TITLE: A Fine Romance

AUTHOR: Little Red (mylittleredgirl at gmail dot com)

RATING: PG-13 for the kind of graphic, ritualistic violence you expect from the X-Files, and for the (non-graphic, non-ritualistic) sex you don't.

CATEGORY: (in order of importance) DRR, casefile. Doggett POV.

DISCLAIMER: CC. 1013. Fox. Other dudes in suits.

SPOILERS: As much as it made me cry, this is after "William". It may or may not be after "Release"... I haven't decided yet. General understanding of Season 9 And How We Got This Way... but I'm not expecting anything major related to any one episode.

SUMMARY: Doggett must solve a fifteen year old murder case and sort out his feelings for his partner.

LINER NOTES: Don't worry... not one big long songfic... but there's a whole lot of jazz songs playing in the background because I'm going through an Ella Fitzgerald phase. Consider it educational. =D And, for variety, some Madison Avenue sneaks in here as well ;)

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I started this story in forced exile in my small Western Massachusetts hilltown... and so am inflicting the same fate on Doggett and Reyes! People, places and events aren't necessarily real... but they very well could be in Berkshire County ;)

STATUS: Incomplete. You have been warned.

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"A fine romance, with no kisses
A fine romance, my friend, this is..."
-- Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzerald

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"Huh?" I forced my brain out of the case file in front of me long enough to realize that not only had my partner, Monica Reyes, said something, but that she was actually expecting me to respond.

"Lunch," she repeated in a too-amused-to-be-annoyed voice, looking me over with both eyebrows raised. "As in, food. With me. In the near future." I looked at the clock on my desk, registered that it said one o'clock, and then looked back to her before realizing I hadn't answered yet.

"Uh, yeah. Sure."

"A little light reading?" she asked, getting up from her desk and snatching the case file away from me. She fingered through the pages without really reading them, her eyes pausing on the crime scene photographs of a dead teenage girl in a bloodied formal dress lying on a forest floor in rural Massachusetts.

"It's not ours," I explained quickly, lest she get any ideas of traipsing up to the site of that photo. "Case was closed a long time ago, but Agent Mulder had a copy in the X-Files with a note to look into it again about now. Not even an X-File." I shrugged, containing in that one movement my general attitude toward the X-Files–I don't pretend to understand what the hell's going on half the time, but the lives that we save are certainly worth whatever headaches the crazy theories give me.

Monica nodded, handing the folder back, her fingernails flicking at the post-it note with Mulder's handwriting on it. Mulder's fingerprints were all over everything in our basement office. I pulled the post-it off and threw it away, earning a sad smile from Monica. She'd mentioned on a late-night drive a week earlier how the notes and the fingerprints constantly reminded her how nothing in here was really hers. On the worst of days, we're both little more than placeholders, she said with her highway-hypnotized reasoning. On the best of days she qualified herself a successor, but even in that she was forced to compare herself to the icons that had manned these files before her. That late-night (early-morning? It had been almost four a.m.) drive had wrung a strange confession out of her–there were moments she considered dragging all the furniture out into the hallway and maniacally repainting the place in the middle of the night, removing a few of those fingerprints, just to keep from feeling like a direct-to-video sequel that no one could appreciate except in comparison to the original. "Don't get me wrong," she'd quickly amended, "I love Dana. I really do. Mulder too. I just... is this totally terrible of me?" Before giving me a chance to answer, she'd tossed the whole discussion out the window, "Good god, we really should have just stayed in that motel another night. Remind me why I don't get a day job?"

That same partner, who I knew would never get a regular day job in her life, was still standing opposite my desk, talking about the case file as though it wasn't at all as interesting as the impending lunch break. "Are we going to investigate?" she asked.

"There's nothing to investigate. Girl's been dead for fifteen years. Her killer was found almost right away and is still in jail."

"And Mulder wanted to do what with this, then?"

I didn't roll my eyes, but I thought about it. "Who knows? Maybe he was planning to return this file to wherever it belongs."

"You were pretty engrossed in it," Monica commented lightly, her eyes flashing, running her fingers absently over her low-cut collar. An unconscious tease, like always. I eyed her collarbone without meaning to and wondered if shirts like that were even allowed under the FBI dress code. She certainly was taking summer to heart with her wardrobe, anyway. "Tell me you're not holding out on me."

"It's a good campfire story," I admitted under her piercing gaze. "But that's all it is."

"Well, someday we'll have a powwow and you can tell me all about it," she shrugged. "Right now, it's way past lunch time, I'm starving, and it's beautiful outside." She flashed her best killer grin. "Besides, you're buying."

"What, run out of money already? It's only been a week since payday, Agent Reyes."

"Hey, I bought last time," she tossed her hair as she pushed the elevator button. "Fair's fair. Leave your jacket, John. It's summer."

"It's May."

"It's gorgeous. Don't you believe me?"

*****

She was right. It was gorgeous outside. Monica came to life in the sun, grinning at the sky and everything like she was a kid at a carnival, her sleeveless top and jeans suddenly making seasonal sense. Although I'd obediently left my suit jacket inside with the air conditioning, the beating sun was making me wish I was roaming the streets in jeans and a t-shirt.

Monica staked out a bench in a mini-park, one of the few islands of greenery in the sea of downtown concrete. She attacked her sandwich, happily watching the pigeons and children, both of which seemed to be out in force.

"What're you so happy about?" I finally asked her.

"The sun!" she exclaimed, throwing the hand that was free of sandwich up in the air as punctuation. "I thought I'd never see it again!" When I didn't respond she turned to me. "When I agreed to transfer from New Orleans, I didn't realize I was signing up for seven straight months of rain. It's a wonder nobody drowns. What's wrong with your sandwich?"

I looked down at it, intact except for a single bite. I thought I'd been eating. "Nothing," I said, and took another bite as proof. She finished hers off and leaned back, throwing her arms over the bench, tilting her chin back to give the sun access to her pale neck.

God, FBI approved or not, the shirt looked pretty good on her. White, and tight in all the right places. It wasn't quite long enough to reach the top of her jeans.

I caught myself staring. "It's worse in New York," I reminded her, to say something.

"I went to college in Providence." She accented the word like I'd know what she was talking about. "I didn't see sun for four years." She turned to me, and I yanked my eyes away from the inch of exposed, pale skin at her waist to meet her eyes, reproaching myself for even looking. She's your partner, for God's sake, my voice of reason spat loudly in my ears, sounding eerily like a drill sergeant I'd known in my Marine days. She's Monica. Her eyes sparkled dangerously in the sunlight. "Do we have to go back to work today, John?" she whined, and I started, wondering how much of my internal conversation she'd picked up on. What the hell was she proposing?

"W-what?" I managed to ask over the sound of my heart racing.

She was still making her pitch, oblivious to my barely controlled panic. "It's beautiful out. Would anybody even really notice? I mean, we might not get a sunny day again for years."

I forced my mind out of the spin it had gotten itself into. She wasn't propositioning you, jackass, that same voice scolded. She just wants to play hooky and go shoe shopping or something.

"We could say there's some sort of alien conspiracy down at the Washington memorial or something. I think I'll die if I have to go back indoors." Her eyes were pleading.

It was warmer out than I'd initially thought.

"And what if AD Skinner comes lookin' for us? What am I gonna say–sorry sir, but Monica needed a tan?"

"It'll be funnnn," she coaxed. Yeah, that was what I was worried about.

I realized I needed to kick my own ass. And soon. I'd heard all the stuff about spring and young-man's-fancy and all that bull, but there didn't seem to be any catch phrases running around for middle aged divorcés getting hot for their young, attractive, wingnut partners. My partner, who happened to know the ups and downs of my life better than anyone. Who also made a habit of being at the right place at the wrong time, every time things went to hell. And who was, on the thin, thin rolodex of this Special Agent's social life, the closest thing to a best friend I had.

And who wore distractingly tight white tank tops to work of all places.

Dirty old man. Right. There was a catch phrase for people like me.

And she deserved a hell of a lot better, even if there were times she didn't seem to think so. She could stroll into any bar in a top like that, bat her eyes a few times (I'd witnessed her use her eyelashes like lethal weapons several times and knew she had no problems with such a maneuver) and find some guy to buy her a taxi home for the evening, and probably breakfast, too. And ten to one that guy, whoever he was, wouldn't come with a lifetime of baggage from the death of a child and a soured marriage. And that guy probably wouldn't have a drill sergeant in his brain threatening to drop him on his ass every time he so much as looked at Monica Reyes.

"Are you sure there's nothing wrong with your sandwich?" she asked innocently.

"It's fine. Just not hungry."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Why, you want it?"

She broke off a piece of the sandwich still in my hands and tried it. "Mine's better," she decided, wrinkling her nose. I found myself oddly captivated. Clearly, they weren't giving me enough work to do, if Monica's facial gymnastics were the most interesting part of my day. "I'm not a big ham fan."

"Your loss," I got up and made to toss the sandwich, but she grabbed my arm and snatched one of the pieces of bread out of my hands.

"Pigeons," she explained herself.

"Aw, God, Mon, don't-" I trailed off in my protests when I noticed she wasn't listening. I walked over to the trash to drop the rest of the sandwich, along with the wax paper it had come in. I took a breath and glanced back at her, happily tossing bread at the birds now crowding around her. Crazy girl. While other FBI Agents might have fleeting desires to feed birds, vestigial notions left over from childhood, Monica was the only one who would actually do it in broad daylight without even a child with her as a cover. And in so doing she looked like a kid herself again, delighted at the show in front of her and her part in it. Noticing me after a minute, she tossed the rest of the bread onto the ground and stood up, her sun-loving smile still in place below a curious look in her eyes, silently wondering what I was thinking about as I stared at her.

"Ready to head back?" I asked.

Her face fell, but she slipped into step beside me in the direction of the looming J. Edgar Hoover building. "Didn't you ever blow off school?" she asked. "You know, ditch classes and go cruising with your buddies, just... to see if you could get away with it?"

I shot her an eyebrow as my only answer.

"Oh, right, I forgot I'm talking to John J. Doggett, model American and student of the month."

"Hey, hey now, no need to get testy. So, did you get away with it?"

She blushed. "No... but, I mean, I don't remember what our punishment was. Just the day itself. Maybe that's why we do stuff like that when we're kids–we know somehow that nothing they can do to us will hold too long but we'll always remember the crime."

My eyes caught a sign for an ice cream shop on a cross street. I pointed at the giant plastic soft-serve cone. "You feelin' criminal?"

She gaped at me as I grabbed her elbow and pulled her toward it. Her skin was hot from the sun, and smooth. I let go like she was poisoned as my stomach did a 360. My fingers complained at the loss of contact. She shot me a questioning glance.

"What flavour do you want?" I asked.

"You're seriously going to cut work."

I grinned at her. "You're talkin' to the student of the month, here. But if we're a half-hour late, nobody'll care. Now what flavour?"

She smiled lazily, like she considered my concession of half an hour a moral victory. We stepped inside the shop and she ran her eyes over the list of flavours, skipping over the non-fat-yogurts like I knew she would and lighting on the classics. "Vanilla," she finally announced.

"No chocolate?"

"I'm a walking disaster, and I'm wearing white."

And I was staring at her chest again.

Narrowly escaping my mental drill sergeant, I ducked into line behind a mother and her two wailing toddlers, soon returning with my prize.

"Thanks," she took her cone from me and licked a melting edge away from her thumb. "I owe you."

"Nah. I owed you lunch. This is part of it."

We wandered around aimlessly, me inhaling my ice cream (why had I thrown away that sandwich?) and her licking at it thoughtfully, as though it held some special meaning. Or maybe trying to delay our imminent return to the dark basement and the expense sheets. Playing hooky started to seem like a better and better idea. It was a nice day, whether she was pretty or not. Whether I was allowed to think she was pretty or not.

"You ever gonna put that thing out of its misery?" I asked, not because I minded the time she was taking, but because we'd been silent since leaving the ice-cream parlor.

My voice must have surprised her, because the cone slipped against her lips and chin. She pulled it away without tarnishing her white shirt–damn that shirt–leaving ice cream on her chin and top lip. I laughed for half a second but stopped as her gaze caught mine. She wiped her chin with her thumb but left the ice cream on her lip and stared at me, her eyes burrowing into mine.

"Walking disaster. Told you," she murmured, her lips parting slightly. She was daring me, inviting me... crazy impulses flooded me and I wanted to lick the ice cream from her mouth and toss the rest of the cone aside, throw her up against the nearest building and-

Oh God, she did this on purpose.

"We should be getting back," I said, lamely checking my watch to break her gaze.

Embarrassment rushed into her eyes but it was gone in a second. She licked her lip and thumb clean and bit into her ice cream as though nothing had happened. I could almost hear her silently cursing my flatfooted indecision all the way back to the office.

Aloud, she chirped, "Look, a talent night," as we passed a bulletin board on the main floor of the Hoover. She yanked the flyer off and waved it at me, a prop to distract from whatever embarrassment might still linger on her features.

What was left of the horny twenty-something in me was already yelling in indignation that good god, your young, attractive, wingnut partner is throwing invitations at you and you keep tripping all over them, you punk. The drill sergeant was at me for even considering doing anything about it. The two of them yelled at each other in my brain for who got to kick my ass first.

All in all, the first day of warm summer weather was not boding well for the rest of the season. It was going to be a long summer.

I blamed Monica, and her damned white shirt.

*****

An hour passed in awkward silence once back in the office. I couldn't tell from Monica's face, wrinkled in concentration over the expense sheets, whether she found the silence awkward too, or whether she was just using the quiet to assist in her mathematical calculations. I couldn't help laughing to myself whenever I saw her like this: the woman could chase down bona fide alien spaceships with only minimal flinching, but was quickly turned into a bundle of raw nerve endings when asked to calculate a restaurant tip. The air conditioning had proved too much for her tank top and she'd put her jacket on. Serves her right, I couldn't help thinking.

She sighed aloud in frustration. "You think Agent Harrison in accounting would do these for me if I asked her nicely?"

I smiled, glad at least to have her talking. Maybe I had just imagined all the awkwardness. The whole ice cream thing, it could have been an accident, couldn't it have? "I'm sure we could requisition you an abacus."

She shot knives from her eyes over the rim of her reading glasses. "I'll get it," she announced hotly and turned back to her paperwork, snapping her pencil lead. "Oh, fine," she spat at it and then, without warning, kicked off her shoes, crawled on top of my desk, stood up, and ripped a pencil out of the ceiling–one of the ones it seemed Scully had enshrined during Mulder's long disappearance. She hopped off again as though she hadn't just stepped all over my desk and returned to the column of figures, me staring after her, my eyes like dinner plates.

I blinked back down at the report I'd been editing and couldn't remember for the life of me what a semi-colon was supposed to be used for–it figured that Little Miss Brown Graduate over there would use semi-colons in her case reports.

I realized suddenly that I didn't want her moment with the ice cream to have been an accident. Not that I should–or would–ever do anything about it, but I at least owed her an explanation. Owed her something. Wanted something. I'd ask her to catch a beer after work–to celebrate the first day of summer or for no reason at all–and if it came up I'd explain myself. Or I'd see what happened. Or I'd just enjoy her company and ignore the whole thing, like we always did. Either way, it would have to be better than her annoyed silence.

"Hey, Mon," I started.

"Shhh!" she hissed, flailing a hand at me. "I'm counting."

I snickered, and her expression twisted, trying to keep her scowl intact and resist the urge to laugh along with me. Finally she reached the bottom of the page, scribbled a number, and let out the breath she was holding, grinning proudly. God, she was adorable, with or without the white tank top.

No, she wasn't. She was a law enforcement professional. And my partner.

What the hell had come over me?

"I was thinking-" I started, but Monica wasn't listening.

She was squealing. Literally.

By the time I looked up she was across the room.

"Larry!" she gasped, leaping at the tall, smirking man who had appeared in our doorway.

"Monnie! You little slut!" he said, and I jumped up, prepared to defend her honour against his slurs or do something else equally lame-assed. Neither of them noticed me as Monica threw herself around him and let him spin her in a circle. I caught a glimpse of her face as she spun. I had never seen her so completely delighted, and the sight of that stopped any movements I might have planned to kick her namecaller out of our office. "What're you doing locked up here in the basement?" Larry asked her, pulling her off of him and standing her up. She was giggling hysterically.

"I never thought I'd see anyone again!" she exclaimed nonsensically, kissing him firmly on the cheek in excitement. I felt something strange rush through me, dimly aware that I should probably make my excuses and leave the two of them alone, but knowing that was the last thing I was going to do, whether it made me rude or not. "What the hell are you doing here?"

He grinned, messing up her hair as though she were a dog. "What's with the new colour? Not you."

She frowned. "Larry. You didn't come all the way here just to see me."

"Nope," he was still grinning, and waggling his eyebrows, rather stupidly, I thought. "But I would." He tugged her jacket off her shoulders and took her top in appraisingly. "You look sexy, woman."

"Bastard." She hugged him again and then took a step back, smoothing her hair and breathing fast. Her cheeks were rosy and I found I couldn't look away even if I'd wanted to. She swallowed a few times, glancing around the office as if to remember where she was, and then caught sight of me, still standing awkwardly next to my desk.

She turned to me, still smiling radiantly, and I realized that I'd never seen her smile like that before, certainly not at me. My mouth went dry. So the whole ice cream thing had just been wishful thinking on my part. That was one question answered, anyway. "John!" She said my name like she'd forgotten I was even standing there. She turned back to Larry. "Larry Walker–or, Agent Lawrence Walker, meet Special Agent John Doggett," she smiled as I held my hand out awkwardly. Larry shook it forcefully, virtually effusing stale cigarette smoke. His eyes were dark and flashy, like Monica's. "My partner," she qualified me belatedly, and then rushed out an explanation of Larry for my benefit, "He's–we worked together in New Orleans." She said New Orleans like it was one word, slipping back into a colloquial accent she'd been rid of within two days of arriving in D.C. She turned to him. "You do still work in New Orleans, right?"

"N.O. forever," he assured her. "Just here on a consult. Suits upstairs asked me to stick around a week or two. Man, they don't even give you an office with windows here at HQ?"

"We have windows," Monica said defensively, pointing to the slanted ones up near the ceiling. Larry gave the pencils in the ceiling tiles a critical glance but didn't ask about them.

He sat on the edge of Monica's desk and I didn't like the way he seemed to claim the office as his just by being there. He absently fingered her nameplate and pencil jar, along with the few baubles she had that I hadn't even really noticed before–a little snow globe she used as a paperweight, a purple crystal with the word relax engraved on it (I'd seen her play with it whenever the urge for a forbidden cigarette demanded she find something to do with her hands), and a small cactus of unknown origin. A little bit of Mexico in Washington, D.C., most likely. "You said the weather here was awful," Larry commented, raising his eyebrows at her.

"Yeah, you come on the one day it's not raining cats and dogs."

"What can I say, I brought the nice weather from Louisiana for ya. Look, I've got a meeting to get to with some bigwigs upstairs, but we've gotta catch up."

She nodded, looking almost like a puppy who would eagerly follow him anywhere. "Sure!" she held out her hand and he penned his phone number on it with unnecessary flourish. In an entire office filled with paper, the man found it necessary to write the number on her hand, like we were back in junior high all of a sudden. Maybe that was how they did things in New Orleans, I didn't know.

"You know a good place to catch a brew around here?"

"I'm sure I can think of something."

"Great, doll-face," he leaned over and pecked her on the lips. My teeth ground of their own volition. "Smoke break?"

"I quit," she told him proudly.

He snorted. "Yeah, right."

"She did," I said in her defense. She looked at me like she forgot I was still hanging around. She probably had.

"Gimme a call after work, we'll do happy hour," Larry winked at her on his way out the door. I heard the basement elevator door ding closed a moment later and let out a breath I'd probably been holding since he walked in.

Monica looked like she was physically restraining herself from jumping up and down. "John!" she gasped for something to say.

"Hmm?" I probably overshot the look of disinterest I was going for, because her expression darkened.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothin'. Just thinking about that case of Mulder's."

"Oh." She paused a moment to see if I was going to elaborate, which I wasn't, before plowing on. "You'll come tonight, right?"

"What?"

"With Larry and me." I didn't like the way she said Larry and me like it was a pre-defined unit. "It'll be fun. I really want you to meet him."

"I just met 'im," I reminded her, sitting back down to the report.

"Please," she turned her lethal brown eyes on me. "Just for an hour. It'll be fun." What was it with her and fun, anyway? Was that all she thought about? "It's not like you're doing anything else."

She was right, but it wasn't exactly polite for her to say so–politeness had never been one of my partner's overwhelming strong suits. I sighed. I'd wanted to take her out for a drink anyway, right? Was that me? If nothing else, being there would probably keep her from going back to that New Orleans guy's hotel room. Although, from the little show she'd just put on, I wasn't entirely sure she'd regret it in the morning. "All right."

She bounded around the office for a few more minutes. "We went to college together," she chirped happily, sitting on my desk, her stocking feet literally trembling with excitement. She ignored my withering looks. "But I had no idea he'd even gone to the Academy until we met up in New Orleans."

I really didn't want to hear a run-down of their fine relationship. "Monica, you done with those expense sheets? Report's due in an hour."

She frowned down at me. She probably knew exactly what I was thinking, I realized. I was being pretty obvious. "All right," she said finally, settling down in her chair and glaring at me over her paperwork. "You know, he's a good guy."

"I'm sure he is."

"Oh, not like that," she scoffed. "I mean, he's just a nice guy."

"And I'll love him after drinks tonight, right?" My teeth were pressed together so hard they hurt.

"Well... actually, you'll probably find him kinda annoying," she admitted. "He's a lot like me."

My eyes snapped up at her, but she was already penciling marks onto her receipts. She was baiting me. Wasn't she? "Monica, I don't think you're annoying..." her eyes turned back to mine without turning her head, awaiting a compliment I couldn't seem to come up with. "I mean, just cuz you're nuts doesn't mean you're not useful to have around... with all this crazy alien stuff." Just because you stand on my desk without warning and use semi-colons in obscene places and can't add a column of figures doesn't mean I could stand it if you didn't come in to work. Just because you annoy the hell out of me sometimes doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. Just because I don't know what to do when you look at me that way and I act like a complete clyde around you doesn't mean I want you looking that way at this Larry character.

"Whatever, John." She went back to counting, and there was nothing else for me to say. All the voices in my head started in yelling at once.

*****

She was still in her white tank top, but it made more sense in the smoky, dark, whiskey-smelling atmosphere of the Victoria Tavern. The Vic had once been a piano bar, before the advent of ESPN had encouraged them to install television sets by the counter. The old wooden stage was still there and the piano was always kept tuned but I'd never heard it used aside from the occasional 'happy birthday' chorus. Walking distance from the Hoover and boasting a good selection of imported and domestic beers on tap, the Vic was an FBI wind-down favourite. I had only been inside a few times, preferring to spend as little free time downtown as possible. Monica and I had left our cars in the parking garage and strolled over sometime after six o'clock, ordering dinner while we waited for Larry.

"You sure you want me hangin' around?" I asked her through my burger. The food wasn't half bad in this place. "You don't want to catch up with Agent Walker?"

"I can do that with you here."

"You ain't sick of me yet?"

She rolled her eyes. "I wouldn't have asked you just to be polite," she pointed out, which was true. "You gotta stick around and help me haul him out of here if he gets wasted."

"And you like this guy?"

She sighed. "I told you, we went to college together. And seeing me sends him regressing fifteen years. Just imagine how it was working with him. And yeah, I like this guy. If it weren't for him, New Orleans would have been a disaster. He convinced the others to give me a break."

"Why wouldn't they?"

"Eh," she waved the fry in her hand and finished chewing. The five o'clock crowd had mostly dissipated from the Vic, leaving it quiet enough to hear the strains of soft jazz spilling from a juke box in the corner. "They thought I was nuts. Well, they thought it was nuts I got sent to them–rumours of voodoo notwithstanding, they couldn't see any reason for me. Nobody really wants a ritualized crime specialist hanging around."

"In all fairness, you are nuts," I couldn't help pointing out.

The joke didn't land as well as I'd hoped. "So you've said," she observed dryly. She made to lean over the table toward me and then pulled her hand back without making contact. "Ketchup," she indicated her chin.

I cleaned myself up with a paper napkin. She was continuing with her story. "It all worked out fine. I got bounced around from partner to partner for two years, just kept my mouth shut on most of my nuttiness and had a good time off-duty. It's a fun city. Always a party going on."

"Hope I'm not boring you too much."

She didn't answer, because Larry and a couple of other agents I didn't know were wandering in. Introductions were made. Agents Jim Kendall and Mark Corbin were apparently the ones who had brought Larry in to consult, although the details of their case were never mentioned, nor what expert advice Monica's loud college buddy had to offer. Kendall and Corbin were evident regulars of the Vic, seeing how an especially buxom waitress brought them their ales without waiting for their orders. Larry, after taking a minute to gape at the waitress, sat next to Monica and ate fries off her plate as if they were his own.

The conversation was pleasant and relaxed. Monica and Larry chatted with the other two agents as though they were all old friends, although I was fairly certain Monica had never laid eyes on either Kendall or Corbin before in her life. Apparently Agent Kendall had a girl he'd been avoiding for the past few days and a good deal of energy was put into harassing him about it.

"She wants a ring!" Kendall wailed dramatically, two beers in and already showing it. "We've only been together a year!" He lit a cigarette, and Monica eyed it hungrily.

Corbin and Larry argued back and forth, Corbin extolling the values of family life (flashing a photograph of an especially precious toddler daughter as what he called "Exhibit A"), and Larry encouraging Kendall to "treasure his bachelorhood above all else."

"Right, and that's working just so well for you," Monica chimed in at that point. "Who used to cry into his tequila shots about how nobody loves you and you have to do your own laundry and you're going to die all alone and that?"

"Tequila shots! That's a great idea!" Larry made to wave the waitress over but Monica jumped on his arm and forced it back to the table.

"Like hell. You get to leave here in two weeks, I'm stuck here for the long haul. No way you're getting me plastered."

"That never stopped you in New Orleans," Larry pointed out. "Or at Brown, for that matter. You remember Spring Weekend my sophomore year..."

Monica punched his arm and shushed him.

"No, no, I want to hear drunk Monica stories," I spoke up. She shot me a look that could sever limbs.

"No way." She turned on Kendall. She was practically drooling at the man's cigarette. "And you, with this woman, if this is one of those 'why buy the cow?' situations, I'm going to have to kill you on behalf of loose women everywhere."

Larry snickered and she held a fist out, threatening to hit him again. "Say you'll be nice," she admonished.

Ignoring Monica's warning, he turned to me. "I want to hear recent drunken Monica stories." He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out his own pack of smokes, holding them dangerously close to my partner's face in such a way that it couldn't have been accidental. Monica was literally whimpering.

Kendall and Corbin were both waiting attentively for me to rat on my partner's drunken exploits. She knew as well as I did that I didn't have anything on her. Sure, we'd knocked back a few together, but hardly enough for her to run naked into traffic. To take the edge off, she'd say. And a beer or two did take the edge off, enough to remind me that she was a beautiful woman, but not enough to make doing anything about that seem like a good idea.

"Sorry, you'll have to ask her," I told Larry, pushing my plate of fries toward her so that she'd have something to put in her mouth in the face of Larry's cigarettes.

"Don't tell me you've gone soft, Monnie!" Larry crowed at her, waving the smoke in her face.

"I could still drink your sorry ass under the table, if that's what you're worried about," she muttered, glaring at me as though Larry's outburst and her quitting smoking were all somehow my fault.

Agent Corbin cleared his throat and dropped money on the table. "Before this turns into a pissing contest, I've got to get home to my darling wife."

"This is why I don't wanna get married!" Kendall exclaimed.

The four of us stayed on as it started to get dark outside. Eventually, Agent Kendall's lady love paged him and he made his excuses and took off, leaving me across the table from Monica and Larry. I caught Monica's eyes and made to stand up and leave them alone, but she shook her head fiercely and I sat back down again.

"Thank you," she mouthed while Larry's back was turned, as he ordered another round. I passed, aware that eventually I'd have to drive home, and if Monica's rosy cheeks and drunken laugh were any indication, I'd be driving her home as well.

I heard more about the personal lives of Brown alums and New Orleans field agents than I'd ever wanted to. Apparently some guy named Jamie Reynolds' wife had 'finally' left him, but that was okay because he still had his secretary, the district supervisor was in some sort of gambling trouble, and a former housemate of Monica's referred to only as Curly Sue was engaged–but Monica shouldn't feel badly that she wasn't informed, since it hadn't yet passed the "three week test." I busied myself squinting at the televisions near the bar until the conversation came around to my partner.

"So," Larry asked her. "You like it up here?"

She hesitated. "Yeah." Her eyes flicked to me and then she gushed, "The work's great. Really amazing. Perfect place for Crazy Monnie."

I was stuck in her moment of hesitation. It had sounded ten years long to me. She had jumped at the chance to work on the X-Files when I'd offered the transfer to her, and it was a perfect place for crazy Monica Reyes. I needed her more than she needed me, or the X-Files–her career had been solid and impressive before I'd even approached her, and the X-Files was something of a land mine on any FBI résumé. Asking her to join me was selfish. I knew she wouldn't say no to me–she couldn't–but I had thought I was doing her a favour as well. She coveted a place where she could be a nut job and have it work to her benefit, rather than having to quietly toe the line in the New Orleans field office to avoid being laughed out of the service.

So why the hesitation? To protect Larry from thinking she was too happy here, that she was happier without him?

Or maybe the hesitation had been honest, and her gushing about how wonderful she found her job was meant to protect me.

I wondered, not for the first time since her jubilant display in the office, whether she and Larry had been lovers. She would have come to D.C. anyway, fulfilling an eight-year-old graveside promise that she never should have made: If you ever need anything, John... anything... I'll be there. I mean it. I never asked her whether she had a boyfriend in New Orleans–she hadn't mentioned one and I didn't really want to know. I couldn't really have lived with my own selfishness if I knew she was giving up a happy life for the pain and uncertainty that came with the X-Files territory.

Larry lit up another cigarette. "Crazy Monnie stuff? Really? You get to chase flying saucers?"

"Sometimes," she smiled at me, her eyes clearly stating what she thought of Larry's state of inebriation. Despite the whirlwind she'd sent my thoughts on, I smiled back at her.

"So you what, invite the li'l green men to party back at yours?"

I could almost hear her thought process: Yeah, that, or try to keep crazy cult worshippers from transporting my friend's telekinetic baby off to Pluto, or try to keep semi-indestructible government-engineered wacko super soldiers from wreaking general havoc, and occasionally spend time in other people's psychic dollhouses... you know, the usual. "Oh, I'm sure the martians have their own parties. Isn't that right, John?" She was no longer looking at me, but straight at Larry's cigarette.

"Yeah, I'm sure their parties are swell."

Larry probably didn't even hear me. All his attention was going to laughing at Monica trying to nonchalantly suck all the nicotine she could from his second-hand smoke. "So you quit?"

She threw her head back against the wall behind her. "Yes! And I don't know what I was thinking!"

Larry pulled out another cigarette from his pack and lit it against the end of his own. He held it out in front of her, letting it burn. I thought she was literally going to cry in the face of such torture. "Oh, I know what you were thinking," he challenged. "Lung cancer, no smoking in the office anymore, future children, smelly clothes, thirty bucks a week?"

"Don't tempt me! I'm weak!"

"I'm not tempting you." He held the cigarette toward me. "You smoke, Agent Doggett?"

"Not anymore." I hadn't smoked since I was practically a kid, in the Marines. The habit hadn't lasted long.

"Quitters!" Larry went to put out the unwanted cigarette in the ashtray but Monica screamed and grabbed it from him, taking a long draw from it.

My lungs burned for hers, but to her credit she didn't cough, only smiled blissfully as Larry cheered her on.

"I still quit," she informed us.

Larry continued to light smoke after smoke for her, talking animatedly about various clubs Monica knew and all the various girls he'd pulled from each one. If he was her ex-boyfriend, he seemed to have missed the memo on not running off your laundry list of sexual conquests on the first day of seeing your ex again. I watched her carefully as he talked. She asked questions of him and laughed at all of his jokes, but behind her wall of cigarette smoke she looked almost wistful. At least she didn't look jealous, that was something.

"Now you go," he said to her suddenly.

She glanced at me, and then back at him. "I'm not playing anymore," she said quietly. The lighthearted energy around the table crashed to the floor instantly.

Larry pretended it hadn't. "C'mon, Monnie, the game doesn't stop just cuz you transferred..."

She shifted uncomfortably, and put out her cigarette. Larry went to light her another, but she waved it away. "Look, you win, okay? It's not like that here."

"It's like that everywhere."

She forced out a halfhearted laugh. "We're getting older, Larry. Don't you think it's about time we... I don't know... started acting like it?"

"So you haven't gotten a single point since I've last seen you?" He waggled his eyebrows at her.

She looked at me again, as though debating whether or not to say anything in my presence. I realized that I should probably go offer to order another pitcher at the bar, but this game of theirs had me completely confused, and whatever Monica was going to own up to, I wanted to hear it. I had no right to know whether she'd been bedding down guys right and left since she'd come to D.C., of course, but I couldn't help my curiosity. I'd always sort of assumed, since she never mentioned anyone, that her off-duty life was as boring as mine. In some strange way I took comfort in that. "It's not like that here," she said again. "Excuse me," she pushed past Larry to the ladies' room.

Larry turned to me. "You're telling me that girl's been sitting at home doing needlepoint instead of painting this town red?"

"She's not a liar," I snapped, feeling as though he'd insulted me personally instead of my partner.

Larry shrugged. "Course not." He studied me carefully a minute. "You and her ever..."

I shot him a look and kept my voice level. "Hey, Agent Walker, you heard the lady. It's not like that here."

Monica returned a few minutes later, all smiles. When Larry finished his drink she stopped him from ordering another pitcher and pointed to his watch. "You got more meetings with the suits in the morning?" she asked. It wasn't really a question. "In this town they actually expect you to be there on time. And fully clothed."

Larry sighed. "All right, I'll go hail a cab."

"You need help finding your hotel?" she asked, and I wanted to physically restrain her from getting into a cab with him.

"Are you offering yourself to me?"

She grinned. "No." I tried not to look too outwardly relieved.

"Then no, I don't need help finding my hotel." Since we'd paid for each pitcher as it came, he only pulled a few dollars out of his wallet for tip as he stood up.

"Fine, then," she said. "Wander the streets of D.C. all night. See if I care."

"Fine then, don't have sex with me. See if I care," he tossed back at her before nodding goodbye to me. "Nice meeting you, Agent Doggett." I nodded back as he left, finding I liked him a whole lot more now that I knew Monica wasn't going home with him.

Monica, for her part, was eyeing the ashtray with sheepish disgust. She looked up at me and smiled, heavy-lidded. "I missed doing this," she said. "I think I almost forgot it."

"What, gettin' wasted on a Wednesday?"

"I am not wasted."

"You'd better be comin' in to work tomorrow."

"I don't get hungover, John. Don't worry."

Her slightly drunk eyes seemed like murky pools, reflecting the tabletop, the pitcher, the cigarette ashes, and me all back as a warm brown. The juke box was still playing, some sentimental jazz song from the crooner era. The gentle piano and warm female vocals were actively in contrast to Larry's harsh laughter.

"Ella Fitzgerald," Monica said, almost reverently, after a moment. Her eyes got foggy as she listened, running her finger absently through spilled beer on the table. I had intended to pay my share of the tip and get out of this place as soon as Larry left–I was fully sick of the smell of beer and smoke–but I couldn't interrupt her. Her lips moved slightly along with the words as she traced patterns on the table, almost whispering the words along with Ella, "Never thought I'd fall, but now I hear love call. I'm gettin' sentimental over you..."

My body felt as though it was dropping through the floor, and I was sure I was boring holes right through her I was staring so hard. She shifted uneasily under my gaze, looking down at her beer spirals, and she stopped mouthing the words. She was still captured by the music, vulnerable in a way that she rarely was, and I didn't want to risk disturbing it to breathe. The song seemed to hold us to the table, trapped out of time.

Won't you please be kind, and just make up your mind... that you'll be sweet and gentle, be gentle with me...

Monica looked up suddenly, and I found I couldn't swallow. Ella's pleas seemed to radiate right from her murky brown eyes, and for a second I thought she was going to cry. She broke the spell, standing up suddenly and wobbling only slightly. I reached for her over the table to steady her, and ended up tipping over the empty pitcher. The sound of plastic meeting wood shook us both awake, and when I looked back up at her, laughing at my own clumsiness, her eyes were back to normal. "Wait for a cab with me?" she asked, acknowledging with a smirk her over-the-legal-limit status.

"Don't be crazy," I admonished her. "I'm drivin' you home."

"You don't have to. It's out of your way. I didn't mean to keep you here this late." We both knew the Southern gentleman in me would never let her take a cab home, but she gave me an out anyway.

