased us."

Scully turned to look at Methos, who immediately said, "I don't know what it was. It was big, it smelled bad, and it bellowed like a grizzly on steroids. But I didn't get a good look at it."

She didn't seem convinced that they hadn't both made a drunken exaggeration out of a squirrel, but joined in the search as they spent the next hour slowly going over the area where Methos felt sure something had been last night, something big enough that there should be signs of its presence. He could have sworn he'd heard branches breaking, and those heavy steps should have sunk into the soft earth. But there was nothing to indicate its presence, whatever it had been, just his own tracks and Mulder's.

Eventually, it was Scully who straightened up and said, "I don't think we're going to find anything."

"It was here, Scully," Mulder said, but he looked more resigned than contentious. "But I don't think we're going to find anything either. Okay, I'll come with you and check out your hunch about old Mr. Tyler."

"It's not a hunch, Mulder," she said. "It's... a suspicion." Methos grinned at that, as they started to go back towards the house again. Scully took out her cell phone. "I'll call the sheriff's office. I'm not sure if they have the information we want." The faint beeps of the phone were almost drowned by birdsong. Methos wondered if old Mr. Tyler was the man referred to locally as Old Wicked; he thought about asking Agent Scully, but she was frowning at the phone. "The line's busy."

"At least someone's there," Mulder said. "Try again. Mr. Franklin, it might be a good idea for you to come down to the sheriff's office with us, to report the break-in."

"I suppose I should," Methos said. He felt a bit reluctant, not so much at reporting the matter to the police as at having to tell Mrs. Tyler about it, since that involved telling her that he'd broken into her attic as well, which would detract from his image as a model tenant. Then again, he reflected, it was possible Mrs. Cobbler had noticed the missing mattress when she was up there and had already told her daughter-in-law about it, so he might as well confess manfully as soon as possible. He smiled to himself. Honesty was, just occasionally, the best policy.

Scully tried to call the sheriff's office four more times on their way back to the house, but the line remained busy, and when she tried Marion Jackson's cell phone, that was busy too. Methos quirked a brow. Was everyone in China calling in this fine morning to report unknown intruders and strange creatures? They came back to the house and, for a wonder, found it as they'd left it, with all doors still closed and locked.

"Still busy," Scully said, putting the phone back in her pocket. "We may as well just go down there."

Methos nodded agreement. Scully led the way now, he and Mulder followed her, and he looked sideways at the agent to find that Mulder was looking sideways at him at the same time. The brief meeting of eyes turned into a spark. Last night had been good, about as good as casual sex between strangers could get, Methos thought. That didn't change the fact that he and Mulder were most definitely not made for each other. Mulder was the last person he should even think about getting involved with.

But one more round of really good sex wouldn't hurt, would it?

The next time Mulder glanced towards him, Methos met that look with one that said, It was great. Wanna do it again? Mulder blinked, stumbled on the uneven road, and almost crashed into Scully. Methos smiled, put his hands in his pockets and resisted the temptation to whistle a jaunty little tune. It was impulsive and possibly stupid, but he was already mixed up somehow in all this, he might as well enjoy himself.

China's idyllic main street looked as peaceful as ever. The stores were starting to open. A terrier waiting patiently outside the diner whuffed at them as they went past. Scully's heels clicking against the pavement seemed to be the loudest sound in the entire little town. She pushed the door to the sheriff's office open and they all went inside.

It was empty. At the front desk, the phone lay off the hook, the receiver abandoned on top of a pile of papers, next to a half-full coffee mug. Much as Methos hated to admit it, the effect was slightly eerie. He stayed by the desk as Mulder and Scully quickly went through the place and confirmed that all the other rooms were empty as well. When they came to rejoin him, Scully had her cell phone to her ear again, and Methos heard the faint insistent beep of a busy signal.

"Try the Jacksons," Mulder said, then looked at his watch. "No, she'll be at work. Try the school." Scully got out a notebook and began to flip through it, presumably for phone numbers.

"I think I'll just come back later," Methos said, starting to walk backwards towards the door. This wasn't really any of his business, no one could expect him to help two Federal agents track down a sheriff and a couple of deputies, and he definitely wasn't going to sit around here and wait for however long it took. "I'll, ah, go get some breakfast at the diner."

Scully just nodded, wielding her cell phone like a lethal weapon. Mulder raised a hand in acknowledgement without turning around, but then said something that sounded suspiciously like "And don't leave town," just as Methos slipped outside again.

Sooner or later, he told himself, he really would have to leave town. But not just yet, and the decision had very little to do with his car. For now, it was still a lovely morning and a second breakfast did sound good. Methos wandered back to the diner and paused to pet the friendly terrier before going inside. He was hit by a wave of smells: bacon, coffee, the sticky-sweetness of syrup poured over French toast, the sharp tang of cheap perfume. This had to be the tail end of the breakfast rush. The counter was still crowded, but there were several empty booths and he slid into one, picking up the laminated menu and brushing spilled sugar off it.

Pancakes would be nice. The coffee would probably be awful, but he might have some anyway. When a waitress appeared a few moments later, Methos ordered enough food for two and settled back to wait for it, slouching down on the padded bench and stretching his legs out under the table. He looked towards the counter and noticed that most of the customers clustered there were women, and at the center of the group was a shock of bright green hair. So, the friendly Gina was getting ready for another day of squashing people's tomatoes. "—expect from someone who never even managed to pay the bills on time?" she was saying, shaking her head. "Look at him, doing odd jobs all over town, and still he claims that things are going so badly for him..."

A plate clattered down in front of him, followed by a steaming mug of coffee. "Enjoy your breakfast!"

Methos looked at the stack of pancakes and wondered if he hadn't overestimated his appetite. He smiled a thank you at the waitress, sipped at the coffee, which was as bad as he'd thought it would be, and found that he hadn't managed to tune out Gina's voice. "If he's late with another alimony payment, he's going to be Bob in need of auto repairs by the time I'm done with him."

Methos poured syrup over the pancakes and bit back a surprised smile. It was a small town. The woman next to Gina patted her arm. "I think if he's not careful he might have two sets of alimony payments to keep up with, or knowing Bob, not keep up with."

"Yeah?" Gina scowled. "I told Laura she shouldn't marry him. But did she listen?"

The other woman didn't try to answer that. "She's gone to stay with her aunt in Indianapolis. I went by yesterday to ask about Billy's bike and I swear Bob has at least a week's worth of dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Yuck. I don't think Laura's going to like coming home to a house that smells like everything in the fridge died."

Putting his fork down, Methos looked at the women by the counter. Gina's friend, a short blonde with pale peach lipstick and sparkling eyes, looked honest and reliable, but yesterday, Bob had invited Methos to come over and meet his wife, without a word about her being away. Maybe that had just been idle talk. Maybe Bob was delaying the repair of Methos's car just so that Methos would still be in town when Laura returned. No, that was ridiculous. Much more likely that this woman had misunderstood something or was making up a story of Bob and Laura's difficulties to comfort Gina, and why did he care, anyway?

"I think this has gone far enough," Gina said. "I think it's time—"

Except that Bob had apparently broken into the house where Methos was staying and stolen a brass knob off an abandoned bedframe, which was just as ridiculous but appeared to be true. There was something seriously wrong with that man.

"Gina, think about it. You know you've been in a bad mood since — um — with your hair, and all that."

Gina glowered. "Never you mind my hair. It's gone far enough, and I think it's time to talk to Lucy about it." She set her coffee mug down with an angry clatter. "I know she has other things on her mind with this business with poor Mary, but sooner or later someone has to tell Bob that he just can't carry on like this."

Methos bent his head and concentrated on his pancakes for a while. It wouldn't do to let breakfast get cold just because he had developed an unaccountable fascination with small-town gossip. Bob seemed to be in trouble on all fronts, what with his wife walking out on him, his ex-wife considering calling down the wrath of Lucy Cobbler on him, and Agent Scully intent on proving that he was a feather-covered burglar. And if Gina strangled him, as she seemed only too tempted to do, Bob would find that his troubles had only just begun.

Heaven forfend. Methos found himself fervently hoping that nothing fatal would happen to Bob within the next few days. He didn't want a student. He most definitely did not want Bob Watson for a student. Neither did he want to consider the possibility of Bob Watson dying, coming to life again, and going on Jerry Springer to talk about it.

Was it only yesterday he'd been thinking what a pleasant, peaceful place China was?

The diner door jangled open and two men strode inside; everyone turned to look at them, conversations left dangling in mid-air. Methos straightened up, too, in response to the air of urgency they projected. The one on the left had to be Jackson's deputy, a worried-looking young man with curly brown hair, and the other one, in jeans and a plaid shirt, resembled him enough to be a brother. It's that kind of town, Methos thought glumly.

