torch 1997
flambeau@strangeplaces.net

Disclaimer: The characters of Fox Mulder, Dana Scully, Alex Krycek and Walter Skinner (and Danny Pendrell) belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. The rest of 'em are mine. The city of San Francisco is a really neat place; some of the geographic locations described here are imaginary. This is a work of speculative fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. This is a sequel to my previous story Ghosts, and will make considerably more sense if you've read that. For those of you who are coming in late: this universe branches off after Terma. The story is set in San Francisco during the summer of 1997, which means that a lot of time has passed since the events of Tunguska and Terma took place. Despite that, no canonical post-Terma XF events can be assumed to have happened/be about to happen here, nor have I incorporated any XF mythology material that has been revealed later than that. Everyone who was alive in Terma is alive now; everyone who was healthy then is healthy now. (And everyone who was dead then is dead now.) — Oh, and I go by the episode order at the official XF site, which means Paper Hearts happened before Tunguska in this timeline.

People who don't like thank you paragraphs can skip this one. I owe a lot to several people: Misha, first reader; Shoshanna, who patiently edited me into a semblance of intelligence; Anna, my Mulder consultant; and also Maria, Susie, Claire, Erick and whoever else provided me with encouragement, cookies and a swift kick when necessary. Special thanks to Kerry, Cameo, Jane and Cody for help with geography and Bay Area research, and to Sylvia, dotlou and Beth for medical info. All errors are mine. Comments are very welcome. :-) Do not archive this story without permission.

Lovers I: Carrion comfort

"And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all.
- - -
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." — T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

"...there is no crisis here, there's no conspiracy
I crave inertia, every move made so I can stop
Whatever this madness is in me spinning like a top
On a bed of anxiety over a deep dark drop
down into nothingness, into withoutyouness" — Indigo Girls, Leeds

"I love the way it smells here."

"Plane fuel and dust?" His partner's voice was light and teasing, but she, too, stretched a little and turned her face towards the sun for a few hedonistic seconds before scrambling onto the rapidly filling shuttle. For no apparent reason they were being decanted from their plane in the middle of tarmac nowhere at San Francisco International, and those who didn't make it on this shuttle would have a long, hot, dusty wait before getting to the terminal, because there wasn't another one in sight. This random inefficiency didn't bother him nearly as much as it might have done in another place, where the scents did not trigger distant but happy memories. He wasn't sure what those memories were exactly, but anything that made him feel good was welcomed with open arms.

"Eucalyptus," Mulder said, undeterred by her gentle sarcasm. He raised a hand to his tie and thought about straightening it, then changed his mind and tugged at it instead, until the knot was hanging well below the second shirt button — the first one being undone. When they reached the terminal he was going to be a good little agent again, he promised himself, but not now, not in this crush of people who didn't know he was Bureau and didn't care whether he was proper.

Scully had elected to wear a skirt and pantyhose for this trip. She was probably regretting it, but no sign of her internal curses and complaints was apparent on her face. It was the over-serene look that gave her away this time. He winked at her and suddenly she broke and scowled up at him, the way a guy might have socked his arm. His smile grew wider.

Scully had spent the time on the plane going over the material that Agent Yun had sent to Mulder, and now she had the files tucked into the crook of her arm and used them as a battering ram as she boarded the shuttle and sank down on the last free seat. Mulder tried to stay next to her but was forced to move along as more passengers crowded in, determined not to be the ones who were left behind. He spent the thankfully short ride wedged between a young Norwegian couple with matching square backpacks who didn't say a word to each other, and a black woman whose hair was elaborately braided with so many different kinds of blue and purple beads that Mulder was almost sorry when the shuttle stopped again and she moved away before he'd had the chance to spot them all.

Reunited with Scully, striding through endless corridors, he promised himself that next time he wasn't packing more clothes than could be fitted into a single carry-on bag. He hated all the waiting that was involved in air travel. Bag after bag slid past at a dignified pace on the luggage carousel, to the sound of metal clanking and groaning as people tried to maneuver their unwieldy carts closer. At least his and Scully's bags arrived at the same time, having apparently stuck together in a display of touching loyalty ever since DC. He grabbed them both and volunteered to carry them; the luggage cart situation was getting ugly. Some of these people seemed to be planning to stay for years.

Scully led the way out, turned her head to ask him something and collided with another woman who was also walking in one direction and looking in another. Apologies followed. Scully backed away and stepped on the foot of a man who shouldn't have been wearing a black t-shirt, not with that dandruff problem. She told him very nicely that she was sorry and as he moved away through the crowd still frowning with unappeased annoyance, she looked up at Mulder. Not for the first time, he thought she was looking a little too tired. "Tell me again what we're doing here."

"Pure vacation, Scully. All we have to do is track down a nice little serial killer." He wasn't sure whether his flippant tone would cheer her up or not, but he wanted it to, wanted to see a smile in her eyes to replace the look he didn't have any words for.

"Well, that shouldn't take us long." They started to walk again, side by side this time. "No, I mean, why us? Agent Yun must have had a reason for asking us, and from what I've been able to see," she gestured with her reading material, "there's nothing about this case that suggests an X-file."

"I've worked with Martin Yun before, years ago," Mulder said slowly. "Before I got into the X-files. I worked on a profile with him and we solved that case pretty fast, a guy who killed old ladies and their cats, kind of interesting... anyway, Yun only transferred out here recently and I get the impression from what he said to me over the phone that he doesn't entirely trust Reeves — that's Detective Reeves of the SFPD — doesn't trust Reeves to go along with his theories, or his SAC either for that matter."

"And he thinks you will?" The dry tone of her voice reassured him.

"Yun is hoping that my brains haven't been permanently scrambled by exposure to alien death rays and that I'll be able to find his homicidal homosexual maniac for him in ten seconds flat. He wants to prove that the Bureau is better than the local police. He told his SAC that he wanted me in on this and Spelling told Skinner and Skinner told me and here we are." Mulder shook his head a little sadly. Maybe he shouldn't have agreed to go. Reeves and the rest of the SFPD were probably already planning how to hang Yun with his own guts, and if he came into this as Yun's little pet, they might want to string him up as well just for good measure. "Martin Yun has no real sense of self-preservation, that's his problem."

"Homosexual?" Scully quirked a brow, and paused in the act of stuffing the files back into her briefcase. "There was nothing about that in here. Yun has a reason to think the killer is gay?"

"Oh, yeah, he's got a reason." Taking her elbow, he steered her towards the promise of cool drinks and sunflower seeds. California, here I come. "It's perfectly logical, Scully. Four couples found dead, some facial and genital mutilation involved, so obviously we're dealing with an angry killer who harbors a lot of resentment towards lovers. In San Francisco. Yun has concluded, on this incontrovertible evidence, that the killer is a gay man who expresses his hatred and frustration by killing straight couples."

He picked out a bottle of freshly pressed apple juice and set it on the counter, then added a bag of sunflower seeds, a bag of cashew nuts, and a bag of dried apple rings. That looked too damn healthy, so he scrounged around for anything covered in chocolate, didn't see what he wanted and had to make do with yogurt candy.

Scully picked up a bag of dried pineapple chunks and looked at it, then put that on the counter too. "If that's his theory, why hasn't he put it in his reports so far?" she asked, the tone of her voice matching his own.

"If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it's because Gabriel Reeves is gay." Getting his wallet out, Mulder paid before his partner could ransack the shelves the same way he had. Yun had gone on about Reeves's sexual preferences at great length and expense, long distance. "Or it could be because Yun knows he'd be going out on a limb. Maybe I'm wrong about Yun, maybe he does have a sense of self-preservation after all. He's asked me to come here and do his dirty work for him. There's just one small problem." Scully raised an eyebrow, gestured silently for him to go on. "I think he's wrong."

"Ah." She grabbed his apple juice, and he heard the pop as she opened it. Mulder had to smile as Scully looked over her shoulder before she drank straight from the bottle, as if expecting her mother to appear and tell her not to do it. "And what do you base that theory on?"

"Just a hunch," he said to see if he could get her going, but all she did was refuse to hand him the apple juice. "A lot of little things that don't quite fit with Yun's idea. I don't know if you noticed, but the only positive connection, if you can call it that, between the four separate couples is that they all resemble each other, they're the same physical types. This is obviously something that's important to the killer. He's not running around offing couples at random just because they're straight and lovers, it's a lot more complex than that."

"Yes, but that doesn't mean the killer can't be gay and resent heterosexuals," Scully argued. "It may be that he resents a specific type of heterosexual couple, but you can't discount the possibility that the sexual orientation of the victims was at least as important as their hair and eye color. All you can say is that the killer's particular pathologies—"

"What I meant was that I don't think Yun's theory about the killer's main motive is correct," Mulder said and made a grab for the apple juice. "Which is just as well, since as theories go that one gets us absolutely nowhere. But when I refuse to accept his groundwork and start over from scratch, he's going to find himself a dog to kick, because that's the kind of guy Martin Yun is, and it's going to make him even more unpopular, and by extension it's going to make me unpopular, so we're going to have a wonderful time here. Let's pick up that car."

All the way to the rental agency, through the signing of papers and handing over of keys, Scully went along in thoughtful silence and Mulder didn't call her on it. She'd ripped open her bag of pineapple chunks and was eating her way through it methodically. Mulder had a feeling that whatever those blue eyes were seeing was probably not what most people would choose to visualize while scarfing down candy, and her first words as they got out into the parking lot and tried to find their car proved it.

"The injuries to the faces and genitals of the victims were largely superficial," she said, sounding abstracted, while he spotted a dark blue Taurus at the end of the next row and led her that way. "Clumsily done, and considering that the victims were alive during the facial mutilation, extremely painful. All the same, you would expect a killer acting in a homicidal rage to inflict more extensive, and less specifically located, wounds. It doesn't look to me as though anger or hatred was the main motivation, unless the killer's anger could only be satisfied by causing the victims this particular type of injury."

Mulder dropped the bags next to the car and stared at her. "The victims were still alive? That's not what Yun told me." He unlocked the trunk and turned to find Scully lifting her own bag inside. "He said we were dealing with someone who killed people and then humiliated the bodies."

"I think he was exaggerating," Scully said dryly. She looked up at him. "Didn't you read the medical examiner's reports?" His guilty look made her grin. "I don't believe it. You drag me clear across the country on this case and you haven't bothered to look into the background properly." With another wicked smile, she got her briefcase out again and carried it with her. "Well, Agent Mulder, now that you've made me do my homework all through the flight, let me fill you in a little as you drive us to the delightful Holiday Inn."

"Not my fault," Mulder said defensively. "Yun made the reservation, we can change it, Scully."

She shrugged as she got into the car and fumbled for the seat belt. "No reason. I'll enjoy being a tourist on the Wharf while you and Yun butt heads on the proper way of profiling a serial killer."

"Thanks, Scully," he muttered and revved the engine a little more, knowing that it annoyed her. She only gave him one of her cool, above-it-all glances, and Mulder sighed, admitted defeat, and drove out of the parking lot. Silence reigned as he got onto 101. Traffic wasn't too heavy yet, at three in the afternoon, and he thought he could have enjoyed the drive if it weren't for his partner's smug silence. She was right; he should have read all the files. If he hadn't been so annoyed at Martin Yun, he would have. "Come on, Scully, you know you're dying to tell me. What did the medical examiner say about the bodies that's got your maidenly heart all a-flutter?"

She pointedly drank some more of his apple juice before reaching down and retrieving the files from her briefcase again. He felt sure she was only doing it to prove a point; Scully could have recited the facts to him without the papers to back her up. She was enjoying herself. Not until she had flipped through the files and chosen the exact sections she wanted did she relent enough to look at him, and then she suddenly smiled. "Do you mind if I have some of your yogurt banana chips?"

"Scully!" Mulder shook his head, but in mock despair, not refusal. "Scully, you can gorge yourself like a pig — like an unusually beautiful, slender and attractive pig — all the way to the hotel if you want to, now tell me what's in there, unless you want to watch me read and drive at the same time."

"I don't know what's come over me," she said in mild amazement. "I'm getting to be as bad as Alex Krycek. Promise to stop me before I order jelly doughnuts and chocolate cake with whipped cream..." She trailed off and looked searchingly at him; he kept his eyes on the road, aware that his knuckles were white where he clutched the steering wheel, cursing inside and struggling to keep those curses from reaching his lips.