"Come on," I ordered her, half-pulling her out of the Victoria Tavern. The night air was warm and smelled of cherry blossoms, like all of D.C. does at one point or another during the spring. She was smiling to herself as we walked, looking thoughtful under the streetlights. I was caught with the sudden desire to link arms with her, to pretend that she was going home with me instead of back to her apartment, to act for just one night like our lives were simple and unfettered by pain and complications–that I was just a man and she was just an undeniably beautiful woman.

She paused at a street corner, waiting for a car to pass, and tucked her hair behind her ear, glancing at me with an utterly devastating look. She knew what I was thinking. Didn't she?

The car was long gone, but she was still waiting for something. I stopped a few feet away from her, unsure of her plans. The jazz strains felt long-reaching, around us still, even though we were too far from the Vic to really be hearing them anymore.

"I really appreciate you coming along tonight," she offered me a quiet smile I was fairly certain any man would kill over. "I know it's not really your thing."

I intended to say 'it's nothing,' but no words came and I just shook my head at her.

"Larry's... a blast from the past. It's good to have you keeping me grounded." She was silent for a moment, her eyes planting ideas in my brain. I was getting fuzzy on the reasons why it would be so wrong to take her arm, to touch her face, to kiss her right here in the street. The ice cream on her lips and ten thousand missed or imagined opportunities flashed through my head, begging me to take action, but I couldn't remember how to walk forward to close the gap between us. The moment got awkward quickly and she remedied it, waving a hand and talking just a little too loudly, "And, of course, driving my drunken ass home when I get wasted on a Wednesday."

I winced. "Remind me you owe me one."

She nodded like it was a practical request and we started walking again.

It would have been wrong.

Wrong because she was drunk and I wasn't.

Wrong because she was my partner and I was a train wreck. More than eight years after the divorce, I was still a train wreck.

I didn't turn on the radio in the truck, not wanting to erase just yet what was left in my ears of Ella Fitzgerald gettin' sentimental. We were halfway to her apartment, engaging in small talk about work, before there was a lull and some temporary lapse of sanity made me ask a question that I really didn't want to hear the answer to:

"You miss New Orleans?"

If she was sober, she wouldn't even have answered. She would have intuited that I felt guilty for something and would have said something comforting about how much more fun the X-Files was than working the regular rounds in New Orleans, and how grateful she was for the chance. This time she wasn't sober, and the beer still in her system answered instead: "Yeah."

She didn't launch into an explanation of her reasoning, and I didn't need one. She missed New Orleans. D.C. wasn't her town–she hated the rain and the dress code, and missed going and getting wasted with Larry on weekdays. For all she extolled her 'dream job' on the X-Files, we were browbeaten by higher-ups at every turn, and had to fight for every inch of ground. In the field, she got thrown around and banged up on almost a weekly basis and that had to get old quickly.

I pulled up in front of her apartment building. "God, I'm tired," she said.

"Door to door service."

"Thanks." She smiled sleepily. "You picking me up tomorrow, too?"

"I don't remember agreein' to that."

"Hey, you were the one who said I have to come in to work tomorrow, and my car's already there."

I rolled my eyes at her. "Get out."

She sat up straight and yawned like a cat. "So, morning, then?"

"Yeah."

I thought about kissing her goodnight, casually, like Larry had–but that wasn't me and I knew it would turn out wrong, somehow. She was gone before I could decide one way or the other.

*****

My house was dark and uninviting, the silence virtually oppressive after the noise and jazz of the Vic. Monica buzzed in my brain–stealing my sandwich to feed the birds, standing on my desk to rip down pencils, dragging me to a bar on a Wednesday and turning everything in me upside-down for moments at a time.

I need to start leaving lights on, I realized. I could live with the electrical bill and, dark and empty, my house wasn't much of a treat after a long day at the office. Maybe Monica was right–I could use a pet. Maybe if I got a pet with expressive brown eyes I might get used to them, and Monica's wouldn't have such an effect.

And, drill sergeant or no, her eyes were certainly having an effect. In fleeting moments of fantasy while my drill sergeant was looking the other way, I had already damned FBI protocol to hell and thrown her down on the nearest flat surface. Daydreams rarely got any farther than that–she was my partner above all else, and our lives were certainly weird enough without me coveting her from across the office. I was never able to remember night dreams with any detail but I had a feeling she popped up in them fairly often–probably because she was a good seventy-five percent of my daily human interaction. Being stuck in the basement was conducive for getting paperwork done, but we didn't get a lot in the way of through traffic. Not that I minded–whatever else she might be, she wasn't boring.

In real life, things would be a hell of a lot harder than just finding a table or floor to throw her down on, or whatever other pulp fiction plots my subconscious came up with while I wasn't looking. She flirted with everyone, not just me, and even if she meant it, if she really thought she was getting sentimental in my direction, that didn't mean she wouldn't bolt the morning after. And when Monica ran, she ran far–all the way to New Orleans from New York City the last time a clandestine office affair had gone sour. I doubted I could do my job without her–my complete package of friendship, moral support and nutjob theories all in one. Given that my job was really the only thing of import left in my life, it wasn't something to easily risk.

And if she didn't run... that would almost be worse, to have to watch her be disappointed. She deserved never to be let down, and if I ever started down that path with her, it would only be a matter of time. Neither of us could stand it.

*****

"What's this?" Monica came to a dead stop in front of her desk and cocked her head to one side as though she'd never seen anything like it before. She held the two cups of coffee she'd gone to fetch out in front of her as though she'd forgotten about them.

I reached over my desk to take one. "It's a calculator," I grinned at her. She was wearing a turtleneck–on the one hand, a lot closer to FBI regs than the tank top of yesterday's heat wave, and on the other hand, considerably less flattering. I supposed that was a good thing.

"I can see it's a calculator. Where'd it come from?"

"It's an X-File."

She stared at me like I'd grown another head. "You're in an awfully... chipper mood this morning."

"Before my first cup of coffee, even." I toasted her with the styrofoam cup.

"That really is an X-File," she muttered, sitting down and examining the calculator I'd found in the back of my desk, probably there since the days of Mulder or before. I was fairly certain she needed it more than the cobwebs.

If I was in a chipper mood, it was undoubtedly her fault. She had, predictably, not been ready when I'd arrived at her apartment that morning, and watching her tear around the place, raking a brush through her hair, for a full ten minutes looking for her keys was probably the funniest thing I'd seen in weeks. Not to mention that helping her look, amid orders to "don't laugh!" all seemed hopelessly domestic. Monica cursed like a sailor, damning her drunkenness, her keys, her apartment, and even her hairbrush, all to my general amusement. When I found the keys between the couch cushions I'd debated not telling her, just to drag the moment out a little longer.

"I hope this doesn't mean I have to tally up expense sheets all day again," she commented, offering the calculator a wry smile before giving it a home between the relax crystal and the cactus.

"Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad."

She rolled her eyes at me in response and then set about compulsively shuffling all the papers on her desk.

I ignored the sound of her nails tapping and read through the day's mail.

"Want more coffee?" she asked a few minutes later, standing on the other side of my desk, eyes bright and practically twitching. She was chewing on her bottom lip and white-knuckling the relax crystal.

I tried not to laugh, I really did, but it was impossible. "More coffee's the last thing you need."

She frowned. "I know!" She flung herself back down on her chair and lay her head down on top of the reshuffled paperwork in despair. "Why do I let him do this to me, John?"

Now I was lost. "Larry?" I felt my chest muscles tense involuntarily–here I'd thought she just wanted a cigarette, and she was getting all nervewracked because of him?

She sniffled piteously and nodded, head still buried in her desk. "I'd quit. Right?"

Unsure of the real topic of this conversation, but assuming now it had to be smoking, I answered her. "Uh-huh. You still quit. You said that last night."

"Would it be totally wrong for me to start smoking again?"

I wanted to tell her to stick it out, to quit for good, and not let blasts from the past like Larry show up and mess with her life. But it wasn't really my place to say. "It's up to you."

"You're supposed to back me up here, John."

"How the hell'm I supposed to back you up when I don't even know what you want?" The question touched on issues much more far-reaching than a pack-a-day habit, but she didn't answer it that way.

"I quit. I freaking quit." She sat up abruptly. "It's all Larry's fault. I quit before, you know?"

"What?"

"In New York. I didn't smoke. Much, anyway. Hardly ever."

I nodded dumbly. That was true, at least. Although I'd hardly worked with her as closely there as I did on the X-Files, we'd been friends and I'd rarely seen her light up on her own, only when other cops were smoking and offered her a light. I'd always assumed the habit had started in earnest in New Orleans.

"I stopped after college. Too much money. And then, I go to New Orleans, and Larry's there flicking a Zippo, and bam! I'm a chimney again."

"And now?" I found myself asking, irrationally upset that Larry had such an effect on her.

"Let's just say it's a good thing he's not staying around here long." She grinned, and I nodded, silently echoing that thought. Larry would finish up his consult and jet back to Louisiana, and Monica would go back to normal.

Monica interrupted my thoughts, waving a pink piece of paper that I didn't recognize for a moment. That flyer she'd pulled down the day before, depicting a cartoon of an FBI ID badge with arms and legs juggling something. The bubbly hand-drawn lettering announced an FBI Talent Night, Friday night at the Vic–evidently finally putting their antique stage to use.

"You see this?" she asked.

I nodded. "A joke, isn't it? Can't imagine whose brainchild that was."

"It's not so ridiculous. We used to have them in New Orleans. Employee morale and that."

She missed New Orleans. Right. The Land where Everything was Fun, and FBI agents like Larry continued to act like college students well into adulthood. Instead of snapping that if she missed New Orleans so damned much, why didn't she just go back there? out of fear that she might do just that, I snarked, "You ever do one of them things?"

Her smile was secretive. "Maybe. Once or twice. Insanely drunk, of course."

I laughed in spite of myself. "What'd you do?"

She blushed furiously. It was horribly endearing. "Used to do skit things."

"With Larry?"

She squinted at me a moment, as though suddenly aware of the awkward way I said Larry's name. "Yeah," she admitted. "And some other agents. Was fun."

"You, what, sing and dance and stuff?"

"Uh-huh." She sent the pink ad flying toward my desk. It fell on the floor. "So, what're you gonna do for the talent show?"

"Yeah, Mon, that's almost funny."

"No, really." She was enjoying her joke. "It's meant to boost morale. We've gotta support the bureau on this."

"I've got plenty of morale."

"You can never have too much morale. C'mon, John, you've got to have some hidden talents."

Joking around with her was much more interesting than the morning mail, and I put my work down, spinning my chair around to face her directly. "What you see is what you get."

She considered that a moment. "We should do something, though. Put in an appearance from the X-Files office. I could stand with a toy UFO on my head and you could shoot it off." Her grin was wide and I couldn't help smiling along with her. "Fine. We won't perform. But we should at least go, mock all of our fellow agents. Right?"

The chance to mock somebody else for a change was compelling. "I can't imagine anybody'll sign up for that thing."

She shrugged, evidently deciding that she could bug me about it at a later time, and went back to work. I watched her for just a second longer. Yeah, going out with her on Friday night would be fun, provided she didn't do anything stupid like hop up on stage midway through the evening. Besides, if I didn't take her, I had a feeling Larry would–and encouraging her nostalgia for the good ol' fun days of New Orleans any further was the last thing I needed. And, although she had the decency not to say it this time, I didn't have anything better to do.

*****

We worked the rest of the morning in companionable silence before she tossed another curve ball my way, seemingly out of the blue. "John, what do you think of my hair?"

I nearly choked. Ten years of marriage, no matter how long ago, had instilled in me the intelligence not to answer a question like that. "You're askin' the wrong guy here, Monica."

Her eyes flashed annoyance, as though she knew I was eluding the question and knew my reasons were stupid. "Larry mentioned it. I was thinking maybe it's better the way I had it before–you know, shorter. And black."

I just gaped at her.

"Don't look like I'm holding you up at gunpoint," she commanded, crossing her arms and looking for all the world like she was holding me up at gunpoint. "Just a question. Figured you'd know. From a guy's perspective."

I didn't want to get into that, or admit that I'd hardly noticed the change in her hair. Sure, it was longer, and now that she mentioned it, she'd done some complicated highlighting at some point that seemed to be fading out, but I hardly followed the comings and goings of women's fashion. "Looks fine," I answered, figuring there was no way she could really blame me for an answer like that. She raised an eyebrow. "Really. It's... nice." I was feeling more cornered by the second.

She sighed, exasperated. "Why do I even talk to you?"

I came up with really the only obvious answer. "Because I'm the only one here?"

She rolled her eyes, got up and snatched the phone from off my desk, not even bothering to reply. "I'm calling Dana."

"In the middle of the day? You think Dana doesn't have anything better to do than sit around talkin' hair?"

She shot me a warning glance. Obediently I got up and grabbed a handful of files off my desk. "I'll just go bring these upstairs."

She turned her back and spoke into the phone. "Hi, Dana, it's Monica. I've got a question for you... are you busy?"

The reply must have been to Monica's liking, because she leaned back and adopted a pose suggesting the conversation might take awhile.

"I'm gettin' lunch, Mon," I called from the door. "You want somethin'?"

She shook her head and shushed me. There was nothing to do but walk out.

*****

It took forever and half to get back to the office. I managed to run into all of my least favourite superiors on my way back from the cafeteria cart, all of whom seemed to have some minor issue that needed tending to right now. Unfortunately, bringing my partner a lunch that she hadn't even asked for wasn't pressing enough to use as an excuse to escape. Defending nitpicky details on month-old reports was enough to make me crave a good run-in with a man-eating paranormal creature.

I was barely out of the elevator when I realized Monica wasn't in the office alone. The loud voice with her was unfortunately immediately recognizable.

Not that it mattered, really, if Larry was there or not. If Monica wanted to be alone with the guy, there were other places she could do it. I planned to walk in, offer Monica the sandwich and chocolate cupcake that would somehow make up for me knowing nothing about hair, and go off on a rant about the inane FBI bureaucracy I'd been fighting for the last hour until Larry got bored of me and left. I would have done that, too, if I hadn't realized one defining thing as I stopped a few yards down the hallway from our office door–they were talking about me.

"So, this partner of yours," Larry was saying. "He the same John guy you got letters from in New Orleans?"

"Same John guy," Monica answered, a patient smile evident in her voice.

"There something there?"

While I didn't make a habit of eavesdropping on my partner, and felt a twinge of guilt for doing it, it was a good question. A really good question.

Monica snorted in response. "Yeah. Almost. On the days he notices I'm female." I felt something rise in my throat and it was all I could do to keep from objecting out loud. Just because I didn't pay attention to her hair didn't mean I didn't notice her...

For the first time since I'd met him, I was hanging on Larry's every word. "So, what, you just drop everything and run over here for this suit–for what?"

Monica took an audible breath and launched into an explanation that I was itching to hear, but my spying was interrupted by quite another voice.

"Is there something going on I should know about?"

"Agent Scully," I identified her, wondering what she was doing there and wishing she could have shown up five minutes later, when I was done listening to Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Partner but were Afraid to Ask.

"Why are we staking out the office?"

I felt my ears go red, and decided that not answering her was probably my best option. She and Monica were close friends, and girl talk was a frightening thing, capable of destroying far stronger men than me. "You here to help Monica with her little hair emergency?"

Scully narrowed her eyes. I made a mental note not to joke about hair with either Monica or Dana Scully, or, to be safe, any other woman, ever again. "I'm here to see you, actually."

"About?"

"Well, after discussing her little 'hair emergency,' Agent Reyes told me you had some questions on an old case of Mulder's." She started walking toward the office, and I knew there was no way I was getting any more of Monica's secrets the easy way.

"It's not a case," I argued. "I don't even know why it's down here."

"Well, Mulder must have had a reason." Which there was no way I could possibly ever understand, because I wasn't Mulder, and never would be. Right. I'd had this conversation before.

"And you're here to translate for me?" I asked her, all at once grateful for her help and expertise and annoyed that she thought we couldn't do it ourselves. Or maybe annoyed that we couldn't do it ourselves. Her fingerprints were all over the office alongside Mulder's.

By this time we were inside the office. Monica shot Dana a winning smile in greeting and gave no sign that she'd been discussing anything personal before we arrived. Scully smiled back and then looked at Larry. I made the introductions, keeping my voice as neutral as possible: "Agent Larry Walker, Doctor Dana Scully."

They shook hands, and Larry looked Scully over appraisingly. I caught Monica shaking her head at him warningly, and he smiled as if in acknowledgment. The man was a menace, but I couldn't very well throw him out in front of Scully, particularly since she seemed oblivious to any leering glances in her direction. "Are you assisting on this case, Agent Walker?" she asked him.

Larry smiled a lopsided grin. "Nah, I'm a friend of Monica's. I'm working on a consult upstairs, just here for the company."

"Oh," Scully said, and turned to me, evidently having decided that Larry's presence was sufficiently explained but not really important enough to pay any further attention to. I did my best to suppress a grin. So not every woman found his crude charm irresistible. "So, what's the story on this case?"

"It's not a case. Not ours, anyway," I said again, and then, remembering I was still holding Monica's lunch, held it out to her. "Monica, you want somethin' to eat?"

She smiled awkwardly. "No... but thanks, John. Larry brought me something."

"I'll take it," Scully offered quickly. "I haven't had a chance to eat all day." She shot me a reassuring smile for no reason at all, and I wondered exactly how much she knew about what was going on. More importantly, I wondered what Monica had told her. It seemed that everyone in my office at that moment knew my partner's mind except me.

I dug out the case file, as Monica shooed Larry on his way. "Gotta work now," she said. "Go make yourself useful somewhere. Later." He tousled her hair again, obviously unaware of such things as personal space and professional decorum. She shoved his hands away playfully and pointed at the door. "Out!"

Scully shot his retreating form a disdainfully raised eyebrow. Monica at least had the decency to look somewhat embarrassed over the whole show, and crossed her arms, looking at the folder in my hands critically.

Obviously, Scully wasn't going to take my word for it that there was nothing there, so I began my explanation. "This is from 1987," I said. "In Welkin, Massachusetts, a 17 year old girl was found dead in the woods." I handed Scully the file.

Scully flipped to the autopsy report. "Melissa Piontek. She died of... massive blood loss, from knife lacerations to the chest and neck."

"She had her throat slit," Monica clarified, looking over Scully's shoulder.

I nodded, and continued. "Her boyfriend was the clear suspect. His footprints were found at the scene, and the tire tracks from his car were found down the road. The FBI got involved when he ran across state lines. Kid confessed and was sentenced to 30 years."

"Judge was in a lenient mood," Monica noted.

"He was 17," Scully reported as if in explanation, her eyes flickering over the facts listed in the case report. She glanced up. "Is he still in jail?"

"I don't know," I answered, and did my best to avoid Scully's slightly critical glance. "Should be. Won't come up for parole for another five years, at least. You remember Mulder ever talkin' about a case like this?"

Scully didn't answer right away. "Did he dress her up like this?" She held up a crime scene photo. The girl was clad in a full-skirted pastel dress, thickly covered in blood. Something like a tiara glittered in her neatly and elaborately styled platinum blonde hair.

"No. It was prom night."

Their eyes widened in tandem at that.

Scully ran her finger down the autopsy report. "The lacerations on her chest–two long perpendicular cuts. A cross. Monica, what do you think?"

Monica, our resident ritualized crime expert, narrowed her eyes at the details and began thinking out loud. "Crosses are often used in ritual mutilations of the dead. Sometimes the perpetrators say they were trying to use the body of the crossed victim as a shield against some evil power. Often those killers will have marked themselves that way, too, either with knife scars, or branding, or a tattoo..."

I cut her off before she could finish her diagnosis. "What's it matter if the guy, what's his name? Robert Cooley. So what if he was a religious wacko?" This question was directed right at Scully, since I had a feeling she'd come up with some way to answer me. "He was caught. No way they let him out yet–he's still in jail."

"Unless he's dead," Monica pointed out, reminding me and Scully unnecessarily that I'd neglected to check on Cooley's current whereabouts.

I glared at her. "Or dead. Either way, the case is closed, and he's not cuttin' up any more prom dates."

Scully and Monica both stared at me. Finally, Monica turned, "I think I agree with John, Dana," she said slowly. "I mean, this is fifteen years old, and it looks pretty straightforward–psychotic teenager kills his girlfriend on prom night, in a crime of passion or an incidence of domestic violence that got out of hand. It's horrible, but it's not unheard of. Even with the cross symbol, which I admit is a little weird–why would Mulder want to look into something like this?"

Scully's lips twisted. "I'd be inclined to agree with you, too," she admitted. "Except that... whatever else Mulder may be, he's rarely wrong." I noticed how she still spoke about him in the present tense, as though he still worked in this office and hadn't been cashiered out of the FBI before running out on her. I hadn't wanted Scully to hear of this case–Monica and I could dismiss a nonsensical post-it from Mulder, but Scully, his partner, lover, and whatever else she was, was doomed to follow every breadcrumb trail he left for her. "I mean," Scully struggled to explain herself. "I might not always agree with his interpretation of the events, but there would always be something there. So if he thought there was something to this, lives are probably in danger. What exactly did he say?"

Monica and I exchanged sheepish glances, before she knelt down and fished the post-it note out of the trash. Scully arched an eyebrow at the proceedings but didn't comment, only looked it over and read it aloud. "Look out! May 2002. Murder will out. Question mark."

"Cryptic," Monica commented.

Scully handed the note to me and looked around the room, as if drawing inspiration from Mulder's invisible fingerprints. I looked down at the note. Look out! May 2002. Murder will out?

"I don't know," Scully finally said in frustration. "I have no idea what he was thinking. The man wasn't exactly known for his organization. I'm sure it all makes sense in his head. Somewhere." Monica reached over a sympathetic hand to Scully's shoulder, but Scully shook it off. She wasn't in a mood to pine and feel sorry for herself, apparently.

Her attempts at friendly kindness dismissed, Monica tried to be helpful another way. "Well, let's think. It's been fifteen years, give or take a few weeks. Maybe there's some significance to that. Cooley's parole might have come up early."

Scully was still looking through the case file. "I have a feeling Mulder had more information than this. Most of the investigation was done by the local PD before the FBI got involved, although, after Cooley confessed, there wouldn't have been much need to keep looking into it. There might be lots of things they missed."

"I can check into Cooley's status, no problem," I suggested. "But this case is closed. Nobody's going to let us open it back up based on us assumin' that Mulder knew something."

Scully looked at me imperiously. "Then we'll just have to get something more concrete to go on."

I sighed. It wasn't like I had anything more interesting to do, really. Chasing down cryptic, fifteen-year-old leads translated through the mind of a less than totally sane FBI agent was better than editing reports. But not much better.

Monica smiled bravely, accepting her new assignment both to placate Scully and avoid tallying any more expense reports. "Well, it does make an okay campfire story. I wouldn't mind getting to the bottom of things. I'll contact the Welkin PD, see if I can sweet-talk their case report out of them after John checks on Cooley."

After seeing that I had nodded assent, Scully's expression softened. She took a bite of the chocolate cupcake I'd brought down and looked my partner over critically. "It's like I said. The colour's okay," she announced. "But I don't really know if layers do much for you."

Monica apparently saw nothing strange about the conversational leap from homicide to hairstyles. She sat on the edge of my desk, and it was as if I had disappeared from the room. The two of them continued to talk pros and cons of hair length for a good few minutes and I couldn't help snickering just a little–I'd always pictured both of them armed with Sigs more than blow-dryers.

Monica shot me a glare over her shoulder. Scully ignored me completely and asked instead, "So, is this new change in your look for someone in particular?"

They had my attention then, although I did my best to hide it behind annoyed grumbles that their chatter was interrupting my work. Monica didn't answer Scully's question with anything more than a repressed smirk.

Scully pressed on. "That friend of yours who was in here earlier?" She didn't sound entirely happy about that possibility, but maybe I was just imagining that.

Monica shook her head violently. "He's just a friend."

Yeah. I'd never heard that one before.

Not that I should care one way or the other. I pretended the knot in my stomach had more to do with FBI cafeteria-cart sandwiches than Monica's after-hours activities.

"Just a friend?" Scully teased, glancing at me. I looked down and pretended I hadn't been listening.

"Yes, Dana. But we're going out on the town tonight, and he didn't think my hair looks as good as it did... and maybe it's time for a change. Not for him, of course."

Of course not. "Ladies," I addressed them, feeling no need to refer to them as Agents if they were going to talk about boys and hair like preteens. "I'm gonna make some calls, see if I can find out about our boy Cooley." Monica frowned at me, her piercing eyes searching my face. I wasn't in a mood to be scrutinized. "Unless you don't want to know."

Monica hopped off my desk. "Yeah, getting back to work sounds like a good plan. We'll keep you updated, Dana."

"Mind if I make a copy of this?" Scully asked, waving the case file.

I shrugged. We both knew that it wasn't her job, but because she had been Mulder's partner when he'd penned that post-it, she would hang on every word in that file as if Mulder had written it himself.

Obviously forgetting that she was planning to get back to work, Monica followed Scully out the door, practically chirping, "I'll go with you." More girl talk, undoubtedly. I imagined Monica by the copier, breathlessly telling Dana about Larry and their fabulous weekend plans. I dug out the government offices phone book and found the number for the Massachusetts Correction office. I guiltily hoped that Robert Cooley had escaped in some manner making it necessary for Monica and I to drop everything and head up to Massachusetts right away. Poor Larry would just have to find someone else to fool around with during his consult in Washington.

No such luck, of course. I hung up from the correction office right as Monica was returning from her photocopier girl chat, case file in hand. "Any luck?" she asked.

For a brief second I considered lying to her, forcing her into a car and driving halfway to Massachusetts before revealing the truth. Unfortunately, she knew the answer before I even opened my mouth.

"I figured as much," she handed the original of the case file to me. "Not that anything's ever easy with us, is it?" Her grin was lighthearted, but I caught a flicker of frustration in her eyes. "Tell me about Cooley."

"He's in a Mass State prison outside of Springfield. He won't be up for parole for another ten years–keeps getting in trouble for throwing punches at other inmates. All standard stuff, though. Not cutting crosses into anyone. They're faxing his file over by end of day."

"Well, I'll call the Welkin police, then." She didn't seem nearly as excited about doing this as she had when Dana had been around. Monica probably thought this search was as fruitless as I did, but wouldn't let on in front of Scully in the hopes that this case would keep Scully's mind busy. Monica had been engaging in a keep-Dana-sane campaign ever since Scully had realized the only way to protect her baby son was to give him up for adoption. Although Scully seemed to handle the loss frighteningly well from the outside, Monica seemed determined that, should Scully experience a sudden complete breakdown and shatter into pieces, she would be there to make sure the pieces didn't fly too far.

She planted a plastic smile on her face as she was connected by automated directory assistance, and I had to look away to keep from laughing. She was trying to charm them through the phone lines like a telemarketer. From the sounds of things, the charming wasn't going well.

"This is Special Agent Reyes with the FBI." She rattled off her badge number. "I'm hoping to get some information from you... well, we've been going through our files and came across an old case and have some questions... I was hoping that you could fax us a copy of your old case files on the 1987 Melissa Piontek murder..." her false smile disappeared. "No, I don't think this is a joke! I'm not the press! Yes, I know the FBI hasn't touched this case in fifteen years... I am from the FBI!" Her eyes flew wide open and she pulled the phone away from her ear. She gaped at me, open-mouthed. "They hung up on me!" she squealed.

"What? Who the hell hangs up on the FBI?" Not that we didn't get hung up on all the time. But usually, the people doing the hanging-up were in the FBI themselves.

"That's what I'd like to know! They thought I was prank-calling them."

I raised an eyebrow at her. "How many prank callers got badge numbers?"

She shrugged expansively. "We could fax them a copy of our IDs, I guess. Assuming they have fax machines in rural Massachusetts."

"Call them again."

Obediently, she tapped the phone numbers into the phone and flipped it to speakerphone. "Welkin PD," a bored male voice answered.

"Can I speak with the police chief, please?" Monica asked as sweetly as she could, through clenched teeth.

"You're talking to him." The police chief answered the direct outside line? We really were dealing with the boonies. "This the 'FBI' again?"

"Yes, this is the FBI again," Monica practically growled, all trace of her forced sweet tone gone.

I put a hand on her arm to quiet her. "Sir, this is John Doggett with the Federal Bureau of Investigation-"

I could hear the man rolling his eyes as he cut me off. "Look, I don't know what you kids are thinking, but anybody with sense knows the FBI doesn't care about the Welkin prom, all right? Nobody's given me any orders to reopen that file. So stop acting smart and go pick yourselves out something nice to wear. It's illegal to harass the police."

"What about ignoring an FBI investigation?" Monica snapped, but he had already hung up. "What the hell?" she looked up at me. "What's wrong with these people?"

I shrugged. "Problem is, he's right. The FBI closed this case fifteen years ago. We don't have any right to ask for this information."

"Yeah... but we're not doped up teenagers ordering pizzas to the police station, either!" she sputtered. "Don't they have caller ID or something? Can't they tell we're calling from Washington, for God's sake? They do have caller ID in the Berkshires, don't they?" Her cheeks flushed in her annoyance, and I had to look away to avoid smiling at her, in spite of the situation. "Do I sound like I'm fifteen years old?"

"Guy's probably just an idiot. Don't take it personally."

"What if he's evading us? Maybe whatever Mulder was worried about really is there, and he doesn't want us snooping around?"

I shot her my best disbelieving look. "You really think that?"

Her mouth twisted. "I guess there are reasons for people to be rude without them having a deep dark satanic secret. So how are we going to get the FBI to back us up on this?"

"I'm still not convinced there's anything here. Cooley's locked up, remember?"

Our office door slammed open. I turned around, expecting to see Dana checking up on us, and was infinitely disappointed.

"Agent Walker, don't you have anything to do?" I hadn't meant to say it out loud. Larry grinned at me good-naturedly, but Monica shot me a deadly look.

"Monnie!" he exclaimed. Then, noticing the evil-eye-ing going on between me and my partner, asked, "You kids busy?" Apparently, in New Orleans, nobody did any work, ever, and it was deeply shocking to Larry that at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon we would be doing anything other than planning the night's bar-hopping.

"A little," Monica told him. "Getting hung up on by the hicktown PD, you know, the usual. What's up?"

He presented her with a bright pink sheet of paper. "They're doing a talent night, Mon. I thought you said nobody here had any fun."

She smiled up at him, not bothering to mention, as I would have, that the talent night wasn't until tomorrow and a bad idea on the part of Human Resources anyway, and certainly didn't warrant busting in on us in the middle of a workday. "I know. John and I are going. Do you want to come?"

"I've got a better idea. Agent Corbin plays bass. In a jazz band, with a couple of guys from accounting."

A flash of nervousness flew through Monica's eyes, but her voice was level as she asked with forced stupidity, "Oh? Are they going to perform?"

"They want to. Come on, Monica, let's show them what the Brown grads have got going on."

Monica's eyes were as wide as saucers, and I couldn't help laughing–if Larry wasn't going to just up and disappear, at least he could provide me with some amusement. "No. No way," she insisted.

"Come on! You're great! Remember Agent Reynolds' birthday party?"

Monica cracked a smile and blushed slightly.

"What?" my mouth asked without my permission. Why the hell was I encouraging him?

"Monica jumped out of a cake," Larry explained matter-of-factly.

I couldn't picture it, and I imagine my face was a sight to behold as I tried to.

"That wasn't me!" Monica squealed, leaping up from her chair to hit Larry in the arm. "It wasn't even a real cake! It was a paper one!"

Larry laughed. "She sang 'Happy Birthday Mister President.' It was priceless."

"It wasn't me." Monica repeated.

"That's somethin' I'd like to see," I teased her. She looked back and forth between the two of us helplessly.

"I never jumped out of any cake," she fumed. "Larry, seriously, what? Are they not giving you enough to do upstairs? Because I'm sure they're missing your charming sense of humour back in New Orleans..."

"All right," Larry said. "But you've got to do this with us. I already told Mark Corbin you would."

Monica sank against her desk and looked pitiful. "Larry... it's tomorrow. I don't have time to learn any jazz songs."

"You know a bunch. We'll do something you know." Larry shot her a toothy grin. She shook her head, and he started singing something I didn't recognize, something about a fine romance, rather tunelessly.

She rolled her eyes and scampered away from him. He followed, still serenading her.

"Stop!" she cried. She'd grabbed a stapler off her desk and was holding it in front of her as a weapon. I'd jumped up, ready to leap to her defense, before realizing that doing that would make me look incredibly stupid.

"Will you do it?" Larry asked, thankfully having stopped singing. "We'll do that thing from Valentine's day last year, you remember? We can rehearse tomorrow before the show."

I tried to catch Monica's eyes to see if Larry had pissed her off enough yet for me to kick him out of our office, but she kept her gaze away from mine. "Larry, I don't really sing."

"Sure you do, Monnie. This thing is low-key. You've got to be better than that juggling trio from Violent Crimes. And I'm only in town for two weeks..."

She handed him her stapler with a sigh. "Okay."

"I'll tell the boys. Are we still on for tonight? Like you said, we're not getting any younger..."

Could she seriously not say no to this man? A strange feeling made me want to scream at her. She turned to me right as I was caught, still standing, trying to wrestle away the desire to grab her and drag her away from Larry as fast as possible, as though he were more dangerous than annoying and she were more a damsel in distress than a hotheaded FBI agent. Her eyes narrowed, studying me for a disconcerting second, before turning back to Larry. Her voice was dangerous, and dripped like honey. "Of course, Larry. Whatever you want."

*****

After Larry's little talent-show interruption that afternoon, she didn't bring him up again, probably finally getting the idea that I didn't like him much. We had discussed nothing but business for most of the afternoon, digging up all the files on FBI involvement in the Welkin area. It was a long shot, and we both knew it, but it was mindless busy work and allowed me to steam silently. I didn't even really know why I was angry–at her, at Larry and his talent-show childishness, at this senseless case, at myself for being so stuck in regulations and in the past that I couldn't do anything about Monica and Larry even if I wanted to.

There wasn't much to the Welkin files. The FBI had only been involved in that area a few times: two kidnappings, a serial rapist who ran all the way to Georgia before being nailed, and a couple of big-business embezzlement schemes. Monica had radiated a sort of academic glow while knee-deep in FBI archives but her expression quickly turned bored as she realized nothing was going to jump out at us.

At five o'clock, she snapped the file she was reading closed. "There's nothing here," she announced. "I mean, I'm the first to climb on board for a mystery. But there's nothing we can really do without the FBI behind us–and there's nothing here to get them behind us. Even if we found something that Mulder thought was important, I don't know that we'd recognize it."

I glared at Mulder's post-it note, stuck to my desk top. "It's a total dead-end," I agreed. "We don't know what he saw in this and have no way of askin' him. The murder was solved while you were still a college kid." She smiled slightly. Since when did I place events along a timeline of her life? I pressed on, "And the locals in Welkin aren't exactly clamoring for our help."

Monica ran through a whole series of facial expressions before settling on one between frustration and resignation. She picked up the stack of files sitting on my desk. "Well, we can't just drop it... I'll bring these over to Dana's. She might think of something."

"You're only going to encourage her, you know," I muttered.

Monica shot me a look, warning me to behave. "I'm going over there anyway."

"Oh. I thought you were going out with Larry." I thought I'd managed a disinterested tone rather well.

Now she looked surprised. "I am. But not till late. He's taking me to Club Ascension. I've never been."

Now she was going clubbing? Whatever happened to her being grateful for me keeping her grounded? To her saying that she and Larry should both start acting their age?

"Mon-"

"I know what you're going to say. It's Thursday, and you think partying on weekdays is for college students."

"Isn't it?" I managed, unable to completely keep bitterness from my voice.

She smiled. "So I'm eking out the last of my youth."

I was feeling older by the minute.

"I mean, can you think of a better way to spend a Thursday night?" she asked, forcing her eyes wide and looking every bit the ingenue.

I could, but it wasn't really an appropriate suggestion.

The sweet, coy expression on her face looked foreign. Monica wasn't naturally coy. She was putting on an act, trying to force a smile from me. I wasn't going to give it to her.

"I've got some more work to do here," I said instead, hoping to make her feel at least a little guilty that she was knocking off so early. More than half the agents in the building left at five o'clock every day, but Monica usually lingered with me until after seven.

Her mouth twitched. "Okay. See you in the morning, then."

*****

It was late. The office was cold. Like Monica, the heat technicians had believed summer had arrived and they'd switched off the forced air prematurely. I hadn't moved in hours, ostensibly working, feeling as though Monica was still standing there, silently blaming me for behaving like such a child. She didn't deserve my attitude. She hadn't done anything wrong. Whatever she did with Larry–friends, lovers, whatever–I had no right to judge her for it.

The words of the Piontek murder case blurred on the page in front of me. I'd been over them twenty times, each time thinking that the next would yield inspiration for Mulder's interest in the case. Either nothing was there, or it was eluding me, forced out of my brain by other, far less appropriate matters.