The deputy cleared his throat. "This is a call for volunteers," he said, looking at the crowd by the counter. "Jenny Hamilton is missing from her home, she's been missing since last night, and there's a strong chance she's lost in the woods. Everyone who can join in the search, meet up at the Hamilton house in twenty minutes. Warm clothing, good shoes, you know the drill."

"What happened?" Gina called out, and the whole diner erupted into worried questions. Methos took a last bite of pancake and washed it down with a mouthful of bad coffee as he listened. Jenny Hamilton's parents had tucked her into bed last night, found the bed empty and the window open this morning. A child out alone at night in the woods around China — Methos remembered the sound and the smell of whatever had chased him and Mulder. He put his fork down and dug out his wallet, scooted out of the booth and went over to the counter.

It took a few moments before he could catch the waitress' attention, pay for his breakfast, and get another coffee to go. Then he followed the group of women out of the diner, and hitched a ride with the peach-lipsticked blonde to the Hamilton house.

* * *

The sky was beginning to cloud over. Mulder slogged forward between the trees with his eyes on the ground, looking for a glimpse of dark blue, remembering the little girl's coat that had come all the way from New York. Off to his right he could hear Scully call out again, "Jenny! Jenny!" and the cry was echoed farther off in other voices. There was no answer.

As he'd already discovered on his midnight adventure with Franklin, the terrain around China was uneven, heavily wooded, full of rocky hills and cracks and ravines and crevasses and streambeds, an endless number of places for a small girl to disappear into. Jenny Hamilton was an intelligent, self-possessed child. Mulder didn't think she'd be frightened by all the adults shouting her name. If she didn't answer, it was because she couldn't. Maybe she was injured and feverish, lying hidden somewhere. Maybe the goat creature had decided to go for easier, smaller prey.

Mulder walked on, his jaw set, unable to relax enough even to call out the girl's name. They were at the crest of a hill, but trees blocked the view. He looked behind every rock, under every clump of bushes, trying to find a sign that Jenny had passed that way. Mulder knew he wasn't the outdoors type, but he could recognize the footprints of a small girl when he saw them.

He didn't see them. Working his way along the downslope, he found no sign that anyone had passed that way during the last fifty years; it was heavily overgrown, and he got tangled up on fallen branches and creeping vines more often than not. At the bottom of the slope was a deep ditch and he looked to the right to see Scully take a deep breath before jumping over it. Mulder followed her example, slipped on a muddy patch and soaked his left foot.

They emerged onto a narrow country road to find several cars and a group of people waiting. Mulder spotted Sheriff Jackson, who waved at him to come over. He went that way, squelching as he walked, moving slowly to give Scully time to catch up with him. Looking down at her as she reached his side, he saw that she seemed just as dispirited as he felt. Jenny had been missing for almost twenty hours, and there was no sign of her anywhere. The search had covered most of the area around the Hamilton house, the perimeter drawn as far out as a small girl could reasonably be expected to walk. Scully met his eyes, the same grim knowledge in hers, and put a hand on his arm for a moment, squeezing and then letting go as they came up to the sheriff.

"It's good of you two to help out," Marion Jackson said. He was looking pale and drawn, too. "I know this isn't what you came here for. Wayne told me he found the two of you in the office, you'd been looking for something?"

"We were looking at your records concering a death that occurred about twenty-five years ago," Scully said. "I hope you don't mind, sheriff — there was no one there when we came in, and your filing system is so well organized we had no trouble finding what we were looking for."

"No, no, I don't mind." Marion Jackson sighed and rubbed the back of his hand over his forehead. "You're welcome to look into anything you want. Now, I've got new volunteers lined up. You two should get something to eat and get back to your investigation. There's coffee and sandwiches over there." He nodded towards where most of the search party stood crowded around the back of an open van, warming cold fingers on styrofoam cups.

"We'd be glad to stay and help if you think there's anything we can do," Scully said. Mulder just nodded.

The sheriff shook his head. "Forest service is sending us people, and they're coming in from the next town over, too. You two have been out here for seven hours without a break. I don't want to face charges of mistreating Federal agents," the smile was a half-hearted effort, "but thanks for what you've done. I appreciate it."

"How are Jenny's parents taking it?" Mulder asked. "They haven't thought of anything from last night that might help, anything Jenny said before going to bed, anything they heard?"

"Nothing." Marion Jackson leaned back against the patrol car. "There wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and then in the morning the window was open and she was gone. Marcus Hamilton is very upset. Ann is holding up a little better, but..."

Mulder thought about asking about bright lights, missing time. But it didn't seem right. Strange as Jenny Hamilton's disappearance was, he didn't think she'd been abducted by any extraterrestrial entities. He was more inclined to think it had something to do with the other mystery in China. Jenny Hamilton had already been a witness to strange events. "We'll find her," he said. "You'll find her."

The sheriff nodded, but he didn't look too hopeful. Mulder and Scully went towards the van and the promised coffee, and Mulder was surprised to spot Charles Franklin in the group already clustered there. He had a sandwich in one hand and a coffee cup in the other and a smear of dirt down one cheek; his jeans were filthy and he was talking to a small blonde woman who wasn't much cleaner.

Scully got herself a sandwich, but Mulder settled for coffee. It was bad, but warm. He sipped at it slowly. "Jackson's right, we should get back to our case. Do you really think there's a connection between Thomas Tyler's death and the theft from the attic?" Scully asked before biting into the bread and cheese.

"That's where Tyler hanged himself. And I think—"

"But, Mulder, that doesn't mean—"

He was determined to finish the argument; the deputy had interrupted them that morning before they really got going. "There has to be a reason why someone drew a protective circle up there. And that circle was broken when the house was rented to Charles Franklin. That's when strange things started to happen in China, it started right there. Everyone is focused on the attic — Mrs. Tyler, Mrs. Cobbler, the unknown burglar."

"And Charles Franklin," Scully added with a wry sideways look. "But, Mulder, it's just an attic full of junk. I think the real significance of what happened to old Mr. Tyler is that he hanged himself after a quarrel with some of his neighbors. It sounded as though he was practically driven to it. A feud of that kind could well have blossomed up again recently."

"It could," Mulder agreed, "but that doesn't explain the strange prints in the kitchen, or the creature in the woods. If it was a vendetta against Bob Tyler, why were there bloody prints on the kitchen floor in the old Tyler house, after Bob Tyler's death?"

"If it's a vendetta against the Tylers," Scully said, "Mrs. Tyler could be at risk."

They were still looking at each other, Mulder over the rim of his coffee cup, Scully over her sandwich, when Charles Franklin came strolling up to them. "I don't suppose you've found my mysterious burglar yet," he said.

Mulder shook his head. "You've been out with the search party all day?"

"Yes. As you can see." Franklin looked down at his jeans mournfully. "There are caves on the far east side of that hill," he nodded the way they'd come, "and for some reason I volunteered to crawl in."

Scully gave Franklin a look that came close to being approving. "We've been out here all day, too," she said.

Franklin nodded. "I thought I might report the break-in," he said, "but it looks as though the sheriff's moved his office out here and I think he has other things on his mind."

"If you talk to him, he'll probably tell you to fill in a report and leave it on his desk," Mulder said with a half-smile.

"First the bloody hoofprints, and now this." Franklin sipped at his coffee and made a face. "Tell me that it wasn't human blood, at least."

"Goat blood," Mulder said. Scully had called the lab in Indianapolis from the sheriff's office. It had been goat blood in the hoofprints, the stains in the school supply room, and in Robert Tyler's lungs. A tox screen on Tyler had come up clean.

"The moment the Blue China Motor Lodge opens up for business again, I'm there," Franklin said. "Ordinary burglars would be bad enough. Burglars covered in feathers, who apparently carry buckets of animal blood — that's just a little too eccentric for me, I'm afraid."

"You mentioned this morning that you'd seen Bob Watson with feathers on his coveralls," Scully put in, with a look up at Mulder that told him to pay attention. "Was that yesterday?"

"Yes. He was parked right outside the Tylers' place, we chatted for a minute." Franklin looked into his coffee cup, then emptied the remains into the ditch. "But there were no buckets of blood in evidence."

"Watson is one of the few people who might actually have a legitimate reason to get wet feathers on his clothes," Mulder said, starting to think it through. The feathers must have come from somewhere, though, and black feathers... "You say he was parked outside the Tylers'?"

Franklin looked over his shoulder, then turned back and nodded. "Yes, he was. I'll go over to the sheriff and just mention the break-in. It seems to be the right thing to do." He shot Mulder a look that Mulder could feel all the way down into the toes of his cold wet foot. "Don't worry, I won't leave town." And then he'd turned his back and was walking away.