Scully was very good about not pushing his buttons, remarkably considerate even of feelings she considered irrational and illogical. Even when they fought, she could be blunt, but rarely cruel. But there was no reason for her to avoid topics he'd never, verbally or otherwise, declared off-limits. During the days just after their return from Leyden Creek they'd discussed Krycek frequently, speculating on what might have happened to him, arguing about the case and what Krycek's interest in it had been. For Mulder, it had been like prodding an aching tooth with his tongue over and over. But as time passed and other cases absorbed them, Alex Krycek and the ghosts had ceased to be a topic of conversation. This was the first time in months that Mulder had heard that name spoken by any voice save his own in the dead of night. He'd been unprepared for the effect it would have on him, and his skin prickled as Scully studied him.

"I'll stop you," he said shortly, hoping she might ascribe his tension to deep-seated resentment.

Scully didn't reply to that. She kept silent for a few moments longer, then tapped the papers on her lap with one finger and recovered her equanimity and efficiency. "The victims' faces were pierced with a blunt metal instrument. The wounds bled profusely, which indicates that this was done while the victims were still alive, but the genital mutilation was done after death. All the facial injuries follow the same pattern, puncturing the nasal cavities and the—"

"With a blunt knife? What a sweetheart," Mulder muttered to himself, then jerked his head around to look at her and at the picture she was holding, where the pattern of the cuts had been marked neatly in yellow and pink highlighter. Something stirred at the back of his mind, then jumped out and yelled. "Scully, does that remind you of anything? Look at the location of the wounds. It looks as though he was searching for implants."

"I suppose that's theoretically possible," she said slowly, studying the picture, "but there could be any number of reasons behind this pattern. Maybe the killer has an obsession with sinus colds. Don't theorize—"

"—ahead of the evidence. Yeah, yeah. And he doesn't seem to have checked for drilled teeth, or made any cuts to the back of the neck, or the abdomen. Tell me what the medical evidence suggests to you, then."

There was a brief pause, the crunching sound of someone consuming yogurt banana chips with great relish, and then she resumed in that matter-of-fact, lecturing voice he found so endearing, "The killer opened up the victims' sinus cavities, and as far as I can tell doesn't seem to have used more violence than necessary, taking into account the fact that he was using an unsuitable implement. There is no random stabbing or gouging, and the shallow scratches on the faces of two of the victims are probably the result of struggles on the victims' part."

"I'm sure that was a great comfort to the victims," Mulder muttered, changing lanes and then leaning forward to make certain he'd read the sign right. "Do only two of the victims bear signs of a struggle? Were the others unconscious, or was that the first kill and he didn't have them tied up tight enough?"

"I don't know," she said, her narrative disrupted yet again. "Have you even looked at these reports?" Scully flipped a few pages, then turned back and read them over again. "There are no marks that indicate that the victims were tied up, and no, it wasn't the first couple." Her voice slowed, then picked up speed again. "No sign of trauma from any blow that might have knocked them out. But the killer could have rendered them unconscious by pressing on their throats—"

"Without leaving any marks?"

"It's possible." Plastic rustled as she dug into the bag of yogurt candy again.

"Sure it's possible. But it's unlikely, and it doesn't really fit with someone who uses a soup spoon or whatever it is to try to dig things out of people's faces."

"It could be that whatever implement he uses has some kind of special significance for him and that whether it is suitable or not is of secondary importance or even of no importance to him," Scully suggested. "And it seems as though he must have subdued his victims that way, because there's no sign of any other kind of physical restraint." She turned another page. "Or of any drugs."

"Mind control, Scully," he said, only half flippantly. "Maybe he hypnotizes them. Maybe we're dealing with another Modell here, did you consider that?"

"No, I didn't." But instead of arguing the point, she went on, "Only after he has completed his search of the victims' faces does he kill them by cutting their throats with a sharp blade of some kind. Finally, after death has occurred, the killer stitches dove feathers to the genitals of his victims, using a fine needle and ordinary white polyester thread. The thread is a common brand; there is no sign that the feathers have been artificially treated."

Mulder sighed, and wondered why he'd thought that the information he had received from Martin Yun had been sufficient — why he'd even assumed that it was correct. Why he had let himself be talked into working with someone he did not, on reflection, particularly like. Well, he did know the answer to that one: because if Yun went on the way he'd started he would inevitably screw up and some innocent person would suffer because of it.

Besides, he had to admit that the details Yun had left out were starting to fascinate him, starting to make this case real and absorbing. "Feathers?" Scully nodded. "That's a new one for me. Did that sign say Junipero Serra?"

She turned her head so fast, he started to worry about whiplash damage. "Yes. Is that good or bad?"

"Uh, good, it means we're on the right way." Mulder ignored her skeptical look with an ease born of years of practice. Silence reigned for a while, as he concentrated on driving and remembering Yun's instructions. After a while, his mind started running down a different track. "Feathers. Lots of interesting ideas and symbolism linked to feathers, a feather on the breath of God, divine justice — of course it doesn't look at though he's weighed their hearts against these feathers, but then again ostrich feathers are a bit hard to stitch to anyone's — um. Maybe I'm on the wrong track here. Or did Yun leave that out, too?"

"No. Apart from the wounds on their faces and throats, and the feathers sewn to their genitals, the victims' bodies were intact. And there are no indications that the killer engaged in any kind of sexual act with the victims." Scully peered out through the windshield. "Mulder, we're heading into Golden Gate Park. Are you sure we're going the right way?"

"Of course I'm sure. Anyway, how lost can we get, all we have to do is go straight ahead until we get to the water and then turn right." Scully's expression made it very clear what she thought of that as a plan, and Mulder started to wonder whether the directions Yun had given him were correct. "Relax, Scully. Enjoy the ride. Look at the cute little squirrels doing their death-defying leaps across the — oh, hell."

"Rest in pieces," Scully said dryly.

One hour and seven wrong turns later, Mulder turned off the ignition and let his head fall forward against the steering wheel. He felt like staying here in the Holiday Inn's subterranean parking garage until he and the Taurus mutated into some new and delightful life form that would lurk in the bends of Lombard Street and eat unwary tourists. Despite the air conditioning, his shirt stuck to his back and his hair had long since abandoned whatever mostly respectable shape he had tried to gel it into that morning. Scully looked offensively neat. Only the knowledge that the bright smile she gave him was indeed intended to provoke prevented him from laying violent hands on a fellow agent.

Scully got out of the car and walked around to open the trunk. After a few deep breaths, Mulder followed. Next time it would be her turn to drive. Turn left, Yun's voice said in his memory. He grabbed his bag with fingers sticky with sweat and yogurt residue and after a moment's contemplation took Scully's too, feeling an irrational desire to hear her say "thank you" later. Or maybe she would criticize him for attempting to be a big macho man again, he thought a bit more cheerfully. Besides, she'd looked a little peaky recently. A vacation in sunny California ought to do her good, if he could keep Yun away from her.

Yun hadn't requested Scully's presence, it had been Mulder who had insisted that his partner come along on this case. He wanted her medical expertise; by now she knew better than anyone what he needed to know and what he considered important, whether they were dealing with inexplicable deaths from no discernible cause or plain, brutal, obvious murder. She could do a few autopsies, and spend the rest of her time pottering around the city. Mulder shook his head at the picture he'd just attempted to conjure up. He wanted Scully there as his partner, in every part of the investigation. Yun would just have to cope.

At least they had no trouble checking in, and there were enough businessmen sprinkled among the tourists that they didn't stand out too much. Mulder had to admit, as he got a good look at himself in the elevator mirror, that he'd had better days; Scully's sidelong glance indicated that she thought so, too. "I told Yun we'd call him as soon as we got here," he said, stepping out on the fifth floor and fumbling with his key card. "According to my calculations, we'll probably get here in about twenty minutes — or how long do you think you need to shower and change?"

"I'll come knock on your door when I'm ready," she said with a smile that had to mean she was going to forgive him for crossing Van Ness four times. Mulder handed over her suitcase and watched her let herself in, then got his own door open. The rooms were next to each other, but had no connecting door. It had been a mistake to let Yun make reservations for them. But they could change that later.

What the room looked like didn't interest him much; he registered the bed and the TV and their relative positions, then set about digging out clean clothes from the bag. Shirt, not too badly wrinkled, lighter suit — with his luck they'd probably get fog any moment now instead of this unusual heatwave — tie, socks, boxers. Mulder shrugged out of everything he was wearing and left it in a heap on the floor, mentally labeling it 'dry-cleaning.' He walked out into the bathroom and straight into the shower, and breathed deep with relief as cool water washed over him. Feathers, he thought. Feathers.

It stopped him from thinking about Alex Krycek.

* * *

When Scully knocked, he was sitting on the bed with his legs stretched out, remote in hand, fully and properly dressed except for his shoes, learning more than he had ever thought there was to know about nail sculpting. He got up to let her in, then looked her up and down and smiled at her immaculate appearance. "You'll have to teach me how to do that, Scully. You look like you have a built-in air conditioner," he said, going back to the bed and sitting down again. She stiffened a little and didn't answer his smile. "Did I say something wrong? You didn't want me to discover your secret?"

"I don't need any Ice Queen cracks from you, Mulder."

He dropped the remote and stared up at her. "That wasn't a — hey." Scooting up against the wall, Mulder pulled his legs up and patted the empty space on the bed. "Sit down while I make the call. It was a compliment, Scully. You look great. That's all." She sat, a bit reluctantly. Instead of getting out the cell phone, he took the time to watch her for a moment. There was still something a little strained in her eyes, a faint tightening around the mouth. Mulder knew she wouldn't tell him what was wrong, and normally he would have let it go and moved on to more urgent business. It was his reluctance to get in touch with Martin Yun that made him stick with this subject — that and his irrepressible curiosity about strange phenomena. "Scully, did someone pop up in the shower with you and call you names? 'Cause if they did, I think we could sue."

Her profile was still and calm for another couple of seconds, then a corner of her mouth quirked up. "No. I— Never mind. I overreacted. Go ahead, Mulder, I can see you're just dying to call Yun." He was reaching for the phone when she said, "Since when do you pay me compliments, anyway?"

"Since now?" Mulder offered, pausing with the phone in his hand. "I might not have done it if I'd known what kind of reaction it would get, but — anyway, I'm pretty sure I've done it before." Having said that, he tried to remember any specific occasion, and couldn't come up with one.

"There's something I've been wanting to ask you." Scully didn't look as if she wanted to ask him anything, though. She sat with her back straight, hands clasped on her lap, as still and controlled as though she were facing a board of inquiry. The swift look she shot him gave no real clue to what she might be thinking.

"What?" he asked when she'd been silent a little too long. "Don't tell me that after all these years you're finally going to ask me which side of the bed I prefer."

"You're doing it again," Scully said. Now she turned, shifting towards him on the bed until they were facing each other. "Mulder, I — in the past, when you made that kind of comment, when you flirted with me, I used to wonder whether you were serious about it." Under any other circumstances, the slightly self-conscious look on her face would have been a delight. "But now I don't wonder any more."

He had absolutely no idea what to say. Mulder dropped his eyes for a moment, avoiding her clear, unreadable gaze. "So you think, what, you think something's changed?" he muttered, trying to find a way to make this conversation more light-hearted again. "You're worried I don't love you any more? That you've lost your sex appeal?"

She laughed a little at that. "That's not the point, Mulder," she said, but there was still something in her voice that made it impossible for him to relax. "I think your attitude towards me has changed on some level, for some reason, and I wonder what — how—"

Seeing her incapable of completing her sentences did nothing to dispel his own sense of dread. Mulder found himself thinking wistfully that now would be a perfect moment for Martin Yun to remember the number of his cell phone. The silence stretched out between them until he made himself break it. "Maybe it has. I thought — you seemed comfortable with this."

"I am comfortable with this," she said immediately, and then seemed to become aware, even as he looked her up and down, of how unlikely those words sounded given her stiff posture and anxious face. To Mulder's relief, she broke into a smile, looking down and then up again as humor chased the tension out of her eyes. "I am. I just wondered—" Scully broke off, and when he looked at her, she shook her head. "Forget it, Mulder. It was stupid."