I could almost feel the J. Edgar Hoover building settling around me, the eerie nine o'clock silence pressing against my ears. I glanced up at Monica's desk and found myself staring, tracing with my eyes the stack of papers, Mulder's old calculator, the knick-knacks she'd accumulated. I smirked slightly at the cactus, an unfriendly-looking ball of prickles. She would run her fingers over the prickles sometimes when she was reading over reports, almost petting it, and would start in surprise if she ever got pricked, glaring at the thing like it was its fault. Sometimes I caught myself staring at her as she did so, at unguarded moments losing myself in her smallest changes of expression as she read whatever was so engrossing that it kept her from looking up at me. The office was infinitely more comfortable with her around.

I felt an icy chill settle on me, staring at her desk and imagining it cleared off. There was no way Larry would ever convince her to go back to New Orleans. No matter how much fun she remembered having, all the times I'd heard from her when she was in New Orleans had painted a remarkably different picture. She had gone to New Orleans to escape a bad relationship in New York and had a hard time adjusting. She had been disliked and distrusted by her string of partners, and, although she'd requested the transfer herself, she had made the New Orleans field office sound like a kind of forced exile. After two years she became accustomed to it and even admitted that it had grown on her, and she certainly loved the city of New Orleans itself, but she had left it all for the X Files, and me, virtually overnight and without fanfare.

I had no practical reason to worry that she would leave, I told myself, forcing my eyes back to the case file in front of me. The case file refused to offer up any more information, and I continued to worry.

Maybe she regretted her move, but by now she was mired in so deeply that there was no easy means of escape. Just because she'd been unhappy in New Orleans didn't mean she wasn't also unhappy here. If she didn't go back there she'd go somewhere else, eventually. She was a restless spirit, and I didn't give her much of a reason to stay my partner forever, following me into hell and back as she had done over the past year. It was obvious by the way she lit up, by the way she relaxed, by the way she jumped into his arms and kissed him playfully that she and Larry were better friends than she and I were. She might be my closest friend, it didn't automatically mean I was hers.

A familiar presence arrived at the door. "John." Monica. She tried to make herself look surprised to see me, but I knew she wasn't. "Do you know what time it is?"

I nodded. Light from my desk lamp and the hallway played on her features, making her look older than she was.

"What are you still doing here?" she asked tiredly, walking over to her desk and grabbing her cell phone off of it, dropping it in her purse.

"Working," I answered lamely. My throat tightened as she fixed her sharp eyes on me. "What about you?"

"Forgot something," she replied dismissively. "What're you working on?" She spied the case file and frowned slightly. "Oh. The Welkin case. For Scully."

She was silent then but made no move to leave the office, and I filled the space as well as I could. "Yeah, I got that fax from the corrections office a few minutes after you left. Cooley started a few fights over the years, spent a few weeks in solitary for it. Nothin' special, though. I was thinking... maybe he had a close friend or something, on the inside, who might have gotten out and..." My mouth was dry and I felt around blindly for the cup of water I had somewhere on my desk, forgetting what I was talking about. She was still staring at me, reading me over like she would her morning paper. The complete silence of the Hoover between my words was oppressive. Her eyes were huge and sad.

"Go home, John, it's late." She lay one of her hands on top of mine, stopping it from tracing words on Cooley's sheet. My eyes snapped up to meet hers and I couldn't breathe. Her fingers were hot against mine. I remembered that I'd forgotten, again, to leave a light on in my house and already felt empty just thinking of going back there alone.

"M-Monica," I stammered, not even sure what I meant to say once I got out her name. I hardly recognized my own voice, filled with strangled emotion of a kind I couldn't identify. She jerked her hand away like I was a hot stove and cleared her face of her sad, dreamy expression.

"Scully and I looked through those files again. We ended up doing some more research online... Melissa Piontek wasn't the only person to die strangely in that sleepy mountain county in the last fifty years. I don't think it'll help us at all to get a warrant for those police files, but... you should talk to Scully."

I nodded dumbly.

She turned out my desk light, leaving just the light from the hallway to illuminate the room. "Come on. I'm not leaving you here all night."

My heart hammered in my chest, and I had to close my eyes for a minute to remember.

I didn't want to hurt her.

I didn't want to scare her away.

I didn't want to drag her down with me, pull her even farther into the tangled mess of my dead son and estranged ex-wife and whatever pieces of a man that all had left of me.

I didn't want to have to go through it all again. I'd been married. I knew the score–loving my wife had been enough for a few years, but it hadn't been enough to endure the wear and tear of life together, of her emotions and issues bumping up against mine, to endure the death of our only son. I hadn't been enough. I had been unable to keep it together–even before Luke had died, Barbara had been drifting steadily away, frustrated that I never gave her what she needed, bristling at my pathetic attempts to understand what on earth she could possibly want from me, needing something from me that I was simply unable to give to her. Her simple declaration, one morning in the kitchen, "I love you, but I can't do this anymore," summed up the reality that all our best intentions, to have and to hold, for better or worse, weren't going to be enough.

But Monica was waiting for me, seemingly unaware of everything her smile seemed to offer me, to make sure I actually left, went home, got some sleep. Her expression breathed an invitation, the one that flickered across her features at vulnerable moments, sometimes even long enough for me to notice. The one that promised, naively, that if I made a move to touch her she would let me, would even return the favour, that she didn't care if this was wrong for all the usual reasons, she would let me anyway.

I could fall in love with Monica and I still wouldn't be enough to hold onto her. I didn't fool myself completely–I wasn't pushing her away just for her benefit. I couldn't live through it again. Maybe I didn't deserve to.

I switched the desk lamp back on. "I'm almost done here," I looked back down at the Piontek case file, which still looked the same as it had the other twenty times I'd read through it.

Her gaze burned me as she debated whether or not to press the issue. I knew I wanted her to, to laughingly insist that she wasn't leaving until I left, too, even resorting to snatching the case file away until I obeyed her. I wanted her to shake me free of my bad mood as only she could. I didn't really want to stay in the dark, silent FBI building while she went out with another man but something seemed to physically restrain me from getting up and following her out into that parking lot. It was late, my brain was cloudy, and in a moment of weakness, who knew what I might do against my better judgment?

She must have decided that I wasn't worth the effort. "Okay," she shrugged. "See you tomorrow?"

I don't remember whether I nodded or not.

"It's supposed to rain tonight," she warned needlessly, maybe reluctant to leave, maybe waiting for me to do something, say something... "Look, John, you don't mind if I come in an hour late tomorrow, do you? I might be out late tonight." She was trying to draw a reaction out of me, for me to tease her for going out clubbing like a college girl, to talk to her at all. "I'll be here in time for our meeting with Skinner, promise."

"You... still goin' out tonight?" I managed, sounding like an idiot asking about something she'd confirmed not ten seconds before.

"Yeah." She still didn't go. Maybe she wouldn't go, if I asked her not to.

Or maybe she would laugh at me, ask me why I cared so damned much if she went or not, and I wouldn't be able to answer her because I didn't know why I cared so damned much.

Something in me forced me not to look up at her. I knew I was being an ass. She hadn't done anything to deserve my rudeness–in fact, she was going out of her way to be nice to me even while I was in a cranky mood, something that precious few people ever did.

"Okay, you're brooding. I get it. Goodnight," she said, annoyance evident in her voice.

"G'night," I mumbled back as she walked out the door, shutting it behind her.

My throat burned. Voices in my head pelted slurs at me, all of which I deserved. "What the hell'm I doing?" I muttered out loud to the empty room, my eyes settling on Monica's potted cactus. It offered me no answers. As if I needed to actually work at making myself seem like a complete bastard next to her fun-loving college buddy, here I was treating her like dirt for no reason at all. This was a hell of a way to keep her from getting on a plane back to New Orleans.

I snatched my jacket off the back of my chair and shut the light off all in one motion. I was out of the office like a shot, spurred on by some completely unreasonable terror that if I didn't catch her before she left the building she would be gone from D.C. forever. "Monica! Wait up!" I called down the hallway.

I was too late, and Monica was already gone.

*****

"Agent Doggett." Agent Scully, clad in grey flannel pants and a t-shirt, fastened a critical look on me as soon as she opened the door. "Is everything all right?"

"Uh, yeah..." I blanked for a moment on why I'd shown up at her door at nearly ten at night, and as I remembered, realized it was a pretty lame reason. "Monica said you found somethin' on the case, and that I should come and talk to you."

Scully offered a wry smile. "I didn't mean right now."

"Oh. Then-"

I made to go, and she reached out a hand to stop me. "Come on in. I wasn't sleeping."

I stepped across the threshold, and wondered at how different it seemed. It took a moment to place the reason for it–the TV was on, creating a blanket of white noise. When William was still here, Scully would never have allowed something so loud to be on while the baby was sleeping. It was a distraction now. After Luke died, I kept a radio or television on almost constantly for months, even sleeping to it, just to drown out the silence. William was not dead, of course, but his absence from this apartment was just as total.

"Is Monica with you, or did she go to that dance club?" Scully said dance club in a way that showed she thought the idea was just as ridiculous as I did. I closed the door behind me and let Monica's absence speak for itself. Scully continued to chatter, in a familiar manner entirely unlike her. "So, who is this Larry guy, anyway?"

I stared at her. "She didn't tell you?"

Scully blushed. Of course Monica had told her. She was playing with me, having sensed some awkwardness around him and trying to drag my views on him out of me without asking directly. "She just said he was a friend," she said evenly, not letting on that she'd been caught, though her pink cheeks betrayed her. "Would you like something to drink?" Always so formal. So unlike Monica, who would've just offered her entire kitchen to me with a wave of her hand and left me to my own devices.

"Nah, I'm okay."

"Really, it's no trouble." Scully walked into the kitchen.

"Just some water," I said finally.

She returned with two glasses and indicated that I should sit down. I did, noticing some newspapers spread on the floor and a bottle of black stuff. Scully noticed me eyeing the mess in the otherwise immaculate apartment and explained, "I was dyeing Monica's hair. I haven't really cleaned up yet."

The image of the two of them playing Beauty Shop like little girls amazed me. "Is that what you two do when I'm not around?"

She smiled wistfully. Monica was good for her. It had probably been ages since she'd had a real girlfriend. Barbara had always been surrounded by a cluster of women, and I remembered always worrying that they were talking about me. She had laughed and assured me that they "talked about Robert Redford." I wondered who Dana and Monica talked about.

"We don't sit around doing our nails all the time, if that's what you mean," Scully said defensively. "She asked me to fix her hair for her. She got it cut on the way over here and wanted it darker. We also managed to do a little internet research on this case of yours, so it was hardly all play and no work."

I asked her what she'd discovered about the case, but behind my business questions my mind was racing. Monica had cut her hair? And dyed it? I had seen her since then, and hadn't noticed. I could blame my sex for the oversight, or the dark office, but Monica was probably irate that I hadn't complimented her on it. I had never noticed Barbara's haircuts. Anytime she had gone to the hairdressers, Luke would run out to my car to inform me before I entered the house. He thought it was a game. Of course, Monica wasn't my wife, and had no reason to expect me to compliment her hair.

"John, are you listening?" Scully asked, jerking me back to the present day.

"Yeah, sorry. Was just thinking."

She waited a moment for me to wrap up my thought, but didn't push me to share it with her. "I was saying that we found the website of the local paper. This article ran today." She handed me a printout. I scanned it. It was a social blurb, dated that day, announcing that the Welkin Memorial High School Junior/Senior Prom would take place a week from Saturday at the community centre, cheerfully explaining that last year's prom King and Queen would be on hand to give out the crowns to this year's court, and a whole bunch of other nonsense that high school girls fussed over. The only relevant piece, and it didn't even seem all that relevant, was the mention of an "honorary permanent position" on the court given to the late Melissa Piontek, the Prom Queen killed in 1987. While it might be a nice gesture to honour the girl, it didn't do much toward reopening her case. I looked up at Scully, waiting for her to explain.

"There was a list of related links," she revealed. "One of them was to the original Herald article from 1987. Most of the stuff from before 1999 or so isn't archived online, so we couldn't find any more articles about it, but that one mentions something that didn't make it into the FBI case files."

I nodded that I was listening as I glanced back down at the bottle of hair dye. Larry had undoubtedly noticed the change. My stomach clenched as my mind conjured up an image of the two of them dancing together, and worse. I turned back to Scully with all of my energy. "Monica was pretty vague. What did you learn?"

Scully picked up another printout and read aloud: "Police confirm that Piontek's body was found merely feet from where Mrs. Darren Henley was strangled in 1957, but police assure the Herald that there is no connection between the murders." She looked up at me. The light from the television that she hadn't turned off and didn't even seem to notice played on her face in technicolor. "Monica said that you two found all of the Welkin area FBI files, and this wasn't there, so that murder must have been handled locally. But it's still another murder. Thirty years earlier."

"That's it?"

She frowned. "It must have been what Mulder knew. There must be a connection."

"Agent Scully, Robert Cooley was seventeen when he killed Melissa Piontek. He wasn't even alive in 1957. And we have no idea from this article who the murderer was in that case, or if he was ever caught. Besides, the victims were killed in completely different ways."

"But in the same place." Scully repeated the words slowly, as if to wring meaning from them. "Maybe... the 1957 killer was related to Cooley. It could have been his father, the time frame's about right. If Cooley had a son before he was sent to jail, the boy would be in his teens by now, capable of committing a crime like this. Or... some kind of motive transference through reincarnation, like what Agent Reyes described in Novi, Virginia, that drove him to kill his girlfriend in those woods." She was reaching, and we both knew it. She looked disgusted at each theory as she said it, the skeptic and believer inhabiting the same body.

"Or, maybe these woods are a secluded area, too far away from anything for a struggle to be overheard, but accessible enough to make for easy escape, and all in all a good place to kill someone or dump a body."

"The woods are called Dead Man's Glen." She pointed to the headline–Body of Welkin Prom Queen found in Dead Man's Glen. I raised an eyebrow at that, but she just sighed in frustration. "I want to say this means something, because Mulder would say it. It probably does. But without access to the Welkin records, there's no way we're going to find the connections we need to force open an FBI investigation."

"And without that investigation, we have no way of getting the Welkin files."

The conversation lulled. I spent a minute trying to force together the scraps of information I had into some coherent picture, before my mind wandered from the case facts to my partner's current whereabouts. Can you think of a better way to spend a Thursday night? She had laid it all out for me, maybe unintentionally, maybe just trying to be cute, but she'd given me a perfect opening all the same to keep her from going to that club. She had practically begged me to make her an offer, any offer, and I'd just kept my head down and run for the nearest exit, like always.

I felt the need to mention her. "Maybe Monica'll be able to put something together from this."

Scully smiled a Mona Lisa smile eerily reminiscent of my ex-wife, when she knew exactly what was going on in my head but knew she couldn't just give me all the answers without undercutting my macho masculinity. When we first bought our house, and I had spent hours working on one fix-er-up project or another, she would shine that smile at me from across the room, watching me fret over some malfunctioning power tool without telling me that the socket I'd plugged it into was broken. She did it out of love–she had loved me, once–because she knew that laying out all the answers for me would insult me, if I thought I hadn't been able to figure it out on my own.

Scully imitating Barbara's mannerisms was unnerving. They ran together often enough without that; both damsels in distress I'd been unable to sufficiently defend, both with sons I'd been unable to keep from harm, both capable of leveling me with an unintentional accusing glare saying that I couldn't do enough, ever, to be what or who they needed. My year of being partnered with Scully had felt like the ultimate test to atone for my past sins, as though God had put Barbara in a redheaded shell in front of me for me to have another crack at proving I could save her from hell, to get back something I'd lost forever. I had failed that test. Her television, drowning out the silence left by an absent baby, reminded me of that with every flicker.

"She seemed to think you wouldn't appreciate the 1957 murder as having any relevance here." Scully said of Monica, reminding me with our jobs that she was not a spectre of my ex-wife, and never even imagined that I thought of her that way.

I shrugged.

There was a moment of silence, and I felt Scully's eyes flicker over me. "Maybe," she suggested gently, "if you went to Welkin, the answers might just jump out at you."

"Skinner won't just let us disappear."

"Mulder and I used to do it all the time. He's used to it. Besides, it would certainly be harder for the Welkin Police to refuse you if you're there in person, badges and all. And if Mulder meant what we think he meant, that someone might be in danger in Welkin, then you and Agent Reyes will be there."

Me and Agent Reyes. Without Larry. Far away from D.C., from Club Ascension, from the stupid talent night. And it hadn't even been my suggestion, so no one could blame me for being selfish. I tried not to look too happy–we would likely get in trouble with the FBI for waving our badges around without authorization, it was a seven hour drive up the coast, and Monica would have to agree to it first.

Scully handed me the stack of Welkin files Monica had left there and gave me a knowing smile. "Keep me informed," she said.

*****

Club Ascension was a hive of activity on an otherwise dark side street. I parked my truck down the street and approached, feeling a strong downbeat vibrating through the pavement. I had been driving since I'd left Scully's, the vehicular equivalent of pacing, roaming the streets of the greater D.C. area as though, if I got lost enough, the mental image of Monica underneath another man would fade. It didn't.

I hadn't intended to end up there. I knew I shouldn't have called her, but I did, stopped at an intersection and desperate to rid my head of those images of her. I needed to hear her voice. I came up with a reason as it rang–I'd tell her she needed to come in to work on time the next day, so that we could discuss the Welkin situation before our meeting with Skinner. The endless rings had eventually turned to her voicemail, informing me that I'd reached Monica Reyes and could leave a message. I declined to do so, even if that would satisfy my contrived reason for calling her in the middle of the night. I called her again. My heart pounded as it rang itself into the machine again. Then I called information for the address of Club Ascension and drove there like a bat out of hell before common sense could stop me.

She probably wouldn't even be there anymore. Maybe, if she and Larry weren't as "just friends" as she so adamantly professed, they had never even left her apartment. Or maybe she wasn't answering her phone for another reason. She could be in some sort of trouble.

The smell of alcohol, cigarettes and dry ice spilled out of the open front door of the club, mixing with the humidity clinging to the suddenly cold night air. Monica was right, it was going to rain. A bouncer at the door hit me up for a cover charge and looked me over.

"We got a dress code," he informed me.

"I'm just here lookin' for someone," I told him. The urgency in my voice dragged a look of curiosity out of him, but he didn't appear willing to forgive my suit just for that. I got the feeling that flashing my FBI badge would only worry the natives, and probably delay my entrance into the club.

"Someone in particular?"

"It's... my wife," I stammered without thinking. "There's a problem at home. I'm pretty sure she's here."

The other bouncer shot me a sympathetic look and nodded at his buddy. They stood back immediately. "You need help finding her?" he asked.

"Nah, I got it," I said quickly, ducking into the building.

The music was loud and relentless, a techno beat pounding through the floor and forcing my father's rhetorical question, "This what you kids are callin' music these days?" to come rising out of my memory ether. I was out of place in a tie and white business shirt, surrounded by men in flashy shirts and women in almost nothing. People packed the place thickly, sitting at tables in darkened corners or standing near the bar. It took me a moment to find what was apparently the dance floor, on the other side of the bar. It was large and lined with mirrors, filled with people and flashing lights and a sickly fog emanating from a machine in one corner.

I leaned against the bar, waved away the bartender, and scanned the place for my partner. I had assumed she would stand out amid what I had expected would be a group comprised solely of college students, but thirty-somethings apparently weren't all that uncommon. It took me a few minutes to recognize her. She stood amid the sea of people on the dance floor, moving almost as part of the beat, dancing with a man I didn't recognize. Where the hell was Larry? She was dressed in what could be considered the opposite of her pants-and-turtleneck ensemble of earlier–a short black skirt and a shiny, tight, v-necked red shirt that dipped far too low for comfort. It took all of my restraint to keep me from throwing her dance partner off of her for the way he ground against her. Didn't she care where he put his hands?

Oddly enough, she appeared to be enjoying herself, and I found myself enjoying watching her. Was this Monica in her natural habitat? She gave off no indication that she was a gun-toting FBI agent by day as she danced, powered by the music itself, letting herself be felt up by a man she had probably never met. She shoved herself away from him and moved on her own for a minute, throwing her head back and twisting seductively, her back to me, an extension of the down beat. He came up behind her and moved along with her.

"You and me, we have an opportunity," the song was practically tuneless, but apparently it had words. "and we can make it something really cool, but you, you think I'm not that kind of girl, I'm here to tell you baby I know how to rock your world. Don't think that I'm not strong, I'm the one to take you on..."

Monica's eyes flew open all of a sudden and she fastened them on me immediately. She released herself from her dance partner without even a glance of apology and dashed over to me, worry suddenly lining her face. I had been caught, like a kid stealing candy, and my mouth went dry.

"John!" she exclaimed, shouting over the music. "What happened?"

It took me a moment to switch gears. Right. I had no reason to be there, and, as far as she was concerned, wouldn't have set foot in this place unless there was some sort of life-threatening emergency. "You didn't answer your phone," I mumbled.

"What?"

I repeated myself, taking in her face, flushed from dancing and thickly made-up. I breathed an unintentional sigh of relief in finding her unharmed and at least mostly clothed. She probably hadn't been able to hear her phone ring over the din of Club Ascension.

She grabbed my arm, her fingers hot and burning through my sleeve. "Is Dana okay?" she demanded urgently, her eyes searching my face, desperate to know what new tragedy had occurred.

I nodded in surprise. "Yeah, she's fine." I needed a reason to be there, and quickly. I swallowed. "I, uh... think there might be something to that Welkin case after all."

Her mouth fell open. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to catch up with my leap of logic. She stood like that for at least ten seconds, her expression morphing from worry and fear over Dana's safety to confusion to downright anger. I kept babbling, "Agent Scully thinks there's a connection between this Piontek thing and the 1957 murder, and that maybe you should look at the files again... and maybe we should go to Welkin to have a look around..." I trailed off.

She still didn't say anything. I couldn't be sure if she even heard me. Either way, she was pissed.

"Uh..." I started, looking away from her eyes to avoid being speared by them. "Your hair... looks nice."

My forced compliment broke her trance. Her fingers clenched around my arm hard enough to be painful as she dragged me unceremoniously toward the exit.

"Don't call me baby. You've got some learning, baby, that'll never do. You know I don't belong to you..." the music warned me too late as we passed the bouncers.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Monica screamed, throwing me loose as soon as we were outside. A couple of girls approaching the club gave us a look, and Monica grabbed me again and pulled me around the building into an alley where she could kill me without witnesses.

A roll of thunder exploded overhead, as though summoned by her fury alone. By the look of her she really could have been responsible.

"Monica," I started.

"Monica, what? You can explain?" I just gaped at her. "You... you show up here, at midnight, to tell me you've had a change of heart on some stupid case we're not even supposed to be working on? What the hell, John? Are you following me?"

"No, it's not like that," I was stammering. I looked guilty. I was guilty. I knew it. Thunder exploded again, and sheet lightning blanketed the sky barely a second later.

Spurred on by the elements, she continued, "It's the middle of the night! Melissa Piontek has been dead for fifteen years! For god's sake, she's not getting any deader!"

"Monica-"

"What? Am I not allowed to have a life, is that it? Just because every other agent who has ever worked on the X-Files has been-"

It was my turn to interrupt her. "If you regret taking this assignment-"

"I don't!"

"Last night you said-"

"I said I missed New Orleans," she snapped. Thunder boomed again but she spoke over it. "You know why? Because I had friends. I had a life. I had boyfriends. I did things besides sitting in an office until all hours of the night trying to be Agent Mulder!" Raindrops splattered on my face. Every visible muscle in her body was tight.

I tried to indicate the rain, to move toward shelter, but she wasn't having it.

"No!" she screamed and I was rooted in place. The clouds broke, pouring down a blanket of water that soaked me to the skin instantly. Neither of us moved. Monica only yelled louder. "John, why the hell are you doing this to me?"

"I'm not doing anything to you!"

"Is it because of Larry? Because you don't like him?" Her body shook and her mascara ran in the rain. I couldn't tell if she was crying.

"Larry? Where the hell is he?" I couldn't help asking. As much as I hated the thought of him with her, I'd kill him for abandoning her to face the vultures of this club alone.

She threw her hands up. "How the hell should I know? Last I saw he was with a blonde by the bar! He's not my date, John! We're friends, all right?"

Why I believed her then when I hadn't before was beyond me, but the relief in my face betrayed me.

"What the hell do you care anyway?" she demanded, taking a half-step closer to me and looking for all the world like she would slug me if my answer wasn't to her liking.

I didn't say anything. The rain pounded down almost painfully. Part of my brain recognized that I had to say something, that I needed to reply, to come up with a reason to justify why I cared, why I had been seeing pornographic nightmares all night of her clothes being ripped off by other people's hands, why I wanted to throw her to the ground and channel her anger into something more carnal, to physically hold her down lest she never forgive me my transgressions and actually leave. My throat was clenched with reflexive anger and I couldn't say anything at all.

She stood there, panting in the rain for a moment as my mouth opened and closed soundlessly. "I don't get you!" she yelled finally, whirling around to storm off.

I grabbed her arm. I hadn't even realize I'd done it until she yelped in pain and whirled back toward me. I expected her gaze to burn, but she just glared at me weakly, her body sagging slightly under her emotional release. We stood like that for a moment, the rain soaking every bit of us. Her clothes clung to her, rain dripping off the ends of her skirt, her nose, her hair, her clenched fists. She was breathing hard under my stare. The rain was freezing but her skin was hot under my fingers. She radiated heat, and suddenly I wanted part of it. I searched her face but found no indication of the invitation that I sometimes saw there, or perhaps imagined there. She was still angry, and would probably break bones if I tried anything. I was stronger than she was, but forcing myself on her was beyond even the insanity which had led me to show up at Club Ascension in the first place.

She sighed and glanced down at the vise-grip I had on her upper arm. "Just let me go tell Larry I'm leaving." She glanced up into my eyes, defeated. Her anger had dissipated, but so had my nerve. "Let me go, John," she said, arching a rainsoaked eyebrow, reminding me that she was still captive.

My hand dropped obediently away from her. A dark red mark wrapped around her arm where I'd grabbed her. My stomach lurched–how hard had I been holding on to her? I pointed the direction and said, "I'm parked down there. I'll pull up."

She nodded and walked back toward the club entrance, her shoulders hunched against the rain. I went for the truck, her angry outburst still ringing in my ears. I idled outside the club door for a few minutes, trying to feel some sense of victory that I'd prevailed over Larry in getting Monica for the evening, but was unable to. At least they weren't sleeping together.

She crawled up into the passenger seat, slammed the door, and sat there for a moment before glancing over at me. At my guilty look, she offered me a small smile. I put the truck in drive and headed off as she turned the heat on full blast.

I had to say it eventually, and when she was captive in a seatbelt was as good a time as any. "I'm sorry, Mon. I never should have busted up your evenin' like that. I don't know what got into me. You should do whatever the hell you want on your free time. It's none of my business." I was fully prepared to keep on apologizing, but she interrupted.

"S'okay." She absently poked at the steam rising off her clothes and crawling up her window, writing her name on the window with her fingertip like a child.

"I really am sorry."

Her smile was both forgiving and sheepish. "Buy me a coffee and we're even. I'm freezing. That's what I get for standing out in the rain, I guess."

I leaned forward to wipe the steam off the windshield.

"I wasn't really having all that great of a time," she admitted, pulling on the suit jacket I'd tossed on her seat after I left work.

She didn't have to make me feel better. It was hardly her responsibility at that point. "You looked like you were."

She blushed. I was caught by how happy I was to have her sitting there. It was nice to have someone to talk to. It was even nicer that it was her. Of course she'd forgiven me–she was Monica. I was damned lucky to have her for a partner. For a friend. Just to have her around to forgive me for being an idiot. "I don't know," she mused. "I think maybe I've become more Ella Fitzgerald and less Madison Avenue."

I turned back to the road. "Am I taking you home?" I asked.

"Not before my coffee. We might as well look through these Welkin files tonight. I know it's late, but if you're okay... I'll be buzzing for hours. I guess getting ravingly angry for no real reason will do that to you."

"I'm okay," I acknowledged. "I've got coffee at my place. We're closer to Falls Church anyway."

She nodded and snuggled deeper into my suit coat. She was quiet for awhile.

"You know," she piped up. "You're cute when you're jealous."

I turned to her and gave my best disbelieving look, a look I'd perfected with her and found almost reflexive now. "You're nuts," I tossed back.

She grinned widely, teasingly, drawing me in with the genuine gesture. "Whatever, John," she chirped, laughing lightly. I joined her in laughing but my mind had gone a completely different way.

Jealous. God. That was the word, the emotion that nailed down how crazy I'd gotten since Larry had shown up. All the brooding, my irrational reactions to his midday interruptions, the way I turned inside out when he touched her, the way I'd shown up to spoil her evening driven by fears that she would go home with him, even when she professed that they were just friends and I shouldn't have cared whose bed she warmed anyway. Holy hell. I looked over at her, nestled in my coat, thoughtfully wiping errant mascara from her cheeks. The grey nylons on her long legs had gone see-through in the rain. Oh, God.

"John!" she squealed, and I yanked my eyes back to the road, pulling the truck back into the right lane, cursing under my breath. I hadn't been far over the line and there were no cars coming, but she was jumpy in cars ever since her accident.

"Sorry," I mumbled, keeping my eyes glued ahead. That was an example, a warning, of all the dangers that could come from falling for one's field partner. It could get us both killed. I could smell traces of the hair dye she'd used as her hair dried in the blasting radiator heat, something herbal and cinnamon. Her presence tingled at my skin from that distance and I didn't have to look at her, I had her appearance memorized. Jealous. God. She was right. Even if she was joking, she was right.

Holy hell. I had completely flipped for my partner.

"John, are you okay?" She was worried at the way my fingers gripped the steering wheel like I wanted to choke it, at the way I glared at the furiously beating windshield wipers like I blamed the rain.

I couldn't look at her. There was no way to know whether my realization would be evident in my eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine," I mumbled, staring straight ahead. I heard her sink back into her seat, apparently satisfied.

Oh, God. I'd flipped for her. In spite of everything, all my sensible rationalizations, all of my mental drill sergeants, all of my old ghosts. In spite of myself. This could get messy, fast.

Oh, God.

*****

Monica made herself at home in my house instantly, as I suspected she did everywhere. The short journey from the truck to my front door left us both soaked through all over again as we shielded the stacks of Welkin files with our bodies. Once inside the threshold she kicked her shoes off, and shook the rain out of her hair like a puppy. She tugged at her shiny red shirt, which separated from her skin with a slurp, and laughed. I caught a glimpse of her face accidentally, her eyes laughing so that the edges crinkled and her wide grin showing off her teeth. I let untying my shoes take my full attention as panic ran rampant through all my limbs. I should never have gone to that club, and I certainly shouldn't have let her come home with me. I could have come up with some excuse to turn the truck around and drop her off at her place, probably both confusing and pissing the hell out of her, but at least that would have given me some time to think.

"I'm soaked!" she exclaimed, pulling off her dripping nylons right in the middle of my entryway, hopping on one foot when her toes caught. I was still panicking, and she wasn't helping. On the upside, she also didn't appear to notice. "Can I steal some of your clothes?" she asked, fixing her laughing eyes on me.

"Uh..." I seemed to be knotting my shoelaces further instead of untying them. I felt as though all of the air had been sucked out of the room, but I was the only one affected, left flailing and gasping and trying to look normal while Monica wondered what the hell was wrong with me.

"John?"

"Uh... yeah. Sure. They're all upstairs. Do you... need me to find something for you?"

She took in my stammering with a reassuring, if confused, smile and didn't force me to make any sense. "I'll find something," she assured me, turning and heading up the stairs with a shake of her head. "Be down in a minute. Okay?"

"Okay," I managed, and sank back against the wall as she disappeared up the stairs, leaving wet footprints on the hardwood floor.

This was a bad idea. A horrible idea.

I could hear drawers opening and closing upstairs but hadn't heard a door shut. God, she was changing with the door open? There was no way to see into my bedroom from down the stairs–did she trust me not to come closer, or had she just forgotten to shut the door? Either way, the thought that there was nothing but air between me and her bare skin made my head pound.

I looked down. Shoes. Coffee. I had promised her coffee. That was something I could do, anyway. What was she going to find to wear? My clothes wouldn't fit her, and it wasn't like I had women's things lying around. I set up the coffee maker with all thumbs and prayed she would come downstairs in more than a t-shirt.

I waited for the water to boil and leaned down on the counter, my head in my hands, the week flashing through my mind at light speed. How had this happened? How had I let this happen? I felt like the world had slipped off its axis, and all I wanted was for Monica to go home–to be anywhere but with me–until I could figure out what had gone wrong and how I was supposed to face her. It had to be all over my face, and Monica didn't miss much when it came to me. I wasn't supposed to fall for her. Cops who fell for their female partners were weak. The ones who didn't lose their jobs for inappropriate conduct were laughed off the force. It was fine to sit around and exchange locker-room banter about her body when she wasn't around, but actually falling for her, actually needing her next to you to feel safe and sane and alive, was a completely different story.

I had half a mind to just up and leave her in my house and take off, disappearing until my brain and body settled down again.

I heard a tap go on upstairs, and then go off a few minutes later. Monica bounded down the stairs.

"I put my stuff in your shower to dry. Hope that's okay."

She had found drawstring pajama pants and had rolled up the bottoms, and wore a t-shirt that hung past her hips. She had scrubbed off all of her club makeup and ran fingers through her hair as I busied myself finding mugs and pretended not to be looking her over.

I could barely remember the last time a woman had worn my clothes.

"I can pour the coffee," she insisted. "Don't you want to change into something less... dripping?" She eyed my now-wet kitchen floor and snatched the mugs away from me.

I managed a smile. This was Monica, for God's sake. It wasn't like she was some sort of predator who would jump me in a moment of weakness and confusion. "Be right down."

*****

By the time I got back downstairs she was sitting cross-legged on my couch, squinting at the Piontek case file with a mug of coffee in one hand. She'd set my mug out for me and she'd also opened a bag of nachos and a container of salsa.

"Salsa and coffee, Mon?" I asked to announce my presence.

She glanced up at me. "Well, we need some kind of brain food. You don't have much to work with."

I didn't do a lot of midnight entertaining. I didn't do a lot of entertaining, period. My mother's voice, gently drawling in the back of my brain to "never let a guest go hungry, now" spurred me to offer her something more than stale chips. "You want me to nuke a pizza?"

She nodded. "That'd be great." As I walked out to the kitchen she called after me, a nacho poised near her lips, "And John? Mild salsa? I'm ashamed of you." I laughed, allowing the lightheartedness to wash over me. She didn't seem upset anymore to have had her evening broken up. If she noticed anything different about me she hadn't mentioned it yet, which was a good sign that she wouldn't mention it at all.

I returned after putting in the pizza to find her deep in concentration. I was relieved she'd laid out the case files already. Work was a tangible barrier between us, making it easier for me to ignore how comfortable she looked in my old clothes and how much better my house felt with someone else in it.

I sipped at my coffee and read over the articles Scully had printed out. Melissa Piontek was last seen leaving the prom around midnight, in Robert Cooley's car. The body had been found by local children playing in the caves in the glen. Cooley had not yet been found at the time of the article's printing and the article was vague about Piontek's wounds, stating only that she had been stabbed and not mentioning anything about a cross carved into her. The Berkshire Herald probably wasn't as sensationalist as metropolitan papers, which would have paraded the ritual nature of the murder to sell copies.

"I'll call the Herald in the morning," Monica said, noting what I was reading. "See if I can get the articles from 1957. They've got to have them on microfiche or something. It's not a police report, but it's as close to one as we'll get without bloodshed."

I nodded and wondered what, if anything, she was wearing underneath my clothes.

The microwave alarm thankfully broke my train of thought, and I practically leapt away from my armchair and out of the living room. The military drill sergeant in my head started bawling me out for thinking about her like that, and I let him, hoping it would teach me a lesson.

*****

"That was some quality microwaved pizza," Monica smiled at me as we finished it off.

I put down Cooley's prison report and smirked at her. "Well, the microwave did most of the work, but I'll take the credit."

She groaned. "You're too good for me. Now," she pointed to the report. "Tell me about Cooley."

"There's not much to tell. He's apparently still a religious wacko, only he doesn't cut people up anymore, just keeps the prison chapel clean and has been taking a religious studies correspondence degree."

"That's not so much 'wacko' as 'applied,' John," she pointed out, reminding me with upraised brows that she had learned her share of religious studies while at school.

"It's in the slitting of people's throats with boy scout knives that you can tell the wacko from the applied."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Only thing he ever did to attract attention was beatin' on those other inmates."

"Do we know anything about them?"

"Just names," I answered, knowing that she was thinking one of them might be a possible accomplice of Cooley's, on the outside now. She nodded and I read the names off.