Scully watched him walk away with an expression on her face that Mulder was hard pressed to read, or maybe it was more that he didn't want to. When she turned back to him, she was all business. "We should hitch a ride into town and go back to our investigation," she said.

Mulder nodded, but he was still chasing down fleeting thoughts that had been sent spinning by Franklin's look. According to the lab reports, the feathers were ordinary chicken feathers. Chicken. Wait. "Scully, do you remember the report about chicken theft that was on the sheriff's desk?"

"No." No, of course she didn't, it had been upside down and Mulder had only looked at it out of curious habit. "The first thing we need to do is—"

"Bob Tyler had been cleaning out someone's drains," Mulder interrupted her. "He was parked outside the Tylers' house. There were black chicken feathers in the drain. Someone has been stealing chickens recently."

"Stealing chickens and tossing them down the drain?" Scully lifted an eyebrow. "Mulder—"

"When we went to interview her, Mrs. Tyler was working on some kind of protective spell in her kitchen." Mulder had a clear visual memory of her frightened face. "It's my belief that she stole and used that black chicken and called up something and now she's afraid of it."

Scully drew a deep breath. "Mulder, I have heard some far-fetched theories from you over the years, but this is one of the most unbelievable. Bob Watson is our most likely suspect, yet you're determined to find someone else based on nothing more than a report about some chickens, color unknown, that were probably taken by a fox or a cat."

"What about those things in Mrs. Tyler's kitchen?"

"What things?" Scully shook her head, then took Mulder's elbow in a firm grip and began to push him forward. "The deputy's leaving. Let's see if he can give us a ride into China."

Wayne was agreeable, and they got into the patrol car just as the first drops of rain began to fall. Mulder looked out at the road, at the people who now turned up their collars and huddled together. Franklin was talking to Sheriff Jackson. The small blonde woman over by the van turned her face up into the rain.

For a moment he wanted to stay, to keep looking for Jenny. Then the car started, and Mulder leaned back. If it was true that Jenny's disappearance was connected to the creature in the woods, he could be of more use trying to find out more about that than in slogging around unfamiliar terrain, particularly when there were more experienced people searching.

Wayne was a fast driver, and it wasn't long before they'd reached China. He pulled up outside the diner. "Thank you," Scully said, and Mulder nodded agreement. They got out. The rain was heavier now, and China's main street looked less pretty and picturesque in the grey light. All the colorful autumn leaves seemed less bright.

Mulder stepped in under the diner's awning, which was already starting to drip in places, and turned to Scully. "I think we should talk to Mrs. Tyler," he said.

"Yes, I know." Raindrops beaded in her hair, and one was caught on the tip of her eyelashes until she blinked and it escaped to run down her cheek. Mulder fought an urge to chase it with his finger. "And I believe we should talk to Bob Watson first." Scully swiped the water off her cheek herself.

About to argue, Mulder drew a deep breath and reconsidered. "We could split up," he said. "You look for Watson and I'll go see Mrs. Tyler. It's possible they're both out with the search teams, but it's worth a try."

Scully nodded. "I'll start by checking out Bob's Auto Repair. And I'll call you if I find out anything," she said.

He wanted to tell her to be careful, but he knew that wouldn't go over well. In the end he just touched her arm, lightly, and set off down the main street. Before he was halfway to the Tyler house the rain had flattened his hair to his head and he was damp all over, not just his left foot. He wondered what Mrs. Tyler had been trying to do with the black chicken, if she'd really meant to call up the foul goat creature, and what the connection was with old Mr. Tyler and his suicide. It seemed clear that she was afraid of something, and after the chase in the woods, Mulder wasn't surprised.

When he reached the Tyler house he saw that the lights were on in the kitchen window. Mulder went through the gate and up the gravel path, noticing that the kitchen chairs and the crime scene tape around them were still there. He knocked on the door and waited.

The door opened a crack and Mrs. Tyler looked suspiciously at him. Her hair looked uncombed and her cardigan was buttoned up wrong, and she was holding a plant mister. "Yes?"

"I'd like to ask you some more questions, Mrs. Tyler, concerning the death of your husband."

She hesitated visibly, and then said, "All right." Her tone of voice was reluctant, but she let the door swing open, and Mulder stepped forward only to see her raise the plant mister and spray him in the face with it. The sting of salt in one eye made him blink and swear, reaching out to the doorpost to steady himself.

"You don't think I'm wet enough?" he said when he could open his eye again.

"I'm sorry." Her voice was a little warmer now. "My hand slipped."

Her hand had most definitely not slipped, Mulder knew; she'd taken deliberate aim at him. But he was starting to get a pretty good idea of why she'd done it, so he just nodded and stepped into the house. Mrs. Tyler led him into the kitchen, which was much neater today. The bunches of herbs hung at the window, Mulder noticed as he took a chair by the kitchen table. "Mrs. Tyler—"

"Have you found out anything about what — who killed my husband?"

He caught her eyes across the table. "You think it's a what and not a who, don't you?"

They looked at each other for a moment and then she turned her head away, biting her lip. "I don't know what you're talking about, Agent Mulder. I thought you had something to tell me about my husband's murder."

"I think you have something to tell me about it," he said. "What is it you're trying to protect yourself against?" Mrs. Tyler didn't answer. "You called up that creature, didn't you? Didn't you?"

"No!" Her hand clenched, white-knuckled, on the plant mister, and then relaxed. "You don't know — I don't know what you're talking about."

Mulder thought about pushing — she seemed so close to breaking — but he might just get another faceful of salt water. He chose a different tack. "Tell me about your husband's father, then. Thomas Tyler."

Mrs. Tyler went perfectly still, and for a moment he thought she would faint. "What about him?" she whispered through colorless lips.

"Tell me about how he died."

A few deep breaths seemed to steady her, but she was still pale. She looked around the kitchen as if to gather strength. "He committed suicide." Her voice grew more firm as she went on, "I don't see what this has to do with my husband's death. Surely you don't suggest—"

"Don't you? I think you do, Mrs. Tyler. What was up in the attic of the old Tyler house?"

She jumped to her feet and the mister went flying, spraying the kitchen floor. The color rushed back into her face. "Get out!" she said. "It was Robbie who decided to let the house. He didn't know, we didn't know what would happen. I want you to get out of my house."

Mulder got up, too, and moved towards her, step by careful step, reaching out with one hand. "Why did Thomas Tyler kill himself?"

"He was driven to it." Mrs. Tyler stared at his hand and shook his head. "You can't help me," she said. Mulder edged slowly closer, seeing her lower lip tremble. "You can't — oh!" She collapsed forward, burying her face against his chest, and Mulder put his hands on her shoulders. "Oh God," a muffled wail, "what am I going to do?"

He patted one of her shoulders, feeling like an idiot. One of her hands had come up to clench into his trenchcoat collar. Mulder stared down at Mrs. Tyler's straggly hair and wished Scully had come with him. "Tell me about it," he said. "Just tell me about it, Mrs. Tyler."

"He was going to take a child," she sobbed, and Mulder went cold. "That's why he had to be stopped. I never dreamed it would turn out like this! All we wanted was—"

There was a knock on the door, and Mrs. Tyler jerked away from Mulder again. When she heard the sound of the door opening, she rushed for the kitchen table and grabbed up her plant mister, and turned back towards the kitchen door just in time to see Mrs. Cobbler, in a red and orange dress today, rubber-booted feet planted firmly on the floor. "Really, Mary," she said, dismissing Mrs. Tyler and the mister with one withering look, and turning towards Mulder. "This is inconvenient. Please sit down, Agent Mulder."


Mulder shook his head. "I'd like to talk to you as well, Mrs. Cobbler, about recent events in China. I believe—"

"Sit down, Agent Mulder." To his own surprise, Mulder pulled out a chair and sat down. Lucy Cobbler went up to him, digging into the left-hand pocket of her sleeveless vest and taking out a cloth bag about the size of a man's fist. "This won't take long."

"Mother!" Mary Tyler sounded frantic. "Mother, I can explain—"

"Later, dear." Mrs. Cobbler untied the string that held the bag together and took out a pinch of something, starting to sprinkle it on the floor. It was a thin grey dust — no, it was sand, trickling between her fingers. Mulder watched in fascination as she went in a circle around him. "We need him out of the way. I can't possibly allow you to involve the FBI in this, Mary. You've caused more than enough harm already."