Suddenly he wanted to pursue it. He wanted to ask her if she thought he had changed; if she had any idea why he had changed. But Mulder knew he might not want to hear the answer. If she had any ideas about the reason behind the changes in him—

In a delayed response to his earlier prayer, the hotel phone rang and saved him from having to decide on a course of action. "Yeah."

"When were you planning on calling, next week?" Martin Yun had a light, smooth voice that could make curses sound like compliments; Mulder didn't know if he was relieved or annoyed to hear it. He shot a quick look at Scully, who seemed to be absorbed in her own thoughts. "Everything all right with the trip, the rooms? Listen, I need to talk to you, give you some background before you jump right into this."

"We'll come down—" Mulder started to offer, but Yun cut him off.

"I'll come and pick you up and show you round the sites, and we can talk things over on the way. I really appreciate your coming out here, Mulder, it'll make things a lot easier. You got the files, right?"

"Yeah, I did, and I don't think—"

"I'll stop by in, let me think, twenty minutes, that all right with you?" Yun didn't wait for an answer. "I look forward to meeting your partner."

The line went dead and Mulder hung up. Annoyance had almost completely conquered relief by now. He picked up the bag of dried apple rings and looked at it, then put it down again. "He's coming here to pick us up. Brace yourself."

"That was Agent Yun?" Scully picked up the remote, half hidden between two wrinkles in the bedspread, and turned the TV off. "What can you tell me about him?"

"Too much. He's around thirty-five, ambitious, aggressive, and would like to believe that he's destined for greatness. A good shot, takes his coffee black and likes redheads." Scully looked exasperated. "You asked. I don't like him, he probably doesn't like me, but we do a decent job of pretending to get along with each other."

She tilted her head to one side. "Is that why he asked you to help him here?"

Mulder got off the bed and started to look around for his shoes. "It doesn't matter to him that he doesn't like me," he said. "He thinks I'll get results, that I'll make him look good. That's what's important to him. He wants to look good, he wants the Bureau to look good, and he thinks I owe him one."

He found the shoes and started to put them on. Despite the way he felt about meeting Yun, he could feel it starting, could feel himself begin to focus on the facts he'd been given and the possibilities that those facts suggested. Sometimes he felt like a machine: something was fed into one end, the machinery cranked into action, and did not stop until it had processed the input and produced... what? What kind of machine was he?

Stupid fucking analogy anyway, he thought dispassionately, but couldn't deny that every part of him knew that he was on a case and working towards a solution. Working towards finding this killer. It required a different kind of focus than the investigation of an X-file did. He couldn't pin the difference down, quite, but knew that if he went and looked in a mirror it would be there in his eyes. The closest he could get was to say that it was the difference between opening up and drawing together, between widening his focus to try to grasp the unlikely and impossible, and narrowing it down in order to understand the tight, warped vision of a killer.

"Do you?" Scully asked, and Mulder turned towards her and twitched a questioning eyebrow. "Do you owe him a favor?"

"Not really," he said, reluctant to discuss the issue although he'd been the one to bring it up. "But I didn't feel I could say no. Not after he'd proposed that brilliant theory of his."

"I see," she agreed with a small ironic smile. Then her face softened into genuine warmth. "No, you couldn't, could you. I'd like to look at the bodies. How likely do you think it is that Agent Yun has antagonized the ME?"

"Very," Mulder told her, "but don't let that stop you. I'd really appreciate your input on that. You might spot something he's missed." He straightened his tie and picked up his suit jacket from the bed. "We might as well go downstairs and wait for Yun."

"I'll just get my briefcase," Scully said, rose to her feet and went towards the door. Halfway there she turned and said, "Do you want to see if we can get rooms with a connecting door?"

"Yeah. I'll ask the desk clerk about it."

But he didn't get the opportunity to do that, because Martin Yun was already waiting when he got out of the elevator. Mulder didn't even want to think about trying to explain to Yun why he and Scully wanted connecting rooms, and he definitely did not want Yun to draw his own conclusions if Mulder didn't explain. He could hear the comments clearly in his mind and was frowning as he took Yun's outstretched hand.

"What's eating you, Spooky? Or are you just that happy to see me?"

"Yeah, I've missed your smiling face," Mulder said, taking stock of the other man. Martin Yun looked much like he had the last time they'd seen each other, several years earlier. A good three inches shorter than Mulder, he had the compact build of a sprinter, and was always shifting his weight from one leg to the other as if about to take off at full speed. His hair was cut shorter now, with almost military severity. "What happened to your nose? You stuck it somewhere it didn't belong?"

"I went mountain climbing and got slammed into the rock face." Yun shrugged. "Couldn't be bothered to have it broken again and set straight. Gives me character. And it makes it easier for other people to identify me. I'm not 'that Asian guy' any more, I'm 'that Asian guy with the broken nose.'" Before Mulder could even smile in recognition of this, Yun went on, "Not all of us can distinguish ourselves by getting as fucking out-there weird as you, although some of the guys here in Frisco..." He trailed off, looking past Mulder towards the elevators. "That your partner? Spooky, you do not deserve that."

Mulder turned around to find Scully walking up to them with her briefcase in a firm grip. He introduced her and Yun to each other, a bit reluctantly, and tried to keep his disapproval from being too obvious as Yun held on to Scully's hand a little too long. "Let's get going," he said.

They crowded into Yun's car and took off. "We've only got about an hour of daylight left," Yun observed. "We'll start with the first site, see how far we get. It's been almost two weeks, you won't find anything, but seeing it might give you a few clues to how the guy thinks, what kind of scene he sets up." He turned his head and looked straight at Mulder for a moment. "We've got a problem."

"Most people would call a serial killer a problem," Mulder agreed mildly.

"Hell, not that." Yun glanced over his shoulder at Scully, too quickly for anyone to see whether it was meant as an apology or not. "The press has caught on to this. This afternoon, a local TV reporter broke the story, it's probably national news by now. You didn't see it, at the hotel?" Mulder shook his head. Scully had interrupted his channel-surfing. "It's a circus, that's why I didn't want you to come down right away."

"Why have you kept it quiet?" Scully asked. The disapproval in her cool voice was just faint enough that Yun might not hear it, Mulder thought. "You've had four double homicides in less than two weeks, and despite the lack of obvious connection, there was a strong resemblance between the victims. If you had gone out with a warning, some of these people might not be dead."

"It wasn't my call," Yun said, sounding off-hand about it. "Spelling didn't want to start a panic, and we've been lucky with the people who've found the victims, they mostly just caught a glimpse and ran for the nearest phone, didn't get any details. I don't know who the hell finally added things up, or if someone decided to talk. There's no way we could have kept every pair of lovers in the city off the streets anyway. All the guy has to do is walk down a street, any street, and he'll see some couple holding hands and bang, off he goes."

"It doesn't seem to me that the selection is that random," Scully said. "There was a distinct resemblance between all four couples: a slight fair-haired woman paired with a taller, darker man, both a little over thirty. It looks as though the killer is deliberately searching for a certain type."

Coming to a temporary halt at a stop sign, Yun turned in his seat again to look back at Scully with less hostility than Mulder had thought might be caused by her argument and her manner. Yun put up with a lot more from redheads, he thought wryly. Maybe he should dye. "I don't think they're alike enough for it to be anything more than a coincidence," he said. "Spooky, you have an opinion on all this yet?"

Scully bristled at being dismissed this way, but as the car shot forward again, she sank back. With a silent sigh, Mulder pulled his sunglasses out of the inside pocket of his jacket and sat turning them over slowly. "Four couples in two weeks," he said, half to himself. "That's a lot in a short time, and so damn regular, too. You haven't found anything, going back, any earlier cases that might be this guy warming up?"

"No." Yun emphasized it with a single shake of his head. "We've got people on it, checking back, checking other states now, nothing so far. No couple killings that might—"

"Doesn't have to be a couple," Mulder said. "Do you have them checking for cases with the same kind of facial mutilation, and maybe additional wounds at the back of the neck and on the victim's abdomen just above the navel?"

After a short silence, Yun said, "No," drowning out Scully's soft "Mulder..." from the back seat. "What, you think he might have started out picking up just the guys, killing them because they turned him down, or because he thought they would turn him down, or—"

"It doesn't have anything to do with that," Mulder said, a bit more harshly than he had intended. "He's looking for something, and I don't know why or when he started, but it seems he hasn't found it yet." He twisted his sunglasses, then put them back in his pocket before he could break them; he knew he often didn't pay enough attention to what his fingers found to play with while his mind was racing. "And my guess is he'll go on looking. I don't think there'll be the usual escalating pattern. He's methodical, he's looking for something specific."

"Doesn't that mean the killings ought to occur randomly?" Scully asked from the back seat, raising her voice to be heard over the engine and the air conditioner. "The killer is going after couples with a certain appearance, for whatever reason, and he can't know when he'll find a pair that matches his requirements. There shouldn't be such a regular pattern to the deaths."

"It's been a bit too regular," Mulder said. He thought about it. Four couples in twelve days. Eight people dead, that fast, and if the killer stuck to his pattern they had less than two days before he struck again. If, as Scully said, he could find the right kind of victims. So far, no clear positive connection between the different sets of victims had been established, apart from their appearance. Mulder shook his head and stayed silent, turning over possibilities in his mind, barely noticing as they entered the green, shady Presidio until the car stopped again and Yun turned the engine off.

Yun and Scully hadn't said a word to each other during the rest of the trip. The battle lines were clearly drawn. Mulder got out of the car and stretched in the warmth of a patch of sunshine, an instinctive response, a brief animal pleasure before the analytical part of him took over again. They'd passed houses, but this wasn't a residential area any more. He followed Yun in among the trees, bouncing on the springy pine needles.

Where had the killer met the couple? How had he forced them to come here, and to follow him away from the road? He'd used a knife, and some other implement, but nothing said that he didn't have a gun as well. Killing with a knife could be done more quietly, if the victims didn't know what was going to happen. But they had known, must have known, and someone should have heard their screams.

"Have you talked to the people who live here?" he said, nodding back towards the road. "About whether they heard anything, saw anything—"

"Nothing unusual," Yun said, his voice clipped. "But we're pretty far away from the houses, and up there is the military cemetery, I don't think we'll get anything out of those guys."

"He didn't meet them out here," Mulder thought out loud, looking around. "They came here with him, and they must have stayed quiet, but I don't know how he keeps control of both of them."

Yun turned around, standing between two trees. He nodded towards an open space where the pine needles had been disturbed. "This is where they were lying, in this hollow right here. Jogger with a dog found them in the morning — he does his killing at night."

It was a shallow little depression, barely big enough to hold two adults; it looked oddly cosy nestled in between the two large trees. Comfortable. It wasn't cordoned off any longer, and Mulder could see the tracks where detectives and agents had tramped along to behold the dead. He crouched down. It was possible to see traces of blood-soaked earth even now, and he called up the image of the couple from one of the photographs in the file, placed them here, with their bloody faces, their cut throats, their clothes partly undone.

Scully, who had fallen behind, came to join him. She sank down beside him, balancing herself easily, and touched a finger to the stained earth. Yun walked past them to pace a small circle around the area. It seemed logical that the killer had brought his victims from the road, but then where had he parked his car? He must have a car. Maybe he'd come the other way, parking by the cemetery and walking them through the woods.

"I couldn't see you from the road," Scully said, and Mulder nodded. "Mulder." She dropped her voice even more. "Are you sure about this, about what the killer's looking for? I know you believe implants are significant, but—"

"It's not a question of what I believe, it's a question of what the killer believes," he interrupted her. "He's looking for something, Scully, and based on the pattern he uses to search the victims' faces, I think he may be looking for implants. I can't say much about his motives yet, and I'd like to know if there have been any other killings where he's checked other places on the victims' bodies as well. If nothing else it might tell us something about when his obsession grew specific. He believes — and his beliefs are all that's important right now."

"He believes what?" Yun had come up behind them again. He was rocking back on his heels, watching Mulder with a mixture of anticipation and impatience. "You got something for me, Spooky?"