"Wait. Matthew Jordan. I've seen that name before." She started rooting through files. "Here," she tossed it to me. "Remember that string of rapes? He was the guy." Her eyes lit up, her brain chewing up this new information like she did everything–intensely.

"They prob'ly knew each other. They were both from the Welkin area. About the same age."

She shook her head. Her eyes were still bright, even as she leaned into the couch, her limbs limp from exhaustion.

"Those rape cases, did they look anything like this? Did he try to kill the girls after? Disfigure them at all?"

"No." She rattled off case details from memory, not needing the file in front of her. "They were all rohypnol rapes. The two girls who could remember anything said he didn't have a weapon, and none of them suffered knife wounds or anything approaching ritual mutilation."

"Maybe Cooley had a grudge against him from way back. They could have stolen each other's lunch money in grade school." The late hour was starting to get to me, each thought turning into a physical effort.

"What if it speaks more to Cooley's state of mind than any past grudges? Jordan is a well-known rapist."

"And Cooley takes girls out to the woods and murders them. I'm not sure he's allowed to take the moral high ground, here."

Monica yawned, and tossed me a sleepy, annoyed look. "I can't really explain it. But I'll bet my shirt this is important."

I smiled at her, despite the grim nature of the conversation. "That's my shirt." She looked so peaceful amid the couch cushions that the coffee table between us seemed like too much interference. My body ached to slip in beside her, to snuggle against her relaxed frame and discuss criminal psychology in whispers, the pillow talk of the exhausted FBI workaholic. I wanted to touch her so badly it felt like a need as pressing as breathing. She would tense up the moment I touched her, losing all of her relaxed peace and I would stop instantly, forced away from her by the reality of our situation. There was no way I could sneak against her skin without her knowing about it, without our past and our partnership rising to the fore.

Her soft expression turned nervous, and she pulled a pillow in front of her chest and wrapped her arms around it.

"So, what do you want to do about it?" I asked her, not really remembering what we had been talking about.

Thankfully, she remembered. "I think we need to talk to Cooley. And we need those damned files if we're going to make heads or tails of this thing. Unless you can think of a way to pick Mulder's brain from the ether," she waved a hand to symbolize wherever Mulder was at the moment, "we've got a whole lot of nothing."

"So we have to go to Welkin." It wasn't a question.

She nodded, sighing. "If we want to do anything else with this case, yeah. Scully thinks there's something here, and I'm starting to, too... But, for all our quality investigating, we've got nothing that'll convince Skinner there's anything there worth Bureau time." She leaned down against the armrest, curling her legs up, and stared unblinkingly at me for a solution.

"Well, they say the Berkshires are beautiful this time of year. You up for a weekend away?" My heart pounded inexplicably as I waited for her answer. She frowned slightly, and I knew immediately what she was thinking, and forced my thought aloud over the knot in my throat. "Larry. He's only here for the next little while."

She giggled and tossed me a sympathetic glance. "It's not that, John... besides, after this week I'm probably just about Larryed out." I frowned at her, upset that she thought she had to patronize me. "I was just thinking about the talent show."

"I thought... you didn't really want to do that thing."

She shrugged. "Larry asked me to. He'll be mad. And Agent Corbin and the others. He told them I'd do it."

Frustration rose in the back of my mouth, but she had every right to be difficult. Without Bureau involvement to instruct her to follow me to Welkin, she had every right to stay in D.C. and ignore this entire case. "I can go without you." The whole point of the exercise had been to get her away from Larry, but it wasn't like I could force her to go.

She smiled sleepily. "I'll go," she promised, closing her eyes and snuggling deeper into my couch. I allowed myself just to watch her for a few seconds, drinking in her smile and the way she was curled up like a kitten, in a position that couldn't be comfortable for anyone but her.

"Want me to take you home?" I asked her.

She opened one eye. "You're not driving anywhere at 3 in the morning."

I swallowed. There was no real reason she couldn't stay in my house, even though we were partners. On the road at that hour I would be endangering her life, in my house she would only be endangering my sanity. And I wasn't entirely sure that insanity wasn't worth it. "I'll put sheets on the guest bed," I told her, remembering I had a guest bed and standing up to make my escape.

"Couch's fine," she mumbled.

"You just don't want to get up," I accused her, walking around the coffee table until I was standing over her. She opened both eyes and tilted her face up toward me, smiling in an open, half-asleep way that seemed to radiate kindness and affection. I stopped breathing. I found I wasn't terrified of her when she looked that way. Common sense, reality, and my voice of reason all abandoned me for a few welcome moments as I grabbed a folded blanket from the other end of the couch. She watched me as I unfolded it and set it over her clumsily, not offering to do it herself and not moving to straighten it, looking more curious than anything. My hand grazed her shoulder and she shivered.

I wasn't sure how I came to be kneeling next to her. Her eyes never left my face, still intensely curious. I was still holding on to the edge of the blanket, my ostensible reason for being that close to her, and I wasn't sure I remembered how to let it go and stand up. I let my hand slide along the edge of the blanket, watching her face carefully. My fingers reached into her hair of their own volition, and she trembled and closed her eyes.

Oh God, oh God, oh God... my inner monologue had been reduced to nothing but a simple, senseless prayer, repeated over and over.

Her eyes opened slowly and she reached a hand out from under the blanket to touch my arm. My fingers went weak, releasing her hair, and the blood rushing through my veins suddenly seemed hot and painful. She shifted, and the blanket fell away from her shoulders until she was nearly sitting up.

She murmured something which might have been my name, her huge sad eyes reaching into my brain to try and uncover my intention. Her fingers on my skin seemed to burn their imprint into me. She nodded slightly, a barely perceptible movement, giving me the go-ahead to do... what? Her lips parted slightly and her other hand fluttered up to touch my neck, one finger running a devastating line from my ear to my shoulder.

A million impulses flooded me at once, and somehow the one that won out had me leaping away from her like a man possessed, knocking case files off the coffee table and earning a strangled gasp from Monica as we broke contact.

"Monica, I-" I started but stopped before I could apologize. An apology was an acknowledgment that something had happened, that something could have happened, that for a second or more than a second I had wanted to see that something through to the end, forgetting the consequences and damning us both.

I knelt down to pick up the files, not wanting to see the expression on her face. Disappointment, frustration, or embarrassment–I couldn't handle it. "Why don't we leave for Welkin on Saturday morning?" I suggested. "Then you can do your talent thing, and..." I trailed off, my heart still beating too fast to babble effectively.

"Okay." Her voice sounded choked, with what emotion I couldn't tell.

She went for the pizza plates and I got there first. "I got it," I told her, trying to sound gentle and apologetic, but coming off sounding hurt and annoyed. She pulled back and drew the blanket up around herself, still shivering.

"You still don't want me to drive you home?" I sounded pathetic, but that was better than sounding annoyed.

"It's still not safe for you to drive," she replied, evidently having regained control over her voice. There was a pause. "Nothing happened," she added after a moment. I listened hard for disappointment in those words, but if it was there she had guarded it well beneath a matter-of-fact tone borrowed from Agent Scully.

"Yeah." I stood up. "Good night. Lemme know if you need anything. You know, if you..."

"Good night." She lay back down and looked at me expectantly, waiting for my next move. I turned the light out and made my escape.

My neck burned where she'd touched it and I couldn't sleep, wanting to tiptoe downstairs and watch her sleep, wanting to take back the entire evening, wanting to already be in Welkin where we would have a job to do, wanting to be curled around her, so close that I couldn't pull away, so close that neither of us could pretend that it didn't happen. I heard no movement from downstairs. She was asleep. It didn't really surprise me that she could sleep through my emotional turmoil–the woman could sleep through natural disasters and choppy commuter flights with practiced ease. I stared at my bedside clock and wondered how I had managed to make my house seem as alone with Monica in it as it seemed every night without her.

*****

She even smiled in her sleep. Sunlight poured through my living room windows, giving an idyllic appearance to Monica's messy hair and awkward sleeping position. A lock of dark hair had curled across her face, making her wrinkle her nose between rhythmic breaths, and it was all I could do not to reach down and brush it away. I shook her shoulder instead, realizing that I should wake her before she woke on her own and caught me staring.

"Monica." She sighed once and opened her eyes, greeting me with a wide, dreamy smile that made me feel like I was falling through the floor.

"G'mornin'..." she slurred, reaching up a hand to rub her eyes.

Unwelcome thoughts flooded my mind before I could stop them. I wanted to wake up to this, to her asleep next to me, to be allowed to stroke her hair, to kiss her or hold her as a way to make the start of another day more bearable.

"Good morning," I managed, shocked and surprised that such a fantasy had made it to conscious thought. Her unusual presence in my house was breaking down all the defenses that kept me from wanting things I knew I shouldn't have.

Her hand dropped away and her eyes flew open anew, as though just realizing that I was actually standing in front of her and wasn't a part of her fading dream. Her smile fell away instantly, chased away by a look of hurt and frustration, which she quickly smothered behind a collected, professional expression. "What time is it?" she asked, clearing her throat and sitting up as she raked a hand through her hair.

I realized suddenly how close I was and backed a step away. "Seven. We gotta get going, if we're going to make that meeting with Skinner. I can drive you over to your place and pick us up some coffee and breakfast while you're gettin' ready. I can drive you to pick up your car from that club at lunch, if you want."

She stood up and started straightening cushions, because she'd suddenly discovered a hidden compulsive streak or because she wanted to mask the awkwardness of waking up in my living room. "Larry and I took a cab last night," she dismissed my offer and started folding her blanket. "Just drop me off at home."

I wondered if she intended her words to sound as much like a brush-off as they did. "You want me to pick you up something? To eat? It might be a long meeting, and I've got nothin' but here but corn flakes and pop-tarts."

She turned and fixed her gaze on me, chiding me for presuming she needed me to keep an eye on her about something as personal as her diet. "I'll get something on my way in," she answered, placing the neatly folded blanket over the arm of the couch before turning and heading for the stairs. "Just give me a second to change back into my clothes."

So she was mad at me. Under ordinary circumstances, she would never refuse an offer of free breakfast, and probably would have let me wait around to drive her into work, whether her car was available or not. I had spent the night hoping that she would forget my erratic behavior of the night before, but it was clear she hadn't. She would get over it, of course. It was hardly the first time I'd treated her badly, and she never managed to stay upset at me for long, even when I all but deserved for her to storm out and never speak to me again.

I sighed and sank down onto the couch, messing up her meticulous cushion arrangement. It was still warm, and I knew, although I would never allow myself to try, that if I lay down on it the couch would smell like Monica's shampoo and leftover smoke from Club Ascension.

"Ready?" She had her arms crossed across her chest when she came back down the stairs, looking horribly awkward in her skimpy, wrinkled clubbing clothes.

I tossed her a half-smile which she didn't return with anything more than a slightly raised eyebrow. My insides twisted. "Yeah."

*****

She breezed into the office just in time for our meeting with Skinner, meticulously dressed in a fitted suit much more formal than what she usually wore and completely unsuited to the weather. I wondered if she was trying to remind me, or her, that we were partners and that was all we were, or if she was trying to look like Agent Scully. She hung a hanger, holding a dress covered in a protective garbage bag, on the handle of one of our filing cabinets–her outfit for the talent show. I wondered what Larry was having her wear, but her cool expression told me that it wasn't the time to ask.

"What do we tell him about Welkin?" she asked in the elevator on the way to Skinner's office, as she tugged sharply on a strand of hair that hadn't yet adjusted to its new length and was curling around her ear in a way that she evidently didn't appreciate.

"Do we tell him about it?"

She was still pulling on her hair, and shot me a pained look. "The Mulder modus operandi?"

"What're we gonna tell him? That we plan to go off and investigate this on our own, without Bureau backing, and would he please just wait by the phone in case we find something worthwhile?"

The elevator stopped and someone else got in, so our conversation was stunted to a series of annoyed glances. It stopped again on the next floor and the other man walked out, leaving us alone. Monica pulled the stop button as soon as the elevator was between floors.

"It's not like you to take as half-baked a lead as this and run with it behind your superiors' backs," she accused.

"You said yourself you wanted to talk to Cooley." I winced at having to remind her of anything said or done the night before. Or not done, an unfriendly voice in my head added.

"Are we doing this for Scully?" she asked, looking at me with a sad expression.

"She thinks there's someone in danger. I don't know how else to do this. It's Mulder's case, I don't know if we can solve it our way."

Monica sighed. "Okay," she shrugged, looking so vulnerable for a split second that I couldn't stop my hand from reaching out and touching her arm. Her eyes snapped up, conflicted emotions playing on her face around burning eyes.

My hand stayed where it was, forgotten, as I looked away from her eyes and started babbling, "We should probably let him know we're checking out something in Welkin, an old case of Mulder's. Just say we're going to have a look around... on our own time. Tell him after the meeting, or something, so it's like we're just lettin' him know as a friend."

When I looked back up at her, her eyes had drifted down to our point of contact. Her mouth was twisted into an expression between annoyance and pain before she turned back to the elevator buttons, subtly pulling herself out of my grasp. She didn't release the stop, but considered the button with her eyes as though looking for minute imperfections.

"Sounds like you've got it all figured out," she said, probably trying to be clever but unable to hide the contempt in her voice. Her eyes widened as the tone of her voice struck her ears.

"Monica-"

"I'm not mad at you, John." She gave a frustrated sigh and squinted at the stop button like it was at fault for all the awkwardness between us, instead of me. "I'm just... a little wrung out, I guess. I haven't slept much."

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, hating the inherent lameness of those words.

She released the stop and looked over her shoulder at me with a small, sad smile. Her forehead was still creased with a kind of hopeless frustration. "I know you are."

We passed a moment in silence, both staring up at the blinking lights indicating the floors we were passing. Guilt twisted inside me, making me sick in the face of her seemingly unconditional acceptance.

"You coming to the show tonight?" she asked suddenly, as though trying to jump in ahead of anything I might say.

"Do you want me to?"

Her smirk was familiar and genuine. "Hmm... depends... are you going to bring me flowers? For my debut D.C. performance?"

"How would that look?" I asked without thinking. I pushed on before she could jump to any conclusions–it wasn't like we had a clandestine affair we needed to keep secret to avoid disgracing an office that couldn't stand up to any more disgrace. It wasn't like I even though we did. "Besides, I'm not sure I should encourage you."

She giggled as the doors opened and we stepped out. "Don't worry, John. I'm not about to run off on you to Broadway or anything." She ignored a curious glance from a passing agent and added, probably mostly for his benefit, "What would the little green men do without me?"

*****

The Vic was packed. It didn't really surprise me that Monica was going through with this talent show thing, but it surprised me a lot that she and Larry weren't the only idiots who had signed up for this exercise in ritual humiliation. I scanned the bar for anyone that I might recognize and wasn't too surprised to come up empty-handed. At one point, two years ago, I had spent coffee breaks with a few agents in more civilized parts of the Hoover, but I doubted we would have much to say to each other anymore. Being on the X-Files detail, whether due to the association with Spooky Mulder, the isolated office locale, the obscene hours or the general laughability of the cases we worked, wasn't helping me win any popularity contests. I took a seat at an empty table near the stage and half-heartedly listened to the emcee, a somewhat inebriated manager from the Human Resources department, open the evening with some drunk impressions. I ordered a drink when the waitress came by, feeling that I was probably going to need it.

Monica was nowhere to be seen. I assumed she was in whatever makeshift equivalent of a backstage the Vic had. After our meeting with Skinner she had been pleasant enough all day, but unusally cool and detached. She had ignored my feeble attempts to lighten the mood, and had left early to rehearse for the talent show with only a casual, "See you later, John." I hadn't been able to crack her veneer of professionalism enough to tell whether she was still thinking about the mess I'd made of the night before, or whether she'd mentally added the whole incident to the long list of false starts between us and dismissed it. I wasn't even sure whether I'd hurt, frustrated, embarrassed or even amused her by my irrational behaviour–possibly all of those things.

After all of that, I couldn't decide whether to anticipate or dread a weekend away with her anymore. If she was still going to be upset with me the next day, the seven hour car ride up the coast would be an exercise in pain. Even worse, if she had gotten over it and intended to return to being friendly and supportive, offering me pleasant chatter and casual flirtation, I wasn't sure I could handle it. I had been on edge around her all day, and her all-too-usual behaviour in the office all afternoon had been somehow jarring to my brain. I felt like the whole world had tipped upside down since last night outside of Club Ascension, and it didn't make sense that she hadn't seemed to notice.

"Is this seat taken?" Scully's voice interrupted my thoughts.

I looked up at her in surprise. "What're you doin' here?"

She took in the Vic with a slightly concerned glance. "Monica's big debut," she smiled half-heartedly, conveying her general distaste for the proceedings. "I promised to come and support her." I suspected that Monica had played the card of requesting Scully's moral support as a thinly veiled way of dragging her out of the house.

"You missed the juggling trio from Violent Crimes."

Scully raised an eyebrow as her only comment. I waited while she ordered a drink. I was glad she had come. Although it was pretty laughable for me to worry about anyone not getting out enough, it was a relief to see her stepping out into the world after everything she had gone through.

"Anything new on the Welkin case?" She asked as the emcee introduced the tap-dancing secretary of an Assistant Director I'd never heard of.

"Not much. Monica called the local paper. We're going to look through their archives for any more information on that other murder."

"What'd Skinner say?"

I smirked at that. Scully knew we had told him, that we were incapable of simply disappearing under cover of darkness the way she and Mulder had regularily done. "That he doesn't even want to know about it."

"I figured as much. He called me to see how I was," she waved a hand slightly to stem any further questions that I would ask. We both already knew what numerous recent tragedies, piled upon ancient ones, had prompted Skinner's concern, and neither of us wanted to discuss it. "He said that you two are carrying the X-Files torch unfortunately well."

I wasn't sure how I felt about that. "Is he coming tonight?"

"I think all the Assistant Directors are avoiding this one. Far too likely they'd get dragged up on stage."

"Now that really would be good for morale."

Scully smiled one of her rare, genuine smiles. It was unusual that I spent any time with her outside of work or desperate causes. Maybe Monica was right–this talent show was a good thing. "I'm surprised Monica didn't find a way to coax you up there to entertain the troops."

"Me? Not a chance, Agent Scully. And I don't see you up there, either."

"My excuse is that I can't carry a tune in a bucket." She smiled and shook her head. "She's heard me sing to..." she trailed off and her face darkened for a moment as though debating whether or not to complete her sentence. She must have decided against bringing up her son, because she amended, "She's heard me sing, and wisely decided not to push her luck. Still, I thought she would have made it her mission of the week to get you to do something with her. I guess her other friend from New Orleans got you off the hook."

It felt like Scully was prodding at raw nerves, trying to get me to respond in a jealous fit about Larry. My rational brain assured me that she was only making light conversation, but I still couldn't help wondering if Monica wished, on some level, that I was more like Larry. I refused to comment on him. "I can't believe she's doin' this at all. Doesn't seem like her thing." If Human Resources had decided to hold some sort of seance as a way of boosting morale, or was hosting a new-age symposium on aromatherapy or something else, I wouldn't have had a problem picturing Monica there. "I just can't imagine her liking bein' onstage."

"She told me that she used to be in plays every summer as a kid. Her uncle was obsessed with Shakespeare and converted half of his barn into a theatre, made all the kids into amateur actors."

I shrugged. "Really?" I realized how little I knew about anything she had done before I had met her in New York. The fact that I hadn't even known Larry's name was evidence enough of that.

"This was the same uncle who convinced her to go to school in the States," Scully said as though in explanation.

I just stared at her blankly, not wanting to admit that I couldn't remember ever asking Monica about why she had left Mexico.

We sat together in awkward silence for a while, alternately eavesdropping on neighboring conversations and watching our fellow Feds perform. Scully finally spoke, "I heard there's a connection to a rape case?"

"What?"

"Agent Reyes said that Cooley attacked a serial rapist in jail. She suspects there's a connection."

"You... talked to her? Since last night?"

Scully stared at me. "She called to update me at lunch. Is that a problem?" My heart started to race and I knew Scully could tell. I was almost positive that, if Monica hadn't already told her, she could read last night's events in my face. I tried to remind myself that Monica wouldn't be one to ridicule me, but Scully's piercing eyes seemed to know every detail of how and why I'd ruined Monica's night out, brought her home and then hadn't even been able to bring myself to kiss her–

"John?" Scully touched a hand to my arm, concern flashing across her features as she watched me. "I think Monica's up next," she said, pointing with the top of her beer bottle toward the back of the stage, where Agent Corbin and some men I didn't know were setting up instruments and chairs.

I shook her off and ran a hand through my hair. "I should-" I started, suddenly needing air. I had to get out of the Vic and as far away as possible. I wanted to get in my truck and drive around aimlessly as I had the night before, before I had dragged Monica away from the club and ruined her evening. I remembered the way she had looked the night before in the rainstorm, furious at me in a way she had never been before, and my throat tightened inexplicably.

I had to leave. Everything seemed to be moving too fast, and I had to take a step back before every second with her started feeling like torture. I pushed my chair away from the table and fumbled with my jacket, as Scully looked on in silent confusion over my sudden change of mood.

I knew what Monica would do if I wasn't there when she got offstage. She would call me to make sure I was all right, assuming the worst instead of realizing that I had panicked for no real reason and had ditched her. Even after all these years, she never assumed that I would let her down on purpose. Monica walked onstage then, helping Agent Corbin carry on a desk piled high with what looked like empty file folders. I couldn't even guess at what purpose that desk would serve in her skit, but I froze as she put the desk down and turned her attention to the crowd. Our eyes met for barely a second as she finally found our table before she turned away and started adjusting the prop files, but that was all it took. I was trapped–there was no way I could leave now that she had seen me.

The emcee leapt onstage with dramatic flourish. Feedback exploded from one of the microphones onstage, snapping me out of my thoughts. "Woah!! Sorry 'bout that. Well, folks, we've got a real treat coming up for y'all next," the emcee drawled. "But I'm gonna let these kids tell you about it themselves. Let's give a big hand for Agent Larry Walker, all the way from the New Orleans field office, and our very own, very beautiful..." he squinted at the index card in his hand. "Monica Reyes!"

Larry strode on stage and grabbed Monica's hand, pulling her out from behind the desk. A scatter of polite applause and a few drunken catcalls spread through the bar, and Monica seemed to snap to attention, suddenly exuding a stage confidence I never would have guessed at. Her outfit was comprised of a standard-issue little black dress under a form fitting suit jacket and she winked encouragingly at the catcallers. I clenched my teeth to keep from going and knocking sense into the jerks around the bar who were cheering the length of her skirt. I couldn't believe Monica would wear something that short in public, but then, I couldn't believe a lot of the things she did when Larry was around.

And she wasn't mine to get possessive about, I reminded myself. She had all but offered the night before and I hadn't done anything about it. She was free to wear what she wanted, where she wanted, and, more importantly, I wasn't allowed to feel one way or the other about it.

The emcee handed Larry and Monica each a cordless microphone and tripped on his way off the stage, to the general merriment of the crowd. Monica tapped her mic and tipped it over to switch it on as Larry started talking. "I guess you've heard, I'm Agent Walker, and this is Special Agent Reyes." Monica only looked endearingly embarrassed as she fought with her microphone. Larry snarked, "Agent Reyes here works in the X Files division." I felt Scully tense next to me at the resulting laughter. "Apparently they don't come by a lot of microphones amid the alien spaceships."

Monica glared at Larry and sharply switched her microphone on to a squeal of feedback. She flashed a knowing smile at the still-laughing audience. "Well, I did try to get a real live alien to come with me tonight, but it's hard to book them on such short notice. And most of the other monsters are really too gooey for a high-class event like this."

Scully leaned over to me. "She doesn't mind being laughed at, does she?" It was an honest question, laced with a pained sort of envy, as though Scully recognized that she and I would have done much better on the X-Files if we honestly never cared what anyone else thought.

"I think she's just used to it," I shrugged. "I don't know that she likes it." I suspected she noticed the deriding looks and ugly gossip that circulated through the Hoover just as much as I did, but was too proud, in her own way, to ever allow herself to be bothered by them. She had probably long given up hope of being thought of as anything other than Crazy Monnie, and even took pleasure in being so offbeat. I wondered if she had always been so self-assured, or if there had been a time in her life when she had longed to be just like everyone else.

Monica was introducing Agent Corbin and the rest of the jazz band and I used the opportunity of her being onstage to openly stare at her, watching her confident attitude as she and Larry cracked wise while Corbin and the others finished setting up. She didn't look over in my direction as she spoke. I wondered selfishly whether all the silly smiles she gave Larry were a part of her act, or if they were meant to make me jealous.

Larry's voice cut through my paranoia. "Since this is an FBI talent night, we thought we'd sing-"

"Or, pretend to sing," Monica corrected.

"- something which deeply and personally affects every single one of us here at the FB of I." He clutched a hand to his heart. "Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong long ago sung a song that really is the theme song for all agent relationships that don't break FBI fraternization policies..."

Someone in the crowd booed and almost everyone broke into laughter. I knew the song was Larry's idea, I had been there when he had forced this skit onto my partner in our office, but my paranoia was acting up again and I wondered if Monica was trying to send me some sort of message. I glanced at Scully to make sure the mention of FBI romances hadn't sent her into a well of Mulder-induced despair, but to my relief she was smiling proudly at Monica, leaving me to worry about myself and my own complicated agent relationship.

"Hit it, boys," Larry ordered, dragging a chair over to the prop desk and pulling open one of the files as Corbin's band started to play an upbeat jazz rhythm.

Monica smiled, clearly laughing at herself, as she struck a pose staring at Larry and took a deep breath.

"A fine romance with no kisses

A fine romance, my friend, this is..." People around me, including Scully, laughed as they caught the joke about the FBI-approved agent relationship, but I froze. While she sang the words to her scene partner and I could, on some level, comprehend the humour of the skit, I felt as though every sarcastic syllable was directed straight at me.

"We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes

But you're as cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes..." Monica had unbuttoned her suit jacket as she sang and had tossed it to the ground dramatically, earning her cheers. She slid toward Larry, who was trying to fight down a grin as he pretended to study his files. She leaned over and ran her hands over his shoulders and chest in a sort of damatized seduction.

"A fine romance, you won't nestle.

A fine romance, you won't wrestle..." Larry shot her a disapproving look and dropped a stack of files in her arms before walking away, as Monica wailed,

"I might as well play bridge with my old maid aunts

I haven't got a chance

This is a fine romance!"

She collasped into the chair with a pout and then turned to the files studiously as Larry started his verse.

"A fine romance with no kisses..."

"She's good," Scully whispered to me. I nodded. I hadn't even thought about it, but once Scully mentioned it, I realized that she actually wasn't terrible. I wouldn't sign her up for any record contracts, but she certainly outpaced Larry as far as vocal talents went. Something else I didn't know about her, I mused. I had learned a lot in the past few days.

I refocused my attention on the stage, where Larry was following Monica around the stage as she handed him files and brushed away his comical, stylized advances. When his verse was finished, she tossed him her last file and, mic in hand, stepped down the stage stairs as she sang. I ignored her words to watch as she interacted with a few members of her audience, keeping everyone's eyes glued to her as she would touch someone's shoulder seductively or make eye contact with someone else like she was a seasoned professional at all of this. By the second half of her verse she had reached our table. She walked around it, winking at Scully before trailing a finger along the back of my shoulders. I turned my head to look at her and our eyes made contact for just a brief second. She was caught up in the show and seemed to have no idea how nervous she was making me.

"A fine romance with no quarrels

With no insults, and all morals..." Out of nowhere, with dramatic flourish, she straddled my lap, staring me straight in the eye with a devious expression. I gasped and stayed perfectly still, the image of a deer in headlights running rampant through my brain among a thousand other, jumbled thoughts.

"I've never mussed a crease in your blue serge pants

I never get the chance." She smoothly pushed a hand on my chest to help her off of me and moved away, exclaiming,

"This is a fine romance! Take it away, boys!"

Corbin's jazz band played a musical interlude, spicing it up with complicated licks that might have impressed me under other circumstances, but I ignored them to let my brain catch up. People around me were still howling and cheering at Monica's dramatic display with me. It was just a stage gimmick. It had to be. I was her friend, I was there, and she could maul me for a laugh in a talent show skit if she wanted to for those two reasons alone. The situation was bizarre and couldn't be counted as romantic–a fine romance or otherwise–but voices in my head were practically demanding to somehow find a way to get that close to her again, without the singing or the jazz band or all the other people.

After a moment I risked looking over at Scully, whose eyes were wide although her lips twisted at the edges into an amused smirk.

Larry had gone through his own romp through the audience, grabbing ahold of the waitress who had served us in the Vic the last time we were here as he serenaded her with more half-ridiculous lines about their fine romance. He dropped the waitress when the verse was over and looked back to the stage, where Monica was pouting over a casefile. He walked toward her, still singing. She cut him off, mid-verse:

"True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has,

You know, Larry, we don't have half the thrill that the march of time has!" With that, she swept her arm over the desk, knocking all the files to the floor in a flutter. A woman on the other side of the Vic literally screamed with delight at the display.

Larry walked back up onto the stage, singing, as Monica crawled onto the desk on hands and knees.

"A fine romance, my very good woman

My strong, aged-in-the-wood woman

You never give the orchids I sent a glance,"

Monica, who was now kneeling on the front edge of the desk, interrupted him with a wave of her hand.

"No, I prefer cactus plants!"

They both yelled together, "This is a fine romance!" and, as Corbin's band finished up the song, Larry dramatically threw her on the desk and kissed her.

Scully burst into laughter and started applauding along with everyone else. Wolf whistles and cheers dragged on as they kissed onstage for far longer than was necessary, until Monica shoved him off. She was laughing, looking unbelievably thrilled with herself for having survived the event. When Larry pulled her to standing off the desk, she bowed sheepishly. Her stage persona had fallen away and she looked eager to get out of the spotlight, giving the emcee a grateful smile when he jumped onstage to announce the next act.

She knelt down to collect the scattered files and her jacket as the emcee was talking and then hopped off the stage to join us at our table.

"Monica, that was hilarious," Scully enthused. "You were great."

"Thanks," she grinned self-consciously, "We didn't have much time to rehearse. Corbin and the others carried it mostly. I can't believe Larry talked me into this."

"The musicians were impressive."

"They play at a cafe in Alexandria sometimes," Monica supplied. "I'm going to go and hear them some weekend. Well, whenever I get a weekend when we're not on a case, anyway." She smiled at me then.

"Sorry-" I mumbled, about dragging her away for the weekend when she obviously had better places to be.

She rolled her eyes. "John, please. You know I didn't mean it like that." She put the stack of empty files on the table and looked around for an empty chair to drag over for Larry, who had finished pulling the desk offstage and was approaching us. Once she found one, she fixed her eyes on me and demanded in her best innocent voice, "So, where are my flowers?"

I laughed at her, not letting on that I had actually seriously debated whether she had really wanted me to bring her flowers after her comment in the elevator. "How 'bout I buy you a drink instead?"

"Well... considering I involved you in the skit against your will, that's fair." She grinned brilliantly.

"You know," Larry commented after exchanging lukewarm hello-agains with Scully. "You two may never live that down, if anyone in this room stays sober enough to remember."

I waved the waitress over, relieved to see that Monica was back to her cheerful self. A few minutes of humiliation on Monica's part, and panic on mine, were all worth it if it had gotten us over the awkwardness of the day. I could even live with another evening with Larry, since I knew Monica and I were escaping him in just a few hours.

"Just give me a little warning next time, okay?" I said, winking at Monica and hoping the part of me that wanted to her to jump me like that the next time we were alone wasn't showing through.

"Sure thing, partner."

*****

Monica tossed her overnight bag into the bed of my truck with a thump, and settled into the passenger seat with a look of exaggerated unhappiness. I handed her a styrofoam cup before she got a chance to open her mouth.

"If you're trying to bribe me with coffee so that I forgive you for making me get up at seven on a Saturday, it's not going to work."

"Hey, I'm just tryin' to make it a little easier to be around you."

She fixed a glare on me. "This morning person thing of yours? It's really quite annoying."

I laughed at her, allowing myself a few moments before starting the truck. I couldn't remember laughing that early in the morning in a long time. She looked good in jeans and a sweatshirt, her hair tied back haphazardly, without the makeup or professional attitude she put on for other people. "Go on, try it," I indicated the cup and kept a grin on my face, knowing that at a certain point she would have to cave and smile back.

She took a sip of the hot liquid with trepidation and her eyes lit up. "Wow, Agent Doggett, I was expecting bad instant."

"I went all out," I winked at her, fascinated by her changing expressions. I liked making her smile. Even if it was only about surprising her with chai, it still sent an odd rush up my spine and an involuntary grin to my face.

She hummed with pleasure as she took another sip and closed her eyes. After a moment she glanced over at me with a lazy grin, catching me staring. "Okay, okay, you bought me chai and now I forgive you. If you brought anything in the way of baked goods I'll even let you choose the radio station." If it was possible, her smiles were even more intense without lipstick.

"Last time I checked this was my truck. I get to pick the music anyway."

She raised an eyebrow at me. "Well, then, I promise not to complain about it. So?"

I tossed her a paper bag and waited a few seconds while she opened it and squealed in indignation. "It's empty!" She crumpled it and threw it back.

"Hey! You're gettin' crumbs on me."

She smirked, wrinkling her nose in amusement.

"Look, there was a muffin, but you took ten and a half years gettin' out here..."

She rolled her eyes. "Okay, John. Let's get going. Did you bring the casefiles?"

"Yeah," I jerked my head toward the briefcase behind her seat and started the truck. "You want to stop for breakfast or something? I figured you'd have eaten somethin' health-food before I got here." After the morning before when she'd glared me down for even offering her breakfast I figured I wasn't safe with much beyond chai.

"We can stop on the road. I'm good with this for now." She closed her eyes and inhaled the steam from her tea as I pulled into traffic. "Thanks."

"It's no problem," I assured her. "I know you like it."

She nodded dreamily through another sip and licked milk froth from her lips. "This is the way to start a morning," she commented.

Glancing over at her, I nodded. Headed into a weekend dealing with practically historic murders or not, I couldn't have agreed more.

*****

She was quiet until we got on the highway, ruminating over her chai. I didn't mind the silence, and I couldn't think of a thing to break it with. I didn't want to start talking about the case yet, with seven hours left until we reached our destination. It was a weekend, after all. And until we brought up work, I could let myself pretend that we were just taking a trip to the country to enjoy the season.

She spoke first. "Did you have fun last night?"

"Yeah," I nodded. We had stayed for about an hour after the end of the talent show, talking with other agents as Larry got drunk and provided entertainment. I hadn't minded his childish antics, or even the way he tried to involve Monica in them, because she had slid her chair closer to mine and we shared laughing looks whenever he bordered on getting out of control. Occasionally she would touch my arm as she made a point, or as she leaned across the table to say something to Larry without having to yell, the smallest symbol of unconscious possession which had stunned me into a few seconds of silence each time it happened. I had to keep reminding myself not to throw my arm around her chair, her shoulders, to tease her hair with my fingers as Larry clowned around with agents from other departments. Still, I found myself acutely aware of her every move, focusing solely on her even as I chatted with Scully or fielded slightly tipsy and mostly ridiculous questions about the X Files from Larry's newfound agent friends.

In my truck Monica was staring at me, eyebrows quirked up in amusement. "What are you thinking, John?"

"Huh? Nothin'. Sorry, what'd you ask?"

She shook her head. "Not important. Just wondering if you thought Dana enjoyed herself."

"Oh. Yeah, I think." I was nodding, trying to summon up some memory of our conversation to back that assesment up with, but I couldn't for the life of me recall a thing that Dana had said after Monica had sat down. "You were really good up there, you know," I added, selfishly hoping that she would blush.

She did. "Thanks."

Her shy smile amazed me. It seemed unlikely that someone as confident as my partner would be skittish about taking compliments. "I didn't know you could sing," I told her honestly as I pondered this new side of her.

"Neither did I." She barked out a laugh. "I think I should probably keep my day job, though."

"You'd better. I'd be pretty useless here without you."

I kept laughing for a minute but Monica had gone completely silent. She was practically dissecting me with her gaze she was staring so hard, squinting as she tried to figure out what I meant. My words hung in the air badly, acquiring a meaning and a momentum of their own. When she remained silent, not returning the lighthearted banter, I had to say something to keep the moment from turning into something of a weight I wasn't prepared to handle. "On the X-Files," I stammered out as explanation. "You know... with the-"

"-crazy alien stuff." She finished with a nod. "I know."

I changed lanes unnecessarily as though I could avoid the unspoken disappointment in her voice. How did I keep doing this? Every conversation lately seemed to contain hidden landmines, twisting up what I meant to say so that it sounded completely different by the time it reached her ears. She couldn't possibly think that I didn't need her, not after everything we'd been through, not after... "I mean it, Monica," I muttered, glancing at her for barely a second to cement my seriousness before returning my eyes to the road.