"Mrs. Cobbler," Mulder said, and tried to get up from the chair. He couldn't. His legs wouldn't move, his arms didn't obey him. Lucy Cobbler finished the circle and went over to the kitchen counter, bending down to the lowest drawer and pulling it open. When she straightened she was holding a roll of duct tape. Mulder raised his voice. "Mrs. Cobbler, listen to me! I know what's going on—"

"I doubt that," she said, tearing off a strip as she walked towards him, and Mulder was about to try to convince her that he at least knew something, when she taped his mouth shut. After that, all he could do was sit where he was as she taped his legs and arms to the chair, carefully not scuffling the circle she'd drawn on the floor. "Mary, you'll have to come with me. And put that silly thing away." Mrs. Cobbler turned around and gestured at the plant mister. "It won't do you any good."

"My book said it would work." Mrs. Tyler sounded a little defiant, like the difficult teenager she must once have been.

"Your book." Mrs. Cobbler took the plant mister, unscrewed the top and poured the salt water down the sink. "Mary, you must learn to accept your limitations. Nothing you've found in your book would have worked if Robert hadn't let that young Englishman live in the house. Or if you'd given him a better mattress."

Mulder nodded, the only gesture that was left to him now that he was bound hand and foot. He was right, then, and the whole series of events had been sparked by Charles Franklin's presence in China, by Charles Franklin breaking the protective circle up in the attic. It seemed from Mrs. Cobbler's comments as though Franklin was innocent of any deliberate mischief, and Mulder felt relieved. He liked Franklin, a liking that had surprisingly little to do with the physical attraction between them.

"I didn't know what would happen," Mrs. Tyler said.

"Oh, wasn't that in your book?" Lucy Cobbler snorted. "Don't whine, Mary. This has gone entirely too far. I'm going to put the matter to rest the way it should have been done twenty-five years ago."

Mary Tyler shifted from foot to foot, hands deep in the pockets of her cardigan. For all her truculent air, there was something about her that suggested relief. Mother knows best, Mulder thought wryly. "C-can I help? I swear, I swear I didn't know it was him. And I didn't know he would call up — that—"

"Later," Lucy Cobbler said with a glance at Mulder. "Of course you'll have to help, I'll need you for a focus. I've already asked the others to meet us there."

"In the house? Isn't the Englishman there?"

"No, not the house." Mrs. Cobbler took her daughter's arm in a firm grip. "Come on now, girl. We're wasting time."

They left the kitchen, and not long afterwards, the front door opened. Mulder pulled in vain against the duct tape. He could wiggle his fingers, but that was all. The tape felt itchy against his face. He tried to poke at it with his tongue, but all that got him was a bad taste in his mouth. He'd been captured and tied up by a woman in her sixties who didn't even come up to his shoulder.

Looking down at the floor, he studied the sand circle. It was much less complex than the one he'd seen the remains of up in the attic of the old Tyler place, but somehow it had kept him from moving while she tied him to the chair. Even if he did manage to get free from the duct tape, which would make him a modern-day Houdini, he might not be able to get away from the chair and out of the kitchen.

The tape bit into his wrists. Mulder relaxed and tried to think rationally about what was happening. There was a cold draft coming in along the floor. It seemed that the women had forgotten to close the front door in their haste to get wherever they were going. Not the old Tyler house, Mrs. Cobbler had said, but then where were they going, and what were they going to do when they got there?

I swear I didn't know it was him, Mrs. Tyler had said. Something had been set free from the protective circle up in the attic. The attic where Thomas Tyler had hanged himself. So was all this trouble being caused by Thomas Tyler's ghost?

But that didn't make sense. Mulder shook his head to himself, making use of his limited range of motion as best he could. The ghost of Thomas Tyler would probably not be a giant goat that left bloody hoofprints. And Mary Tyler had done something, called up something that she was now afraid of, and she wouldn't have had to call up Thomas Tyler because he'd already been freed...

Wait, Mulder told himself. Back up. Start from the beginning.

Thomas Tyler had killed himself. According to Mary Tyler, he had been driven to it; according to the old report on his death, it had been after some kind of quarrel with his neighbors. Mary Tyler had said that he had wanted a child. Now the ghost of Thomas Tyler might be back, and there was a child missing. Mulder jerked at the duct tape. His hands were starting to go numb.

But what was that creature out in the woods? Was that what Mary Tyler had called up, and why? I swear I didn't know it was him. And she'd used the word we somewhere in there. Had Mary Tyler and the ghost of Thomas Tyler called it up together?

Something was out there, and it wanted a child. Something was out there and it probably already had a child, and maybe there was still a chance, if he could just get free, if he could find Lucy Cobbler and get her to tell him exactly what was going on, maybe there was a chance to save Jenny—

Mulder fought his bonds, but nothing happened. He'd seen enough people tied up with duct tape to know that his chances of getting free on his own were practically nonexistent, but he couldn't not try. He tried to rock the chair and make it fall, to break the circle that way, so that he could somehow wiggle his way out of the house and attract the attention of someone passing by, but it was as though the chair legs were nailed to the floor.

He didn't know how much time had passed when fatigue wore him down and he slumped forward, but outside the kitchen window, it was getting dark. Mulder tried to gather his strength for another struggle, when he finally heard the sound he'd been longing for: a human voice.

"Hello? Mrs. Tyler?" It sounded like Charles Franklin. He must have seen the open door when he passed by on his way up to the old Tyler house. Mulder held his breath and was rewarded by hearing footsteps approaching. The kitchen was the only room in the house where the lights were on, as far as he knew, so of course Franklin would go there first. "Mrs. Tyler? Is everything all right?"

Franklin appeared in the kitchen door, still in the same muddy jeans, looking rain-damp and tired. When he saw Mulder he came to a full stop, and raised both eyebrows. Mulder glared. Franklin shook his head slightly, went across the kitchen floor and through the ring of sand as though it wasn't there, and began to tease at one corner of the strip of tape covering Mulder's mouth. When he'd freed enough to get a good grip, he tore it loose in one swift motion.

"Ow!" Mulder made a face, licked his lips, and made a worse face. There was never going to be a market for duct-tape-flavored candy. "Thanks."

Franklin knelt on the floor and began to free Mulder's left wrist. "Don't mention it. I'm always happy to assist the FBI." Another piece of tape ripped free, taking with it a quantity of hair from Mulder's wrist. He sucked in a sharp breath, felt Franklin's strong fingers pat him almost absently before starting in on the next strip of tape. "Have you been overpowered by the villain, or is this a bondage game gone wrong?"

"Hurry," Mulder said ungratefully, flexing his left wrist. His hand tingled painfully with pins-and-needles. "There might still be a chance to save Jenny."

Franklin was instantly serious, looking up with a sharp, focused expression on his face. "You know where she is?"

"No. But Mrs. Cobbler knows, and I'm going to make her tell me." His left leg was free and he straightened it, wiggling the foot, as Franklin moved to the other side. He had to find Lucy Cobbler and Mary Tyler. "They didn't go back to the house," Mulder thought out loud. "They're not going to use the attic again, there's always the chance of someone stumbling in there—"

"Practically Grand Central Station," Franklin agreed, making short work of the tape around Mulder's right wrist. "What are you talking about, or do I not want to know? And where is Mrs. Tyler?"

Something Scully had said last night came back to click into place in Mulder's mind, the missing puzzle piece. "The cemetery," he said. "They've gone to the cemetery."

Franklin scrunched the duct tape into a ball and dropped it onto the kitchen table. "They've gone to the cemetery," he repeated slowly. "And you know this because...?"

Getting to his feet, Mulder was relieved to find that he wasn't as stiff as he thought, and that he could easily step over the line of grey sand. "They've gone to Thomas Tyler's grave." He shook his shoulders into place. "Come on."

He strode outside, Franklin at his heels. The rain was only a fine drizzle now, falling from a dark starless sky. Mulder pushed the door shut and set off for the road. Franklin walked next to him, hands deep in the pockets of his coat. After a while he said, "You think she's alive?"

"I hope she is." Mulder lengthened his stride. It was a good thing China was a small town. The rental car probably still stood outside the Jacksons' house, but Scully had the car keys. He'd seen a sign to the cemetery as they were entering the town. No, wait. Scully had said Thomas Tyler was buried in the churchyard. He grabbed Franklin's arm. "Do you know where the church is?"

"Yes." Franklin looked a little bemused, but he changed direction, leading Mulder down a side street. "This way."

There was barely anyone out on the streets in China this evening, either walking or driving. Mulder wondered if the search for Jenny had drawn more volunteers. They passed the school: it was dark and empty. The streets were full of bright autumn leaves, rained down and trampled by feet and wheels. Franklin turned left, and Mulder followed him. They were walking along a high wrought-iron fence now, with large, dark, rustling rhododendron bushes growing on the other side. Eventually they reached a gate, standing part-way open. Mulder went inside, and then stopped when gravel crunched loudly under his feet. He held up a hand. "Sssshhh."