Mulder got to his feet; he didn't like to look up at Yun, didn't want to give the other man that advantage. He knew that Yun resented his height and didn't scruple to make use of that knowledge. When he stepped a little closer, Yun tilted his head back angrily, refusing to give ground. "The killer's looking for implants he believes are hidden in the victims' sinuses. It seems to me that he may be searching for a particular couple that he knows by description, but not by sight—"

"Look, I know this is the kind of shit you've been wasting your time on for years now, but we're not playing your X-files games here, Mulder. We're looking for a killer, not some ufology crank." Yun stopped abruptly, then put a hand on Mulder's arm. "Let me talk to you privately for a minute," he said belatedly, and dragged Mulder away from where Scully was still crouched over that pathetic little hollow, and down towards the road again. "I asked to have you brought in on this case because I thought you still had that edge of yours, you could help me with the profile, help me find this queer sonofabitch and put him away. Have you lost it, Spooky? Are you so fixated on this new toy of yours that you've lost your touch?"

"Your profile's wrong, Martin." Mulder drew a slow breath. He thought about telling Yun in detail just what he thought of that profile. But it wouldn't get him anywhere. He was only here because of Yun, and if he antagonized Yun too far nothing he said would have any impact. And then more people would die. He was trying to learn to rein his anger in, at least at times when it wouldn't do him any good. "Yes, I've spent years talking to people who claim to have been abducted. I know what they believe, and what this killer is doing matches those beliefs. He's not cutting the victims' faces at random, he's looking for something, and the pattern he follows matches that of the places where abductees say that they have received alien implants. Do you have a better explanation?"

"Disfiguring the faces of the victims indicates a deep-seated hostility," Yun growled, showing a fair amount of hostility himself. "The fact that it's been done slowly and deliberately is a sign that the killer enjoys inflicting pain. His focus on the faces and genitals points at an obsession with the victims' identities as sexual beings, as gendered beings, as lovers. Fuck it, Spooky, can't you see what's right in front of you?"

The switch from reasoned theory to plain annoyance was so typical of Yun that Mulder almost smiled in the middle of the argument. Whatever else Yun might be, he wasn't stupid. But he wasn't listening either. "You brought me in because you thought I had something to offer," Mulder said. "If you're not going to listen to me unless I say the same thing you've already said, I'm not going to be any damn use to you and I might as well pack up and go back to DC tonight."

"Don't be so fucking touchy. I'm just telling you that—"

"Shut up and listen to me, Yun. If you want to believe that the killer is homosexual and resents straight couples, go ahead, believe it, but it's not going to help you find him unless you can flesh it out a lot more. You're ignoring some obvious indicators that don't necessarily contradict your theory but could add to it. Scully is right, the couples are similar in looks and type. And the pattern he uses is consistent with a search for implants."

"What the hell do implants have to do with all of this, Spooky? You've got these fucking implants and abductions on the brain."

"There's nothing in the rules that says someone can't be a 'ufology crank' and a serial killer both, Martin, and you know it. Do you want my help? Do you? Because if you do, I'm going to look into this my way and I'm going to expect you to pay attention to what I find."

Martin Yun looked away, turning his head sideways, his straight brows drawing together over the bent nose. He kicked violently at a hapless tree root, then took a step backwards and looked at Mulder again. "All right," he said, his voice tense. "But you'd better be able to back this up. And I'm going to enjoy hearing you tell Spelling about this."

Mulder shrugged. Yun might consider that an acid test, but he'd spent years pushing unpopular theories into the faces of unamused superiors, often with far less evidence to back him up than he had in this case. And he had a reputation to maintain, besides. "I'm sure you will. I'll get you a front-row seat, buy you popcorn."

"What about the feathers?" Yun asked abruptly. "You going to tell me that white feathers have some special significance to these ufo nuts? I figured it might be something religious, that's why I asked you to come."

"You didn't even mention the feathers when you called," Mulder said. Movement to one side made him turn and look at Scully as she came walking towards them slowly, brushing earth off her hands. "The image of the dove as a messenger is a very common one, but when it's just the feathers like this... maybe he's saying that he's sending us a message, or the world a message, but what that message is... could be something very specific, something that only has significance to the killer, like his choice of implement to puncture the victims' faces."

"I think it might be possible to deduce, from a detailed inspection of the wounds, more about what he uses as a tool and how he performs this — ritual," Scully said as she joined them. "That might give us another clue to how he thinks. I'd like to view the bodies, if that's possible. At least the most recent ones." Mulder smiled at that familiar line, at the calm curiosity on her face. Yun shrugged silently and turned towards the road, leading the way as they walked out from among the trees and back to the car.

The sun was sinking and the shadows were long in here, darkening the place and making it look grimly inhospitable. Mulder looked around and nodded. In a hollow in the woods, or as near as possible, considering they were in a city. Tucked away out of sight, but not really hidden. Not hidden, because there was a message that needed to be read and understood. He rubbed a hand over his jaw, almost slid it up to mess up his hair but was interrupted as Yun opened the car door and cleared his throat. The agent was looking at his watch. "We have the time for one more site."

"And then you're taking us home to meet daddy?" Mulder got into the car; Scully was already in the back seat, looking reserved and making notes on a pad she'd dug out of the briefcase. "How come you're not at the press conference, jumping through hoops?"

"I don't do PR," Yun said with immense dignity as he started the car and turned it around. "I work." For a moment they were in perfect accord, and grinned at each other. Then Martin Yun shrugged. "Maybe you're right, maybe it's a good idea to go public and tell people not to go into the woods with strangers, not that we should have to tell anyone that. He must talk them into it somehow, at least at first. Then — a gun, threats—"

"It's possible that he drugs them somehow," Scully said from the back seat; Mulder had thought she was too absorbed to pay attention to the conversation. "He could have access to something that doesn't show up on the usual tests."

"There were no injection marks," Yun said.

"Yes, but drug injection would have required that both victims were at least partly subdued already," Scully pointed out. "I was thinking of something that could be administered orally without causing the victims to suspect anything at first, something like rohypnol — it's more difficult to get here now, but there are several countries where it's still regularly prescribed against—"

"Scully, if he gave them rohypnol he'd've had to carry them out there," Mulder objected.

"That would depend on how much it was. A small dose could have rendered them more suggestible, less prone to questioning his actions and more willing to go along with a course of action that would have seemed unsuitable to someone in full possession of his or her faculties. Besides, there are other drugs that affect the cognitive functions without causing severe motor impairment." Scully tapped her pen against the pad resting against her knee. "It would be less risky than trying to hold two people at gunpoint, particularly as all the victims were young and strong, and it seems more likely than that the killer is directing them through some kind of, of personal magnetism." Her voice made a joke of the words, but Mulder heard what she was saying.

He didn't intend to discount that theory, though. Instead he said, remembering her perusal of the ME's report, "But there were no signs of rohypnol or any other drug, right?"

"No," Scully said reluctantly.

They were driving through a quiet residential area now, peaceful and moderately prosperous-looking houses lining the streets. Another green wooded area beckoned ahead of them, and Mulder nodded to himself as they entered it on a winding road. "We're going to have to walk a bit," Yun said and glanced back briefly over his shoulder as if trying to make out what kind of shoes Scully was wearing. "This is all we'll have time for before it gets dark."

"How does Spelling feel about this?" Mulder asked abruptly. "About your having asked me to join the investigation," he clarified as Yun raised an eyebrow. "I know you told me that Reeves wasn't very happy, which I take to mean that Reeves's boss isn't very happy either."

"Yeah, well, I don't particularly care if they're happy," Yun said with a suggestion of a snarl in his voice. "I can bring in anyone I damn well please. Spelling? He's happy, I can tell you that." Yun braked a little too abruptly, and parked the car in front of the Legion of Honor. "He thinks you should get back into profiling. That you're wasted where you are. And frankly, Mulder—"

"Please, no," he said, holding up a hand. "My frail nerves can't take it." Mulder opened the car door and got out, then opened the back door for Scully. She glanced up at him in mixed surprise and acknowledgment, and planted her feet in their sensible shoes steadily on the ground.

"Reeves is taking this personally," Yun said, slamming his door shut and locking the car.

"Because you're saying that the killer is gay?" Mulder had no trouble catching up with Yun's brisk strides, but Scully fell behind again. "You're reading that wrong. There's nothing definite. The killer's interaction with the victims isn't sexual, and he's not trying to humiliate them."

Yun half turned his head, glared over his shoulder as they turned onto the path that clung to the edge of the city's northwest corner, overhanging the drop down to the cold Pacific waves. "You don't think it's humiliating, leaving a body with its face cut up and its pants down? Killing someone is the ultimate humiliation, Mulder, the final way of saying that they are of no account. The rest is just icing on the—"

"Don't get worked up, Martin." For some reason, Martin Yun disliked his first name almost as much as Fox Mulder did, and use of it would make him react and get his attention as few other things did. "And if that's all you can remember from your psych classes, you need to go back to school." He slowed down and looked out at the view, the water and the golden misty hills on the other side, the bridge in the distance gleaming red and unlikely as a child's toy. When Scully caught up with them, he apologized for outpacing her by pointing down at the water. "Wasn't that a porpoise?"

"I didn't see it, Mulder," she said repressively. "Where is the second site?"

"Along here." Yun started walking again, but this time Mulder matched his steps to Scully's, and Yun had to slow down. They walked along in a tense silence that no one was quite ready to break. Mulder knew that Scully was studying him and Yun, possibly speculating about the reasons for the combination of hostility and friendship that had made up the largest part of their interaction so far. Well, if she could figure it out he'd be glad to listen. It had been the same during the only other case they had worked on together, aggression simmering just under the surface of cooperation. Mulder was willing to admit that Yun had his good sides. He just didn't particularly like them.

Once again the place where they found themselves now seemed almost completely removed from the city itself, green and growing, remote and self-contained. Down past the sheer drop, slices of sandy beach lay wedged between the cliffs, pockets of privacy pounded by the waves. Mulder hoped they wouldn't have to climb down. The killer seemed able to lead his victims pretty much as he wanted to. Scully's suggestion of drugs made sense from her perspective, but Mulder was starting to wonder if they were in fact dealing with someone whose ability to influence people went far beyond normal persuasion or drug use. Modell and Cole had both been able to affect the perceptions of others. This killer could be an amateur hypnotist who had suddenly found a whole new way to use his talent. Mulder sighed. Mandrake gone bad, he thought sarcastically. All I have to do is look for the cape and top hat.

The path split in two ahead of them, and Yun followed the older trail out to the right, straight towards the edge, past the warning signs telling him the ground could crumble away under his feet out there. The old path curved around an outcropping where a few low trees grew, teetering on the brink. Mulder looked at Scully, found her looking at him, and they followed Yun. He had stopped past the trees, where the path ended abruptly in a gash of earth that was already beginning to scab over with grass.

"Here?" Mulder asked, coming up to look over Yun's shoulder. Above the gap there was a hollow between the trees, just large enough for two people lying down, and he recognized it from the photos. It hadn't been obvious in the material he'd received how similar the placing of the bodies had been, not just in position, but in location. They had lain here cradled in this hollow, as if cupped in the palm of a giant hand, underneath the green branches.

"Yeah. Killed sometime during the night, between one and five a.m. or so, just like the others, and found in the morning." Yun scratched his jaw thoughtfully. "It gets really dark out here. He must have brought a light of some kind, but no one was around to see anything."

Scully scrambled up to get a closer look, holding on to a narrow tree trunk for support. She reached down with one hand to touch the earth. Mulder turned around carefully, feeling the ground all but shift under his feet, and looked out over the water again. Next to him Yun looked a little offended, since Mulder seemed to ignore the site itself. He left the closer investigation to Scully, while he took in the surroundings and thought about similarities, deliberate and coincidental.

After a while he turned around and considered the place again, seeing it from a practical point of view for a moment. Out of view from the path, but certainly not out of earshot. It had been night, surely no one went here at night. Difficult to get to, particularly at night. Somehow the killer had made two frightened people clamber out here and lie down in what he had chosen as their final resting place. It must have been selected ahead of time. He tried to imagine the scene, the killer with a gun — a gun? — and a flashlight, driving the victims ahead. Flashlight? Some kind of light, something to hunt for implants by in the dark night. And why the dark of night, why this unsafe, uncomfortable, uncontrollable environment...

Mulder went back the way they'd come, testing the narrow and unstable path. One wrong step, and you would tumble down the steep slope until you were caught by the rocks, or fell into the water. He turned his head to look at Yun and said, "The photos you sent us don't show much of the surroundings. Were the other couples lying like this too, in a sheltered place, a hollow or depression in the ground?"