"It's not just the aliens?" she teased. She was being careful, keeping her voice lighthearted. We were treading into dangerous territory and I doubted she was eager to repeat the aborted attempts of earlier that week, or any number of others I didn't want to think of.

"What, you don't believe me?"

The inside of the truck fell silent for a moment. Out of the corner of my eye I watched a debate of expressions play out on her face, deciding whether to turn my words back with a joke or to go deeper and try to make this a serious conversation, to wring a confession out of me that I wasn't quite ready to give her. I wasn't sure which response of hers would be worse. "I believe you, John." She said simply, and smiled without meeting my eyes. "I know. Really."

I nodded and changed lanes again. "Yeah." After a moment, I started again, "I don't want you to think that-"

"Radio?" Monica asked, offering an escape to me or demanding one for herself, I couldn't be sure. Her large, rapidly blinking eyes contained so many different emotions as they waited for my response that I would have had to pull over and stare at her for a good long time to figure them all out.

"It... Monica," I mulled over my next words for a second, waiting for some sort of eloquence or even direction to strike, during which time she drew an impatient breath.

That noise alone was enough to shake my confidence. I cursed inwardly as I turned back to the road. This was all wrong. I didn't know what I wanted to say to her, because I couldn't tell her for the life of me what I wanted from her from one moment to the next. The silence dragged on, broken into tense chunks by her rhythmic breathing. I didn't seem to be breathing at all. She let her hand drop away from the radio controls and stared unblinkingly ahead at the passing highway billboards.

Damn, damn, damn! I had half a mind to pull the truck over to the side of the road, grab her by the shoulders and demand that she help me figure out what to do because I damned well wasn't doing a great job of figuring it out on my own and I figured from experience that she would know. The other half wanted nothing more than to turn the radio up as loud as it would go to erase any record of our entire conversation from the air in the cab.

A few moments later she turned to me benevolently. "Do you mind if we stop?" Monica pointed to a sign for an upcoming service centre. She didn't sound upset. The unwarranted kindness in her voice was the same as it had always been and, like always, I took comfort in it.

"Yeah, sure... you gonna get your breakfast now?"

"I'm not really in the mood for breakfast." She twisted even farther in her seat to look at me. "When I was in college, we used to take M&M's and mix them with pretzels. If I get a bag, will you split them with me?"

"It's a little early for chocolate, Monica. Isn't it?"

She giggled. "Well... I don't mind eating junk on the road. It's like, I don't like to at home, but it's okay to lapse a little when we're away." She shrugged, and I wondered whether Larry had more awakened nostalgia for her lost undergraduate days than for New Orleans. "I promise, it's good."

"If you say so." I pulled off the highway and found a parking spot. I turned off the truck and expected her to hop out. When I didn't hear the door open, I turned to look at her. She was looking back, gazing at me like she had never seen me before and smiling in the sweet, friendly way that could be termed uniquely hers.

When the staring dragged on longer than could be considered usual, I asked, "What?"

"Just... nothing. Just happy." Her smile widened and she licked her lips like a cat.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." She leaned over the console, her shoulder belt squeaking with resistance, and kissed me gently on the cheek. When she settled back in her chair, still watching me, she wasn't blushing.

I was sure I was completely crimson.

After another moment of just smiling reassuringly at me, she popped open her door and turned to jump out.

"What..." I breathed.

She looked back, an eyebrow raised. "What was that for?"

All I could do was nod.

"Nothing," she answered with a cheshire grin, a light colour creeping high onto her cheekbones. She jumped down and shut the door. "Are you coming?" she called from the front of the truck when I still didn't move.

Her confident stance, as though nothing out of the ordinary was the matter and she didn't expect anything from me, shook me free of my shell shock. I stepped down and slammed the door shut, almost laughing to myself because I knew how long I would spend running that moment over in my mind looking for what I should have done or said and everything that could have happened differently. At that moment, though, my brain was oddly quiet, allowing me to enjoy myself for a few minutes without worrying about consequences or complications. I felt like a cool breeze had blown through the hot, airless room I had been living in for god knew how long, just for a second making everything seem easy and okay.

Once satisfied that she had not stunned me into coma, Monica had gone on ahead. I watched her, musing that I could catch up with her and slip my hand into hers, to pretend like we were together to the outside world just for that day, those few hours, just until we got to Welkin and she changed back into her professional-looking, FBI-looking pantsuits. I stayed where I was, leaning against the front fender, entertained by people and landlocked seagulls until she returned, holding out a bag of pretzels she had mixed with M&Ms.

"Try," she urged when she reached me, only managing one syllable through a mouthful of her concoction. She shook the bag until I took it from her as she swallowed and tried to keep from laughing. "What do you think?" Her face was priceless and attentive. I wondered if her question was limited to chocolate and pretzels or not, if she was still stuck with her lips to my cheek the way I was stuck having her there.

"It's different," I said after I finished chewing. The salt and chocolate blended surprisingly well, a ratio surely perfected through four years of college. "I like it. I can't believe I never thought of it before."

She took another handful and glanced at the driver's seat. "Want me to drive? We've got a ways to go."

"Nah, I got it. You can sleep for a bit, if you want."

"What, and let you eat all the chocolate?" She snatched the bag away and got back into the passenger seat. "Not a chance, Agent Doggett."

*****

She fell asleep in New Jersey with a promise to be awake in twenty minutes, and slept most of the rest of the way up the coast. She had the uncanny ability to fall asleep anywhere, even curled up against the passenger side window, and make it look as comfortable as anything. Her fingers curled around the shoulder belt like it was a child's security blanket. I didn't mind having the time to myself to think. I listened to music until the hills blocked out almost every radio station, leaving her rhythmic breathing, like a soothing heartbeat through the truck cab, as the only thing to listen to. I didn't mind.

As unlikely as it was that this fifteen year old murder case would yield anything, it was successfully managing to ward off my usual weekend loneliness. It didn't completely escape me how much I enjoyed going on overnight cases with my partner, and how driving a car with her dozing in the passenger seat or being a hotel room away from her with the promise of coffee together in the morning was vastly preferrable to an empty house with her two cities away.

"Wow." Monica said, alerting me that she was awake as she gaped at the view ahead of us. "Impressive."

I nodded. The view approaching the Massachusetts border was indeed pretty breathtaking. Even the trees right along the highway were a vibrant shade of green, and the Berkshire mountains stretched up on all sides of us, fading into a bluish gray in the distance.

"You awake? I could use some navigation in a few minutes."

"Yeah," she arched her back against the seat and started searching around for the map. "You could've woken me earlier. I was going to help drive."

"You looked comfortable."

She smiled, and I was pretty sure that just for that I would have forgiven her far greater things than sleeping through a car trip. "I guess I'm not as much of a party girl as I used to be," she commented as she studied the mapquest printout. "Three nights out in a row and I'm down for the count."

"Well, Larry seems to live at a bit of a breakneck pace."

"It's all right, John. I'm not mourning the passing of my youth." She tossed her hair as she worked out the cricks in her neck. "I like my life the way it is. What highway are we on?"

"Some kind of connecting highway. It might still be part of the New York State Thruway. We're headed to the Mass Pike." I hadn't seen any signs in awhile, but the looming mountains ensured that we were headed in the right direction. Occasionally I would catch a view through the trees of a idyllic-looking township of New England wooden houses with pristinely manicured lawns. The whole area felt like an island at an altitude, isolated by natural barriers so that it seemed that while the twentieth century had indeed passed through the region, the majority of it hadn't stuck. "You really... like it?"

"My life?" She looked surprised at the inquiry. I didn't blame her–I usually stayed clear from such leading topics of conversation. "Yeah. Of course. Why wouldn't I?" I could feel her studying me, and then realization clicked onto her features. "Oh, that little ouburst of mine at the club."

"I didn't mean-"

"It's a valid question, John." If her voice was condescending, I knew she didn't intend it to be. "Most of the time, I really do like my life here. The work we do is perfect for me."

"Perfect place for Crazy Monnie?" I repeated Larry's joke.

One side of her mouth quirked up in a knowing smirk. "I guess it is, at that. It's just the first time in a long time I've felt like I'm really doing something, that at the end of the day it matters that it was me working these cases, and not just any other agent." She paused. "I don't know if that makes any sense to you."

"It does. I just figured... moving to D.C. and all..."

"I'm glad to be far away from the New Orleans field office, believe me. But our work is pretty all-consuming. Not that I mind, really. But Larry being here made me realize that I've been here for almost a year and, in a lot of ways, I've barely settled in."

"It probably doesn't help that I've got you stuck in a basement all week," I said. It sounded like an apology. Maybe it was. I couldn't imagine wanting to work these cases without her, but I felt guilty for needing her like that.

She squinted at a road sign, warning of an imminent toll stop, and turned back to me. "You know I wouldn't have taken this assignment if I didn't want to."

I had to shiver at the way she managed to read me like a book, aware of my guilt complexes before even I was. I knew she wouldn't say no before I even asked her. "I know that," I mumbled. I wasn't sure if she would ever say no to me, if that promise of loyalty at the grave of my dead son almost a decade earlier still bound her to me in her mind. I couldn't stand it if that was all it was. If she was here because I was a pity case in her eyes, sacrificing what she wanted because she knew how deeply I needed her, it would be worse than not having her around at all. Not much worse. Either possibility was enough to make my mind run in insomniac circles a few nights each week.

"Then stop it."

"Stop?"

"I wouldn't trade this job for anything. I wouldn't trade you for anything." I glanced at her between passing cars, shock evident on my face, grasping for what she meant. Her face flushed slightly and she spoke just a little too loudly, or at least she seemed to, but I wasn't sure whether it was the intense focus of my attention which made me imagine those things on her. "You're the best partner I've ever had. The only one I've ever voluntarily spent time with on a weekend."

My heart pounded as I slowed the truck at the toll plaza. I rolled down the window and waited to be handed a ticket for the Massachusetts leg of the I-90, and snuck a glance at her. She was staring intently at the map. I realized that saying nothing was rude, almost cruel, and opened my mouth, willing something sensical to come out. "We do pretty well together," I said, and silently applauded myself for my even tone.

She looked up and smiled broadly. "I guess we do. Most of the time." She winced slightly through her grin, probably remembering any number of bumps along the road of our growing partnership, all the times I didn't take her seriously or openly criticized the very leaps of logic I most needed her for.

How was I the best partner she'd ever had? It seemed to me like I had done nothing but make her transition to the X-Files harder. "Although I've got to wonder what your other partners were like."

She laughed. "You only threatened to have me committed once." She raised an index finger as though she was keeping score. "And the others were serious. Looks like we can take the next exit or the one after. Your choice."

"Probably better to stay on the highway as long as possible. These little towns are pretty confusing to drive through."

"Yeah, okay. We should get motel rooms and grab some lunch before we go to the police station. I don't think anybody will believe we're serious if I walk in dressed like this."

*****

"The FBI?" A uniformed officer asked, his voice filled with both trepidation and skepticism. He didn't get up from his place behind a pane of protective glass. I glanced behind me for Monica, who had been waylaid in the parking lot by a teenaged girl selling something out of the pockets of her overalls. When my eye-rolling began to annoy her she had waved me on, and was only now coming into the station.

I turned back to the Welkin cop and pulled my badge out from my pocket, holding it open a moment longer than I normally would to drive the point home. The cop looked all of eighteen. Either I was getting older or the rookie recruits were getting a hell of a lot younger than I remembered them. Either way, the kid was wet behind the ears, and out here in the hills he probably only knew the FBI from television shows. "I need to speak to the police chief," I told him. "Is he in?"

The kid almost snapped to attention in the face of my badge. "Yes, sir, Agent Doggett. He came in about an hour ago, I'm sure you can see him. Is there something the matter?" What I was starting to figure out, after talking to the motel manager, the kid at the Burger King drive-thru window, and this cop was that the local accent had declared consonants optional, and demanded that everyone speak at a pace that would probably kill anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line. It took me a second to sort out the cop's question before I answered,

"No, it's nothin' serious." I stole a glance at Monica to ensure that was still the way we were planning to play this game–to avoid alarming the natives and risk blowing the cover that we were actually authorized to be there. "But it would best if we could talk to him right away."

The cop nodded almost too eagerly and nearly hopped around a desk to open the security door for us. He led us down a short hallway and indicated to a door. "Here's the break room, if you wanted to wait in here, Mrs. Doggett. The couch is pretty nasty, but there's TV and some coffee."

Monica and I exchanged quick glances. "She's my partner," I told him, wondering what kind of television shows he was watching where FBI agents brought their wives on cases.

"Special Agent Reyes," she introduced herself through a wry smile.

The poor kid looked like he was about to pass out, but to his credit, he led us the rest of the way to the chief's office looking as all-business as he could while completely red in the face. He didn't wait around to introduce us to the police chief, dashing back up to the front of the station when a phone started to ring. A look at Monica's eyes told me she found the whole incident more amusing than insulting, but to avoid having the same mistake made twice, I let her be the first agent in the door.

*****

Although the police chief had called for us to come in when Monica knocked, he didn't acknowledge us for another few moments. He was speaking to another uniformed cop, a woman in her twenties with a long blonde braid hanging down her back. A radio on top of a filing cabinet, its antenna connected to a wire stapled against the wall in a jagged line all the way to the ceiling, played an oddly familiar country song.

"Well, talk to Martha, see if we can use the church lot for extra parking on Saturday," the chief was saying over the staticky country strains. I wracked my brain for why the song seemed so familiar, sending a memory of smoke and beer and failure rushing to the surface of my thoughts.

"You know she's going to worry that kids are going to act inappropriately in God's parking lot." The blonde cop noted with amusement, casting a curious glance over us as we stood in the doorway.

The chief laughed. "Natalie, you can tell her that Reverend Cordan's yearly sermon on the hellfires awaiting the promiscuous should keep that to a minimum." I felt, rather than saw, Monica raise her eyebrows next to me. That gesture placed the song in my mind as I got an image of her asking, wide-eyed with amusement, whether women in Nashville were particularily unfaithful as Johnny Paycheck warbled "Friend, don't take her she's all I've got..." from the jukebox of a smoky pub in Falls Church. The night of her car accident, when she stopped there on her way to drop me off and I bought her a beer to repay her for driving me home, and to postpone the weekend just an hour longer-

"That's right." Natalie's voice interrupted my reverie. "That's tomorrow's sermon, isn't it? I've been looking forward to hearing it again," the cop jotted a note down on a piece of paper as her boss finally looked over at us.

"Can I help you?" He made to stand up.

"I'm Special Agent Reyes and this Special Agent Doggett. We're with the FBI." Monica took her badge out and held it open. I could hear the edge in her voice daring the police chief to question her position and call her a prank-calling kid again, and fought back a smirk. "We spoke on the phone yesterday."

"Did we?" The chief looked honestly surprised and I could feel Monica bite back a nasty comment. "I'm sorry, we've been so busy here lately."

"About the Piontek murder," she said patiently. "1987. I called to ask for the case report."

Natalie's head jerked up and then she turned back to the chief in confusion. "Bob? Is something going on about the prom?"

He shot her a look that was less than kind and then spoke to Monica. "Case report–there is no case. Not for fifteen years. If somebody called you about it, I'm sure it's a prank." He looked back at Natalie. "Get on that church thing, will you?"

She nodded and, with a long worried glance at the two of us, excused herself from the office.

By this time, Monica had crossed her arms and was giving her best important stare. The police chief sighed long and hard and then indicated the chairs in front of his desk.

"Take a seat, Agents." He leaned over the desk and shook my hand. "Bob Gregg. And I don't know how you found out about this, but I've got to tell you you're wasting your time."

"You don't even know why we're here yet," Monica frowned.

"Let me guess. You're here because the bureau got a call saying that some poor girl is going to get murdered on prom night."

Monica and I exchanged glances.

"We received a tip," she said measuredly, not mentioning that it had arrived on a post-it note.

"Have there been threats?" I asked.

The chief shook his head, giving us an exasperated look usually reserved for unfocused children. "There are never any real threats. Just rumours. This is a small town. People talk. They panic about old ghosts all the time." I noticed for the first time that the chief's regional accent was less pronounced than that of his colleagues.

"I don't know anythin' about Welkin, sir," I started, "but where we come from it's customary to investigate anything which suggests there might be a murder."

"You don't understand this town. This area." The chief sighed and ran a hand over his bald spot. He spoke about his town with a derision uncustomary for most of the small-town cops I encountered. "For example, before Halloween every few years some kid'll get it into his head to skin a few cats and leave them out in the road. The whole county panics that there's some deranged devil worshipper running around and the cat killer's going to sacrifice a virgin on Halloween night. This has been going on for maybe twenty years, and the phone'll ring off the hook in here from people thinking that the devil's coming for their daughters. These are grown men and women, here."

Monica had uncrossed her arms and leaned forward with interest. "Devil worshippers?" I waited on the chief's answer. At least devil worshippers wouldn't be the strangest goblin chase Mulder's files had sent us on.

Chief Gregg literally snorted. "High school kids. Don't get me wrong, the people here aren't stupid. But superstition breeds pretty easy in the hilltowns. Nothing bad is going to happen on prom night, same as nothing bad ever happens on Halloween. People talk. Nothing else to talk about. But if the federal government starts asking questions, people are going to get real spooked out."

"If nothing bad ever happens here, then how do you explain Melissa Piontek?" Monica demanded.

Gregg's face darkened. "That boy Robbie Cooley went insane."

There was a moment of silence before I spoke up. "We're not sayin' that's not what happened, but we have reason to believe that somebody might be in danger here."

"There was another murder in those same woods in the fifties. We're just trying to find the patterns here," Monica explained, using her best reasonable tone.

"And what, the woods are cursed?"

Monica bristled at the chief's mocking tone.

I did my best to smooth the defensiveness out of my tone. As much as I wouldn't buy that the woods were cursed, if that really was the theory Monica presented, I wasn't about to enjoy some stranger insulting my partner. "Nobody said the woods were cursed. If you let us look at the casefiles, we can come to our own conclusions. We promise to stay out of your hair."

Gregg shook his head. "I'm saving you the trouble. There hasn't been a murder anywhere in Berkshire County in over two years. Everybody remembers Melissa and there's always talk around prom time, but this is just like any other town. We've got drunk driving to worry about, and girls drinking too much and losing it to the wrong boy, but nobody's going to go crazy and kill anyone."

"How can you be sure?" Monica asked.

"There are 213 kids in Welkin High, and I know every one of them. You'd be lucky to live in a town this safe. Sorry you had to come all the way out here to find out, but there's nothing here. Take a walk in the mountains, check out the apple orchards, enjoy your day in Welkin–but don't worry the natives for no reason. Unless you know something you haven't told me..." he left the question open. When neither Monica or I could come up with something to fill the silence, he stood up and leaned over the desk again to shake our hands. "Nice meeting you, Agents."

*****

Monica huffed in annoyance as the door of the police station slammed shut behind her. "When was the last time we were actually wanted somewhere?"

"You really think that boy just went crazy?"

Her eyes shone with thought. "What are you suggesting?"

"I mean, I can buy that this guy Gregg just wants to keep things quiet. You don't want to alarm people by saying there are murderers among them. Even that other cop looked pretty freaked out when you mentioned this. But there was something weird about how he mentioned Cooley. I think he knows more than he's giving up."

"He said Cooley went insane, not that he was insane," Monica clarified. "Do you think something happened to him?" We stopped walking once we reached my truck but didn't get in yet.

"What, the local devil worshippers put the whammy on him, same as they do every Halloween to those cat killers?" My look of accusatory disbelief was involuntary.

Monica opened her hands wide in a gesture of innocence. "I didn't say that, John. I don't know what's going on here. Melissa Piontek was the prom queen, the captain of her cheerleading squad, and a good student, according to that Berkshire Herald article from when her body was found. The criminally insane don't usually get dates with that sort of girl." She opened the passenger side door and reached around behind the seat for the right piece of paper. She pulled it out and found the passage with a fingernail she kept short to keep from biting it at every nicotine craving. "Listen, John. Piontek was last seen leaving the prom with Robert Cooley, a senior at Welkin High School, in Cooley's car. Cooley, a three-sport athlete for Welkin, has not yet been located at the time of printing and the police are engaged in full search efforts. Police confirm that Cooley may be a suspect in Piontek's death but say that locating him and ensuring his safety is their primary concern." She looked up at me, waiting for my comment.

"If he was nuts, it doesn't sound like people knew about it at the time."

"So maybe the whammy isn't quite so farfetched." There was an edge of teasing in Monica's tone, but her face was lined with serious concentration.

"Or maybe something else happened to that kid to push him over the edge. If something crazy like somebody else forced him to kill by some psychic or supernatural persuasion," I raised my eyebrows to ask for confirmation of that being what she was suggesting, "the kid would've used an insanity defense, right? 'Judge, it's not my fault, the devil made me do it'? Cooley pled guilty."

"I'm not saying that's what happened," she repeated. "I just think we need to keep an open mind on this thing." That was Monica's way of criticising my stubbornness, and of defending herself when she thought I was coming close to mocking her.

"I'm just tryin' to figure this thing out, same as you," I muttered.

She didn't sigh out loud, but shot me a look of barely contained exasperation. Well, as exasperated as Monica got, anyway, what with the legendary patience which allowed her to put up with me upwards of five days a week. "Well, the only way we're going to shed any light on this at all is to talk to Cooley." She glanced at her watch. "The county prison is less than an hour from here. Shall we?" She held her hand out for the keys. "I'll drive. You can nap this time."

"I can drive if you want."

She smirked, her eyes sparkling with amusement as she snatched the keys. "What, don't want to let the wife drive?"

I started before I remembered the reference. It felt strange to even joke about having anything more than a professional relationship with her. "I can't believe that kid."

She laughed. "I think we scared him half to death." She shook her head with genuine sympathy and then got into the driver's seat. "Are you ready? You can be my copilot if you're not sleeping."

"Yeah." I got in and watched her as she maneuvered my truck out of the parking lot. I had never thought of her as anyone's wife before.

She smiled at me for no reason at all, the way she always seemed to do, as she waited for a car to pass to turn out onto the main road. "What?" she asked, gently probing with her eyes.

I must have been staring. "I was just thinking... whether we should call Scully. Tell her what happened. We promised to keep her updated."

Monica turned back to the road and pulled out, an edge of disappointment in her expression as she searched for a response. What had she wanted me to say? "Maybe we should wait until we actually have something to tell her."

I nodded. "Yeah, okay."

"John?"

"Yeah?"

She paused longer than normal and then shook her head. She offered a halfhearted smile. "It's nothing."

The flash of wistfulness across her features before she returned to concentrating on the winding roads felt like a kick to the chest. I flipped through the New England map book in my glove compartment, letting it keep my gaze to keep from staring at her. I had to snap out of it. She knew what I was thinking, she had to, she always did, and if it was making her uncomfortable or making me uncomfortable it left our minds pretty far from the task at hand. No matter how I felt about her, or how I thought I felt about her, we were partners, and professionals, above all else. I had to find a way to get this under control before it started to affect our working relationship and our skill as agents.

"Where do I turn, John?" she asked. I glanced up for road signs and found our location.

"East Street."

"We're on East Street."

"That's what it says." I showed the map to her as she checked her rearview mirror and slowed to confirm it. "Got to be a misprint, I guess."

"No, here it is." She turned the corner, and turned to me, laughing and shaking her head in delighted disbelief. "So you can go East in more than one direction here... I guess Chief Gregg is right–we really don't understand this town." It would have been a lot easier to keep my mind on the case and not on her if she stopped smiling at me like that.

*****

The county jail was right next to the county mall. Billboards advertising the newest movie releases in the cinema and various sales at Ames and Sears could be seen from the window in the warden's office. The warden, for his part, seemed thoroughly bored with the whole concept of security, and with barely a glance at our badges or even waiting for our explanation of why we wanted to see him, he called for a guard to escort Cooley to an empty room and promised to dig up the files on the various inmates Cooley had scuffled with over the years. Neither Monica or I was about to complain over the first thing to have gone smoothly regarding this entire case.

When the guard brought him in, Cooley looked us both over before speaking. His eyes wandered disapprovingly over Monica's body before he turned his attention to me with a gaze so intense it was startling. I had to shake off the feeling that he was there to interrogate me, rather than the other way around. "Robert Cooley," he introduced himself.

"Special Agent John Doggett. This is my partner, Monica Reyes. Sit down," I indicated a chair.

He was silent and unmoving for a moment, pondering his words. "I prefer to stand."

"Sit," I said again. After a moment, he did.

"How can I be of service, Agents? I must admit, I thought I was done being important to the federal government."

Monica spoke first. "We're here to find out some information."

Cooley directed his response to me. His brown eyes were relentless. "I'm not sure what sort of information you expect from someone who has been behind bars for the last fifteen years."

He wasn't winning any points with me by ignoring my partner, and I decided to cut to the chase. "We hear that there's going to be another murder in Welkin. I'm bettin' you know something about that."

He blinked up at me placidly. "There hasn't been a murder in Welkin in years."

"Fifteen years, to be exact," Monica added.

He stared at her for a moment, refusing to comment.

Although she showed no outward sign of being uncomfortable, I could feel her wanting to squirm under his scrutiny. Her professional mask remained firmly in place, however, and she stared him down. "Maybe one girl wasn't enough for you? But you're stuck in here–so you had to get help from someone on the outside if you're going to kill again."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"You killed your girlfriend," I reminded him. "In a very bloody and unusual way. If that were to happen again, don't think you're beyond suspicion as an accomplice just because you're already locked up."

"I am a servant of God," Cooley responded, interlacing his fingers on the table. His sleeves slid up, and the backs of his forearms were covered in small scars. "I am not a criminal."

"Melissa Piontek might disagree with you on that," Monica snapped, tossing the casefile onto the table, open to the photographs of the girl's body. "So did the judge who sentenced you, apparently. You admitted your crime then. Are you now denying that you killed her?"

"I never denied that." He touched a finger to the photo, lightly tracing a blunt-cut nail over the girl's hair. His features softened for a minute, wistful sadness clouding his eyes, but when he looked back up at eyes his expression was one of satisfaction. "We are in a society rot through with sin when the work of God is called crime."

Frustration rushed through my veins. It was the smirk on his face more than his words that set me off. "Are you saying God told you to murder this girl? Carve up her chest and neck and leave her body in the woods?"

He looked back down at the photograph. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"

Monica placed a hand to my arm, aware even before I was that I was about to burst out yelling. She took a step closer to the table and turned the photograph around, studying it for a moment before looking unflinchingly into Cooley's piercing gaze. "Was this a sacrifice, Robert?"

He literally sneered at her. "The heathen religions demand human sacrifice. Their gods take the form of animals and, like animals, they require blood and meat to feed on."

"Is that what they teach you in your religious studies classes?" Monica asked, her voice cold and eyes even colder. I watched with no small amount of pride as Cooley broke the stare.

"Are you here to ask me about God, Agent Reyes?"

"Fine, let's talk about God. If this wasn't a sacrifice, what was it? You said you were doing God's work–why would God want you to kill an innocent girl?" She sounded like she was truly expecting a rational answer from him, as though he wasn't completely insane.

"I saved her," he replied smugly, like a kid who was sure he had the right answer on a grade school pop quiz. "He wants to save the innocent."

She glanced at me for a moment, as though trying to gauge my reaction to what she was about to say before she said it, and turned back to Cooley. "I have another theory. I think you tried to rape her, but she struggled. So you killed her."

He looked positively insulted and glared at her like she was the most vile thing he'd ever seen. For my part, I was just surprised that her theory didn't involve any devil-worshippers.

"I love her." Cooley spat at Monica. He looked back at me. "I saved her. The devil waits in the shadows, you know. God only takes the innocent."

I'd heard enough. "If you don't tell us what you know, and somethin' happens to another girl in this town, you will be held responsible."

He looked up at me. "I can't tell you anything you don't already know. But God speaks to many." He tossed another derisive glance Monica's way. "And there are some who can still be saved."

*****

"Well, that was productive," Monica sighed as she settled into the truck with a stack of files on her lap.

"He knows something."

"Yeah, he does." Monica brought a hand to her mouth and yawned, something entirely unusual for her to do at any time before 2 a.m.

"There's more going on here than just one fanatically religious kid. But he wasn't all that forthcoming about what's really going on."

"There was definitely something odd about him. So what do we do next?" Monica asked, rubbing her eyes and sounding completely disinterested.

"Hey, you feelin' okay?" I asked, suddenly concerned.

"What? Oh, yeah." She smiled at me and pulled her hands away from her face. "I think I'm just hungry. Do you want to go get dinner before we tackle the files on Cooley's prison buddies?" She picked up the top file and waved it as a visual aid. "I don't think I can focus on this until I get something to eat."

"Yeah. I saw a diner on the way into town–that sound good to you?"

Her tired smile intensified and she nodded. "I could definitely go for some grease right now." She shook her head as though trying to clear it. "And a lot of coke."

"Well, don't fall asleep on me yet, I'm gonna need your help finding my way back to Welkin from here."

Monica's phone rang as we pulled out of the jail parking lot. I glanced over at her phone as it rang. I didn't recognize the number and, from the shrug of Monica's shoulders, she didn't either.

"Monica Reyes. Hello? Wait, can you say that again? The reception's terrible." She spoke louder and louder, twisting the phone and, by extension, her head around to try and get service. When I turned the corner, she relaxed slightly. "You know I'm not," she informed the caller haughtily. "And, no, you can't have Agent Scully's phone number!"

The look I shot her must have been pretty ridiculous, because she snorted out a laugh and mouthed, "Larry."

I turned back to the road in disbelief. I thought I had managed to get her away from him. The angrily posessive tone of my thoughts startled me, and I tried to keep from showing her any sign of what I was thinking. I did my best not to eavesdrop on her conversation, gritting my teeth and staring hard at the road signs tacked to trees we were passing, but it was impossible to focus on anything but her. Maybe this whole Welkin weekend was causing more harm than good -- I felt like I was grasping at straws of sanity whenever I looked at her. It wasn't like coming to Welkin had rid me of Larry, and it certainly didn't look like we were making much headway on this case.

She was nodding absently at whatever Larry was saying, and bursting into giggles every few minutes. The grin which usually forced a reflexive smile onto my own face was more annoying than endearing, probably because I knew it wasn't meant for me. "No!" She paused a moment, rolling her eyes as Larry's voice mumbled from the phone. "I'm on my way to dinner right now. Huh? With Agent Doggett." She yanked the phone away from her to avoid a burst of static I could hear all the way across the cab before tentatively pressing her ear to the phone again. "I'm sorry, there's pretty bad reception up here." She enunciated every word. "Larry! What? I can't talk about it right now." She flashed me an embarrassed smile and then happily returned to her conversation. "How are you working out in D.C.? Really? Do you think you would you want to? Wait, can't hear you, what?"

"Monica," I pointed at an intersection in front of us and slowed down. I knew I was supposed to turn right, but sacrificing the appearance of having a perfect sense of direction seemed like a fair trade-off to get her off the phone. I realized how petty an act it was as I did it, but I couldn't help it. "Where am I turning?"

She shot me an quizzical glance as she pulled out the map. She knew full well what I was doing, but humoured me anyway. She hummed into the phone, stalling Larry, as she found the intersection on the map. "Turn right."

"Yeah, thanks. I thought so."

"I'm sorry, what?" She was speaking into the phone again. Their conversation lasted a few more minutes. She seemed to be asking him about his case, and giving vague, frustrated answers about ours. Either the static was horrendous or she was practically yelling solely for the purpose of grating on my nerves.

"What? No, Larry, I'm sorry... I wish I was there, okay? Hey! That's not fair. You know why I ditched you at the club. Larry..." She started to pout as she spoke. "I'll make it up to you. I promise."

A squirrel ran into the road and I swerved and slammed on the brakes. Monica gasped, and when I looked over at her, her eyes were screwed tightly shut against what I could only imagine were vivid flashbacks of her nearly fatal car accident. Guilt raged alongside all the frustration I had felt before, only made worse by the unconscious rush that my body felt at having done something to halt her conversation and release my aggression. I couldn't believe it. There I was, endangering her life and scaring the hell out of her, and even enjoying it because I couldn't control the adolescent attitudes which had recently decided to reassert themselves.

I swore for a moment, and finally managed to form a coherent question. "Are you okay?"

She opened one eye, and then the other, and nodded. "What was that?" Her voice was shaky, but she was pretending it wasn't.

"Squirrel," I offered, but she was already not listening.

"I'm fine, Larry," she said into the phone, and was answered by another burst of static. "Yeah. Wildlife." She laughed shakily. "The reception's getting kind of unbearable, can I call you back later?" She practically yelled her goodbyes.

There was less than a minute of silence as I stared at the road, daring any other small creatures to leap underneath my tires, before she half-laughed and announced, "That scared the hell out of me."

"I'm sorry." It was starting to feel like all I ever did was apologize to her.

"Hey, it's not your fault. Just... a little shaken up." She shook her head in annoyance. "Ever since... well. I'll get over it." She took a few audibly deep breaths.

"If you'd rather drive-"

"I like it when you drive."

I smiled reassuringly at her as an unexpected warmth came over me. It wasn't like it had to mean anything, of course. Feeling comfortable with me chauffering her around was entirely different than trusting me with her life or any other grand statement that would justify the response I felt to what she said. I felt all of my frustration over Larry and the phone call dissipating as she fiddled fruitlessly with the radio.

"No wonder this place is so weird," she huffed after a moment. "Nothing but NPR, bubble-gum pop and staticky Country and Western. Enough to make you go crazy and find religion like Robert Cooley."

I laughed at her. "There you go, case solved."

She giggled, and I couldn't help feeling better at the proof that I could make her laugh as well as Larry or anybody else could. I resolved to forget about him and enjoy my evening with her. All religious fanatics aside, that was what this weekend was supposed to be about, wasn't it?

*****

 

Joe's Diner looked exactly like any diner in any movie set in small-town America in the middle of the twentieth century. The very fact that it was not a set and was serving actual food in an actual town in 2002 was the amazing part. I looked over at Monica, who seemed completely enthralled by the atmosphere of the place. She pointed to the wall, where a framed reproduction of one of Norman Rockwell's covers for the Saturday Evening Post hung amid autographed photographs from visiting celebrities, politicians, and what appeared to just be ordinary people, certificates for one local award or another, and a bunch of newspaper clippings.

"John, that's this diner. Look." She glanced between the Rockwell painting of a young boy and a policeman sitting and talking with the cook at a diner counter, and the actual diner counter which looked almost exactly the same, right down to the seat covers on the swivelling barstools.

"Are you sure they didn't just set this diner up to look like that one?" I asked. I had seen that painting hanging up in diners all over the country.

She shook her head. "I don't think so."

"One of your feelings?" I couldn't help teasing her.

She rolled her eyes and took a few steps toward the picture, wandering between tables and patrons, probably looking for evidence to back up her claim.

That left me to choose the seats. Ordinarily I would have opted to sit at the counter, to perhaps drop leading questions to the locals there or just because it was faster and easier, but I chose a table looking out on the main drag. I selfishly wanted to keep Monica to myself. I knew that if we sat at the counter, she would be the one chatting up the elderly lady washing dishes on the other side of the counter or the local men in WW2 Veterans ballcaps, and I found I wasn't in the mood to share her.

The drill sergeant in my brain, upon hearing this horrible thought of mine, immediately set to work on me, but I did my best to ignore him. It wasn't like I was doing anything wrong. I just wanted to sit at a table.

With her.

"What do you think you want?" Monica asked as she sat down, making no comment over my choice of seats beyond smirking at the gaudily-coloured juke box behind me. The menu was backlit plastic on the wall above the counter, accented with papers strewn along that entire wall with cartoon drawings of food and prices announcing the daily specials. We mused on the options together for a minute before a middle-aged waitress with a sharp voice and hair that had been permed beyond recognition careened up to our table and started setting down cutlery.

"Where're you two coming in from?" she asked in the local twang, looking us over. I wasn't sure if she knew we weren't locals because no one from this town ever dressed in business suits, or because she knew everyone from this town.

"Washington," Monica replied with a smile.

"Oh. You just passing through, then? Or have you got business here?"

Monica glanced at me with a question in her large brown eyes. I answered for her. "We're just looking into some things."

The waitress's eyes seemed to register realization. "Are you from the government?"

We both nodded. "FBI," Monica added.

The waitress didn't fall to the floor and quake with fear the way that the police chief seemed to think that the local townsfolk would do at such a revelation. "You don't say?" she said instead. "You know, one of the ladies, works at the liquor store," she waved a hand to indicate the direction, "one of her daughters married an FBI agent, I think. Maybe you know him." She turned around and yelled into the kitchen. "Joe!" I wondered if this was the same Joe after which the diner was named. "Do you remember who..." she continued yelling after the identity of the FBI agent she tangentially knew, as Monica and I exchanged glances.

The cook named Joe poked his head out of the kitchen to yell an answer to the waitress, and Monica's eyes grew wide with a childish expression of revelation and delight.

"What?" I asked her.