When he listened carefully, he could make out a voice in the distance. Mulder thought it was coming from behind the church somewhere. He went up on the grass verge by the gravel path and ran that way. The church itself was only a largeish dark shape in the evening gloom, but it was something to aim for. Mulder followed the side of the building when he reached it, and then skidded to a stop by the corner, feet slipping on the wet grass and leaves. He put a hand on the church wall to steady himself and looked around the corner.

It was hard to make out details in the rain-misted darkness. A group of people were standing in a loose semicircle with a headstone at the open end, as if at a funeral. By the headstone stood Mrs. Cobbler in her red and orange dress. She had both hands on the stone, which was a high, handsome piece of marble with a smooth front and an unpolished back. "You will leave this place, which is not your place," she said, and Mulder started; he could hear her voice as clearly as though she were standing right next to him, and for a moment he thought she was speaking to him. "You will leave this time, which is not your time. You will leave this place and never return. You will leave, Thomas Tyler, by the bones that are buried here, by the blood of your children, you will go and leave us in peace."

The wind rustled more loudly through the rhododendrons. There was a stirring in the air, a prickle of electricity like lightning dancing somewhere just out of reach. The air seemed to press down heavily. Mulder tensed, about to step forward, when he found himself taken in a hard grip and held in place, pulled back.

"Wait." He'd almost forgotten Franklin; the man moved as silently as a cat. Half turning his head, Mulder found a serious look on Franklin's face. "I don't think you should interrupt this."

Mulder didn't think he should either, but there was Jenny to be considered, the possibility that Mrs. Cobbler could tell him something that might reveal where Jenny was. Surely not here, silent among the dead. He pulled at Franklin's grip and was wrenched back by strong hands. Something hard dug into his shoulder blade and he drew breath to ask Franklin what the hell he carried inside his coat.

"You will leave forever, Thomas Tyler," Mrs. Cobbler cried. "You will relinquish the body you have taken, you will relinquish all claim on this world and its people. You will take your servant and go." Her voice was coldly commanding, cutting through the air like a whiplash.

Mulder stopped struggling so suddenly that Franklin and he both staggered backwards and nearly fell. He flung out a hand to steady himself and got a splinter in his palm from the wooden church wall.

Relinquish the body you have taken.

Oh, God.

Lucy Cobbler's voice rose into a slow, solemn, compelling chant, and Mulder felt his blood run cold.

He turned and grabbed Franklin by the shoulders, pulling him close, noting as if from a great distance that Franklin was all wet hair and nose. As he undoubtedly was himself. "Do you know where Bob Watson lives? Can you take me there?"

"Do I look like a tour guide to you, Mulder?" Franklin freed himself easily from Mulder's grasp, but then took one of his hands in a matter-of-fact way and began to lead him back the way they'd come. "I haven't been there, but he's given me directions in case I ever want to stop by." The wind was rising, whirling leaves over the grass and gravel. "Apparently I do. Are you going to tell me why?"

They made it out through the iron gate again, and it clanged shut behind them. "Because Scully was right," Mulder said, and they broke into a run.

Scully had chosen the right suspect to go after, but she had no idea, just as Mulder had had no idea, that Bob Watson was possessed by the spirit of Thomas Tyler. Not that she would believe it, but that was beside the point. Bob Watson, Thomas Tyler, whoever he was, he was a killer, and there was a great beast with hooves dipped in blood that was ready to do his bidding. Mulder pulled the cell phone from his pocket as he ran and stabbed at the buttons with his thumb. It rang, and rang again, a hopeful little beep that was never answered.


* * *

Methos hoped he was remembering Bob's sketchy directions correctly. He didn't want to have to tell Mulder that they'd come the wrong way. Mulder was ominously quiet, soft-eyed with worry, scowling when Methos slowed down to read the street signs. Turn right onto Washington and then straight ahead. That had to be here. That was probably here. He wished he had a flashlight; it was getting too dark to see the signs and there were no streetlights out here, but Mulder was already moving ahead. Methos shrugged and followed him.

Bob had told him to look for a brown shingled house with a green door. The wind had picked up, whirling leaves across the road, blowing the rain into Methos's eyes. He kept running, sword banging uncomfortably into his hip. He didn't know what conclusions Mulder might have jumped to back there in the churchyard, but it seemed clear at least that Agent Scully had gone to confront Bob Watson, and Mulder seemed to believe that Bob might be dangerous. And that thought made Methos pick up his pace.

It was too dark and rainy to make out the color of houses, let alone doors, but he finally caught sight of the van with BOB'S AUTO REPAIR painted on the side, parked in a driveway on the other side of the street. "Mulder!"

At first Methos thought the other man hadn't heard him, but then Mulder veered into the road, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a station wagon whose windscreen wipers were going furiously. Methos more prudently crossed behind the car and caught up with Mulder in the driveway. The house itself was, as most houses in China, set at some distance back from the street, tucked in snugly between two large trees, with the woods coming up behind it. Lights blazed from every window on the ground floor, spilling out in warm yellow rectangles onto the lawn.

They went up to the door, and Mulder knocked. Then he banged on the door with his fist. Then he wrenched it open.

The first thing that hit Methos was the smell of smoke and of burning plastic. The front door opened onto a square hall with stairs leading up to the right, and a narrower hallway straight ahead. The smoke was coming from the back of the house. Mulder was already inside, gun drawn. "Scully! Scully!"

"In here, Mulder!" She sounded tense.

They went down the hallway, Methos careful to keep well back from Mulder. The smell of burning plastic grew stronger. And there was something else in the air, too, something more subtle, and unpleasant, and entirely too familiar to him. Mulder burst into the kitchen, and Methos followed, stepping to one side of the doorway and unobtrusively putting his hand inside his coat to check on his sword.

Agent Scully was standing by the kitchen table with her left arm around Jenny Hamilton, who was shaking with fear, clinging to the small woman's jacket with both hands, crying with loud childish sobs. In her right hand Agent Scully held her gun, pointing it steadily at Bob Watson.

"Give her back to me," Bob said. His eyes were fixed on Agent Scully, and he didn't seem to notice that Mulder and Methos had come into the kitchen. "Give her back to me. I need her, he needs her."

He seemed to be outlined in flames — something was burning behind him in the kitchen sink, and the fire leaped upwards as Methos watched to catch in the curtains with a crackle and a hiss. When Bob raised his hand, Methos saw that he was holding a kitchen knife, an ordinary filleting knife. Red fire-sparks leaped along the blade.

"Put that down, Mr. Watson," Mulder said, his voice low and hypnotic. "Put the knife down. Don't listen to him. You don't want to do this."

"But he needs her, he needs..." Bob laughed.

Only then did Methos notice that there was a fifth person in the kitchen, someone sitting by the kitchen table, a woman, slumped forward. He edged slowly that way, and the smell, that other smell, grew stronger. Methos choked on a mixture of putrefaction and smoke. Not a fifth person, then. Not any more. A swollen, discolored hand lay on the table next to three carefully done-up bags in colored silk, the brass knob off the bed in the attic, and a bowl full of some dark fluid. Around the bowl was an elaborate, delicate pattern drawn in something fine and gleaming; it looked like gold dust.

This poor corpse had to be Mrs. Watson, the Laura Watson who was supposed to have gone to visit her aunt. The dark hair had fallen forward over her face, but Methos saw enough to judge that she had been dead several days, and sitting there the whole time, tied to the chair, he saw now, with electrical cords.

She'd certainly been dead when Bob had invited Methos to come by his house and read to his wife. Methos wondered what would have happened if he'd taken the man up on it — would he have been asked in to sit here and make conversation with the dead? Bob's mad jangling laugh rang out over the hiss of the fire. Methos looked up to see him take a step closer to Agent Scully, whose steady aim didn't waver.

"Don't listen to him," Mulder repeated. "It's not too late." He sounded soothing, convincing, as though he talked to madmen with big knives every day. Methos found that oddly reassuring. But the fire was spreading to the kitchen cabinets and the smoke was coming down around them, growing heavy. Jenny's weeping had died down to quiet little whimpers and coughs.

"But it is too late." Bob sounded almost reasonable for a moment. "Listen, can't you hear it? It's coming."

It seemed to Methos that they all paused and listened, caught by the words, the tone of voice. Was there something coming? It was easy to imagine, under the crackle of the fire, the sound of heavy steps getting closer, closer. "No," Mulder said, but Methos thought he heard it too. "You can't let this happen, Bob. You don't want this to happen."

"It's coming," Bob said again. He shifted from foot to foot excitedly, and cocked his head. "I called it. He called it, and now I called it."

Methos looked at the window where the remains of the kitchen curtains fluttered like fiery banners, and then he looked past the flames and out into the darkness and the woods beyond. Bob sounded too convincing. When he strained his eyes Methos thought he could almost see something, something moving like a deeper darkness in the night, something big and heavy, taking on shape as it approached, gaining reality, scent and weight and presence, shaking the earth with the steps of its cloven hooves...