"Yeah," Yun said, rounding the outcropping after him and keeping an eye on Scully, who had climbed across it and down the other side. "It's a bit odd, because he hasn't done anything else to hide the bodies."

"Hiding them may not be the point," Mulder said. "The bodies fit perfectly into those depressions. As though he'd measured them for a shroud of earth."

Yun groaned. "Don't go all poetic on me. You want to know something, Mulder? Back in Violent Crimes, half the time no one knew what you were talking about, only they didn't want to admit it in case it was something really clever."

The sun was setting and they walked back along the path in silence. Mulder let Yun bounce ahead, watching the man's natural energy and impatience bubble to the surface and drive him forward at a faster and faster pace. He slowed down instead to walk beside Scully and she glanced up at him with a little half-smile. Under other circumstances they might have exchanged thoughts on the case and their next move, but in this brief peaceful moment no words seemed necessary. Discussion would follow soon enough. He felt aware of the future and the work it held, but separated from it, existing only in this moment of lingering warmth and growing darkness.

Then they returned to the car and got in, and the sound of the car doors slamming shut broke his dreamy mood. Mulder fought the urge to stretch and toss his head like a waking animal, and instead twisted around in his seat to face Scully. "Did you see anything interesting up there?"

"No, I didn't. I was wondering if the killer could have placed a light of some kind at the crime scenes. He would need both hands for what he does."

Mulder smiled at this evidence of minor telepathy but forbore to point it out. He glanced over at Martin Yun. "Has anyone reported seeing any strange lights at these places before or during the murders?"

"No one's seen a thing," Yun said, driving with a certain impatience. "This guy could be invisible. There are no witnesses. No one's seen anything and no one's heard anything, and I wish to God I knew how he keeps them quiet." He tapped the wheel with three fingers. "I'm taking you two downtown. You'd better think about what you're going to say to Spelling."

* * *

God, what a waste of time. As the elevator doors closed Mulder let himself fall back against the wall with a thump; Scully smiled a little. It had been a long evening. Spelling had asked for results as though Mulder had had days, not hours, to work on the case, and Yun had been watching him the whole time, ready to pounce the moment Mulder gave any sign of intending to demolish his theories. Then Reeves had arrived out of nowhere and pushed his way into the meeting, jacking the tension level up way above what even Mulder could ignore. Yun had been sarcastic, Spelling had ignored the intrusion. Reeves had managed to bristle with hostility and convey a certain appreciation of Mulder's posterior at the same time. Quite a feat, all things considered.

The only silent moment of the evening had occurred when Scully had asked to examine the bodies as soon as possible. It had become clear that Spelling and Yun thought of Scully as a high-tech toy Mulder had insisted on bringing, and had no intention of accommodating her unless Mulder expressly asked them to. So he had asked them, gritting his teeth. Scully hadn't been happy either. Eventually they had reached a point where they were all too uncomfortable to be in the same building with each other, and Yun had driven Mulder and Scully past the nearest fast-food joint and then back to the hotel, where they had been told that no, they could not change their rooms, there were no free rooms due to a conference.

Mulder suddenly chuckled a little to himself, and Scully looked up with a raised eyebrow. "Proctologists," he said in explanation and saw her swift grin before the elevator doors opened again and she composed herself. "Well, it's good to know they're here in case we should suddenly need one," Mulder went on teasingly as he followed her out of the elevator and towards their rooms. "If there's an emergency."

"If you have that kind of emergency, Mulder, I don't want to know about it." She paused, about to push the key card into the slot. "I'm tired, but I'm not that tired. I'll hear you if you bang on the wall." Her mouth curved in a half-smile.

"Thought you didn't want to hear about my emergencies. I'll try not to wake you up, Scully."

He went past her to his own door, opened it and walked in. Knowing he should probably unpack, Mulder thought about it for three seconds as he turned on the bedside lamp, then kicked his shoes off and settled on the bed, remote in hand. His body wasn't too tired, and his brain was wide awake. While he flipped through the channels, he could feel himself thinking, much as he could feel his own heart beating, his lungs drawing in air. There was something freeing about late-night television if you didn't try to actually follow the shows, just let the sounds and images flow over you, nonsense syllables endlessly repeated, a long drawn-out mantra that chanted itself again and again to receptive minds.

Slowly he tugged himself free of the tie, and pushed the pillows into a comfortable heap to lean against. He thought about getting the laptop and starting to write something that would get Martin Yun hopping mad. He thought about taking another shower. He thought about Scully getting ready for bed on the other side of the wall, and about knocking on the wall and asking her to come over so they could talk, a slow late-night talk about nothing in particular. Mulder knew he wouldn't do it. There were some things he only imagined telling her when he knew she was asleep; awake and next to him she was always a little too sharp, too rational and too prone to absolute judgments.

Besides, he wasn't the type to host a miniature slumber party and bare his soul, even to his best friend.

It was going to be a long night, he could feel it in his bones. He found a 1982 made-for-TV movie that was all beaded cowboy shirts and she done him wrong, and let it eat up an hour of his life. Occasionally a rational thought would slide across the surface of his mind. You're missing something obvious about the feathers. The woman on the screen was beginning to see the error of her ways. What if it is some form of mind control? The hero picked up a guitar and his dog slunk away with its tail between its legs. Yun's never going to let you forget about Michelle.

When the movie ended, he couldn't for his life have said whether the guy got the girl or not. Mulder closed his eyes for a moment, investigating the darkness on the inside of his eyelids, but disturbing images moved there and he quickly replaced them with what the TV had to offer. He needed to get some sleep, though. Scully was rising bright and early to look at bodies, and he was going with Yun to see the other sites.

Making an annoyed sound, he tried to relax against the pillows, and turned the bedside light off in an attempt to help sleep sneak up on him unnoticed. He was awake. Wide awake. Well, he couldn't fall asleep yet anyway, he had teeth to brush and clothes to take off. Abandoning a riveting Toyota commercial, Mulder sat up again, got to his feet and went to dig around in his bag. He meandered into the bathroom, brushed and flossed rather mechanically, sat down on the toilet in an attempt to persuade himself that he was too tired to stand up, and eventually stumbled out again wrapped in a bad mood as thick as a fleecy dressing gown.

Shirt and pants landed in a heap on the floor and he crawled in between the sheets, sending the remote crashing to the floor. He closed his eyes, opened them, closed them again. Some memories always came out at night to keep him company. Mulder didn't want them. He wished Scully hadn't reminded him of Alex Krycek earlier, knowing full well that it would have made no difference if she hadn't. The most constant companion of his waking nights was a green-eyed ghost in whose warm presence he'd slept in dreamless, fragile peace.

Mulder tried to keep his thoughts from sliding down into a maelstrom of brooding he was all too familiar with, but couldn't stop some things from surfacing, the condensed versions of longer, oh so pointless meditations. He killed my father. I never should have. Never. Didn't want — did want — do want— He might be dead.

Alex.

The name conjured him, that most ancient magic, and Mulder shook his head to dispel the sudden image — Alex Krycek looking at him in the sweet darkness, eyes wide and gentle, lips parting, asking for another kiss. Oh, no. And he was betrayed by his body, by the sudden warmth he could not deny, but wouldn't give in to. Not this time. He wasn't going to lie here and jack off thinking about a liar, a killer, a traitor, quite possibly a dead traitor, how sick could you get, how low could you sink?

Alex. Oh, Alex.

How bad could it get?

Mulder groaned, rolled over and hung over the edge of the bed, fumbling for the remote. He went through every single channel, forwards and backwards, sometimes too fast to register what he was seeing. Gradually his breathing evened out and he found his attention caught by something. The story about the killer had indeed made national news. The reporters were compensating for the lack of detail by dramatic delivery, which had the unfortunate effect of making the actual material dry and uninteresting. Brief interview with Spelling, even briefer statement from some Bureau PR drone who looked as though his suit was too tight and he'd rather be in Philadelphia. Mulder tried to imagine the killer watching this, tried to imagine what his reaction would be. Would he revel in the attention? Hate it? Or would he simply not care?

The news program had segued into a reminiscent Zodiac rhapsody, and Mulder's fingers moved almost independently of his mind, searching for something else, finding another channel. Searching. Finding. How does he find them? And what does he say to them? Because there had to be words there somewhere, explanations and commands, as the killer took them to the place he had chosen, a soft bed for lovers to sleep on. Feathers, a feather bed, or angel feathers. Weighed and found wanting... or were they? So tenderly, cruelly cared for. Yun was wrong, Yun was completely wrong about the humiliation.

As his thoughts began to race, Mulder gave in to their demands, got out of bed yet again and retrieved the laptop. He plugged it in and tried to make himself comfortable in bed again, the TV forgotten as he filled a closer screen with the images dancing in his mind. It wasn't a solution, it wasn't what Yun would want, but it was a start.

When he shifted and stretched, much later, a threatening cramp in his left calf made him come back to the present enough to realize that hours had passed. Mulder hit save, leaned back and flexed his legs slowly. He felt pleasantly drained of thought and coherency, and put the laptop down on the floor before pushing himself down into the pillows and closing his eyes. Without thought he curled his arm around one of the pillows, hugging it close. And slept.

* * *

His room got the morning sun. It shone straight in through the window, unhindered by the curtains he'd forgotten to draw closed, and laid a reddish-orange haze over the inside of his eyelids. Mulder muttered to himself and drew the covers over his head, but had to resurface moments later, forced out of sleep by a sudden irrational fear of suffocation. After a few moments spent blinking at the bright light, he tried turning over and going back to sleep, but it was too late. He was undeniably awake.

Stretching and yawning confirmed the inevitable, and in a burst of annoyed energy he flung off the covers and got to his feet, only to sit back down again abruptly while waiting for his blood pressure to catch up. It was a beautiful morning. It was also revoltingly early. Mulder muttered something under his breath, a low curse in the universal pre-coffee morning language, and rose again, more slowly this time.

He padded out into the bathroom, and when he returned headed for his bag and turned it upside down, watching with some satisfaction as everything spilled out in a heap. There was the t-shirt, washed-out, shapeless, sleeveless, soft and comfortable; the shorts and socks, lacking any personality; and the new running shoes. Not so new any longer, of course, but he had a feeling they'd always be the new shoes. They were better than the old ones; maybe he should be grateful to Krycek for forcing him to buy them.

This morning, in bright daylight, he was able to handle that name and the memories it brought with some skill, adding the emotional charge to the nervous energy already coursing through him. He could run, he could sweat it out, let it drain from his body the hard way. He could avoid remembering Krycek's clothes in his closet: the black jeans with the bloodstain, slashed open by a madman's knife; the boots that looked lonely with no feet in them, so lonely that he sometimes wore them even though they didn't quite fit.

While he got dressed he thought about tapping on the wall to tell Scully he was going out, but she was, hopefully, still asleep and having whatever sweet dreams good people usually had. He would be back before she woke up. Mulder walked towards the door, then stopped, turned back, and turned the TV off before he left. In the elevator on the way down he thought about which way to go, but it didn't take him long to decide. Go west, young man.

The city was waking up around him. It was going to be another hot day, and suddenly he was glad he'd spend the early part of it driving around the city with Martin Yun, who didn't care if he took his tie and suit jacket off. Yun had never bothered much with formality. That was one of the few nice things about him. They would gripe and grouse at each other, fight about theories and interpretations, and wind up presenting a reasonably united front to Spelling later on.

Mulder ran at a slow, easy pace past Ghirardelli Square, up between Fort Mason and the youth hostel, and picked up speed slightly on the long downslope towards the Marina Green. He liked to feel his muscles moving with a calm and perfect purpose. That, too, was a form of meditation, the twin rhythms of steps and heartbeats soothing thought away. He passed people walking dogs, people going to work, and enjoyed being part of the landscape, just another runner. Down on the green, some early risers were already getting a kite into the air. It trailed reluctantly after them, then was caught by the wind and rose with a sudden snap and a triumphant flare of the long tail, riding the updraft. In the clear sunlight, its bright red and yellow triangles gleamed enamel bright, a giant brooch pinned insecurely to the sky's pale blue morning dress.