"That's him, John. From the painting."

"That would've been... fifty years ago, Mon."

The waitress looked down at us triumphantly. "She married Marcus Sabatini. FBI agent," she prompted. "You know him?"

Monica shook her head. The waitress looked a little suspicious, like she doubted it was possible that we could all work for the same organization and yet not know each other.

To her credit, the waitress managed to get us our drinks and fries in record time. She also selected our entrees for us, insisting that Welkin being outside of Philadelphia was not an adequate reason for me not ordering the cheese steak and that Monica needed to order something heartier than clam chowder and salad because "Don't you think she needs to put a little meat on her bones?"

Monica smiled laughingly at my cornered expression when the waitress asked the question, apparently not minding strangers publically scrutinizing her appearance.

After the waitress left to yell our orders into the kitchen and wait on other tables, I was left with nothing to do but stare at Monica as she stared at everything else. Her gaze danced around the diner and the other customers, and outside, between the posters and advertisements tacked to the window, at the early evening light and occasional passing car.

She looked back at me after a moment. "There's something wonderful about this, isn't there?"

I squinted at her. "What do you mean? The diner?"

She shrugged. "Not the diner, specifically. I just... feel like I've gone through a bit of a time warp. Like, by sitting here, we sort of... stepped into Rockwell's America. You know?" She frowned slightly at her reasoning and then shrugged with a laugh, expecting me to dismiss her. "That's got to sound a little ridiculous."

I let her observation hang for a moment before responding. "I was thinkin' the same thing earlier."

"It's quaint," she decided, looking behind me at the newspaper clippings tacked up on the wall. "I like it. It's hard to believe we're here to solve a murder case."

"I never would have figured you'd go for the small-town life."

"I don't know that I could live here. I'd probably go crazy after awhile. But... part of me..." she took a deep breath and let it out with a wistful sigh. "Sometimes I like the idea of getting away from the pace of the city. Not forever. Just..." I watched her feel for her words with interest. She rolled her eyes to break my gaze after a moment. "Larry would never survive out here."

I couldn't help sighing out loud in frustration. His name shouldn't have been enough to make me feel like she had hit me in the chest, but it did. She fixed me with a piercing stare and evidently decided to torture me some more. "It amuses me how much you dislike him," she said.

"I don't-"

"It's okay, John. You don't have to like my friends. Larry's that way with people -- you either love him or you hate him."

"He's... a little much," I conceded. The whole week had been a little much, and Larry was the only obvious catalyst. "Why was he callin' you, anyway?"

Monica ignored the inappropriate possessiveness of the question. "He forgot I was in Massachusetts."

"He forgot?"

"He didn't." She shook her head. "I don't know what his story is -- he doesn't call me for almost a year after I leave New Orleans, and suddenly I'm gone sixteen hours and he feels the need to track me down. Have some fries, John, I don't want them all."

"Why... do you think that is? About Larry? Do you think he's..." my stomach seemed to jump into my throat and I was unable to complete my question. I didn't want Larry to have any interest in my partner, personal or otherwise, but I didn't even want to form the words to suggest that he might suddenly see her as more than a friend. The image of the two of them kissing onstage at the talent show burned itself into the inside of my eyelids and I couldn't shake it loose. It seemed gravely unfair that he had waltzed back into her life for three days and had managed to get that close to her while I hadn't so much as pecked her on the cheek after an entire year. And the worst part was that it was, of course, all my own damned fault.

Monica stared at me with eyebrows upraised, watching my mind race in circles before eventually interrupting. "I guess he just doesn't have any other friends in D.C. If he was at home he would never have the time to even think of calling me. He still lives like a college student."

"Yeah."

"He's thinking of moving to D.C., he said. Agent Corbin might be able to secure him a position. There are some women in the embezzlement office taking maternity, and so, if he wanted to..." she trailed off.

"Because of you?" I asked. I met her eyes and we stared at each other.

After a moment she licked her lips, took a sip of her coke, and answered. "I don't think so."

"You're the only person he knows in D.C."

"It's not like that between us, John." She ate a few fries as I tried to come up with some sort of response. "Do you want to talk about something else?"

"Like work?"

"Is that all we have to talk about?" Her eyes widened teasingly. "We talk about work all week."

It took a moment for me to remember to breathe in again. Dinner at Joe's Diner was beginning to feel less and less like a simple quick bite between casefiles. What else could she want to talk about?

"I don't think we do anything besides work that we can talk about," I pointed out.

She laughed. "Thanks for reminding me."

"Anytime, partner."

"Okay, then." She leaned back in her chair and grinned with an air of amused defeat. "If we didn't work seventy hours a week, what would you want to be doing with your free time?"

"I don't know." I realized I had spent so many years trying to avoid having free time that, if it were forced on me, I honestly didn't know what I would do with it. She looked at me expectantly. I reached for an answer that wouldn't make me look completely pathetic. "I guess it would be fun to buy some old, beat-up car. Play around with it, fix it up."

Monica looked genuinely interested. "How'd you learn to fix cars?"

"I worked in a garage in high school, on weekends. Football coach's brother owned the place, set me up so I could make some money."

I wondered at the expression that crossed her face. It was gone before I could decipher it. "My dad had an old Ford truck he was always messing around with," she said. "I used to sit and watch him for hours."

"He didn't teach you how?"

Monica laughed and her eyes sparkled. "No, he didn't. I didn't really want to learn, I guess. It felt like... his world somehow. I liked watching, because he always looked so happy and relaxed, and I didn't want to wreck it for him."

"The car?"

"Not the car. The fact that this was his space, where he could really be himself without his wife and his kids and his job. I think he really needed that."

"You were a pretty perceptive little kid."

She was quiet then, a slow smile spreading across her face. She seemed content just to watch me for a few moments, and I was more than happy to sit there and wait as I tried to imagine Monica Reyes as a small child, crouched in silence on the floor of her father's garage. Her intuition and wisdom would have been even more startling in someone so young. I was fascinated. I made a mental note to look around for baby pictures the next time I found myself in her apartment.

"I don't even know how to change my own oil," she admitted after a moment, breaking my reverie.

The waitress dropped our dinner plates in front of us. Monica gave her a smile in thanks. After a few bites, she continued her thought. "My dad refused to teach me. It wasn't that he thought it was man's work or anything, he was just insulted by the thought that I wouldn't call him every time!"

I laughed. "He never considered you'd be this far away from home, I take it."

She shook her head. "I think he always kind of knew, but he tried to keep me young as long as possible." She lifted up her fork. "This is really good. How's yours?"

I nodded. "Surprising."

"Pleasant surprises are always good," she acknowledged, popping the food into her mouth with a devillish smirk.

For a brief second I felt like I was being shoved up against a wall at gunpoint, but I shook off the panic and smiled back at her. I could only think of one thing, and it drowned out all the pitiful, frightened voices which resisted it.

I wanted more. Of this. Of her.

She cocked her head to one side and regarded me with an inquisitive expression. "So what kind of car do you want?"

I took a breath to slow my heart down enough to answer her. "My grandfather had an old Buick."

Her eyes widened and she shook her head. "No, no, no. John, you need a muscle car."

"All right, then. You tell me what kind of car I want."

"Well, give me a second." She took a swig of her coke and tossed her hair coquettishly.

I watched her unpolished fingernails tapping the side of the napkin dispenser as she ruminated on my imaginary sports car. I wondered if she was trying to think of a car that she would look especially good in, the way I was. I snickered out loud at the thought.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing. Just... thinking."

"This is weird, huh?" Her nose wrinkled as she asked the question.

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. It's just unusual. Not talking about work while we're on a case."

"Hey, this was your idea," I reminded her.

She nodded. "I know. I didn't say I wasn't happy about it."

"Neither did I."

She blushed lightly and tried to pretend she hadn't. I settled back in my chair and watched her pick at her food, basking in her company and in the lighthearted conversation. Strange as it was, it didn't feel weird at all.

*****

 

"Wait here." Monica commanded before ducking behind a display of old-fashioned teddy bears. I shook my head in disbelief and took a minute to analyze my surroundings. McClelland's drug store was on the other end of Main Street from the diner and securely fixed inside some past decade.

After finishing our dinner, Monica had taken the wheel with the intention of going back to our motel to work through the files we'd received from the prison. We hadn't even gotten to the other end of main street before she'd pulled over with an excited gasp. "John, look!" She'd parked and hopped out of the car before I'd had a chance to question her.

The source of her excitement was an old-fashioned soda fountain visible through the drug store's picture windows. By the time I'd gotten over my surprise enough to follow her into the store, she had been distracted by the racks of toys near the door.

"Monica," I called around the teddy bear rack, sounding puzzled by her decision to roam around a Ma and Pa drug store but really not all that surprised. I didn't mind her periodic diversions from professionalism. Her childish enthusiasm was refreshing. I found myself reaching over to feel the silky fur of the toys, and was caught for a second wishing that I had someone to buy a present like this for, someone who would appreciate it. Gifts like that were reserved for children or, for the sentimental or Hallmark types, girlfriends. Now that William was gone, I didn't have many friends with kids. Come to think of it, I didn't have that many friends without kids, either.

Monica popped out from behind the toys with an impish expression on her face, oblivious to my momentary bout of self-pity. She extended her hands. "I found it," she declared. I examined her offering under her laughing gaze: a toy car, made of tin, mimicking the style of toys from decades past. "Chevy," she announced and added knowingly, "'67 Camaro."

I looked up at her in surprise. "That's pretty impressive coming from someone who can't change her own oil."

"It says so on the tag," she admitted, grabbing my hand and dropping the toy into it. I tried to shake off the feeling which coursed through me at the sensation of warm fingers against mine, and attempted to cover any strange look I might have given her by making a show of flipping over the tag.

"1967 Chevrolet Camaro. Blue." I read off, sounding more critical than I would have hoped in my attempt to keep my voice level.

She frowned. "You don't like it? I think it'd be a good car for you." She leaned over to examine the toy more closely. I could feel her breath on my hand and shivered. "But I'm not exactly an expert, here."

"Hey, Camaros are great cars," I said needlessly, unsure of how she wanted me to respond. It wasn't every day that I went toy shopping in drug stores in lost hilltown villages. It had been a long time since anyone had known me well enough to even try to guess what kind of car I would want.

Monica smiled sympathetically and stood up straight, like she knew exactly how unsettled her proximity sometimes made me. "Is it some sort of Ford loyalty thing?" she asked. "Like, if your friends saw you driving a Chevy you'd never live it down? Mustang or bust, that sort of thing?"

The wide-eyed seriousness with which she asked her question made me crack up laughing. "Maybe. I never thought of it that way."

She snatched the car back, absently petting the top of it with one finger as she spoke as though the car were both furry and alive. "Well, I still like it."

"Maybe you're the one who wants a muscle car."

She tossed a smile over her shoulder as she wandered back to the rack of model cars. I followed her, picked up another toy, and held it out for her inspection.

"What about a '57 Chevy? You can't go wrong with one of those."

"I thought you'd want a convertible."

"Not necessarily."

She pondered it a minute, and her eyes got distant.

"Sort of fits with being at the soda fountain, huh?" I asked.

A grin broke out on her face. "And me without my poodle skirt."

Monica continued examining the toy rack while I tried to picture her in fifties clothes, dressed like a girl out of the Rockwell paintings which were also strewn around the drug store, riding shotgun in an early-model convertible.

"I'm pretty seduced by that decade," she said aloud, tracing her long fingers over the cars. I started, wondering if she'd pulled the thought right from my head. "There's something about the... idealism. You know? The genuine belief that people mean well and that everything will work out okay. I think we've lost that."

"So you'd rather be Mrs. Cleaver than an FBI agent?" I couldn't help asking her. The question itself was mostly a joke, but I was curious about what she thought. Perhaps the sleepy, vintage county we had found ourselves in had lit a spark of nostalgia in her that hadn't been there before. It was also possible that it had always been there and I just hadn't noticed it, that I was too caught up with trying to figure her eccentricities to notice the more commonplace aspects of her personality.

She frowned. "Of course not. Besides, back then, in cars like these, women were mostly hood ornaments in nice dresses." She shrugged and shot a glance at the car. "He's too young for it now, but I think it'd be a nice present for-"

She stopped short and her mouth snapped closed. She met my eyes for barely a second before shrugging again and mumbling, "Never mind."

Neither of us said anything for a few moments as she put the toy car back on the shelf and pretended to look through the rack of plush toys. I considered telling her that I'd been thinking of William, too, to somehow make her feel better for momentarily forgetting that she wasn't going to see him upon our return to D.C. or, most likely, ever again. Everything I wanted to say sounded too shallow and pathetic to voice, so I took a page from Scully's book and changed the subject away from things too uncomfortable to discuss.

"You want a soda or somethin'?"

She smiled and abandoned the toys. "Sounds good."

*****

She was reading my mind again. After ordering herself an ice cream soda, Monica had seemed perfectly content to remain perched on one of the fountain barstools indefinitely, reading the tab sheets tacked up to the mirror behind the counter and eavesdropping on the regulars' conversations. I didn't know if her apparent fascination with everything quaint and Welkin was purely academic curiosity or whether she thought she would garner important information about the case, but I found myself oddly jealous of the random strangers taking her attention away from me on an evening that was perhaps the closest I'd been to a date in years.

This was, of course, why I should never have allowed myself to start thinking of my work partner as anything other than just that. I knew I should have been more interested in the locals' chatter about a bear getting into someone's garage and the local high school baseball scores in the farflung hope of learning something pertinent and important, but all of my energy seemed to be going toward fixating on the last earthly thing I should have been fixating upon.

Just when my inner voices were getting too loud for me to even hear the banal chatter of the other customers, Monica turned to me and took in my frustrated expression with a patient and eerily comprehending glance. "Do you want to walk around main street?"

I was certain she had pulled that idea out of the jumbled thoughts in my brain and had benevolently formed it into a complete sentence just for me.

I choked on my affirmative response just long enough for the woman behind the counter, who had apparently been paying as much attention to us as Monica had been paying attention to her, to tell Monica helpfully, "Nothing's open, you know."

I glanced down at my watch reflexively. I wasn't sure how it had gotten to be past eight-thirty, but it had.

"That's okay," Monica explained. "I just wanted to look. I feel like I've been sitting all day."

"Let me put that into a plastic cup for you, then," the woman said, taking Monica's ice cream soda glass.

As soon as we were outside, Monica inhaled dramatically. "Smell that? Fresh air!" She promptly started to cough.

I couldn't help laughing. "I thought fresh air was supposed to be good for you."

She rolled her eyes at my attempt to squash her delight, covering her mouth through her coughing fit and finally drinking some of her ice cream soda to get her past it. "Just making an observation, Agent Doggett," she informed me primly. She stepped out into the street, which was completely devoid of traffic, and crossed. I followed her obediently.

"This is a genuine five and dime, isn't it?" Monica asked, peering through some storefront windows. She was barely inches away from pressing her nose to the glass like a small child. I leaned against the storefront and watched while she admired whatever bargain bins and candy jars she could make out without light. How she had managed to survive so long in the world without becoming too jaded to appreciate five and dime stores was beyond me. It wasn't like she walked around in a childlike daze of wonder her entire life, but she seemed to have the ability to switch off her professional adult side long enough to remind herself, and me, of why life in our country was wonderful enough for us to keep sacrificing so much in defending it.

It was a moment before I realized that she wasn't looking inside the store anymore, but was instead watching me with a curious expression on her face. It almost looked like she was cataloguing every part of my expression and cross-referencing it through her mental database of Doggettisms so that she would know exactly what I was thinking and feeling.

If she could figure it out, I applauded her. I wasn't sure I would be able to straighten it all out if someone sat me down with a map of my body and brain and tried to explain the mess to me.

She must have given up, because when the staring became prolongued and unnatural, she asked outright, "What are you thinking?"

Random images flashed through my mind as things I could have been thinking about: the way she had looked, asleep on my couch, bathed in sunlight; the way she'd felt in my lap for those three seconds in the talent show; why she was so different with Larry than she was with me; and the expression which had crossed her face just a few minutes earlier in the drug store as she put the toy car back on the shelf.

"You miss William, don't you?" I hadn't intended to ask her about it but, when I thought about it, it was actually the least inappropriate topic on my mind.

She dropped the ice cream soda straw from her mouth and breathed in suddenly before she composed herself and bit down on the straw again. I couldn't tell if her reaction was due to an emotion she was suppressing or simple surprise at my broaching such a silently taboo subject without warning. She indicated with a slight wave of her hand that we should walk, and I slowly strolled down the sidewalk next to her while I waited for her to come up with an answer.

"It's good that he's safe," she finally answered, with more genuine emotion than I would have expected for the party-line response that we were all expected to say and feel if the issue was ever raised. "And that Dana's okay."

"Yeah." I wasn't sure what else I could say. It wasn't really a conversation that could go very far. It wasn't our place to hold opinions on the subject.

"I wish there had been a choice," she added, frowning. I felt a strangled frustration from her -- not the frustration of there not having been a choice, but a frustration of the choice not having been hers to make. She shook her head and then met my eyes in silent apology, apology to both Agent Scully and to me for feeling so strongly about something that she didn't have a right to.

She had never lost a child.

At least, not one of her own.

It was all I could do to keep from actually running backwards away from her. The raw emotion in her that she was skillfully keeping under the surface of her skin seemed to press against my skull, mirroring parts of myself that I wasn't sure I could stand to see in her.

"Dana finished taking down his room," she said with a cough, reminding both of us so clearly of who had the dominion on suffering this time that it almost felt like Scully was walking through downtown Welkin with us.

"Did you help her?"

"Some. She wanted to do it herself. She did really okay with it." With Agent Scully, 'okay' was becoming a relative term, but I wasn't too surprised that she had taken a professional attitude to disassembling her son's nursery room. I had initially expected her to find a new apartment to be away from his leftover handprints, but I had only expected that because of what I would have done, had done, in fact, once upon a time. The way I'd heard it told, Scully's apartment had been the scene of personal disaster more than once during her time there. For awhile I thought that she stayed there because she couldn't stand to be away from the ghosts of her past, that she couldn't leave the apartment, the scene of her son's life and her sister's death, to strangers. I was becoming more and more certain that Scully treated her apartment's pain-filled track record the way she treated her own, with a lot of clinical detachment and a lot of experience in making herself okay with the horrendous. "I brought his things to a shelter for her," Monica added when I didn't say anything.

I wondered for a second whether she had snuck a memento of William out of one of the bags to keep for herself, but quickly dismissed the notion. Her sentimentality had never been attached to objects. She gave the past time spent indulging memories rather than space on her mantle or coffee table. Besides, she would never agree with keeping some toy or a baby onesie as a token when another child could benefit from it.

"You're such a good friend to her," I said.

She shrugged it off. I imagined it would be harder for her to walk around without befriending people rather than investing the incredible amount of time and energy that she did in both Agent Scully and me. Or maybe she was just drawn to the tragic and desperate, and wasn't sure how to get rid of me now that I was neither one, particularily.

"This town is really strange," she commented, her tone of voice light and an obvious transition of the conversation.

"Yeah? How?" 'Strange' was getting persistently less so the longer I worked in our forgotten basement office.

"We've passed three barber shops in a row," she said.

"Better write up an X-File."

She burst out laughing, but I suspected it didn't have much to do with my attempt at wittiness. "Think we should take a picture for Skinner?" she asked, pointing across the street to the third barbershop, called 'Skinner's'.

I laughed as I tried to imagine his reaction to finding that tucked in a future report. The sound of my laughter mixing with my partner's in the otherwise silent evening sent a shiver all through my body.

The shiver reached my brain, begging that I move closer to her, that I take her hand or pull her close and wrap my arms around her to ward off the sudden nighttime chill. I briefly wondered what her reaction would be if I closed the gap between us and grabbed onto her like I considered it a normal way to behave toward her. The small-town street felt almost urgently romantic, deserted except for the occasional car, complete with old-fashioned lampposts and a firehouse with an antique firetruck parked on the lawn.

She sighed aloud, and again I wondered if she had heard my thoughts. Her head tipped back, and I was caught staring at the milky skin of her neck, bright even in the yellow lamplight, before I realized she was actually looking at something.

"There are so many stars here," she murmured.

I took a step toward her and looked up. I could almost feel the heat radiating off her from that distance, and it took a moment to turn my attention from that to the impressive starscape.

I managed a "wow." It had been awhile since I'd taken the time to look at the sky like that. Even living outside of the city like I did, the stars still were never as overwhelming as they were up in the Berkshire hills. Besides, stargazing wasn't an activity people, except maybe poets, tended to indulge in alone.

We were quiet for a minute. I could hear Monica's breathing slow, like she was soaking rural tranquility in through her pores. My heart was racing. Her body heat seemed to soak through my jacket. The seemingly thousands of stars reminded me of being fourteen, of necking clumsily in the way common to those new at it with the girl next door in the bed of my father's truck, of kissing her neck and sneaking fingers up her shirt while she calmly pointed out constellations and asked periodically if I was listening.

I wondered if Monica would let me do that to her.

"Monica," I said to get her attention, fairly sure that I needed to see her face to inspire my next course of action.

"John?" she turned to look at me. She was even closer than I had thought. I felt my body go weak but somehow remained standing. I didn't remember how to do this. I wasn't sure how a grown man was supposed to seduce a woman he'd known for almost ten years into getting into the back of a truck with him to teach him about constellations or just to kiss him back. I had known, at one time, but lack of practice and an unnatural amount of mortal terror were getting in the way.

She did this to me, and I wasn't at all sure how to handle it.

Something in her features caught my attention, and almost instantly the haze was gone. For a second I dismissed the pallor of her skin as the fault of the streetlamps, but then I matched it up with the strangely tired glaze in her eyes I had been seeing all day.

"Monica, are you feeling okay?" The personal space barrier which had been tormenting me all evening suddenly dissipated, and I reached a hand out to touch her cheek.

She was burning up.

For a split second I imagined that she actually leaned into my touch, nuzzling against my hand in the subtlest way possible, and my heart actually stopped. It started again when she pulled a millimetre away with a disappointed look on her face. She sniffled sadly. "I think I'm coming down with something," she admitted.

No wonder I'd been able to feel her body heat a clear foot away.

"Monica, if you weren't feeling well, we didn't have to come to Welkin. You didn't, anyway."

She shook her head, an automatic response to any guilt I was about to manifest. "I'm fine. I've just been burning the candle at both ends all week is all."

"It's freezing out here," I said, placing my hand behind her back, just barely touching her jacket as she moved, to guide her across the street. "Let's get you inside."

*****

"I'm fine, John," Monica insisted, arching an eyebrow over the file she was skimming. She was flushed, sniffling, and wrapped in a motel blanket even after we had cranked up the heat to an unbearable level. "I mean it. Stop looking at me like I'm two steps away from dropping dead."

I frowned at her without apologizing. She had refused to let me go through the prison files on my own, although I offered her escape repeatedly. When we'd first returned to my motel room she'd stripped down to her short-sleeved blouse and had opened all of the windows. Since then she'd shut the windows and wrapped herself in both her coat and mine, as well as a blanket. Her repeated declarations of being fine weren't particularily strong or convincing.

Since she obviously wasn't planning on moving from her crosslegged perch amid the mess of folders at the end of my bed until she decided we were done, I figured my best approach was to speed the process along. "You find anything yet?"

"Nothing useful. Three of these guys are from Eastern Mass. I guess it's possible that Cooley knew them before prison, but I don't really see how." Monica buried her nose thoughtfully in the mass of fabric she was wrapped in.

"Cooley was an athlete. Even if the high school athletic divisions aren't statewide, they could have met at championships."

"Could have..."

"Some of these guys are more than twenty years older than him," I dismissed my own idea. "Maybe there's no connection and they all just looked at him wrong."

"There's more here than that," Monica insisted, employing her trademarked stubborn tone lest I think that there was any way to convince her otherwise.

I sighed aloud and attempted anyway. "Monica, other than these altercations, he's been called a model prisoner, just like he was a model student before he went nuts and murdered his girlfriend. Isn't it more likely that he just has some kind of psychological disorder that makes him unpredictably violent? A kind of violent schizophrenia? He didn't sound completely sane earlier."

Monica raised an eyebrow, looking so eerily like Scully that I took a double-take. "It's not that that's impossible," she said carefully. "But I don't think that's what's happening here."

"Whatever happened to the simplest answer being the correct one?"

She shot me a ridiculous look for a second, and I could almost hear her laughing thought process: What basement division have you been working for the last two years, again? "Hand me that file over there... the Carcieri one," she pointed, ignoring my attempt to appeal to logic. God only knew if, after two years on the X-Files, I would even recognize logic if I ever encountered it again. I dug through the pile and found what she was looking for. She mulled over it a moment as I stood to stretch my legs.

"If you're so sure that I'm crazy, why don't you look through Cooley's file again? See if there's anything in his psych evaluation that we missed."

"I didn't say that you were-"

"This guy's the problem," she announced, interrupting my tired apology. She had opened all the files of the prisoners Cooley had fought with and was looking them over intently. "Look at this, John."

I walked around the bed to stand behind her and look over her shoulder.

"What do you notice?"

She had opened the files to the prisoners' rap sheets. Most of them were repeat offenders. I picked one and started reading aloud, "Grand theft auto, breaking and entering, breaking and entering, vandalism, sexual assault, rape with a dangerous weapon, willful destruction of pro-"

She stopped me from reading by planting her hand over the rest of the words. "All of these men have rape charges, except for one. Does that strike you?"

I scanned over the rest of the sheets. I shrugged. "Rapists and child molesters never have an easy time of it in jail. These guys were probably getting beat on by everyone."

Monica frowned at my explanation. "Did you see the way he reacted today when I accused him of trying to rape Melissa Piontek?"

"What are you saying -- that he's pissed at these guys for managing to go through with rape when he couldn't?"

Monica shrugged. "It's possible."

"Then how do you explain this one other guy? Monica, I think we're just dealing with a violent man, here."

Monica glared at the long list of charges against one of the prisoners. "I don't know," her voice broke strangely as she said it, reminding me that she was sick and I should probably take it easy on her.

I sat down on the bed next to her and picked up the file. "This guy's from Great Barrington. That's only a few miles from here."

She nodded as I spoke, and I had to look away from her fevered face in order to maintain my train of thought. Her tousled hair, hazy expression and flushed cheeks looked far too sexual for me to ignore, even though I knew they were all caused by something far less entertaining than a good roll in the sack.

I refocused my brain on the case and continued my suggestion. "The charges on this guy's sheet go all the way back to his late teens. He might've had juvenile charges before that which are sealed. One of them could have been a rape or a sexual assault charge. This area seems especially prone to gossip -- Cooley could've known about him from the local rumour chain."

Monica nodded and straightened up, obviously trying to force an appearance of alert wakefulness onto herself. "Put all this together with the way that he freaked on us when I said I thought he raped her, and we get an interesting psychological mess." She tried to wave a hand to indicate that there was more to that thought that she couldn't quite formulate, but only succeeded in shaking her blanket loose.

"You're thinking that maybe he did try to rape her... but he felt so guilty that he killed her to erase the evidence of it... and is now taking it out on every other rapist he can find?"

"Guilt is a powerful motivator," Monica acknowledged, shivering miserably and trying to pretend she wasn't. "How does this help us stop the next murder from happening?"

I wrapped the blanket back around Monica's shoulders as I spoke. "What if Mulder didn't know what he was talking about?" I posited, unable to keep the annoyance from my voice. "What if there isn't going to be another murder?"

She smiled a sheepish thank-you as she pulled the blanket tighter. "What about that other murder in Dead Man's Glen from 1957? And it has to be called 'Dead Man's Glen' for a reason."

"Monica, that's not a lot of justification for a case -- the name of a geographical landmark."

"John..." she sighed, wincing. "If I remember correctly, coming out here was at least half your idea."

I swallowed as the image of her and Larry together -- laughing, singing, kissing -- arrived, unwelcome, in my mind. "You want to pack up and leave?" I asked, harsher than I should have. I instantly wanted to take it back when I caught a glimpse of her exhausted features. She was right -- guilt was one hell of a motivator. "Look, you wait here. I'll go get you some Advil or something, okay?"

She nodded and shrugged. "You don't have to. But we do have to come up with a game plan for tomorrow."

"It's not a problem. They've got a vending machine in the lobby."

"There's something weird going on in this town," she said as I went for the door. "We can't just walk away from it."

"I think you've been on the X-Files too long," I informed her. "Thinking there can't possibly be a small town anywhere without a dark, devil-worshipping secret of its own."

I closed the door on the sound of her laughing.

*****

The vending machine in the lobby was out of order, so I ended up going to the gas station across the street and two blocks down. I had left the keys to my truck in the motel room and didn't want to go back for them, since I was fairly sure Monica wouldn't allow me to go to the trouble for something as trivial as Advil. Normally I didn't treat her every sniffle as though it were cause for major alarm, but this time was different. The only reason she wasn't at home in her own bed with her fever-reducing medication of choice was because I hadn't been able to keep my senseless jealousy in check.

I realized as soon as I was outside that Monica was still wrapped in my jacket. I gritted my teeth and cursed into the cold as I jogged to the gas station, enjoying the cold to the extent that I felt like I deserved it. The rational part of my brain which said that Monica would have been just as sick at home -- more sick, likely, since Larry would have continued to tote her around the town like a short-skirted accessory -- was out-shouted by the part of me that was so disgusted over how far my juvenile crush had taken me. I had always accepted the standard rules of law enforcement about not engaging in anything beyond friendship with one's partners as common sense, but I was beginning to see just how sensible it was. I was having trouble even remembering why this case had ever seemed important as every conscious thought was somehow interrupted.

I walked back to the motel instead of jogging, content to let a few more minutes pass before I saw her again. This was getting ridiculous. I could only imagine how disgusting I would become if Larry actually made good on his threat and transferred to D.C. I wasn't sure I could stand to see them together. Was I really so adolescent that I didn't want Monica to have friends of her own? I hated the isolation that the X-Files office had brought to me, but I wore it proudly all the same as a badge of sacrifice and duty. Besides, it wasn't like I had been all that close with the bar buddies I had lost in my battle against Deputy Director Kersh. Losing Monica would be infinitely worse.

It wasn't like I was losing her, though. That was the part I couldn't quite nail down. I might be losing her as a compatriot in isolation, but I wasn't going to lose her as a colleague or as a friend.

I found myself standing outside the motel, shivering against the cold, words running through my head. Colleague. Friend. I wanted more from her. I wanted to give more to her. I wanted as much as it took to keep her next to me and, as terrible as it sounded, I wanted to maintain my position of central importance to her in the face of other friends like Larry. I felt horrible for bringing her to D.C. where she was without friends and hadn't lived since she'd been a student at Quantico over ten years earlier, but at the same time, I'd been happy for myself, happy to have someone like her to share the lonely basement office and the life associated with it. I wanted to stay as important to her as she was to me.

She knew all that. She had to. She was as perceptive as they came, and as forgiving. And somehow she was patient enough to wait for me to organize my demons and to figure out what in the hell it was that I wanted, needed from her. I still didn't know, and I didn't know if what I wanted and needed was something that could legitimately be asked of a person.

I had asked my wife, ex-wife, for forever, and had gotten nine years and a forwarding address.

I shoved my thoughts aside and pushed open the door to my motel room, expecting to find her buried in files and concerned that I'd taken so long.

Instead I found her curled up at the bottom of my bed, sound asleep.

I stood in the doorway, paralyzed, for a moment as I thought over what to do. I didn't want to wake her, but I couldn't exactly leave her where she was, where she was like to fall off the bed if she so much as rolled over.

I picked up the files around her, stacking them neatly on the nightstand. I turned down the blankets and then leaned over her.

"Monica," I said, placing a hand to her cheek to try and wake her.

After a moment she hummed and tried to curl into a tighter ball.

"Come on," I grabbed her shoulders and moved her, still half asleep, up to the top of the bed. She sank into the pillows, curling into a slightly fetal position as I arranged the blankets around her.

"Where's your room key?" I asked her gently, stroking her hair to try and keep her awake enough to answer the question. I was close enough to her to smell her skin and shampoo and I fought down a shudder.

"Mmm..." she mumbled something unintelligible. I knew she hadn't even heard my question. Her breathing was completely rhythmic and I wasn't sure that I'd even woken her at all by moving her. I couldn't fight the shudder that ran unbidden through my whole body as I realized that she somehow subconsciously trusted me enough not to start awake the instant I touched her.

She coughed in her sleep and my hand found its way reflexively to her back, rubbing through the blankets as though I could calm her lungs from the outside. I traced her features with my eyes, entranced by all the subtle pieces of her I had never been close enough to notice before, almost afraid by the posessive way my hand refused to release her completely, but stayed stroking her hair and her back like I had the right to do so.

I wondered what would have happened if she hadn't gotten sick, if I had somehow found the guts to kiss her that night. She would have kissed me back, wouldn't she? I felt my stomach tighten at the thought. Inappropriate fantasies ran rampant through my brain, tempered only by the terrifying image of her getting up the next morning, the next month, the next year and walking away because I hadn't succeeded in becoming what she wanted.

I wasn't used to contending with debilitating fear. I wouldn't even flinch at standoffs with armed perps or, in my current line of work, strange monster-human hybrids with supernatural abilities. Of course, I hadn't exactly put myself in the position to face female rejection in a long time. And this wasn't the same as it was when I was twenty and brazenly convinced that I could find love and companionship anywhere that the marines might send me, that getting rejected by any average blonde or brunette was hardly the end of the world because there were always others. Monica wasn't just an average brunette that I could write off if it didn't work out. The chance that it would all go to hell was far too high, even if I knew how to take the first step toward risking it. I had known that all along, and yet, there was something that made me unable to let it go, that made me want to be the sort of person who could take that risk and have faith that it was still possible that things could work out.

Her eyes fluttered open and met mine, sucking in every wretched thought I'd had all evening.

My heart stopped, and every inch of my body hurt. Kiss her! some part of my brain was screaming, assuring me that no matter how completely inappropriate it was for me to even be sitting there with my fingers entwined in her hair as she slept, she would accept the kiss and kiss me back, breaking it only to tell me how long she'd been waiting for it, how much she wanted me, too, how much she loved me, even...

Her eyes closed and it was as though she had never woken up. Maybe she hadn't ever woken up, had only opened her eyes in her sleep. Maybe I'd imagined the whole thing. Maybe she had woken up, had seen right through me and what I was about to do, and had shut me out as a silent symbol that it wasn't right, that she didn't want it, that she knew I wouldn't be enough to make her happy and wanted to spare me the humiliation of trying to be.

I could barely breathe. I leapt off the bed, my heart pounding in my ears, drowning out my chaotic thoughts, as I gasped for breath like she had held my head underwater instead of quietly ignoring me. My fingers caught in her hair and I accidentally pulled it, but she still didn't open her eyes again. She had to have been faking sleep.

She was saying no.

I couldn't get enough air, and I made for the door blindly. I could get another copy of her room key from the desk and could sleep there. It would have been glaringly inappropriate for me to stay in the same room as her, even across the room on the couch, and I had already done enough inappropriate things to her. God, how long had I been sitting there, playing with her hair, rubbing her back, entertaining fantasies I had no right to entertain? Had she been awake for all that? Why hadn't she stopped me? She had been flirting with me earlier, at dinner and in the drug store, I was sure she had been. That whole thing about the fine romance at the talent show, that I had assumed was a slam at my inability to act -- how did that fit with her pretending to be asleep just when I was getting ready to jump blindly into the abyss?

I leaned against the wall outside of the motel room and forced myself to breathe, to collect myself. If she had been awake for all of that, she had to know what had been running through my head all night and all week. A terrifying thought shot through me that she might not be able to work with me if she thought I was childishly smitten with her and she didn't want me to be. I had to apologize to her, to straighten her out, to make sure that, even if I was childishly smitten with her, it wouldn't impact our working relationship. I couldn't lose her. The thought of it almost made me sick. I wouldn't lose her.

God, what the hell had she done to me? There had been a time when I wasn't reduced to a mass of aimless hormones around her, when she had been just a friend and a partner and I hadn't seen her as a possible vessel to use as an escape from loneliness.

I would get everything under control, and everything would go back to normal and be fine.

I didn't sleep again, but I was getting used to that. We would solve this case, if there even was a case here, and get the hell out of Welkin. Then everything would go back to normal, and be fine.

Or it would all go to hell.

Something had to give.

*****

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because I woke up the next morning to Monica peering through the door connecting our two motel rooms. I lifted my head up from the pillow and blinked at her, confused for a moment over why she was still wearing her clothes from yesterday, hopelessly wrinkled now, and why her suitcase and not mine was next to my bed. A dream which somehow involved her, nudity, and Assistant Director Skinner's office disappeared out of conscious thought, making way for an actual memory of what had taken place the previous evening.

"I must have fallen asleep," she said, looking confused and apologetic. "Did you put the files away, or did I?"

"Uh, I did." I coughed to clear my throat and tried not to be attracted to her disheveled, early-morning appearance. "How are you feeling?"