This is ridiculous, he thought. The man is insane.

And then he brought his hand down and overturned the bowl, and the dark foul-smelling liquid ran out over the kitchen table, blurring the pattern, carrying the tiny sparks of gold away. Bob Watson turned his head with a snap and stared straight at Methos. "No!" he snarled, upper lip pulling back from his teeth. He lifted his hand. "No! I can't hear him any more! No!"

"Mr. Watson." Scully was hoarse from the smoke, but she sounded perfectly reasonable. "Put down the knife." Her hair shone in the firelight, gleaming metal like a warrior's helmet.

"Just put down the knife," Mulder chimed in, "and we'll all walk out of here."

But the madman shook his head. "It's not too late. I can do it again. He needs her," Bob sang, his face slick with sweat, his eyes jumping from Mulder to Scully and back again. "I need her." And then his voice rose to a shout, "Give her to me!"

He leaped, the knife flashed, and Scully fired.

Jenny screamed in shrill panic as Bob fell, scarlet blossoming on the front of his dirty white t-shirt. He went down heavily on the kitchen floor and the knife clattered away on the cork tiles. There was a moment of stillness and then he went into convulsions, shaking, his entire body contorting, and he screamed louder than Jenny, screamed his throat raw.

"Mulder," Scully said urgently, pushing Jenny Hamilton his way. Mulder picked the little girl up and held her close, pulling her head down against his shoulder, away from the sight of the fire and the screaming, bleeding man on the floor. Scully dropped down to one knee by Bob Watson, who was twisting this way and that in painful jerks. He looked like an animal in a trap. Methos went around the kitchen table and came up next to her just as she put her hands on Bob's chest to staunch the bleeding.

Bob writhed under her touch as if trying to get away. His screams rose to a frantic crescendo, and his head snapped back at an impossible angle. There was a crack, and then the body of Bob Watson slumped down and was silent.

Methos crouched down and ran his fingers along the upper vertebrae. "His neck's broken," he said, cursing silently and fluidly in seventeen languages. The last thing he wanted, the last thing China needed, was Bob Watson coming back to life again. Scully looked up, met his eyes for a long moment. Methos did his best to stuff himself back behind Charles Franklin's face again.

"The fire's spreading," he said, letting his voice shake a little. The stuff that had been in the bowl he'd overturned was acting as fuel, and flames were racing all along the floor.

At the same time Mulder shouted, "Scully! We have to get out of here!"

There was a kitchen door, right behind where Bob Watson had been standing, but they didn't try it. Mulder had turned to run for the front door, and Methos and Scully followed him, leaving the dead man and woman behind.

They burst out into the fresh air and got away from the house, stopping halfway down the drive to gasp and cough and breathe the cool, damp, wonderfully clean evening air. It had almost stopped raining. The cloud cover was starting to break up, the stars were coming out, icy bright and distant.

Methos recovered first and turned to look at the house. He could see the flames now through the open front door. Behind him Mulder was making soothing it's-all-right noises to Jenny. Scully cleared her throat and Methos turned his head to see her get out her cell phone and start dialing. The fire brigade would be coming soon, and the sheriff. A car passing in the street slowed down, and then stopped; people were starting to come out of neighboring houses down the road. He had to act quickly.

While Scully was on the phone, covering her other ear with a soot-and-blood-smeared hand, and Mulder was busy with Jenny Hamilton, Methos edged backwards until he could disappear into the shadow of one of the large trees, and circle around the house. As soon as he was away from Mulder and Scully, away from the street where people could see him, he felt for his sword again.

Behind the house was a smaller lawn, with a rusty café table and some mismatched plastic chairs, a couple of flowerbeds, and a small drainage ditch that divided the garden from the woods behind. Methos moved along it carefully. Looking down at the soft, wet ground, checking where he put his feet down, he saw something that looked like the print of a large cloven hoof. He started to bend down to get a closer look, but at that moment he felt what he'd been waiting for — the buzz, the tingle, the itch at the base of his spine and on the inside of his skull. He put one hand inside his coat, and waited.

It took ten heartbeats, and then the back door was wrenched open. Air rushed in, the flames leaped up, and a dark figure stood outlined against them for a moment before staggering outside. Bob Watson was black with burns, his skin flaking, crisped away by the fire. His lips cracked and bled as he smiled, teeth startlingly white in the dark face, a gleeful, crazy smile. Methos stepped forward, and Bob staggered towards him.

"Bob," Methos said quietly.

Bob Watson looked at him with lashless eyes. "He's calling me again," he said in a confiding tone. "I can feel it — can't you feel it? He won't let me die." A bubbling laugh rose into a wet cough.

"No, Bob, that's not what you're feeling. Listen—"

"He's calling me, and I'm going to find him," Bob said, "and we're going to rule the world." Then his voice dropped to a whisper. "He has such a powerful servant. It's coming. It's coming."

Methos took a deep breath. It didn't look as though there was anything left of Bob Watson that might be salvaged, and he was running short of time. He drew his sword, and firelight painted the blade red, running like blood. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry," he said, and swung.

The sword bit into flesh, cutting clean, and Bob Watson fell.

It was as though the entire world took a deep breath, and then let it out explosively. Wet leaves whirled over the grass, whipped by a rising wind into higher and higher spirals. The flames burned brighter. There was a ringing in his ears and a pressure on his eyes, and the kitchen window shattered into a thousand diamond-sharp fragments. Methos dropped to his knees, clenched his hands, and concentrated on getting enough air as the spark that was Bob Watson rushed into him, full of pain and madness. The shock of contact reverberated through his bones and made his teeth ache.

As quickenings went, it was a small one, and its effect passed quickly. Bob had barely been immortal for five minutes when he'd died again. Still, it hurt, hurt deeply. It was the insanity that gave Bob such force and presence, Methos supposed. Or the lingering presence of old Tyler, if Mulder was to be believed.

Methos struggled to his feet and spat as if to get a bad taste out of his mouth. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and smiled a little. Agent Mulder would be so disappointed if he knew what he'd missed. Looking at the body of Bob Watson, Methos made a face and then got to work; he could already hear sirens in the distance. He grabbed the body by the shoulders and dragged it back across the grass to the open kitchen door, heaved it up, and pushed it inside. It fell clumsily, but he had no time to waste. Methos went back for the head, picked it up by what remained of the hair and looked at it with distaste before turning towards the house again.

It took a little work and a lot of discipline to lean in and get the head as close to the neck as possible, and his sleeves were on fire by the time he swore and staggered back. Methos kicked the door shut and dropped to the ground, rolling in the wet grass until the chill had numbed his hands and arms a little. Then he got to his feet and ran into the woods.

He stayed just past the treeline, moving down along the street, glimpsing houses through the trees as he went along. The sirens got louder and then stopped, off in the distance. Methos hoped it would take a while for the fire crew to put out the fire, enough time for Bob Watson's body to burn. He didn't want to think about what would happen if Bob was found to have been decapitated, but leaving the body in the house was a better choice than taking it away.

When he judged he'd reached a safe distance, he crept through someone's back yard and got back to the street, keeping his head down and his hands deep in his coat pockets. They tingled and burned, and he could feel a tingle in his nose and throat as well; the small damage from the smoke inhalation was healing. It itched, and he swallowed, hard. Several cars went past in the street, going up towards the Watson house. When he looked over his shoulder he could see the fire in the distance. It looked as though the whole house was going up in flames. With any luck, Bob had kept some of his jack-of-all-trades supplies there — paint, oil, thinner, industrial cleaner. Methos hoped the house would burn down to the ground. Anything to make it more difficult for the miracle that was modern forensics to figure out what had happened to Bob Watson after death.

He turned onto a smaller street as soon as he could, and made his way back towards the old Tyler house. He needed to stay away from people until he got a chance to change his clothes, and until Bob Watson had settled inside him. The rain had stopped entirely, and the wind had died down; leaves floated in still puddles, and piled up to block the drains. When Methos passed the new Tyler house, he saw two dark shapes outlined against the kitchen curtain. Mrs. Tyler and Mrs. Cobbler were back from their adventure in the churchyard. Sooner or later he'd have to face Mrs. Tyler, but the later the better, Methos felt.

In fact, he thought, heading up the unlit and uneven road to the old house, he could just call Charles Franklin's insurance company and have himself and his car taken to Indianapolis. He'd paid Mrs. Tyler in advance. It would save everyone a lot of embarrassment if he simply disappeared.