Forcing his attention away from the kite, Mulder veered to the left to avoid a woman with a golden retriever, and became aware that a car was pacing him along Jefferson Boulevard. Another driver honked his horn at the slow pace and then roared past dangerously; Mulder turned his head to look, then had to return his attention to where he was going. He didn't recognize the car, and the windows were dark. He decided to cut right across the green itself, an instinctive reaction to put some distance between himself and whoever seemed to be following him.

As he turned his back on the street he felt a tiny sting at the back of his neck. Mulder jerked and lost his stride; he clapped a hand to the spot and felt nothing. He tried to keep moving, but the ground was shifting under his feet, tilting crazily first one way, then another. The green of the grass came up to meet him, then the grey of the pavement, then the green, grey, green—

Grey—

Black.

* * *

Bright.

The light was far too bright, and after a first attempt at opening his eyes, he squeezed them shut instead. An instinctive protest came out as a wordless croak, and with the sound came awareness that his throat hurt, and his head, and other more outlying parts that he wasn't feeling too closely connected to at the moment. He lay still and tried to take stock. At least everything still seemed to be there.

A hand closed on his and squeezed it gently. He knew that grip and tried to return it, or acknowledge it. "Mulder," Scully said. "Are you awake? How are you feeling?"

"Mm—" This time, trying to say something brought on a coughing fit, and his body jerked violently. Spikes of pain shot through him, centering in his head, behind his eyes, in his lungs, and in his left wrist. Mulder struggled for breath and finally gained control, sucking in air and trying to relax the muscles that had suddenly clenched up. Scully had let go of his hand and was pulling him upright, raising the bed to let him lean back without lying flat.

He tried again, cautiously, to open his eyes. The light still hurt, but the cramps brought on by the coughing fit had given him perspective on his own pain and he peered at Scully, who sat back in the chair by the bed. She looked concerned, but when she met his eyes, she smiled. Mulder opened his mouth to ask questions, but he didn't want to start coughing again, so he lifted an eyebrow instead.

"You've sprained your wrist and you're covered with bruises, and you have a lump on your head where you hit the ground," she said. "You've been unconscious for several hours. What happened?"

The question echoed in his head; it felt wrong. He frowned. His eyes were adjusting and the light was no longer extremely painful, just painful. "I don't know," he rasped out. "I hit the ground?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Do you know what date it is?"

"No," he sighed, familiar with the drill, "and I don't know who's president, either, but I can sing 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards."

Something very like a smile twitched at the corners of Scully's mouth and then disappeared again before he could be absolutely certain he'd seen it. "You were running along the Marina Green and for some reason you took a fall. The paramedics were concerned about the possible effects of the blow to your head, but there's no sign of any serious injury. The tests show—"

"Running?" he interrupted her. "Was I running after someone, or...?"

"You don't remember?" He rolled his head slowly from side to side, and a wave of delayed pain followed the movement. "Well, that kind of minor retrograde amnesia is consistent with a concussion. You went out running this morning, but apparently you didn't get very far. You don't seem to have done any real damage to yourself, apart from this." Scully's hand brushed over his wrist. "They've done X-rays, a CAT scan. There's nothing that explains why you were unconscious for so long."

Mulder attempted a shrug. "So nothing's really wrong with me except for my wrist."

"It's sprained, but not badly. You'll be typing one-handed for a little while. Maybe you can dictate your profile to Agent Yun."

Hearing that the scans showed nothing wrong did much to convince Mulder that he wasn't hurting as much as he thought he was. With his head turned partly away from the window, he found it easier to watch Scully's face. Waking up to find himself in a hospital bed was almost routine, except that he usually remembered what he'd done to end up there in the first place. Then again, he wasn't sure he wanted to remember. Falling over your own feet while out jogging wasn't particularly glamorous.

"I thought you were slicing livers this morning," he said, testing what he did remember. He shifted in the bed and glanced down at the heplock port in the back of his hand. No IV tube. No monitors, either. Mulder relaxed a little. It really wasn't serious, then.

"I was." Scully looked a little apologetic. "I overslept and had to rush — I thought you and Agent Yun had already left, so I meant to call you later. When Yun came to get you the desk clerk told him that you'd gone out running. He was the one who started calling the hospitals eventually, but you weren't carrying any ID when you were admitted, so it took him a while to track you down. Then he called me—"

"What—" Mulder broke off, trying to hold off another coughing fit. "What made him think I'd be in a hospital?" he wheezed finally. "And what time is it, anyway?"

Scully consulted her watch. "It's past one," she said. "You've been here quite a while. Yun said it was a toss-up between checking the emergency rooms and the singles bars, but he thought it was a little too early for the bars."

"And then he told you what a nice reliable guy he is, I bet." Mulder relaxed against the raised head of the bed. His lungs burned as though he'd been running, but the feeling eased as he breathed slowly. He narrowed his eyes against the light once again. "I hope you didn't believe him. Why didn't anyone call the hotel? I had the keycard in my pocket."

"No, you didn't," Scully told him. "It must have fallen out."

He frowned, but let it go and turned to a more interesting topic. "Did you get anything interesting from the bodies?"

"It's too early to tell yet," she said. "The lab is running a few additional tests on the tissue samples I took, and I won't know anything until I hear from them. When I examined the facial wounds I attempted to see if I could draw any conclusions about the type of implement the killer uses to penetrate the sinus cavities." Her face, her shrug, told him she felt dissatisfied with what she'd seen. "All I can say is that it appears to have rounded edges. Your spoon theory might not be entirely wrong."

"Jeanette Donaldson and Paolo Roberto," Mulder said softly. "Anna Maria Anderson and Daniel Miles. Barbara Ann Magida and Stephen Warnicke. Suzanne Penttiniemi and Carlos Gutierrez." He could see each face clearly, both as they had appeared in life, and as they had looked once the killer was done with them. Digging into their faces with a piece of blunt metal, looking for something so small and delicate he'd probably never see it in the mess of flesh and blood. The mess of living flesh and blood. "Has anyone interviewed the families and found out whether any of the victims claimed to have been abducted?"

"No, Mulder." Scully gave him a suspicious look. "No one's asked the families about that. You don't think that has anything to do with it, do you? You said it was the killer's belief in abductions that was important."

"Yeah, but I was wondering," he paused for a second and tried to remember when he had been wondering, "how does he find them? There's no obvious connection, but there has to be more to it than the way they look, something else that links these particular couples to his obsession, and if we find out how he chooses his victims we have a chance of protecting the people who might be next on his list." Mulder sat up, forgetting his head, and then winced. He held a hand up to shield his eyes and turned towards Scully. "Where are my clothes?"

"I'm not sure you ought to leave yet," she objected. "You were unconscious for an unusually long time. Dr. White and I were discussing whether it might not be advisable to perform some additional tests, and a period of observation would help—"

"I'm fine, Scully. You said the scans and tests show I'm fine. Besides, you're a doctor, you can keep an eye on me." He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, ignoring his dizziness. "I've already wasted most of the day lying here with nothing but a bump on the head and a sprained wrist. I want to go talk to the victims' families."

"I don't think all of them were locals." Scully bent down and pulled a sheaf of papers out of her briefcase. She flipped through them, then ran her finger down a page, while Mulder tried to read upside down. "Donaldson and Roberto lived together in Daly City. Magida and Warnicke were from Santa Rosa. Penttiniemi and Gutierrez... she lived in Berkeley, he lived here with his parents. And Anderson and Miles shared an apartment on Sanchez. Apart from Gutierrez, Anderson and Miles, they all moved here within the past five years, mostly from out of state."

"So I'll start with Gutierrez. Clothes, Scully. Take this out." He gestured at the heplock port. "And where's Yun?"

"Working, I suppose," she shot back, but she carefully pulled the tape loose and took the needle out, then unfastened his hand from the board. "All right, put this on and I'll go talk to the doctor."

'This' turned out to be the clothes he'd been wearing when he was brought in, of course. Mulder eyed the running shorts and t-shirt with distaste, then realized that Scully was counting on that to keep him there. Frowning, he started to disentangle himself from the hospital gown, trying to keep his left hand out of the way. He pulled on the t-shirt, then stood up very slowly and carefully. His head pounded and he had to lean against the wall for a while, but he got the shorts on as well and was managing what he hoped was a nonchalant pose as Scully returned. "Everything clear? Can we go?"

"That depends on how you're feeling." The woman who followed Scully into the room had hair that matched her coat, but her face suggested that she was too young for it. She was pretty in a stern kind of way, like a serious doll. "You've been unconscious for hours and you only just woke up. There's no reason for you to leave at once, is there?"

"I have a job to do," he said, and straightened up to stand without the wall's support. "If the tests don't show anything wrong with me, there's no reason why I shouldn't leave."

She tapped her finger against her lower lip, once. "All right," she said. "Provided that you remain under medical supervision for at least a full day, which I understand your partner is prepared to provide."

"Yeah, she's been providing that for years," Mulder said, unable to resist.

"She did mention that you were unusually accident-prone," the doctor retaliated blandly, and Mulder winced. Ouch. Scully, of course, looked smug. "Try to take it easy for a couple of days." Something of what was passing through his mind must have made it onto his face, because the doctor paused, and raised an eyebrow.

"If I can," he said softly, pushing away from the wall and walking towards the door. "If I can."

Scully caught up with him halfway to the elevators, radiating disapproval. He was able to ignore it through concentrating on his footsteps; every time he set his heel down a flash shot up through his bones to hit a spot somewhere behind his eyes. Mulder recognized the sensation from other times and other concussions; it would pass. When they got into the elevator he resisted the impulse to lean against the wall again. Scully pressed the button for the underground parking level, and turned to face him. "I'm not sure this is such a good idea. And Dr. White almost refused to release you, you know."

"What's more important, Scully, that I have a headache or that there's a killer out there cutting people's throats?"

"I'm only suggesting that if you want to get your own way all the time, you might consider being a little more devious." Then she smiled a little at him, a serious smile, humor mixed with appreciation of what he was saying. "We'd better go back to the hotel first. You need a change of clothes before tackling those interviews."

The doors opened. "And we might want to stop by a drugstore," Mulder admitted. He didn't quite want to say that his head hurt, but he ran a hand over his face and through his hair and tried not to wince.

"I've got some painkillers here." Scully dug the pills out of her bag as she walked and handed them to him before unlocking the car. There was a bottle of water lying on the passenger seat, and he drank deeply from it, cleaning the taste of several hours of unconsciousness out of his mouth. When they drove out into the sunshine he was prepared, and squinted against it. The day was as warm as the morning had promised it would be, as warm as yesterday had been.

Mulder downed a couple of painkillers, then rifled unashamedly through the contents of Scully's briefcase until he found Carlos Gutierrez' home address. After memorizing it, he looked up the rest of them as well. He'd start with Gutierrez, then see if he could get hold of the other victims' families over the phone, maybe drive up to Santa Rosa tomorrow; Anderson had lived at home. It would be worth the time it took, to get to do a face-to-face interview.

Looking out the window as they passed Lafayette Park, Mulder wondered about the places where the victims had been found. There was a trick to seeing patterns, all kinds of patterns; you had to learn to think with your brain unfocused, the way you could unfocus your eyes and see shapes and colors instead of actual objects. Then, once you understood where things were in relation to each other, focus became important again. He visualized the map he'd seen yesterday pinned to the wall, Yun's sweeping gestures as he indicated the progression of murders, the uncertain theory that the killer might choose the vicinity of the South Basin and Candlestick Point for his next kill.

Tourists littered the streets as they got closer to the hotel, their bright shirts indistinguishable from the candy wrappers they dropped and the maps they turned this way and that. Mulder watched them absently through narrowed light-sensitive eyes, feeling the painkillers kick in and soothe the flaring headache into a low even burn, low enough that he could actually feel his throbbing wrist and the bruises all along the left side of his body. He didn't feel worried for this colorful bumbling crowd. The victims had all been locals, more or less. There had to be a connection, a network he could tap into, even if it was so well hidden that no one else had spotted it yet.

He drew a few stares in the lobby, bruises and bandages seeming more obvious against that backdrop. For once Mulder found himself longing for one of his suits; it would cover everything except the scrape on his forehead. The moments he spent asking the desk clerk for a new keycard seemed far too long. Back in his room, he considered taking a quick shower, and then realized it would mean unwinding the elastic bandage around his wrist, and either putting it back on himself or calling on Scully for help. He gave the idea up as being too much trouble, and settled for splashing some water on his face. He was pleased to find that he was a lot steadier on his feet now, less inclined to just lean against the wall and do nothing.