"Better," she said, rubbing her eyes and yawning. "A bit. Sorry, I don't know what came over me last night."

"Don't have to apologize for being sick," I waved off her apology, since it was much more my place to apologize for what had come over me the night before.

She shrugged, and waved into the room from where she was still standing, mostly hidden by the doorway. "All my stuff's in here. Should we switch back rooms to get ready?"

I nodded assent, still trying to completely wake up, and passed her in the doorway.

"See you in the coffee shop next door in fifteen?" she proposed, and shut the door before I could adequately study her expression. Did she remember me sitting by the edge of her bed, playing with her hair as she slept, trying to talk myself into or out of doing things far more inappropriate than what I was already doing?

I looked around my motel room and tried to shake off my lack of sleep. The files were still stacked on the nightstand. The bedding was in a state of complete disarray, more so than one would expect from an average sleeping person, suggesting that the fever had kept her tossing and turning all night. I didn't allow myself to approach the bed, to touch the sheets even to straighten them, because it seemed somehow far too intimate.

I showered and dressed on autopilot as my brain tried to formulate a way to apologize to her. I owed her that much, not only for what I might have done or wanted to do the night before, but for my erratic behaviour the entire week, for even dragging her out here in the first place.

I remained in a similarily thought-poisoned daze as I waited for her in the coffee shop, pondering how to broach the subject. Somehow, admitting my idiocy and proposing that we just forget about this mock-up of a case and go home seemed far too blunt, and far too likely to inspire questions like, "Yes, John, why have you been running around like a total idiot all week and interfering with my life and generally driving me nuts?" That was the worst-case scenario. While Monica certainly had her moments of giving me the third degree over something or other, I couldn't seriously imagine her grilling me over something as personal as this. During her year on the X-Files she had learned to carefully sidestep taboo topics. Besides, if she was to press the issue, her complicity in my in insanity would have to be revealed. It wasn't like she was going out of her way to dissuade me from falling for her. At every turn she seemed to be standing there, offering, comforting, teasing.

"John?" Her voice and a hand on my shoulder came from behind me. I almost jumped out of my skin, and covered my nervousness by handing her the cup of coffee and buttered bagel I'd gotten for her.

"Thanks," she said, taking them, leading me over to a table. "So, what's our game plan for today? We still have the newspaper archives to look over, to see if there's any information on the '57 murder."

"Look, Monica... maybe we should just give up and go home."

She looked at me like I'd grown another head. "What? Why?"

"We came out here on very little evidence, and we haven't really gotten any more to go on since we got here."

"We've been trying to retrace Mulder's mental leaps. That's not the easiest thing in the world to do," she said through her bagel. "But we should at least exhaust all of our possibilities first, right? We haven't even been to the scene of the crime."

"The crime occurred fifteen years ago, and the glen isn't even on the map. I checked. There won't be much there," my arguments sounded lame and unconvincing, and I knew it. We had driven seven hours and now I was balking at the possibility of driving another fifteen minutes to see the crime scene without any clear reason. I sighed. "We just wasted a weekend chasing a lead that might never have existed. Maybe that post-it note belonged to some other file and just accidentally landed there."

"We've been through this."

"Look, I'm sorry, okay?" I didn't sound sorry. I sounded angry, but she looked more confused than hurt. "I dragged you out here for no reason. You've got stuff to do in D.C. You've got Larry visiting, and-"

Monica took a sip of her coffee, made a horrible face, and interrupted me. "I think you need to forget about Larry for a second. And you didn't drag me anywhere, John-" she looked back down at her coffee cup. "Did you put salt in this?"

"What?"

She burst out laughing and grabbed my black coffee from in front of me, gulping it down to erase the taste of her obviously tainted coffee. "God, that's terrible. Were there salt packets instead of sugar packets, or what?"

"Black, with sugar... that's what you drink, right?" I dipped a finger into her coffee and tried it. She was right. Salt. I would laugh if I didn't already feel that I had wrecked her entire weekend, and now her coffee on top of it. "God, Monica, I'm sorry-"

She waved it off, still laughing, her features open and captivating. "Doesn't matter. You must've been pretty distracted... maybe you're coming down with whatever I have." She leaned over the table and touched the back of her fingers to my forehead.

"Oh, that's great, the one with the fever trying to take my temperature..." I mumbled in protest to try and excuse the fact that my skin could probably ignite paper where she touched it, but not from any medical fever. I wanted to grab her hand away from my face and pull her out of her chair, toward me, to drag her back to that motel room with the already messy bedding and take out my frustrations on her body instead of my tired mind.

Well, that was exactly the opposite of what I had intended for that morning. It appeared that no amount of stern thinking could dissuade my body and brain from reacting to her presence. I felt like a kid. She didn't understand it, but we had to get out of this town, back to civilization, to Dana, to Larry, to Assistant Director Skinner, to everyone and everything that would intervene and remind us -- me, particularily -- of exactly how unfortunate this little crush of mine was.

"Excuse me?" a voice, with a local accent, interrupted me before I could voice my desperation for escape from Welkin aloud. We both looked up to see a vaguely familiar face, a young woman with long blonde hair dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and what looked to be a well-worn high school team jacket with a large W emblazoned on the chest. "You're the FBI agents, right?"

I nodded as Monica introduced us. "I'm Agent Reyes, this is my partner, Agent Doggett."

"I saw you yesterday at the police station." She pulled a police badge out of her jacket pocket. "I'm Natalie Linden."

"Sit down," I stood up slightly as she sat down to join us, habits drilled into me by my mother before the age of five dying hard. Monica noticed, and smirked behind the unsalted coffee she'd confiscated from me.

"Thanks," Linden said. "I need to talk to you about your investigation."

"Did Chief Gregg send you here to tell us to leave it alone?" I asked.

Linden shook her head. "He doesn't know I came to see you. It's my day off. My aunt runs the motel, said you were staying there... I figured you'd come here for breakfast." She cleared her throat. "I know Bob Gregg told you two to leave it alone, but I've got to know. Is something going on with the prom?"

Monica and I exchanged glances. She leaned an inch forward and spoke to Linden. "We've been told that there's nothing going on here. Do you know something different?"

"Bob's from Springfield," Linden explained. "He doesn't understand how it is around here."

"And how is it around here, Natalie?" Monica pressed.

"He thinks we're all just superstitious country hicks. And you probably do, too, and that's fine, but if there's some concern about it happening again, I need to know. I've got a sister in high school this year."

"If what's happening again?" I interrupted her.

"The murders in Dead Man's Glen." The local cop spoke under her breath, ensuring that no one else in the coffee shop could hear her. "If there's going to be another Robbie Cooley, we have to do something about it. We've got to cancel the prom."

"You said 'murders,'" I could almost see Monica's ears perking up as she spoke. "Was Melissa Piontek not the only one to die there? We heard about another murder in 1957... were there others?"

"There are stories about those woods. A lot of it's just legend, but some of it's for real -- Melissa wasn't the only one to die there." She looked back and forth at our expressions. "You've got to think I'm nuts."

"You'd be surprised the kinds of crazy things my partner and I have heard," Monica said gently, half-smiling at me. I forced my gaze away from her smile to avoid being hopelessly caught in it. "What are these stories about?"

Linden paused another moment and glanced around the coffee shop. "There's a bit of a rural legend. About a curse."

I tried not to, but I must have sighed out loud, because Monica shot me a warning look.

"A curse... on Dead Man's Glen?" she asked.

Linden nodded. "I know, there's a thousand stories just like it in every other American town. Except this one... kills people."

"Like Melissa Piontek," Monica concluded. "Are you saying that Cooley didn't really kill her?"

Linden looked at me, sizing me up, like she knew I was going to tear apart every word she said the moment Monica and I were alone. "Nobody here would say that. Most people think he was a copycat -- that he used the old legend and Dead Man's Glen because he wanted to scare people, or to feel like it wasn't his fault that he did it. But some of us... think that it really wasn't really his fault and that something else might have made him do it. They say he was completely different after he killed her, like he just flipped his lid and became somebody else." Linden cleared her throat. I glanced over at Monica, who looked just about ready to leap out of her chair at the possibility of genuine paranormality in this case. When she felt my eyes on her, she gave me a See!? look, before turning back to the young officer.

"Will you take us to Dead Man's Glen?"

Linden nodded and stood up. She shot Monica a pointed look. "You might want to change your shoes."

*****

"John, pay attention, she's turning," Monica said from the passenger seat, pointing up ahead at Natalie Linden's Civic.

"I'm just saying that we should take what she says with a grain of salt," I continued with my argument as we wound down Berkshire backwoods. We had both changed into jeans and sneakers. If we hadn't spent the entire car trip arguing, I would have pointed out that at least we were going to get some hiking in on our working weekend.

"Why, because she's a superstitious country hick?" Monica's voice was teasing, but her question was at least partly serious.

"No, because she's blaming the murder of a teenage girl on an ancient curse that her parents probably told her about to keep her from wanderin' off into the woods at night."

Monica huffed and paid more attention than necessary to the movements of Linden's car. Her patience for my stubbornness was considerably thinner than usual. "John, you're acting like I actually want there to be some sort of murdering curse here. I just want to figure out what's going on, the same as you. But I'm not going to ignore this woman just because she's talking like an X-File."

"Monica..." I sighed and turned down another road. "Curses don't kill people. People kill people."

"Ha ha," she retorted. I wondered if her sickness was taxing her usual diplomatic nature, or whether she was just thoroughly fed up with me.

"I'm not tryin' to be funny. I'm tryin' to make a point. Mulder might've thought there was something paranormal happenin' out here, but a flesh and blood man killed Melissa Piontek. You met him."

Ahead of me, Linden had pulled her car into a deserted parking area next to a bridge. I parked next to her. Monica opened her door but didn't get out.

I gave her a questioning glance.

"Just... do me a favour, will you?"

"I know, I know. Try to keep an open mind."

She nodded tiredly at me. "And try not to make this woman feel like too much of an idiot? She's trying to help us, John."

"Unless Police Chief Gregg sent her out here to teach us a lesson. Agents Doggett and Reyes go back to Washington and say that ghosts want to destroy the Welkin prom. Big laugh on the FBI agents, and Gregg makes sure he never sees either of us again."

Monica got out of the truck without answering. She turned around and brushed her hair out of her face with a slightly wry smile. "You really have been working the X-Files detail too long. You don't trust anyone anymore."

Before I could come up with an appropriate retort, Linden called us over. I took in the scene in a few glances -- an old-fashioned footbridge over a slightly toxic-smelling river that was rushing past with the water of recently melted snow, and, across the river, a thickly green forest. I saw a few no-fishing, no-drinking, no-swimming advisories stuck along the bank of the river, and a metal sign embedded in the bridge, probably declaring it a historic monument of some kind. I made a mental note to check over the text when we passed it, in case it read something to the effect of 'this bridge, a historic monument from the late 19th century, is considered cursed by locals and certain imaginative FBI agents.'

"Is this it?" I asked as we reached her.

"Dead Man's Glen? No, we've still got to walk a ways." She started across the bridge, and Monica and I followed her. I checked the historic monument sign as we passed it, but found no mention of curses. On the other side of the bridge were two sets of railroad tracks, one of which looked in a state of rather permanent decay.

"You still haven't told me what you know," Linden pointed out as we crossed the tracks. "About what set you two off to come to Welkin."

"We received a tip," Monica said carefully.

"Like a threat? From somebody local?"

"Another FBI agent asked us to check this out," Monica continued, as though the tip had been given to us in any sort of orthodox manner.

"Why isn't this glen on any of the local maps?" I asked as distraction as we started down a trail into the woods.

"It's on the old ones," Linden said. "They blocked off the trail about nine years ago, after some cave-ins. Some people came from Parks and Rec, and decided that the whole area's too unstable to have tourists and kids running around in."

"Cave-ins? Are there a lot of earthquakes in this area?" Monica looked confused, and I didn't blame her. I didn't exactly make a passtime out of watching the Weather Channel, but I'd never heard of a major earthquake striking Western Massachusetts.

"Maybe every ten years there'll be a quake somewhere that's strong enough to rattle some dishes in the Berkshires, but that's not why we get cave-ins. Most people blame erosion, or trees that are next to the rocks and push them out of alignment as they grow, and then get struck by lightning and fall."

Linden stepped off from the path and started to crawl over a bunch of fell trees which had been dragged to the right side of the trail. The path continued up to the left.

"There's a lookout up there," Linden offered without being asked for an explanation. "People still hike up that way. They blocked off the trail to the glen and took down most of the markers. There are still some paint spots on trees, but that's about it."

I did my best to pick my way over the logs, and offered a hand to Monica, more as an automatic gesture than because I was doing overwhelmingly better than she was at getting over the obstacle. She shook her head at me, needing both her hands to balance herself.

"Sorry 'bout the logs. It's either that or fighting your way through pricker bushes," Linden said as she helped both of us over the last of them. She continued to walk along what might have been a seriously overgrown trail, or might have been just a random path she was carving around trees, through ferns and decomposing leaves.

Monica walked, staring up and all around her, only glancing down at her feet to ensure that she wouldn't trip over anything. She seemed oddly entranced by the locale. I saw a visible change in her, like the vibrant greens and the elusive wildlife looked different to her than it did to me. Not that I couldn't appreciate it. The trail became clearer the farther in we walked, and the sides of the ravine began to slope dramatically upward around us. The place deserved to be on postcards.

"It's kind of amazing, isn't it?" I asked Monica, for something to say as we'd been quiet for so long. She seemed a lot calmer than she had in the truck and I wanted to reach her before I did something else to upset her again.

She nodded.

I noted a reflective patch stapled onto one of the trees. "Officer Linden," I called. She looked over her shoulder. "Do people still hike here?"

"Sure," she nodded. "All the locals know the way around. We used to come up here all the time as kids and camp out in the caves. Some of us still camp out here."

"Even with the curse?" Monica inquired, more joking than serious.

Linden laughed. "That's why we used to camp out here. We'd sit around and tell ghost stories all night. Whenever the older kids'd take the younger kids, we'd tell them that the ghost of Reverend Charles would get them as soon as they fell asleep."

We made our way over and under a few large trees that had fallen across the path. I started to notice large rocks embedded in the sides of the ravine. There were more up ahead of us. I assumed we were getting close.

"Who's Reverend Charles?" I asked.

Suddenly I heard a gasp behind me and whirled around in time to see Monica drop to the ground like a stone.

"Monica!" I reached for her, but she waved me away with one hand. Her other hand was pressed to her head, although I didn't see anything she could have hit it on.

"Did she trip?" Linden asked.

Again I reached for her, and this time she didn't resist. I pulled her to sitting and touched her face until she opened her eyes. She gripped my arms for support. "Monica, what happened? Are you okay?"

Her breathing began to slow, but her fingernails still dug into my skin. "There's something here, John," she made out between gritted teeth.

I felt her forehead to see if her fever had spiked but she brushed my hand away forcefully, and tried to pull herself to standing using me for leverage. "I can feel it," she insisted.

"What do you mean? Monica-" I stopped as I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. There was something familiar in her tone. It was the voice she used whenever she claimed she was sensing energies, getting new-age feelings about the auras of things or whatever it was. I had never seen her drop to the floor before with one of them before, but the ground we were on was uneven and there was an obvious explanation besides.

"You have a fever," I told her as I helped haul her to standing. "I'll take you back to the truck."

"No." Her eyes flashed, but she didn't shake me off. "There's something here."

I looked helplessly at Linden, who was staring at us like Monica had just descended from another planet.

"I'm fine," Monica finally said, switching her grip on my arm so that it looked more casual and less deadly. "I just wasn't... expecting that."

"Do you want to go back?" Linden asked. "I've got a first-aid kit in my car I can get... did you twist something?"

Monica took several steps forward, pulling me along with her since I wasn't about to release her just yet. "I'm fine." She gave me a meaningful look, which I suspected would eventually lead to a theory I wasn't going to like. "I want to see exactly where the murders happened."

*****

"Here it is," Linden pointed down from the top of a pile of large rocks and live tree roots before sliding down, crabwalk-style, to the open space of dirt below that she claimed was the site of Melissa Piontek's untimely death. "Careful, rocks are loose."

I continued to hover near Monica as we made our way down, and she didn't resist my protective distance. The path had gotten almost completely lost amid the rocks and the overgrowth. Monica scaled the obstacles well enough, although she looked exhausted. I was the one who had nearly tripped three times as I tried to constantly make myself ready to catch her should she slip.

"This is where they found the body?" I asked for clarification.

Linden nodded. "Well, that's the way the story goes, anyway. I was only ten when it happened."

I nodded and examined the ground and the surrounding area, as though some clue would have survived fifteen years out in the open. I caught sight of some overhanging rocks marking the opening to a cave. We had passed a number of small caves, and there seemed to be more embedded higher up in the ravine walls.

"This, and a spot a bit farther on," Linden pointed, "is the main camping area of the glen. It's one of the few places to get good ground to pitch tents in. Of course, most people will just sleep in the caves."

"Like this one?" I pointed, walking closer to the opening and looking in.

When I looked back, Linden was blushing. "Yeah, like that one. That one's known as Lover's Cave."

"And why's that?" I asked. If Piontek had been killed directly outside of the cave, it certainly seemed likely that this had been Cooley's intended destination. I catalogued the probable course of events as I ducked under the overhang and started to explore the mouth of the cave. Cooley had probably brought her here as a good place to take a girl after the prom, a place made romantic by local lore and one where they could fool around without the scrutiny of parents and without the money necessary for a motel room. And, if he had intended to rape her, it was a place where no one could overhear a struggle.

I felt Linden following me. A few yards through the opening, the cave floor sloped sharply and it appeared to dead-end, but on closer inspection, there was a passageway in between the rocks, maybe four feet wide. After that, the cave opened up into a good-sized room. Tree roots were gnarled around the rocks of the walls and the ceiling. The cave was cold, and I rubbed frost off the nearest wall with my fingers.

"That'll dry out pretty soon," Linden offered, "but there's ice in the deeper caves year-round."

As my eyes adjusted to the limited light of the place, I noticed names and dates written all over the rocks and initials carved into tree roots. Junk littered the edges of the cave, including empty beer bottles and spent candle ends. I flicked on my flashlight and saw that the rock had a reddish tint that I hadn't noticed in the other rocks of the area. I pointed to it. "This why this's the Lover's Cave? The colour?"

Linden laughed. "The blood of Mary Elizabeth?"

I turned to see whether Monica was enjoying what was sounding more and more like an old-fashioned ghost story, but Monica hadn't followed us into the cave. Without explaining myself to the local cop I left the cave to look for my partner.

She wasn't far. She was sitting on a fallen log, squinting up at a giant tree stretching out from the top of Lover's Cave.

"Monica? You feelin' okay?" I asked her, worrying about the trek back over all the trees and rocks. There'd be no way for me to carry her if she couldn't walk herself.

"Yeah, I was just..." Monica stood up and frowned. "I don't know what I was doing. Sorry. I thought I..."

"There's something strange here," I thought aloud once I realized she was both okay and rambling.

She cast me a look that was somewhere between hopeful and guarded, as though she couldn't tell if I was mocking her or about to corroborate whatever weird vibes she was picking up about the place. "You feel it too?"

"No," I quickly waved away her insinuation. "But I was thinkin'. The terrain getting here's pretty rough. There's no way Cooley could have dragged Melissa Piontek out here on his own. He either had an accomplice, or she came willingly."

"You think he had help?" Linden repeated dumbly, her eyes ridiculously wide.

"I don't know. Nobody's let me near the police record," I had to point out bitterly. "There wasn't anything about it in the FBI file, but it's just common sense. It wouldn't be easy to force someone all this way without causing injuries that weren't reported in the autopsy."

"So you think she was drugged, and he had friends help him carry her out here?" Linden looked skeptical. "Nobody ever came forward about that."

"I'm pretty sure the tox screen was negative. Just alcohol in her blood, and not enough of that to seriously incapacitate a person." Monica squinted as she recalled the information in the file. "But I guess that it might have affected her more severely if she wasn't used to drinking, which is possible at that age. I can check when we get back to the motel, but I'm pretty sure."

Linden crossed her arms. "If he had an accomplice who was never caught, that would explain your concern about something happening now... but I have a hard time believing we could have an accessory to murder living in our midst for fifteen years without knowing about it."

"Maybe she wasn't supposed to actually die," I suggested. "Maybe... I don't know. You said there's some ghost story thing, Mary Elizabeth, Reverend Charles... right? Maybe a bunch of Cooley's football buddies grab the prom queen, drag her up here, plannin' to scare the hell out of her so when they rape her she thinks it's this ghost doing it."

Monica's eyes lit up. "Amateur secret societies will sometimes do things like that as sacrificial rituals. They don't intend to kill their victim, but just to shed their blood in a specific way or in a specific place. Very often these rituals do have sexual components."

"People around here don't do stuff like that," Linden insisted, looking duly disgusted by Monica's suggestion.

Monica ignored Linden's expression and spoke to me. "So you think that whatever they were doing out here with her got out of hand and Cooley accidentally killed her."

I nodded. "And he snaps. She's last seen getting into his car, and he's the one who flees the state after it happens, he's the obvious perpetrator so they put all their efforts into finding him rather than investigating further. Maybe nobody bothered to check to see if there were accomplices. Or maybe they didn't want to implicate more people than they had to, Welkin protectin' their own."

"His guilt over the accident made him confess," Monica added, staring back up at the tree and looking oddly unconvinced, even as what she said made sense. "And the oath he took to this society kept him from turning anyone else in."

"You think that people in this town are cultists?" Linden demanded, both insulted and terrified. "My husband works with people who were on the football team the same time as Robbie Cooley. I know them. Maybe that kind of stuff can happen in places where people don't know each other," her tone was derisive, "but I can't believe no one would have come forward. People don't have secrets in this county. My husband brought me up here for our anniversary last year, and the whole town knew within a week. Something as messed up as what you're suggesting just couldn't go unnoticed here."

"I wouldn't put together a witch hunt just yet," I advised. "But hear Agent Reyes out."

"If the rituals of the group involve this locale, it probably has its origins in the ghost story you mentioned," Monica said. "Can you tell us more about it?"

Linden sighed helplessly and sat down on the fallen log. "I'm not sure how much of it is true. It's just a story." Monica nodded, and Linden sighed again before continuing. "The story goes that three hundred years ago, the minister of the local church was a holy man with great power and influence in the community." She blushed like she thought we were going to burst into hysterical laughter, but when we didn't, she continued. "Basically, he ran a tight ship. People who disobeyed any sort of Christian law, even to the smallest extent, were either flogged publically or cast out of the town, depending on who tells the story. The whole Puritan thing, except more so, if you can imagine that. Reverend Charles was supposed to be able to magically see into people's homes to find out whether people were shirking their Christian duties and would call them out for it. The whole town lived in fear of him."

"I can imagine," Monica murmured. Her expression was professional, as though she were taking mental notes on this Reverend Charles like he was an actual suspect in our case, but I could see by her eyes that the story had her enthralled. I decided to ask her later on whether her interest in the occult stemmed from a childhood obsession with ghost stories.

"Some people tell the story that he was actually a black magician and in league with the devil, and that was how he got the powers that he had. Other people say that he wasn't a devil worshipper at all, but was just a very powerful Christian man who studied the texts and got enough wisdom from them to know what everyone was doing. And then he fell in love with a girl."

"Mary Elizabeth," I prompted.

"Yeah. Apparently he fell in love with her as he baptized her -- I know, it's kind of freaky, but that sort of thing happens a lot in these old stories, so I guess it was pretty common. And he was all in love with her for the next fifteen years and used all of his powers to watch her her entire life, but for some reason he never asked her father for her hand in marriage. Some people tell the story that she loved him too, and they had this fine, chaste romance until her father promised her to somebody else, to be wed on her fifteenth birthday." Linden paused and looked at both of us. "Is this really going to help with the case?"

"I don't know yet. Go on," Monica encouraged.

"Well, Reverend Charles performed the wedding ceremony and it was like nothing was wrong. But that night, Mary Elizabeth disappeared out of her new husband's bed before he could have his way with her, as if by magic. Reverend Charles had stolen her, and he brought her up here to the glen." Linden paused, and I realized she was doing it for dramatic tension. "And he killed her."

"Why?" Monica asked, sounding more indignant than I would have expected, since the people were both long-dead and, likely, completely fictional.

"The story goes that he couldn't stand to have her be with anyone else, so he murdered her, right in that cave." She pointed to the Lover's Cave. "That's why the walls are red, because he spilled innocent blood. They didn't catch him for years. Everyone was afraid of him, and no one else ever came up here. Her husband was hanged for murdering her. Years later, Mary Elizabeth's brother found her body in the cave, and he led the men of the town to seize Reverend Charles and lynch him right where he had killed her." Linden trailed a finger up slowly until she was pointing at the large tree above the cave. "Right here. Story goes they left him hanging up there, 'til one day they came back and the body was gone. No bones, nothing. Just the rope they'd hanged him with and the cross from around his neck lying on the ground under the tree."

I felt a chill run down my spine and mentally berated myself for allowing a ghost story to get to me. It was hardly the spookiest thing I'd encountered in the last two years.

"Is that why they call it Dead Man's Glen?" Monica guessed.

"Yeah. My dad used to scare us by saying that he was such a powerful magician that he couldn't really die, and that he still haunts the place. That all the cave-ins are his spirit trying to uproot his lynching-tree." She laughed. "More interesting than erosion, anyway. And we all believed it for years."

"Maybe some people still believe it," Monica intoned, and I wasn't sure if she was trying to add to the story or actually making a point. "If we've got people trying to re-enact some of the story." She stood up. "I want to get to the newspaper archives before it gets too late, to find anything they have on the '57 murder, or anything else that ever happened up here."

I pulled her to standing, and we started walking back. On impulse, I asked Linden another question. "Does the phrase 'murder will out' mean anything to you?"

She blinked at me in surprise. "Sure. It's a thing we used to say whenever we camped up here... warning the ghost of Reverend Charles away from us, because Mary Elizabeth's brother caught up with him, and if he did anything to us he'd get caught. I don't know, it's part of the tradition. Pretty silly, really." Linden started walking in the wrong direction and then pointed to the far side of Lover's Cave. I followed her, and saw that Murder Will Out had been spray-painted in large red letters on the cave wall, slowly fading out.

"I guess it's a good thing to know if you're ever up here at night," Linden said it like she was joking and started walking back the way we came.

*****

 

Monica waved as she pulled up in my truck, twenty minutes after she'd said she would arrive to get me from the archive building of the Berkshire Herald. I'd wandered around the parking lot until I managed to get cell phone reception to call her, but her phone was busy. I spent the rest of the time trying to convince myself that she hadn't just lost track of time gabbing on the phone with Larry. At least she wasn't doing it in front of me this time.

"I was wonderin' how long you were gonna leave me waitin' here," I said as she stopped the truck and leaned over to open the passenger side door. After parting ways with Linden, with her promising to do her best to obtain copies of the case reports but doubting that she'd be able to get away with it under her boss, Monica and I had spent a good half-hour sweet-talking our way into the newspaper archive. Although Monica had already spoken to her contact, the social columnist who had written the blurb on the Welkin prom, the young woman had now decided that our entrance to the archive was contingent on our answering a plethora of leading questions. She hounded us like a shriller version of Lois Lane until Monica promised to mention her help in our FBI report if she would go and pull files for us from a different room.

I had sent Monica back to the motel for a nap after a few boring hours of digging through hard copies, computer copies, and microfiches for any reference to Dead Man's Glen or cult activity in the local area. She hadn't even put up much of a fight when I'd suggested it, and I figured that the boring work was the least I could do after getting her involved in this case. At least there was more of a case than I'd anticipated -- although we had little more to go on than speculation, ghost stories and old newspaper articles, it was more than we'd had that morning.

"I was talking to Scully," Monica excused her lateness with a pointed look.

"Dammit!" I cursed as I arranged the newspaper photocopies on my lap. Monica pulled out into what passed for traffic in Berkshire County. "I forgot about Scully. We were supposed to call her last night, right?"

"It's okay," Monica waved a hand. "I told her you had other things on your mind."

And she had done it again. I was paralyzed thinking of what she might have told Scully about my behaviour on the trip. I wondered exactly how obvious my internal thoughts were to Monica, whether it looked like I had subtitles running across my face whenever I spoke to her -- I don't know what to do about you. You've got me so twisted around I can't think straight. I don't know whether to grab you or run away screaming. And I'm completely fucking helpless.

She answered my mind-reading question by answering my unspoken concern about what she'd told Scully. "About the case, John. How we've been working on it."

"Oh, yeah." My throat sounded dry.

"Once I convinced her that we hadn't been eaten by chupacabras or abducted by aliens, she forgave us for not calling. I think she's used to it, after Mulder."

"Probably." Mulder and I had grown a bridge of respect between us, but it was thin and liable to snap if we continued to talk about everything he'd put Agent Scully through in the last nine years.

Monica avoided that conversation. "I told Scully about everything that happened today in the woods."

"About what Linden told us? And about the cult theory?"

She made the face which told me that I wasn't going to like what she was about to say, but that she was going to say it anyway and then get frustrated with me for not liking it. "We're not so sure that it is a cult."

"What, so we're back to thinkin' that Cooley did this on his own?"

"Well, no... not that either." She was still making that face. "We figured out where Mulder heard about this. Scully leafed through some of his reference library while she was on the phone with me and found a picture of Lover's Cave, Murder Will Out graffiti and all. That's probably where Mulder picked up the phrase, and probably why he was interested in this case in the first place."

"Okay, so that explains that. What's that got to do with us?"

"It was a book on ghost activity in New England."

"So it's got the Reverend Charles story in it, then?"

"Yes... and eyewitness accounts of supernatural phenomena taking place in Dead Man's Glen. More than just the cave-ins. Campers who wake up and find that all of their things have been moved. People hearing voices. One hiker reported that he heard what sounded like a young girl screaming, but he went into the cave, no one was there. Two people even claim to have seen him, swinging by the neck from that tree."

I forced out an exasperated sigh. "But, Monica... that stuff's got a thousand other explanations. Those people who go out to places like Dead Man's Glen are looking for supernatural phenomena. They hear a bird and think the ghost of a young girl is gettin' her throat slit. It's dark and a branch swings the wrong way and they think a man's hangin' by the neck. Power of suggestion, Monica."

"A lot of people have died up there. Is that power of suggestion, too?"

We had slowed to twenty-five miles an hour as we got stuck behind a tractor on the two-lane highway with double yellow lines. Being reduced to a crawl wasn't helping our argument any. "Fine. What do you and Scully think is going on here?"

"The glen is cursed. The ghost -- or whatever it is -- helps murder these women."

"Helps?"

"There may be some sort of supernatural posession at work, whether as part of a cult ritual or perhaps working on an individual. In posession cases, the person who is posessed sometimes gains temporary superhuman strength, which would explain how Cooley got Melissa Piontek to the glen. The effects of such posession are understandably quite damaging, psychologically, and would explain his sudden descent into insanity."

I took a moment to work through what she had said, trying to keep from yelling out something incoherent in frustration. It never ended. That was what it was like in this office -- we'd have a perfectly reasonable hypothesis, like some kids deciding to form their own dead poets' society and then accidentally killing a girl, and Monica or Dana would have to throw that idea out in favour of something completely ridiculous. And, without fail, Monica actually seemed to believe the fantasies she came up with, and acted like they were the most logical explanation anyone could possibly think of. I bit back the urge to ask her what side of Neptune she'd woken up on this morning, and instead gritted out, "Agent Scully told you all this?"

I didn't have to insult her out loud. Monica heard the derision in my tone, and glared defensively at me. I was starting to wonder if I should even try to keep my rudeness to myself anymore, or whether I should just spare her the trouble of seeing right through me and say it aloud to begin with.

"I told her what I felt," she said, and her voice was a lot softer than I expected it to be.

Even as my pulse still raced with annoyance, I found myself feeling guilty in the face of her show of vulnerability. "You felt..."

"Up in the woods. I felt something. It."

"It. The ghost Linden was talking about? Reverend Charles?"

"I don't know what I felt. But it wasn't normal. There's something up there." She took a breath. "And... it's waiting."

*****

 

We didn't even pretend at a date that night, but picked up fast food and took it back to the motel. The pleasant chatter was minimal -- Monica reported that she was feeling better and that Scully was doing fine. Then we settled into work.

I found that working beside her in silence was bearable, even enjoyable. The routine ordinariness of it managed to settle my ragged nerves and gave me a chance to really enjoy being around her without feeling like I was waiting for an enemy attack. I had always noticed, subconsciously, the little things she did as she read and thought: the way she would wrinkle her nose at intervals to keep her reading glasses from sliding off rather than adjusting them with her hand like any normal person would do, or the way the tip of her tongue would peek out between lips when she got caught up in whatever she was reading. However, I had never found her personal quirks quite as endearing before.

Most of the articles I had managed to find mentioning Dead Man's Glen involved the cave-ins or the resulting decision to block off access to it, and I spent half my attention making a list of the dates of the cave-ins while Monica looked through articles pertaining to missing persons and murder. I spent the other half watching her. I knew I should have been focusing, but we had been at it all day. It was late, I was tired, and I knew that at least some of her attention was spent watching me back.

"These articles only go back to the 1930s," she complained, the first thing she'd said in half an hour.

"The reporter who was helpin' us out said there was a fire back then -- wiped out most of the records they had from before that."

"It's better than nothing," she said with a shrug, before laying out a series of articles in front of me where we were sitting on the motel room floor. "I count four bodies -- not counting the mythical Mary Elizabeth, of course. Melissa Piontek," she pointed to each stack of articles as she said it, "dead in 1987 from knife wounds to the chest and neck. Mrs. Darren Henley, maiden name Kathy Hargrove, dead in 1957 from strangulation." She paused for a second before adding, "On her wedding night."

I whistled, thinking of Linden's ghost story. "Conviction?"

"Her husband was tried, declared criminally insane, and sentenced to an asylum. The criminal sentence was later overturned on a technicality, but he remained an inmate in psychiatric care." She spent a moment studying a black and white photograph of the young woman in question, as though the answers would lie in her high school yearbook photograph, before passing the article on to me.

"What about the other two deaths?" I asked as I scanned through the article.

"The plot thickens," Monica said, leaning back against the bed. "1942. Two bodies turn up in the woods at the beginning of June, belonging to two local kids, aged fifteen and sixteen. Murder-suicide."

"A lover's pact?" I asked.

"Apparently." Monica waved an article. The high school class photos of the two kids had the caption Victims of a Romeo and Juliet tragedy? "The kids disappeared two weeks earlier after a public display where the girl's father had been seen threatening the boy with a hunting rifle for loitering on his property and harrassing his daughter."

"So the kids, seeing no way out, run off to the woods and kill themselves."

"Oh, it gets better." Monica pulled another article out of the pile. "They were found with a Bible, and the girl had a ring on her finger. Seems like they staged their own wedding ceremony in Lover's Cave. And then he choked her to death... with his rosary."

This was beginning to sound less and less like an actual murder and more like one of Linden's scary stories. "I don't know, Monica, that sounds a little far-fetched."

"Hell of a strong rosary, I know. The boy died of a gunshot wound to the head, self-inflicted. The pistol was stolen from a house about a half-mile from the glen. Does it make any sense to you that he would have choked her to death if he had a gun right there?"

"You're thinkin' he killed her first, then went and stole the gun?"

"The reason it was declared a Lover's Pact was because her death appeared voluntary. That was primarily because the girl had no other wounds on her body -- there didn't appear to have been a struggle, where, logically, one would expect one." Monica shot me a wry grin. "Sound familiar?"

"You think this cult was around even back then? That this whole thing -- the Bible, the rosary -- that was one of their rituals?"

"You know what I think, John."

I stood up and walked a few feet away, as though it would seem a little less ridiculous from that angle.

"Tell me it doesn't fit," she said, her voice something between a dare and a plea. "There's a force at work up there. None of these men intended to kill these women, but it happened anyway. For some reason, the women don't even put up a fight, and afterwards their killers go insane. If both their actions are being controlled by some outside force, it all makes sense."

"It doesn't make sense at all! Monica! This isn't a science-fiction movie. We're talkin' about real murders here. Men killed these women, not some supernatural power. We've got evidence. Convictions. I don't know what more you want to make you see that."

"And all of that makes perfect sense, and ordinarily I would agree with you." Her calm voice made my outburst sound all the more ridiculous. She put down the papers she was holding and stood up to be at eye level with me. "But that's not all that's happening here. Say we're right about the ritual nature of this, that there are individuals or groups of individuals who are committing these murders. What's to say that there isn't something behind these rituals? That there isn't really something out there directing their actions?"

I caught myself running a hand through my hair and stuck both hands in my pockets to quell the frustrated habit and to attempt to look as composed as she did. "So you're saying this ghost just posesses people at random and makes them murder women."