Methos fished in his jeans pocket for the key, and was relieved to find, when he went up the front steps, that the door to the house was still locked. It had been an exciting evening, on the whole, but now he wanted some peace and quiet. He stepped inside and took his boots off, then headed down the hall to his makeshift bedroom. Stripping out of his scorched and filthy clothes, he left them in a pile on the floor. He'd throw them away later. For now, he put on a cotton robe and padded off to the kitchen.

There were no new marks on the floor. Methos went to the fridge and began to take out tupperware containers. He set them all on the kitchen counter, found a piece of last night's bread and carved a piece of lamb to put on it, adding banana slices and a healthy sprinkling of black pepper. He was starving. Besides, food would fuel his body's healing, speed it up.

Yes, he'd have to leave China. As a place to hide out and avoid trouble and entanglements, it had pretty much been a complete failure. Methos shook his head, bit into his sandwich, and a piece of banana squished out the other end and landed on his bare foot. The rich combination of cold garlic and banana made him close his eyes in pleasure for a moment before bending down to swipe at his foot. The question was, where would he go from here? If he really wanted peace and quiet, there was always the option of holy ground, but the more he considered it, the more certain he felt that he'd be bored inside a week.

Methos wondered idly if Amanda was bored yet. She wasn't made for the contemplative life. Thinking about her and MacLeod, he looked for his anger and found only a resigned affection. Sooner or later, MacLeod would be back, ideals tempered by experience, to take on the world yet again. Sooner than that, in all likelihood, Amanda would be up to her old tricks again. Looking back at his own behavior over the past couple of days, Methos could only sigh and begin to construct a second sandwich.

It didn't matter where MacLeod was, or what he was doing. He'd stuck Methos with a few bad habits, but nothing, Methos admitted to himself, that he couldn't live with. When MacLeod was ready he'd be back, and they could thrash things out between them, preferably over a few glasses of decent whisky. In the meantime, MacLeod might be shutting himself away from the world, but that was no reason why Methos should do the same thing.

Really, he thought, it wasn't so much that Mac had walked away from him that bothered him. Immortal friendships could usually be picked up later. Time meant less to them — what were a few years, a few decades, between friends? And Mac really had been through a lot; he could think that thought more charitably now.

Methos began to slice a second banana, pausing now and then to pop a slice in his mouth. He had time. If there was one thing he had, it was time. There were other things, more fleeting things, that could not wait so well for an immortal to come out of a bad mood. Bread, banana, lamb, a bit of mango chutney, more bread. Methos bit, chewed, swallowed. Perfect.

He moved away from the kitchen counter, stopped by the fridge and got himself a beer, twisted the cap off with the ease of long practice. Then he went out into the hall and wandered down it idly, trying not to drop too many banana slices on the floor. He walked down to the back door and checked that it was locked, then unlocked it and stepped outside into the chill of the late evening. The floorboards of the porch were cold and damp beneath his feet.

There was nothing stirring out in the woods. Everything was silent. Methos leaned against the rail and ate his sandwich, and drank his beer, and felt his feet grow numb. When he'd finished the last bite he brushed the crumbs off his hands, which bore no trace of burns. The food had settled him; the quickening no longer sang in his blood, and he thought the burden of Bob Watson's death and life would be an easy one to carry, after all.

A distant sound made him turn around. There it was again — a knock at the front door. Methos walked back inside, shutting and locking the back door carefully, and went up the hallway. He thought about putting some clothes on, but he had a pretty good idea of who it might be, and distraction and obfuscation might prove easier if there was a certain measure of nudity involved. Not, he thought, looking down at his sleeve as he reached out to open the door, that a ratty navy cotton robe was the kind of thing that might stun a beholder into silence. "Good evening, Agent Mulder."

Mulder smelled of smoke, and was looking somewhat the worse for wear. "It didn't occur to you," he said rather irritably, "that we would want a statement about what you saw in Watson's house?"

"Terribly sorry," Methos said. "I wasn't feeling well. A little too much excitement for me, I'm afraid." Mulder just looked at him. "Would you like to come inside?"

Mulder came inside, walked past Methos, shrugged out of his trenchcoat and let it fall on the floor. He went into the kitchen and headed straight for the kitchen counter. Methos went to the fridge and got out another beer, and put it down by Mulder's side. Mulder cut off a chunk of lamb and ate it in silence. Then he said, "Jenny's parents have taken her to the hospital, on Scully's recommendation. They're worried about the smoke inhalation. But she'll be fine."

"Good." Methos took a piece of bread and began to slice a banana onto it. "So, you want a statement."

"Yes." Mulder picked up the beer bottle and drank, deeply.

"And when I've given my statement I assume I can finally leave town?" Lamb slices on top of the banana, mango chutney on top of the lamb.


"Good," Methos said, finishing his creation with another piece of bread, "because I don't think Bob is going to fix my car any time soon, and I'm not planning to live here for the next fifty years." He handed the sandwich to Mulder. "Here, eat."

Mulder took the sandwich and bit into it, and then paused with a peculiar look on his face before chewing and swallowing. He chased the bite down with beer. "That was different." Another bite. "I like it, actually."

Draining the last of his beer, Methos began to pick at the remaining banana slices. He munched and nibbled, while Mulder ate the sandwich with every sign of enjoyment. Hopefully giving a statement wouldn't involve putting clothes on and coming down to the sheriff's office. He was feeling entirely too indolent for that. Watching as Mulder wolfed the food down, he wondered if FBI agents only got to eat when they could scrounge a free meal out of their witnesses. "Help yourself to more," he suggested, amused.

Mulder shook his head. "No, thanks. I really need to take your statement now, Mr. Franklin." Methos grinned. "And there's another thing, too."

"And what would that be?" But Methos made no move to resist as Mulder took the beer bottle away from him and set it down carefully on the counter before leaning against him and kissing him.

The air sang with desire as their mouths met, like crystal ringing at the tap of a fingernail. It hit so fast, so hard, it was like a quickening, sweeping all else out of its path, making it impossible to think. Methos pulled Mulder closer to taste him better, locked a hand around the back of his neck to hold him in place. Mulder smelled of smoke but he tasted of beer, and his hands ran over Methos's shoulders and down inside the cotton robe, stroking it away as the kiss went on, deftly undoing the belt knot, until Methos stood naked pressed against Mulder's suit, practically purring at the feeling of those hands on his hips. He sighed as Mulder's fingers traced his hipbones, and rubbed himself up against Mulder's clothed body, trying to get closer.

Mulder broke free of the kiss and wrapped his hand around the side of Methos's throat, rubbing his thumb casually against Methos's chin. "Bed," he said. Methos flicked his tongue out and licked against the pad of the thumb. "Bed, or I start biting your throat right here."

They looked at each other, and chuckled breathlessly. "All right," Methos muttered, dragging Mulder across the kitchen floor. They stumbled down the hall, trying to get Mulder out of his clothes as they walked, nearly falling over in the doorway before they made it into the room where the mattress waited for them. Mulder paused for a moment then, and just looked at the mattress with an abstracted expression on his face. But then he tore his shirt off, and Methos took hold of him and tumbled them both down to lie skin to skin, and kissed the hollow of Mulder's shoulder and licked at his nipples until he was panting.

"Wait." Mulder tried to get his hands down to unfasten his pants. Methos tried to help him, and they fumbled with buttons and zipper together, pushed down pants and boxers and then Methos batted Mulder's hands away and rocked in close, stroking their cocks together. It was need, pure need, and later he might want to touch Mulder everywhere and lick him all over and do everything to him that he'd ever dreamed of, but now there was only this, bodies sliding together, and he found Mulder's mouth and kissed him. Bit at the soft lower lip and got a moan as Mulder arched against him.

Methos felt himself shaking. Some of it was the quickening, still thrumming through him. It took him that way sometimes, making him edgy and horny and rough. But some of it—

Was just this man, answering his kisses passionately, cock hard and hot against Methos's own, hands clutching and caressing. Methos gasped for breath and his head tipped back and Mulder was there, licking at his neck, wicked tongue playing along the sensitive line from the ear down to the collarbone. Digging his fingers into Mulder's shoulders, Methos thrust hard again and again, feeling the sizzles of pleasure grow stronger and stronger.

Mulder said something that Methos didn't catch, and caught his hip, driving them more closely together. Heat and skin. Breath and heartbeat. Then Mulder latched on to his throat again, sucking open-mouthed and Methos writhed, panting, until Mulder's teeth grazed him and he jerked and Mulder bit down, hard, and that was all it took. Fire raced through him, bright and terrible, like a bolt from the heavens and he cried out and shook and went blind.

Dimly he was aware of Mulder moving against him with urgency and passion, then going rigid, making soft stuttering noises into his shoulder. There was wetness and heat between them, and then they both relaxed and drifted apart, settling into the mattress. Silence fell like rain.