Mulder got dressed as fast as he could. The suit did improve his morale; the cell phone and the guns made him feel complete again; and finally he got out his sunglasses and put them on, and sighed in relief. That was a lot better. The hours until sunset didn't seem as annoyingly long any more.

When he knocked on Scully's door it opened almost under his hand. She dangled the car keys in front of him, then closed her fingers around them just before he could grab them. "You're under medical supervision," she reminded him and stepped forward so that he had to move back and make room for her to close the door. "I've got directions. 33rd and Lawton."

"Let's go, then."

Scully appropriated the driver's seat again, and Mulder let her do it; she was unstoppable when she was being protective. Besides, he'd be a bit uncomfortable driving if he couldn't use his left hand much. With the sunglasses in place, he could spend the trip in a more relaxed manner, slouching on the passenger side trying to recall what had happened this morning. Falling over his own feet. Christ. He couldn't even remember getting out of bed. Everything after the moment when he'd put the laptop aside was gone. Où sont les neiges d'antan? Où sont les pensées d'aujourd'hui, damn it?

He hated losing memories, losing time. Missing time. For a moment his heart beat faster, but then he realized that there must have been witnesses to his fall on the Marina Green. There was still the rest of the night and morning to account for, but he found it hard to believe that his first reaction after getting abducted would have been to go running. Perhaps the simple explanation was the correct one. I stumbled, I fell, I hit my head. I'm a klutz.

"Mulder, are you hungry?" Scully glanced at him. "Did you even have breakfast today?"

"I don't know that, do I," he pointed out. "It can wait. We'll grab some dinner later." He didn't feel hungry at all, just mildly dehydrated, and bent down sideways to get the bottle of water from the floor of the car. The sudden twisting movement drove the air out of his lungs and his breath caught; there was a moment of pressure and then he was coughing, deep racking coughs that scraped his throat and bent him double. When the spasm passed he was leaning against the car door, and cautiously drew some air in, slowly, carefully, trying not to trigger another.

Scully had pulled over at a bus stop in front of a Chinese restaurant and was watching him closely. She reached out and touched his shoulder, not quite helping him to sit up again. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine." His voice rasped a little. "I think I must have choked on something. I'll be okay, I just need some water." Scully bent down and got the bottle for him, and he drank carefully, soothing his throat. "All better," he told her, "let's get going before the bus comes."

She nodded, and when they were on their way again he concentrated on his breathing. It didn't hurt now; only when he drew a deep breath could he feel a slight catch in throat and lungs. Mulder shifted, trying to stretch his legs, and drank some more water. By the time Scully stopped the car again, he'd finished the whole bottle.

They were parked outside a square white house in a street of square white houses. The whole Sunset district unrolled down towards the beach, a geometric grid of Lego pieces, all the houses low and boxy and seemingly interchangeable. When they got out of the car and studied the doors they saw that Carlos Gutierrez had lived in the ground floor apartment, sharing the house with his parents upstairs. Independent enough to come and go as he wanted, but his mother probably did his laundry, Mulder thought as they went up to ring the doorbell.

The woman who opened was small and slim, her dark hair beginning to grow out grey at the roots as though she'd given up dyeing it quite recently. She looked up at them with a certain graceful resignation even before Mulder got his ID out. "I'm Special Agent Fox Mulder, and this is Agent Scully. We're with the FBI, and we'd like..."

"To ask me some more questions about Carlos. Yes. Come in." She turned aside and made a soft gesture, and they stepped into the dim living room. The blinds were drawn. Everything was very quiet. All flat surfaces were dusted, blank, and empty. Mulder realized that he was still wearing his sunglasses, and quickly, guiltily slipped them off and put them in his pocket.

"Mrs. Gutierrez, we're sorry to have to do this. I realize you've already talked to the police and the FBI several times, but—"

"But if there is something you have thought of, something that might help catch this — this beast, of course I will help. You don't have to apologize. I'm sorry my husband isn't here. He's on a business trip." Her voice was steady, and very soft even though she'd interrupted him twice now. Mulder got the impression, looking at her, that she was living very much in her own world right now, but prepared to accept them as part of it, as part of something that might help her make sense of her son's death.

"There is something," he said. "It's going to sound a bit strange, but I have a good reason for asking." Mrs. Gutierrez nodded. "Did your son believe that he had been abducted by aliens?"

She stared at him, and then her face hardened like clay in a potter's kiln and grew stiff and brittle. "You're making fun of me," she said.

"No, Mrs. Gutierrez, we're not," Scully interposed quickly in her most soothingly cool voice; the sideways look she shot Mulder was anything but cool. "We want to know whether your son was interested in — space exploration, science fiction, the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We're investigating whether the killer may have found his victims through an involvement in issues like these."

"This is a serious theory?" Mrs. Gutierrez had walked over to the window, and she stood with her back to them, perfectly still, sculpted out of black wood. "You are really investigating this? The FBI?"

"Yes, it's serious," Mulder said, feeling another slight rasp in his voice. "This could be very important, Mrs. Gutierrez."

For a few moments longer she stood where she was, staring out through a crack in the blinds, and then her carven body came to life again and she turned around. Her eyes met his, and he could still see nothing in them beyond the same endless black resignation. "Carlos and his crazy ideas," she said quietly. Mrs. Gutierrez walked across the room towards a door at the back. "I think you should come with me."

She led them through the house and down the back stairs, rough concrete dimly lit by a single weak lightbulb. Mulder caught a glimpse of the back yard, grass and gravel, before they turned into a narrow dark passage and stood outside the door to Carlos' apartment. Keys rattled, and Mrs. Gutierrez unlocked the door and stepped inside to turn on the light. Scully and Mulder followed her.

"Oh, my God," Scully said, very softly. Mulder couldn't really blame her; he was feeling a little stunned himself. The room was like a cross between Max Fennig's trailer home and his own basement office. Books, magazines, computer printouts and video tapes littered every flat surface; one whole wall was covered with pinned-up notes, post-it stickers, torn-out articles, blurry photographs. Mrs. Gutierrez stood at the center of the room, holding her head high and looking at them as though daring them to say something.

"Thank you," Mulder offered. He met her eyes and tried to convey how serious he was. "This is just what we wanted to find out. Do you know if there was a particular local group that Carlos was involved with, that maybe both he and Ms. Penttiniemi were part of?"

"They used to meet with some people out in Berkeley on Thursdays," she said, "but I don't know who they were, what they did together. Perhaps you can find what you need to know, somewhere here." Mrs. Gutierrez nodded at the jumble that surrounded her son's computer. She perched on the arm of the couch, a ratty old relic from the early eighties, white cover turned grey with age. "Please, go ahead and look."

Scully turned towards the desk, and Mulder could see her mentally rolling up her sleeves. He went over to the wall, and started to study the personal notes and the fliers for various get-togethers. Mrs. Gutierrez watched them as they sifted through the material, finding phone numbers without names and names without phone numbers, odd dates, observations in shorthand, love letters from Suzanne Penttiniemi, printouts of material from MUFON's web site, pictures of crop circles and attempts at a longer descriptive narrative of an abduction experience. Mulder would have liked to take the time to read it, but he couldn't quite justify it to himself, not right now.

"I think I've got something," Scully said finally, straightening up after digging around in a desk drawer. "This is last year's planning calendar." She turned towards Mrs. Gutierrez. "Do you know if your son had been going to these meetings for some time?"

"About two years," the woman replied. "It was Suzanne who introduced him to the group. She said it would be good for him to meet people who knew — who thought—"

"You never answered that question before, Mrs. Gutierrez," Mulder said slowly. "Your son did believe that he had been abducted, then."

"Yes," she admitted quietly, looking embarrassed.

"And Ms. Penttiniemi, do you know if she...?" Mrs. Gutierrez nodded. "Thank you."

Scully cleared her throat, and Mulder turned back towards her. "There are notations for meetings here every Thursday," she said, "with an additional note beside every one of them. It says either 'Blaine's' or 'café'. It looks as though the group alternated between two different meeting places. And there's a Blaine Hibbert, with a phone number, on a post-it note stuck to the page where we have the first memo about a Thursday meeting."

"Let's just hope he hasn't moved since last year," Mulder said. He glanced quickly over at Mrs. Gutierrez, who was still watching them both with infinite patience. Scully caught it, gave an almost imperceptible nod.

"Thank you very much for your assistance, Mrs. Gutierrez." Maybe it was her tone of voice, maybe it was sheer force of will, but Scully got Mrs. Gutierrez to stand up and move towards the door with them. They came out into the cool dark passage and she led them right, towards the door to the street. "You've been a great help."

Mrs. Gutierrez opened the door. Daylight sharpened her features as she turned towards them. "I hope it helps," she said quietly. "I hope it helps."

Mulder fished a card out of his pocket and scribbed his cell phone number on the back. "If you remember anything else that might be relevant, please call me." He handed her the card and stepped out into the sunny street.

She stayed there in the open door, watching them, as they walked to the car and got in. Mulder felt strangely tempted to wave at her, but he didn't want her to think he was being frivolous. Instead, he got out his cell phone and dialed the number he'd read on the post-it note. He waited, while Mrs. Gutierrez closed the door and vanished into her dark house again. After four rings, just when he thought he was going to get someone's machine, the phone was picked up at the other end. "Hello."

"Blaine Hibbert? My name is Fox Mulder, I'm a Federal agent and I'd like—" The click made him break off. He lowered the phone. "He hung up."

"I thought you were famous in NICAP circles." Scully's smile wasn't quite a smirk. "Maybe he hasn't paid his fan club membership dues lately."

Mulder glared at her, then closed his eyes. Damn, but the light was bright out here. He got his sunglasses out, put them on and hit redial. This time he did get an answering machine. "If you knew the number, you know who I am. I hope I'll be back, so leave a message after the tone." Beep.

"Mr. Hibbert, pick up the phone. This is important. It's about Carlos Gutierrez." Mulder waited a few seconds. "Pick up the phone!"

"Maybe he went out," Scully suggested.

"Like hell he did. Pick up the phone, Mr. Hibbert. Refusing to cooperate with a Federal officer is a—"

"Yeah." The voice was flat and uncommunicative. Mulder was so surprised at getting an answer that he just blinked. "What do you want?"

Collecting himself, he went back to what he had been planning to say when he'd first called. "I understand that you run a support group for abductees, Mr. Hibbert. We're investigating the recent murders, and we have reason to believe that Carlos Gutierrez and Suzanne Penttiniemi were part of your group."

"Yeah," Blaine Hibbert said again. He sounded as though every word was an effort. "Yeah, they were. So?"

"So," Mulder gritted out, "we're trying to find out if the other victims had connections with your group or any similar organization. We'd like to talk to you about it."

There was a lengthy pause broken only by the sound of Blaine Hibbert chewing gum. Finally he said, "Are you really Fox Mulder?"

"That's what it says on my paychecks."

"Uhh..." Another pause stretched, tensed, snapped. "Look, I'll meet you tonight, ten o'clock, out on the municipal pier at the Aquatic Park, okay?" With the true grace of the genuinely paranoid, Blaine Hibbert didn't wait for an answer. "Come alone." He hung up. Mulder sighed and hit redial again, but got only the answering machine.

"Probably the only way he can get a date," he muttered. Turning to Scully, he waggled the phone at her. "The elusive Mr. Hibbert wants to meet me later tonight. Probably to tell me in the deepest secrecy that he doesn't know anything about this."

"We could just get his address from the phone company and go out there and put the fear of God into him," Scully suggested.

"Don't you mean the fear of J. Edgar?" Mulder grinned. Then he sobered rapidly. "He sounded nervous. It's a common enough trait among abductees, not to mention coordinators of large groups of highly-strung people, but maybe he really does know something."

"All the more reason to get the information right away."

"Yeah, but..." Mulder hadn't been particularly taken with Blaine Hibbert, and he started to wonder why he wanted to give the man the time he'd asked for, when it was so important that they find out as much as possible as soon as possible. While he thought about it, the phone rang in his hand. "Mulder."

"Back among the living again?" Yun's voice was loud and energetic, edged with a sense of urgency that made Mulder sit up straight and pay close attention. "Listen, Spooky, we've got something. A bartender at a place in the Castro saw the photos of the victims in the paper today and went straight to the police. He says he's seen a guy talking to at least three of the men, right in his bar. I told you we're dealing with a queer bastard."

"Is he still there? I want to talk to him." He glanced at Scully and she started the car. "Keep him with you until I get there, okay?"

"We've got him working with the computer guys to put together a picture of the killer." Yun was smug. Mulder started to worry.

"Martin, don't get too sure of yourself. It might not be the right man."

"Fuck, Spooky, you think this is a coincidence? It fits, you know it fits. He tries to pick up these straight guys, they turn him down, then he sees them with their girlfriends and he loses it, decides if he can't have them, no one can."

"He tries to pick up three straight guys in the same bar in the Castro?" Mulder asked dryly. "You're reaching. Maybe this is the killer, maybe not, but you've got his motivation all wrong."

Yun made an annoyed sound. "This from you? You used to piece things together from half a sentence here, a forgotten habit there, and you'd say, that's the one, that's the one we want. I've got what I need right here."

"Maybe you've got what you need, but you haven't got what the case needs." Mulder knew that Yun was working up to yelling at him, for being such a killjoy, for being an unbeliever, for not agreeing. "We'll be along as soon as we can," he said, cutting Yun's as yet unvoiced tirade short. A single curse reached him before he disconnected and put the phone away.

"Where are we going — the Federal building?" Scully asked.

"Yes. Yun thinks he's onto something." Mulder felt his sunglasses begin to slip, and pushed them back up again. He ran a hand through his hair and tugged at it, but it didn't ease the sensation of tightness and discomfort. "Do you have any more of those painkillers?"

"In my briefcase," she nodded, "but you need something to wash them down with, too. What did Yun say? He's got a suspect?"

"Yeah." Mulder turned around carefully and started to investigate the briefcase. He felt the beginning of a twisting sensation in his chest, and slowed down even more; he refused to start coughing again. He could still feel the rasp and burn of the last coughing fit. "He's got a witness who's seen someone talking to three of the men. It could be the killer."

"You don't sound convinced."

"Martin Yun is convinced." Mulder sat up again, painkillers in hand, and tapped a finger on the cap of the bottle. "He's too convinced. Look at what was in Carlos Gutierrez' apartment — he should have investigated that connection long ago."

"Perhaps Gutierrez was the only victim who had an interest in abduction groups."

"Scully. What about his girlfriend, for one thing? Yun's put the focus of the investigation on other things. He's already twisting the facts to make them fit in with his theories. It isn't impossible to reach a correct conclusion through faulty reasoning, but neither is it something FBI profilers should make a habit of."

Scully turned into the parking lot of a Safeway and paused, hands still on the wheel. "You're that certain that his profile is wrong and yours is right."

"Scully." It came out a bit more harshly than he'd intended, as another wave of pain rolled through his head. "What Yun has is a theory, not a profile. He sees everything the killer does in general terms, not specific. He doesn't want to explain the strange details, he wants to explain them away. Yun wants the killer to be a deranged and resentful gay man, so he calls the mutilation of the victims humiliating instead of trying to see what message the killer is sending us through it. And he's so eager to catch this guy that the first suspect he gets is going to be already condemned in his mind."

"People seem to think very highly of Agent Yun," Scully said. "He has an impressive record." She opened the car door and got outside, and he did as well, determined not to sit in the car like an invalid and let his partner buy water for him. "Are you sure you're not letting your dislike of him color your attitude to his work?"

He turned his back on her and strode across the parking lot towards the store entrance, knowing she'd have to run if she wanted to catch up. Mulder narrowly avoided having his foot run over by a Toyota Corolla turning too fast into a free spot. Inside the store he realized that Scully had stayed where she was instead of following him to argue it out up and down the aisles. Just as well; it didn't do for FBI agents to squabble domestically over the grocery shopping. That would ruin their image.

Mulder got himself a large bottle of water, thought about it for a few moments, and added another. On the way to the checkout he grabbed some dry crackers and a bag of peanut butter M&M's. He didn't walk past any dried fruit for Scully, and he wasn't sure he was prepared to hand over something that could be read as a peace offering anyway.

Maneuvering all this with only one good hand did nothing to change his mood for the better. When he came back to the car, carrying his paper bag, Scully was sitting in the driver's seat with the door open. He got in and left his door open too, unwilling to be shut in any more than he had to in this weather. Mulder shook out two painkillers, opened a bottle of water and downed the pills as fast as he could. The water tasted wonderful and he drank some more; when he finally lowered the bottle he was surprised to see that it was half empty.

"Listen," he said slowly, "I don't like Yun, but most of the time, I respect him. He's done some good work. But he isn't doing it now. There's no room for personal prejudices when you're profiling a killer. You have to see and understand what's in front of you. Anything less than complete concentration will get you nowhere." Mulder paused for a moment, but she said nothing, so he went on, "I used to do this, Scully. I know what I'm talking about."

She shifted towards him. "I know," she said, and he heard a lot more than just simple acknowledgment in her voice. "I just don't want to see you take off on your own and leave everyone else behind. There's room for you and Yun to cooperate."

"If he drops his attitude," Mulder said. He flicked a sideways glance at Scully and caught her in the middle of an eyebrow twitch. "Yeah, but there's a difference, Scully. I'm right." More cool water soothed his sore throat. "The killer searches his victims for implants. He kills them and leaves them in the embrace of the earth, this earth, returning them to what they are a part of, what they should never have been taken away from. He decorates the genitals with white dove feathers, a message, a—" A flash of white pain shot through his head. "A symbol of innocence," he forced out, amazed that it had taken him so long to see it. "He is telling us that the victims are innocent. Maybe he believes that what he's doing to them cleanses them of whatever impurities the abductions may have caused them."

There was a new gleam in Scully's eyes. "You think he might actually believe that he has removed implants from the victims? That he is doing them a favor somehow?"

"I don't know." Mulder frowned, brows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. The skin on his face felt tender, as though he'd been sunburned. "It could be that he judges them to be innocent because he doesn't find implants."

"Considering the equipment he uses and the conditions he works under," Scully said coolly, "it would be extremely difficult for him to find implants even if the victims had them. Nothing of the kind has been found in the bodies, so either he does find them, which I consider unlikely, or the victims didn't have any. But it would be possible for the killer to remove something else from the victims, a bone fragment or some small object that might have lodged in a sinus cavity, and believe it to be an implant."

Mulder nodded slowly. "It's a possibility. But I think the killer is looking for something he hasn't found yet, that he is searching for a specific couple, or at least he was searching when this started. By now, the almost ritual cleansing of the victims he chooses may have become his primary quest, and the previous goal of trying to find the template for the pairs he chooses may have grown less important. Or maybe not." He trailed off, turning over possibilities, then remembered what had sparked the discussion. "We should get going."

"Yes, you're right." She shut the car door and turned the key in the ignition; Mulder hurriedly got his right leg inside the car. As Scully pulled out of the parking lot he opened the packet of crackers and bit into one. It crumbled all over his lap.

"Yun has a witness," he said indistinctly, swallowed, and tried again. "Yun has a witness who has seen the same person talking to three of the men. He thinks it's the killer, who apparently tried to pick them up in a Castro Street bar."

Scully frowned. "You're right, that sounds odd. But it's a link, it's the first real connection we have between the different victims. Depending on what Blaine Hibbert says tonight, it may also be the most important connection."

"We'll see about that," Mulder muttered, sinking back in his seat. He tried another cracker, but it fell apart as well, and finally he gave up on the whole idea and drank some more water instead. Then he closed his eyes for a moment. The painkillers kicked in, and the effect was so soothing that he fell asleep.

Scully shook him awake gently when they'd reached their destination, and gave him a couple of minutes to resume normal thought processes before they went inside. They didn't have to go far before Martin Yun came to meet them, pouncing on them with eager impatience. "Took you long enough."

"We stopped to smell the roses," Mulder said. Yun was smiling a wide toothy smile that Mulder recognized from other times, other successful hunts. He could hardly keep still, shifting this way and that as though his legs were coiled springs that were going to launch him into the air for a triumphant triple roll at any moment.

The self-congratulatory look didn't abate as he ushered Mulder and Scully into the office where Spelling was already waiting. "We've really got something now," he said abruptly. "We're getting somewhere. It was a good idea to go public. Sure we're getting hundreds of calls from the helpful public and hundreds of calls from the terrified public, but it brought us a civic-minded cocks— gentleman who's given us our first real break."

"What exactly did the civic-minded gentleman say?" Scully's voice smoked the way dry ice does. She was standing slightly in front of Mulder, and he wondered what she thought he needed to be protected from now. Spelling directed a quelling glance at Yun, but Yun was so wired he didn't notice, just turned an even wider version of his smile on Scully. "He claimed to recognize three of the victims?"

"Yeah." Yun nodded briskly and kept nodding for longer than was strictly necessary. "He says he's had a guy in his bar who's been trying, from what it looked like, to pick up three of the victims. The killer obviously goes for a certain type of man," Mulder was almost tempted to laugh at the way Yun had appropriated this part of his profile and adapted it to his own purposes, "and when he fails to get what he wants he stalks and kills the men and also their girlfriends, the symbols of their heterosexuality, and disfigures the bodies, getting his revenge on what he wanted but could not have."

"You never did answer my question, what were these supposedly heterosexual men doing in a gay bar?" Mulder asked, sliding his sunglasses down to look at Yun over the top. "Just hanging out because they liked the ambience? All three of them, coincidentally, in the same place?"

"Do you really think it's a coincidence that the female victims all bear a strong resemblance to each other, too?" Scully added, directing the question at Yun but managing to focus on Spelling at the same time, probably judging him more receptive to reasoned argument that went counter to Yun's convictions.

"Look, we've got a link between three of the victims and a strange man, what are you saying, that I shouldn't pursue it because I can't prove he had dove feathers in his pocket?" Yun drew a deep breath and sobered himself a little. "We have to find this man."

"Yes, we do." Spelling leaned against the front of his desk and tapped his front teeth with a ballpoint pen. "But these are valid questions. Agent Mulder, have you worked up a profile of the killer?"

"I've done some work on it," Mulder said. "I have most of the material on my laptop back at the hotel, but I can give you a summary of the most important points." At least he thought he could; it depended on how literal and down-to-earth Spelling would want him to be. "But first I'd like to know exactly what the witness saw, and I'd like to talk to him myself if that's possible. Is he still in the building?"

"I think so. I left him with Sedley and the computer guys working on that sketch." Yun looked less bouncy now, more insecure, as he heard his boss pay serious attention to what Mulder was saying. "I'll take you to him, we can talk to him together."

Mulder was about to say that he'd prefer to talk to the witness alone, when a knock on the door stopped him. Spelling shot out a 'come in,' and a tousled head appeared, followed by a tall lanky body. One hand held a paper that was waved indiscriminately at everyone in the room. "Got the picture right here, I brought it right away like you said. Witness says it's a pretty good likeness."

"Where is the witness now?" Mulder asked, trying to keep hold of his temper.

"Oh, he left, said he had a bar to open, and Sedley didn't want to keep him." The man looked unconcerned, and held the paper up again like a banner for the faithful to rally to. Yun was already next to him, ready to study the results. "Look, I have to run," the man said, letting go of the sketch. "Sedley said to tell you that she's working on a transcript of the interview, okay?" He stepped back and had left the room before Mulder could collar him and shake any useful facts out of him.

Scully walked up to Yun briskly, caught a corner of the paper and brought it down to a level where she could comfortably see.

"Oh, my God."

It was softer than the way she usually said it, more truly stunned, and the look on her face was indescribable. Mulder had been cursing to himself over Sedley's inability to follow Yun's instructions, or possibly Yun's reluctance to follow his instructions; he'd have to find out which bar it was and go down there himself. But now, hearing Scully, he walked up to her and looked down at the paper she held and the face that looked up from it. For a moment his mind did not register what his eyes saw; recognition came with the sudden frenzied beating of his heart at the sight.

It was unmistakably the face of Alex Krycek.

* * *

Lovers II: Darksome devouring

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