Methos caught his breath after a while, opened his eyes, and stared ruefully at the ceiling, counting the spiderwebs that floated there. Embarrassing, really. Teenagers did this sort of thing, clutch and grope and a hasty climax. While he didn't think he possessed the wisdom of the ages, he was at least old enough to know better, and he might not have the answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything, but he'd thought he knew a few things about sex. Maybe, he thought, with faint amusement, he needed to practise a bit more.

He rolled over on one side to check on his partner and found Mulder sprawled like a ragdoll, fast asleep, with his hair sticking up every which way and his pants down around his knees. It was impossible not to smile at the sight. Methos curled up slowly into a sitting position, yawned and rubbed at his eyes. He tugged at the duvet and pulled it over Mulder's sleeping form, and watched the other man's face for a few moments. He reached out and brushed his fingertips against the hint of stubble along Mulder's jaw, and then turned away and got up off the mattress.

Going out into the kitchen, he washed himself off cursorily at the sink, and picked his robe up off the floor. It wrapped around him comfortably, an old friend. An old friend that might not last much longer, he reflected, pulling at a fraying thread at the lapel. Methos put the lids back on the tupperware containers and stuffed the food back into the fridge. He thought about getting another beer, but didn't really want it. His body was humming with contentment.

There was something else he ought to do, though. He wrinkled his brow, trying to remember where he'd last put the thing. Not in his bedroom. Not in his coat pocket. Not, he hoped, still in the car. Methos stood in the middle of the kitchen floor and turned in a slow circle, thinking. Then he smiled and headed out into the hall and wrenched open the door to the closet where he'd stowed his bags.

The cell phone was where he'd left it, on top of a pile of notebooks. He got it out and pushed the door shut again — it was a little warped, and stuck against the floorboards — and returned to the kitchen. Swiping at the kitchen counter with one dark blue sleeve, he decided it was clean and hitched himself up to sit on it.

Methos looked at the phone. He wondered briefly what time it was, and then shrugged; he had decided, after all, that some things needed to be done now and not in a few years. He dialed a number from memory, and let it ring and ring until a familiar voice answered. Then he smiled. "Hello to you too, Joseph. Listen, about my bar tab—"

* * *

Mulder turned off the shower and stepped out of the tub, reaching for an orange towel. It was old, its nap rough against his skin. He dried himself quickly and began to get dressed, making a face at the smell of smoke lingering in his clothes, and then wincing as certain movements reminded him that he was sore. Falling asleep last night, he'd thought himself satisfied. But he'd been woken up by clever oiled fingers and opened, taken, fucked hard and fast just the way he liked it, and then there had been the third time, the slow and gentle time that had shaken him down to his bones. Mulder shivered a little even now, remembering it.

Still, it was the first frantic encounter of the night that kept coming back to him, with Franklin so wild and needy and out of control. Mulder replayed it in his memory as he knotted his tie and tried to tame his hair. He wanted to see that again, wanted to see Franklin let go and maybe, just maybe, let Mulder touch the vulnerability in him. It was there, a carefully guarded thing, just waiting—

Mulder snorted. It wasn't as if he'd ever see Franklin again once he'd left China. Fully dressed, as tidy as he was going to get, he left the bathroom and walked downstairs to where Franklin stood waiting in the hall, leaning against the wall, wearing a poloneck sweater and another pair of jeans, hands deep in pockets, looking sleepy. "D'you want some breakfast?" It was spoken on a yawn.

Mulder shook his head. "I'll get some coffee down at the Jacksons'." He'd called Scully last night, between the second and third time, a conversation so full of things unsaid that it ought to have been closed-captioned for the subtext-impaired. Shifting his weight to the other foot, he began to raise a hand and then let it fall back down again. "I should go."

"You should go," Franklin agreed. Slouched down, he looked up at Mulder through his lashes, an attitude that seemed to take ten years off his age. There was an unlikely air of innocence about him. "Be sure to give my love to the charming Agent Scully."

"I think that would be pushing it," Mulder muttered. He picked up his trenchcoat; he'd last seen it on the floor, but here it was, hanging over the back of a chair. A whisper of smoke rose in the air as the cloth stirred. "Talking of pushing it, is that how you're going to get your car out of China?"

Franklin smiled faintly, and shook his head. "No, no. I've made arrangements." He straightened up, still with that little smile on his face, and wrapped his arms around Mulder in a loose embrace. They stood like that, in a near-drowsy silence, for long moments. Mulder closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.

When they pulled apart, he remembered how to smile. "I'll keep an eye open for your book."

"The chapter on small-town America should be interesting," Franklin agreed, and turned to open the door. Cold air rolled in, and Mulder shrugged into his trenchcoat. He walked out, down a couple of steps, and then looked back over his shoulder to find Franklin watching him intently. "Then again, there's a lot more I should see before I start writing. I hear DC is lovely at this time of year."

The door closed, and Mulder continued down the front steps and over the damp grass towards the road. It was a cool colorless morning, a little misty, with a pale grey sky overhead. The trees were wrapped in spiderwebs and the remains of rain, and looked like ghosts. He pushed his hands deep in his pockets and walked fast down the uneven road. When he came out by the new Tyler house he looked at the windows, watching for Mary Tyler, but nothing stirred behind the curtains. He took the shortcut through the Tylers' back yard and came up behind the Jacksons' house to find Scully looking out through the window of the room where she'd slept.

Mulder stopped, feeling unaccountably like a teenager, and tilted his head back to look up at her. She was pale, with darkness shadowing the fine skin under her eyes, but she smiled, and then turned away from the window again. For a moment her tiredness worried him. Then he saw her again as she'd been last night, standing in the burning kitchen, facing Bob, with Jenny by her side. The memory warmed him, and he went on around the house with a lighter heart.

Going inside, he was met by the smell of fried bacon, and made his way to the kitchen. Shirley Jackson was standing by the stove, and Marion sat by the kitchen table with a newspaper propped up in front of him, although he wasn't paying any attention to it. "Good morning, Agent Mulder," he said a shade too heartily, and got to his feet. "Agent Scully will be down in a minute."

Mulder nodded. Mrs. Jackson came over with a mug of coffee and he accepted it gratefully. "Thanks."

The sheriff took his plate over to the sink to rinse it off, and swore under his breath. "Shirl, this is still clogged up."

"I know that." Mrs. Jackson kept her voice low. "We'll have to get someone in from Lageville."

Mulder sipped at his coffee and thought about the clogged sinks of China, and how Bob Watson's absence would affect the town's economy and its degree of domestic contentment; Marion and Shirley were glaring at each other over the dirty plate. Then he paused almost in mid-swallow, and looked towards the sink. Clogged. As Mary Tyler's had been. Mary Tyler who was Mrs. Jackson's aunt and almost her best friend and they did everything togeth—

"Mulder, are you ready?" Scully stood in the kitchen door, dressed for travel, holding her coat over one arm.

He nodded, but looked at the Jacksons again. No, it couldn't be. "My bag—"

"—is in the car." Scully smiled. "Come on, Mulder. Mrs. Jackson, Sheriff Jackson, thank you very much for your hospitality."

The plate clattered into the sink unheeded, and the Jacksons came forward to shepherd them out of the house. "It was no trouble," Shirley Jackson said, taking the coffee mug out of Mulder's hand again. "No trouble at all."

There was a round of handshakes and civilities in the hall, and then they were outside. Mulder looked down at Scully, who was breathing deeply of the fresh air. "Thanks for, um, packing for me," he said.

"I've done it before." Her voice was dry. He touched her arm, and she looked up at him thoughtfully. "Did you get a statement?"

"Yes." Mulder dug into his pocket to make sure he was telling the truth. He'd never taken a statement from a witness under quite such interesting circumstances before.

"Are you ready to get out of here?"

"Yes." He smiled at her, and after a moment, she smiled back, and they went out into the street where the car stood neatly parked at the curb, with a few wet leaves stuck to the hood. Mulder went automatically towards the driver's door, but Scully followed him and shook her head, holding up the keys.

"I get to drive." She opened the car door. "And choose the radio station," she added as she got in.

Mulder walked around the car and folded himself into the passenger seat. He pushed it back as far as it would go and looked reproachfully at his partner. "No frogs," he reminded her. "Not a single frog raining down on you this time."

Scully started the car. The radio came on to a classical station, playing something tinkly and elaborate that Mulder tentatively identified as Baroque. It was beginning to rain a little again, just a few small drops spotting the windscreen, light as kisses.

"No frogs," she agreed. "But I had to pack your shirts and make conversation with the Jacksons at breakfast. And what is more, Mulder—"


"I never got to see the paper-clip chain," she said mournfully.

They were both smiling as they drove away.

* * *

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