"I didn't say it was random. I don't know what the pattern is. Maybe it has something to do with the fifteen-year intervals that these murders appear to have occurred. And, if that's true, there may be another body, from 1972."

"So why didn't I kill you? It's been fifteen years, Monica. Why didn't it posess me, and have me go after you or Officer Linden?"

Monica frowned. "I don't know."

"This doesn't have to be an X-File. There's a better explanation, and we both know it."

Her eyes flashed. "The whole time we were out there, I felt like I was standing on a land mine waiting for it to go off. And out there, by that tree... we were being watched."

"No, Monica-"

"If you felt it too, you would know that I'm right. There's something out there." She said it like she suspected I really could sense it, and was only denying it to spite her.

My throat tightened as I felt frustration wash over me. "For God's sake, not this again," I muttered aloud without intending to. We had been through all of this before, her thinking I was a closeted member of whatever guild of psychics she professed to belong to, able to suss out evil from places and people without evidence or reason. It drove me nuts the way she acted like I was hurting her, denying her somehow by not sharing in her psychic visions when she seemed to think I should be able to. A horrible thought flashed through my mind. It wasn't the first time I'd had it, but it stung worse than usual -- maybe Monica and I were far too different to make even a fantasy of a relationship viable. She saw ghosts in trees, for God's sake. Not that it mattered, really, how viable a relationship would be when I was worse than lame at even starting one.

"Can we just leave this ghost thing be for awhile, treat this like we're investigators instead of mediums?" I heard the words fall out of my mouth like they weren't my own. "We'll get the files from Officer Linden and examine the glen for evidence of cult activity. We can get enough to re-open this case the old-fashioned way. We don't need to jump to ridiculous conclusions that only Mulder would come to just because this case was his idea. Whatever you think you felt out there, it's not evidence."

She stared at me, either unaffected by my rant or refusing to give me the satisfaction of seeing her upset. I felt like she was peeling off layers of my skin with her gaze, and I looked away to avoid being left without any barrier between us at all.

"You're not mad about the case, John," she accused matter-of-factly, repeating my name the way she always did, like it had the power to calm or control me.

My head snapped up involuntarily to look at her as she bent to collect the articles. "It's late. I assume we're done for the night," she said as a way of concluding both our argument and our research. "See you in the morning." The words were both without malice and without warmth, and somehow the lack of emotion was infinitely worse than a blatant attack.

"Good night," I managed without thought as she walked through our connecting door and shut it behind her. It was almost thirty seconds before I heard the lock click shut, and I wondered whether that time had been left to see if I would go running after her, or just because she was standing on the other side of the door feeling as stunned and helpless as I was.

*****

 

"You're not mad about the case, John..." she repeated as she sank her teeth into my neck. She knew everything. Somehow I had apologized, and explained myself, although I couldn't remember doing it. Now I was attacking her body amid the stacks of paperwork in my motel room, stacks that had inexplicably multiplied until they towered over the bed like a disaster waiting to happen.

I rolled her over and could smell her in the sheets. "I need you..." I managed and, out of the corner of my eye, saw Dana Scully in the corner of the motel room, swinging rosary beads like a pendulum, shaking her head at the scene on the bed before her.

"We're being watched," I told Monica, hanging on to her for dear life, as pieces of me began to realize that this was all going to slip away in the morning and I'd be right back where I started from.

"I told you..." she whispered. "You can sense him, too." I heard a knock at the door and ignored it. Her skin was like air all of a sudden, there but without substance, not warming me the way I knew it should, and I panicked that this meant she was dead. I squeezed my eyes shut against what I thought was Scully, repeating my name, trying to drag me away from Monica. It didn't sound like Scully. It sounded like-

"John!"

I gasped awake and released the death-grip I had on the sheet.

"Monica?" I managed to mumble on the third try, for a moment unable to decide whether she was real or not. She looked out of place until I realized she was already dressed and looked utterly pissed off. I wondered what I'd managed to do or say to her in my sleep to get myself in even more trouble. "What're you doin' here?"

She slapped something down on my chest, and it took me a moment of fumbling with the sheets to better cover myself up to realize that it was a newspaper, and to focus my eyes on the print. "FBI Investigates Cult Activity in Welkin," I read aloud. I scanned over the next few lines. Monica and I were both mentioned by name, alongside a description of a 'clandestine investigation into allegations of Satanic activity in Welkin relating to the 1987 murder of Melissa Piontek in Dead Man's Glen, along with several other murders in that location.'

"Look at the by-line," Monica continued, crossing her arms over her chest and looking like she didn't even realize the oddity of holding a conversation when she was dressed and I was only barely awake.

"Melanie Baines." I read, and looked back up, realizing what had happened. "Our Lois Lane."

"Yep. No doubt taking the opportunity to bump up herself up out of the social column." Monica looked ready to call her any number of dirty names, but settled on relaying the facts. "Skinner's pissed. Chief Gregg called up the FBI this morning and threw one hell of a hissy fit. We're supposed to be back in Washington yesterday. Get dressed."

For a moment she didn't move, and I wasn't sure she was going to. "Did you tell him about our findings?"

"We don't have findings," she said, in a voice that suggested she was paraphrasing our boss's reaction. "We have hypotheses. About a closed case we have no jurisdiction over. We have to disappear while the bureau smooths things over with the local authorities. We've got a meeting with Skinner at three o'clock which we just might make if we break every land speed barrier known to man. I'll settle up with the motel while you get ready. Meet you in the truck."

*****

Despite all attempts to break speed barriers, I doubted I had ever been on a longer or more painful car ride. We listened to the radio as an excuse not to talk, and Monica didn't even bother to argue the stations I selected. We talked about the case, and about Skinner, and about what we were going to say, but that was somehow worse than having a screaming fight or even suffering under the silent treatment. I needed an excuse to force the issue, to bring last night up again and apologize for the fortieth time that week, but she didn't give me the opportunity. Maybe she had given up, and she honestly didn't care anymore what feelings I was or wasn't repressing about her. Maybe she was sick of waiting for me to figure myself out, was tired of putting up with a man who could barely put up with himself, and ready to move on to men who weren't afraid to act on impulse -- or act at all -- to secure the affections of a woman.

Men like Larry.

I wondered if it was always going to be like this between us: a frustrated struggle between our -- my -- inability to act. Not forever, a grim voice in my head reminded me. Only 'til she finds someone else. I morbidly wondered whether her someone else would also be able to see ghosts in trees, would be someone better suited to her tastes and peculiarities, whether they would lie around at night telling ghost stories in bed and talking about this guy she had once known and how glad she was that she wasn't waiting around for me anymore.

I found myself waiting, the whole trip, for her to ask me what was wrong, to attempt to pull me out of my depressive shell the way she always did, but she just let me stew.

When I couldn't stand it anymore, I asked her the only question I could think of. "You gonna see Larry when we get back?"

She frowned. "I guess," she replied noncommittally.

Damn, damn, damn. Ten million things I had to ask her, and I had come out with not only the last thing I wanted to know, but also something that had managed to kill the conversation before it even got off the ground.

"I'm sorry," I muttered ten minutes later.

"For?" she asked, glancing over from behind the wheel. She was torturing me, watching me squirm. It wasn't like I ever lacked for things to apologize for around her, it wouldn't have killed her just to let this one go.

"For bein' an ass," I finally concluded.

She smiled, the first one I'd seen out of her all day. I realized that I subsisted on them like they held nutritional value -- everything seemed amiss when she was unhappy. I doubted it was natural or healthy for someone to be that dependent on his partner's facial expressions, but then, the circumstances were extenuating. "You're not being an ass, John." The smile dropped away. "It's just been... a long week."

"I know."

She reached over and squeezed my hand, a simple gesture that sent me on a journey of ten thousand complicated thoughts. "Let's just see if we can get through this meeting, okay?"

There was something lingering in her voice, as though this time, managing an apology and winning a smile wasn't going to be enough to declare the whole thing even. I swallowed, switched the radio station, and contented myself with our uneasy truce. "Okay."

*****

"I hope you realize the kind of mess you've created, Agents," Assistant Director Skinner said by way of greeting. He didn't indicate that we should sit down, but after a moment of awkward hesitation, Monica sat anyway. I imitated her. I figured we should at least present a united front.

"In all fairness, Sir, we tried to be discreet," she said before Skinner could elaborate on exactly what kind of mess we had created.

"On what planet is talking to the press considered discreet?" Skinner set a death glare on Monica, who squirmed helplessly.

"The police chief wouldn't give us any help," I jumped in to rescue my partner. "We had to check the newspaper archives as the next-best thing to a police report."

"The police chief tells me that he considered your request for assistance and found your claims baseless, and that reopening an investigation would not only be pointless, but would likely cause a riot."

"He didn't even hear our claims!" Monica squawked indignantly, and I closed my eyes for a moment, willing her to keep quiet.

Skinner silenced her for me with an absolutely frightening look. When our office had been under the jurisdiction of Assistant Director Follmer, Skinner had served as a friend and advisor to both of us. I hadn't completely realized until right then that he was now also our boss -- a position currently dramatically at odds to being our ardent supporter. Had this mess happened a few months ago, I was certain he would have rallied to our defense against Follmer and Kersh. "This same police chief is asking that you both be reprimanded. He's cursing up and down the FBI for inappropriate involvement in local affairs."

"And doesn't that sound a bit suspicious to you?" Monica asked when Skinner paused for dramatic emphasis.

"He was very adamant that we not investigate this case, Sir," I added. "I figured he just didn't want to cause a fuss-"

"The way the chief tells it, that article just lit the fuse in a superstitious, xenophobic powder barrell. This is Puritan witch trial country. He seems to think that they're going to start burning people at the stake. And let me tell you, there's no good way out of this. The field office in Springfield, Mass, has gotten over fifteen calls today from nervous Berkshire residents wanting to know everything from who the suspects are to whether they should evacuate the area. We send in the troops and we could have mass hysteria on our hands over nothing. We issue an apology and say it was a mistake, people are still going to panic, and somebody's going to have to take the fall. Believe me, Agents, this should not have been made worthy of my time. You're just lucky I intercepted the call before it got handed off to the Deputy Director."

Monica and I exchanged a long glance. I decided it was my turn to speak. "With all due respect, Sir, maybe they should be worrying up there. We found evidence of three other deaths-"

"I read the article, Agents. As I understand it, all those murders were solved and closed."

"We calculated a timetable," Monica added. "The murders appear to happen at fifteen year intervals, always at this time of year -- that's what Mulder warned us about. We're right in the window of danger. The area needs to be blocked off and guarded until we can figure out what's going on."

Skinner sighed and pulled off his glasses, which I took to be a sign that he was yielding. "Look, I know you didn't intend to make a mess with this one, and, to be perfectly honest with you, I agree that the police chief is overreacting and seems to care far too much about a high school prom. You're both good agents, but you're currently representing an office which has a pretty bad reputation when it comes to the bureaucratic hassle caused by disappearing in the middle of the night and messing with small towns." He looked both of us over for a long moment. "Turn in a report. I'll evaluate your findings and whatever conjecture you have with the Springfield office and with the local authorities, and we'll push forward with this if it makes sense to do so." Monica opened her mouth but he jumped back in before she could make any more than an inarticulate squeak. "Until then, consider yourselves both on strict orders to stay away from Welkin. While you're at it, stay away from Massachusetts entirely -- the boys in Springfield aren't too happy with you, either."

*****

"Well, that was unpleasant," Monica recapped as we waited for the elevator. "I guess I should get used to being skinned alive for doing my job as long as I work in this office, huh?"

"At least it wasn't Kersh," I reminded her. "And we did mess up pretty badly out there."

She glared at me for taking the side of the enemy. "So what do we do now?"

"We write up that report, and then we sit around playin' Scrabble until somebody lets us move forward on this thing."

She sighed in frustration as we stepped onto the elevator and I hit the basement button. "You really think something will come of that soon enough? We can't just sit back and wait for someone else to die out there."

"We've got 'til prom night, right? Saturday?"

"Maybe. Maybe the whole thing about the murders only taking place after weddings or proms is just a coincidence."

"Let's say that it isn't, and that we have until Saturday. We lie low and let Skinner sort it out before this whole thing blows up in our faces."

Monica considered it a moment. "All right. We'll wait and see." As the elevator released us into the mess of storage boxes that passed for the hallway to our office, she shot me a curious look. "I would never have pegged you for a Scrabble player."

I laughed. Maybe there were still a precious few things she didn't know about me. "Haven't played in years," I admitted, realizing that I didn't even have a board anymore. Board games didn't have solitaire versions too often, and I didn't keep them around to remind me of yet another thing I couldn't do while living alone. "But Barb and I used to." The amount of time I spent playing any game more sophisticated than Candyland with my ex-wife had dramatically diminished after Luke was born, but I still remembered the warm, comfortable feeling of a summer night on the porch with a quiet board game, a glass of wine, and loving company. The game was the least important part of the equation.

I was jerked back to the cold reality of concrete and storage boxes when Monica stopped cold in front of our office door with a huff that I couldn't specifically identify as either amused or annoyed. She yanked down the piece of paper tacked to the door so quickly that the tack bounced off and rolled under the closest metal shelving unit, but I managed to catch what the note said. Monnie, you little ho. Am bored. D.C.'s a sham, baby. Call me when you get back in town.

"He doesn't quit, does he?" I demanded in frustration.

She crumpled the piece of paper with one hand and chucked it across the room, where it landed just shy of the trash can. She perched herself on the edge of my desk and rubbed her face with her hands. "It's okay," she mumbled through her fingers.

I tossed my stuff down and leaned back to stretch my back. The long car ride filled with stress and then getting called on the carpet wasn't good for shoulder tension. That was another thing that had often happened on those rare Scrabble evenings early in my marriage -- trading shoulder rubs. I could remember how Barbara would always comment on the tension I was carrying around with the sort of incredulity that came from having really no idea what it was that I did every day. Loneliness and longing attacked me out of left field and I fought down the emotion. My eyes came to rest on Monica's face and, before she could read too much into my expression, I decided to press on with the Larry conversation. "Why do you let him call you all that stuff?"

She looked up at me and squinted in confusion at my question. I didn't want to repeat any of it out loud, so I waited for it to dawn on her. "We've known each other since forever, John."

"I've known you for a long time, you don't hear me callin' you names and gettin' away with it."

She raised a critical, eerily Scully-like eyebrow. "That's different." She watched me as I picked up her ill-aimed note and threw it away. "It's just... Larry. Surely you have friends like that."

I may have had them at one time, but I didn't think that calling attention to my sorry lack of social life would really help further the conversation. "Yeah, I guess."

"It doesn't really bug me," she said with a shrug. "I guess I never really considered it, but it would be pretty weird if you ever started talking to me like that." She snickered at the thought. "Don't, please."

"Well, I'm not plannin' to," I promised, wondering what kind of backwards upbringing Larry had sprung from where calling a woman, a co-worker, a slut was considered an acceptable term of endearment.

She wandered over to her desk to examine how well her potted cactus had survived the weekend without her. "We should call Natalie Linden. Let her know what happened, and how to get in touch with us if something goes wrong."

"I'm guessing she already knows what happened," I pointed out.

"I suppose so, what with all the mass hysteria and the witch-burning." Monica sat down at her desk and poked at the trash can with her toe, no doubt thinking more about Larry's note. "I should call him."

There was something tired in her tone which forced my mouth to speak without asking my brain for permission. "You don't have to, you know." She looked up at me in surprise. "Not that it's any of my business, or-"

She let me off the hook with a wave of her hand. "You're allowed to hate him. You're... very different people, after all. And I won't force you to come on any more outings with us if you don't want to, don't worry. You paid your good-partner pennance for the week at the talent show." Her eyes twinkled. I should have been relieved that my childish dislike of her friend hadn't led to another argument, but I only found myself concerned that she didn't want me joining them on their bar nights. I wondered if this was because she was still mad at me for the night before, or whether this was because she honestly didn't care. Maybe she enjoyed having some time without me. Even from inside it, I knew it wasn't healthy to have one's social contact be limited to one or two other people. I shouldn't have begrudged her that wish or the time to herself, but I selfishly did anyway.

"So why don't you want to call him, then?" I wasn't sure what response I wanted from her. It wasn't like I seriously expected her answer to involve an undying love for sitting in our basement office shuffling paperwork and waiting for me to proposition her or anything.

She laughed, and it brought a reflexive and senseless smile to my face. I wondered if my laugh would do the same thing to her, and was determined to try it out at the next opportunity. "I don't not want to call him. I'd just forgotten what a time commitment he is."

"I've been wonderin' how you got any work done in New Orleans."

"Our offices were on different floors," she replied with a shake of her head. "It's only this ridiculous right now because I'm the only one here who'll give him any attention. And we hardly ever see each other. Plus, he thinks I'm miserable and don't get out enough. He's decided to personally recapture my youth before I, and I quote, 'wither into a grumpy, old FBI suit'."

I huffed in a way that made me sound both grumpy and old. I needed to get over it, for God's sake. If she wanted to go out clubbing, to recapture a youth that she was a hell of a lot closer to than me, and Larry wanted to accompany her, more power to him. I sure as hell wasn't about to take her. Maybe we were too different, if her idea of a rewarding evening involved vinyl and a fog machine, and mine involved chess on the porch and... I chased the image of what had always happened after those games out of my head with the tired refrain: She's your partner, dammit. You shouldn't be thinking about her like that. She had said the week before that she felt she was outgrowing Larry's adolescent ideas of fun, but that was no assurance that her middle age would look anything like mine. But I wondered.

I took a breath, and offered, "Well, when you get bored of him, there's always Scrabble."

Her eyes widened. Once the shock of me having gotten out a coherent sentence wore off, her face softened into a smile that was reassuring and wistful all at once. Finally, she rescued me from the awkward pain of my words hanging in the air. "Anytime," she answered, with a sincerity that almost hurt. She waited a moment longer, searching my eyes to see if I had a follow-up to my invitation, and I got too caught up in watching her look at me to say anything at all.

"You bring the board," she added as she picked up her briefcase, either making an escape because she didn't want to continue with the innuedo or, maybe, because she did.

I grasped for my ability to talk like a normal person, and made a mental note to buy a new set of board games.

"I'm going to go talk to Scully," she called from the doorway. There was something frustrated in her voice, but I got the feeling she was more annoyed with herself than with me -- although I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. "She's on break from classes soon. Do you want to come, or start the report?"

I was loathe to let Monica anywhere near Scully on her own after the weekend of gossip fodder we'd just had, but that didn't seem like much of a reason for going along. For one thing, I deserved anything catty that Monica was going to say about me. For another thing, male ego aside, it was entirely likely that both Scully and my current partner had plenty of other things to think and talk about besides my latest display of idiocy. Like the case we were all attempting to solve. "I'd better get the report started. Call me if she has anything to say."

*****

I didn't see Monica again for almost two days. Her phone was off. I would have wondered if she had simply snuck back to Welkin on her own, except that she seemed to be in the office whenever I wasn't. She had co-signed the Welkin report that I had left on my desk before I arrived in to work on Tuesday, and she seemed to have moved the phone and rifled through a stack of files while I was out at lunch. Her timing seemed too exact for it to have been accidental. She sent me an email midway through the afternoon explaining that she was off searching for any examples of cult activity known to exist in that area that we could use, but that she hadn't found any yet, and had I phoned Officer Linden yet? I had, but had only gotten her machine promising electronically to return my call as soon as possible, thank you very much. Scully wasn't answering her phone, either. That could be explained by her tendency to teach classes during the day, but it nicely completed my belief that every woman I had ever met was quite actively avoiding me.

Some part of my brain rejoiced in Monica's absence, reminding me how much more effective an agent I was when I wasn't sitting around on tenterhooks trying to interpret everything she said in six different ways and waiting for something to, literally or metaphorically, hit me upside the head with a two-by-four and point me in the right direction. That part of my brain was sorely mistaken. I felt like she had taken my ability to concentrate with her to whatever archives or libraries she was scouring without me. I had left her another phone message asking her where was, and if she needed my help, and got no reply. I spent most of the afternoon pacing around the office and trying to pretend I wasn't, covering the action by ferrying files and office supplies from one corner of the room to the other. I tried to come up with a wealth of excuses that I imagined Monica might use to defend her uncharacteristic absence, and spent a good deal of energy hoping that they were true. She wasn't avoiding me, she was maximizing our resources by splitting up, dealing with the research herself and leaving me to... to do whatever it was that I wasn't doing all that well while I was pacing around, caught somewhere in between frustrated and angry and hurt.

And, of those, the first was really the only one that I had any right to be.

Somehow, that fact only served to make the other two emotions that much more pronounced.

Linden finally called me back on Tuesday evening. I was still in the office hoping to catch Monica, to force our paths to cross should she attempt to sneak in again while she expected me to be out for coffee or to have quit for the day. "John Doggett."

"Agent Doggett?" The female voice repeating the obvious on the other end of the line made my heart jump for a second, as my brain tried to twist the Berkshire accent out of it so that the caller could actually be my partner. "Agent Reyes' phone is off... the FBI switchboard patched me through to this office. I didn't expect you to be there... I was just going to leave a message."

"Officer Linden?" I assumed, mentally cursing Monica for being so thorough in her avoidance techniques that she was actually obstructing our case along with annoying the hell out of me. "Thanks for callin' back. Agent Reyes and I wanted to check in, to see what the situation is in Welkin."

Linden practically snorted. "Gregg told me he'd sent you both back where you came from. Melanie was in my class," I fumbled for who Melanie could be, and then connected the name to the author of the Herald article. "She was always a brat. I apologize on behalf of my county. I hope you aren't in too much trouble."

"Some," I admitted, "but we're more worried about what's going to happen to the case now. What's been going on?"

"Some of the parents want to cancel the prom and keep their wives and kids indoors until the devil-worshippers have been run out on rails. Others want the prom to go forward, and for us to blame the FBI for spreading such an obvious lie and tarnishing the town's reputation and scaring the hell out of everybody."

"What about Gregg? What's he sayin'?"

I could hear Linden pause, and I wondered if she was calling from work. The last thing that we needed was for her to get into trouble for badmouthing her superior. "He's been running full-scale damage control. He got an official statement published in the Herald about how there's no evidence to support the FBI's claims, and how the FBI is just picking on Welkin when, quite obviously, such a problem can't exist in a town like ours."

"Are people buyin' it?"

"There's going to be a town meeting on Thursday night. The only reason they're waiting so long to have it is because Gregg's trying to get clearance from the FBI to say that the two of you were acting alone and without authorization -- that, basically, you made it up because you're both evil and slightly insane."

I bit back a string of curses. It was good to know that so far the FBI had been protecting us, but that was obviously the easiest way to get out of this mess. "You think people'd believe that?"

There was another pause. "They might." She didn't have to spell out the message -- outsiders were distrusted as a matter of course. When people in suits showed up and started printing accusations of devil-worship, it was natural to defend their own. We didn't know anything about their town, probably hadn't even realized that there was anything in Massachusetts besides Boston until a few days earlier, and we waltzed in to accuse them of murdering a local high school heroine in the name of the devil. I doubted there would be any way to change the nature of the local attitudes, so I swallowed anything nasty I might have said and asked,

"Did you manage to get the files?"

Linden sighed in annoyance. "I managed to talk Gregg into sending regular drive-by patrols past the entrance to Dead Man's Glen, just in case someone decides to use this cult scare to do something stupid, but that's as close as I got to doing anything productive. Gregg pulled all those files and he's got them with him. I can't get near them."

"This doesn't make him look good."

"He's just doing his job," Linden sighed. "He doesn't want anything in them to leak to the press. He thinks we're gullible hicks, too, remember? I'll keep trying to get to them."

"Thanks for your help."

"It's my job," she replied to end the call, in a way that clearly indicated that it was not, in fact, her job to make ammends for the backwardness of her township and run around behind her superiors' backs.

I stood up and made to leave. If Monica wasn't going to answer her phone, then I was going to have to find her. At the moment, it didn't matter what personal issues she had with me or I had with her, we needed to discuss the situation of Gregg's appeal to the FBI. I was almost to the door when the phone rang again. Linden must have forgotten something.

"John Doggett," I announced again.

"Ah, Agent Doggett. Working late?"

I strongly considered just hanging up the phone and leaving before he could call back. "Agent Walker," I gritted out, amazed at how he made something that should have been a polite inquiry sound like an insult. "Monica's not here." At least this meant she wasn't with him.

"Do you know if she's coming back?" Larry's gratingly jovial tones annoyed me all the more because I wouldn't have had a good answer to his question even if I'd wanted to be helpful.

"I don't know. Try her cell phone," I encouraged with as much pleasantness as I could force, glad her avoidance answering message was equal-opportunity and that he was just as sure to be ignored as I was. And, after her less than enthusiastic reception of his note the day before, it was possible she was actively avoiding him as well.

"I wasn't sure if I was supposed to meet her here or at her place," Larry told me, for no good reason other than to flaunt his current victory.

"It's really not my job to keep track of her," I snapped back, not even caring if I was rude or if Monica would frown on my childish behaviour. She wasn't exactly being a tower of maturity lately, either.

"I guess not." Larry answered, but the smug cheerfulness was gone from his voice. "I'll swing by her place, then." It sounded like a threat. It probably was.

There was a moment of dead air on the phone as we silently debated who should be the first to hang up. I finally did, because I wasn't sure how long even my silence could sound composed. After hanging up the receiver, my hand banged the phone down against the desk without my conscious consent. The sound was jarring enough to erase Larry's voice from my ears. My pencil holder, which looked like nothing so much as an empty Campbell's soup can covered in newsprint, teetered and fell over. It didn't have enough force to spill the pencils very far, but I didn't bother to collect them. I stormed out of the office, but I had no reason to hurry. There was no way I was headed to Monica's now. I could report Linden's news to Scully and get her experienced take on avoiding FBI remprimands, but I wasn't sure I wanted to see her, either.

It felt like I made it all the way home before releasing the breath I was holding. I had to consciously remind myself not to break things as I walked past them. My mind spat cruel thoughts in Monica's direction, few of which she deserved, and none of which I would ever bring myself to say to her. I turned the television up to drown out my mental static, but found nothing sufficiently distracting.

My phone rang around 9 but I didn't answer it. Two could play that game. She didn't leave a message. I doubted she would want to speak to me anyway, because tempting my thoughts out wouldn't have been pleasant for anyone. I certainly didn't want to hear them out loud. She was probably calling me from the restroom of a club to say that she'd finally bothered to check her messages, and sorry that she hadn't returned my call earlier, but she'd been able to work that much more efficiently on her own without my stubbornness and backward skepticism there to dampen her fantastic world view. Maybe she deserved him. I ripped the sheets back from their precise military state and stared at the empty bed, already sweating through the pajamas I'd just put on. I tore the shirt off and threw it on the floor, not caring where it landed, callously reminding myself that it wasn't like anyone was going to yell at me for leaving my bedroom a mess anymore. Maybe I deserved this.

I shut my eyes and willed sleep, still seething. Maybe we were all getting exactly what we deserved.

*****

John -

I'm finishing up some research in the archives. I'll check in later.

- M.

I had wasted half the day staring at it.

There was nothing particularly cold or angry about the note itself, dashed off on the back of a torn piece of pink paper and left on top of my coffee mug where I was sure to find it, but it seemed harsher than a slap in the face.

I should have been grateful that she'd even bothered to tell me where she was, or that she had promised to show up later. I should have been grateful that she was still my partner. I should have been glad that at least one of us was able to get any damned work done.

Instead, all I could think about as I pored over the Bureau policy guide to see how much trouble we could really be in for our little Welkin road trip was how glad I was that she wasn't there. I didn't think I could stand to see her still glowing from whatever adolescent adventure Larry had taken her on the night before. As wrong and awkward as it felt to be alone in the office, it had to be better than feeling just as lonely with her in the room.

I looked up from the policy guide paragraph I'd read over fifteen times and pinned Monica's note to the desk with the end of my pencil. Research. Hell, there was no reason for her to still be doing research. Even without my help, she could have found anything she was looking for and more the day before. Unless, of course, this was just an excuse she gave me so she could play hooky with her new best friend, in from New Orleans on a consult that apparently gave him nothing at all to do. I wondered whether the agents who'd invited him had known how useless he was beforehand, or whether it was as unpleasant a surprise to them as it was to me.

I glanced at the time. Almost four o'clock. I wondered when, exactly, 'later' was to Monica, and if she was really intending to check in with me at all, or whether she was hoping I would give up and leave by the time she got back. Not that I was in any state to actually interact with her in a manner that was at all adult. My state of mind was some unattractive combination of childish, petty, and obsessive, and I blamed it on the fact that it was hours past lunch time and I hadn't even thought about food yet.

It was Monica's turn to buy lunch.

I picked up the note and turned it over -- a torn-off corner from the flyer advertising last Friday night's talent show. The image of Monica and Larry kissing onstage jumped into my mind before I could stop it. I wondered exactly how long they had rehearsed for that little moment. I turned the note right side up again and returned to the policy guide.

A fine romance, indeed.

"Good, you're here." A female voice interrupted my internal rant.

"What?" I couldn't keep the surprise out of my voice as I looked up and saw Agent Scully standing on the other side of my desk.

"You haven't been answering your phone," she continued. "I called you last night. I was concerned you might have gone against Skinner's orders and gone back to Welkin on your own." Noticing the way I was still gaping at her like I couldn't figure out what supernatural means she'd used to sneak into the office unobserved, she added, "I'm sorry if I startled you."

"S'okay," I said, rubbing my eyes to try and banish the stress headache that was becoming almost as distracting as my partner's absence. I took a breath and did my best to behave normally in Scully's presence. Whatever was or wasn't happening between me and Monica certainly wasn't her fault, and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to explain myself. "Sorry... 'bout the phone thing. I didn't realize it was you calling."

Scully looked me over for a moment, as though debating whether to ask further. "That's all right," she said finally. She pulled a file folder out of her briefcase. "Is Agent Reyes around?" Her expression was impenetrable, and for a moment I panicked, wondering if I was supposed to read something more in her seemingly innocent question, whether Monica had told her everything and then sent her here to torment me. Or, equally likely, whether Monica had said nothing but Scully had read the entire story on my face the moment she had walked in the door.

I swallowed my panic and answered the question. "She's off doing research or something. No. She's not around." I pointed to the Monica's note and let Scully read it for herself.

"She asked me to look through the rest of Mulder's library. I didn't find much, but there were a few mentions of the Berkshires," Scully explained her presence and handed the folder to me. I opened it and thumbed through a small stack of photocopies. "They seem pretty unrelated, but she asked me to bring them by, just in case."

"Thanks," I said, but I must have sounded insincere because Scully frowned at me.

"Are you feeling all right, John? You look... exhausted."

I managed to keep from snapping at her. No matter what paranoid fantasies my brain could come up with at a moment's notice, the chance that Scully was here solely to play mind games with me was pretty minimal. Even if Monica had told her every detail of every aborted attempt at something that had transpired in Welkin, it would be in Scully's nature to discreetly ignore it as long as humanly possible. "I'm fine," I told her. When her assessing gaze didn't let up, I elaborated, "Just didn't sleep much."

"Monica told me you two had a disagreement about the case," Scully crossed her arms, but her expression was sympathetic.

"She... she did?"

Scully perched herself on the edge of the desk that had so recently been hers. "Don't look so betrayed, John," she added gently. "I assumed as much, she just confirmed it. I didn't really expect you to like our supernatural possession theory."

I had to laugh at that, but it came out more bitter than I had intended. So Monica had deflected Scully's inquiries by giving her the purely professional version of what was the matter, leaving Scully to think that we were ignoring each other's phone calls solely because I refused to indict a ghost for murder. "It's nothing," I sighed. "The usual stuff. Monica sees ghosts and I see... well..."

Scully nodded and finished my sentence. "You don't see them. I've been there before, you know." She looked tired, and I was reminded of exactly how much this office had taken out of her over the past nine years, from both sides of the argument. "We need people like Agent Reyes on this unit," she reminded me unnecessarily. "Sometimes it takes a leap of logic like that to solve these cases... but I know, it isn't always easy."

I still wasn't sure that Scully didn't suspect the real reason Monica and I had fallen out and was reminding me of how much I needed her for no reason other than to torture me, but if she wasn't going to push the issue, than neither was I. "You can't tell me you really believe that's what's going on up there. The glen is cursed by ghosts."

She sighed, like it physically pained her to have to say it. "It's a possibility I'm not sure you can afford to discount."

"Ghosts, Agent Scully," I repeated.

"It sounds ridiculous when you say it," she consented. "However, I think both you and I know better than that. I'm not dismissing the possibility of cult activity in Welkin, of course, but I think that it would be foolish, at this point, to ignore what Agent Reyes is saying. We both know these cases are rarely as simple as they seem, and it's only logical to explore all of the possibilities. And... she's been right before."

I'd had this conversation with Scully before, too, the one where she encouraged me to accept my partner's evil-radar as an investigative tool and asked me to open my mind to possibilities she could barely stomach herself. It always ended the same way, in a stalemate of ideology, and I didn't feel the need to go through the whole song and dance again. "Yeah, I know. I'm tryin'."

She smiled reassuringly and glanced down at the FBI policy guidebook I'd been halfheartedly studying, at the paragraph which stated that Monica and I could be up from anywhere from a slap on the wrist to three months' forced leave. "Some things never change," she said, standing up. "Do you want me to talk to Skinner for you?"

"You think it'll help?"

"No... probably not," she admitted. "I'm sure he's doing everything he can for you. You'll let me know if you need any more help with the case?"

I wished I had something we needed, a way to draw out her skills as a buffer against an empty nursery and a lonely apartment, but I couldn't think of anything. "There's not much we can do while we're banned from Massachusetts. Just sit here and hope they come to their senses before somebody gets killed. I can't even get through to the Massachusetts agents working damage control -- they aren't returning calls from this office."

Scully looked thoughtful, and took back the photocopies she'd brought, bringing them over to Monica's desk. "Ask Agent Reyes to call me when she gets those, okay?"

I nodded, and tried to ignore the jumbled emotions that surfaced at even the mention of her name. This was getting ridiculous. The click of Scully's heels on the basement tile disappeared as she stepped onto the elevator and I let out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. Maybe Monica really was just mad because I refused to take her psychic mumbo-jumbo seriously. Maybe she didn't know, or didn't care, how I might feel about her, and that's why she didn't think it was a problem to cavort around with her college buddy right in front of me.

Maybe she figured this was my problem, and not hers, and was just leaving me alone until I dealt with it.

I heard footsteps and looked up as the door opened.

Perfect timing, I thought. Just when I thought, between imminent FBI censure and a partner who couldn't stand the sight of me anymore, the day couldn't get any worse...

"Agent Walker," I managed with as much cold professionalism as I had in me.

"Agent Doggett." Larry's voice was still pleasantly cheerful, but I could tell the emotion was largely forced. I doubted he was any happier to see me than I was to see him. Well, at least we both knew where we stood.

Larry looked around the office for a minute without asking after Monica's whereabouts, and I didn't volunteer any information. I didn't actually expect him to go away if I just ignored him long enough, but I figured it was worth a shot. He wandered over to Monica's desk and started leafing through the papers on it.

Some sort of animal territoriality made me want to grab the papers right out of his hands, but I contented myself with snapping the obvious, "She's not here."

Larry smiled infuriatingly and sat down in Monica's chair. "She's got to come back sometime," he said with an expansive shrug as he thumbed through the file Scully had left. "Ghosts, huh?" He pulled open her top drawer and poked around in it with a thoroughly bored expression.

"Can I give her a message for you?" I asked. Great, just great, that was what my relationship with Monica would someday be reduced to -- me taking messages for her from potential suitors who drifted in and out of our basement office.

Larry didn't answer me right away, only picked up Monica's potted cactus and flicked at the prickles like he had a right to the plant and to its owner. The silence grew long and unnatural, as Larry studied the plant and I pretended to ignore him. "Don't mind me," he said finally, casually, like this intrusion of his was routine. His subdued smirk was a dead giveaway -- he was baiting me, seeing how long it would take before I couldn't stand it anymore, grabbed the plant away from him and did my best to kick him out of my office.

I wasn't going to give him that satisfaction. If he wanted to stay here and waste his own time, he could go ahead and do it. He put the plant down on the edge of the desk and went back to leafing through all the files and papers on my partner's desk, making just enough noise so that it was surely not accidental, and smiling whenever he caught me looking over at him. I couldn't help smiling back when I thought of the fit Monica would surely throw at having all of her work disorganized for her, and only hoped that she would choose to yell at him in front of me. Assuming she ever decided to show up.

I turned my back to him to better look like I was actually ignoring him, and felt him looking me over, sizing up the competition or trying to figure out what about me had been pathetic enough to drag Monica all the way here in the first place, I couldn't be sure. After another minute, he stood up. "Just tell her I stopped by," he said, still faking a smile. He waited for a second on the other side of my desk to see if I was going to reply, before nodding at me and walking out.

I wanted to break things again. I settled for crumpling the note Monica had left and getting up to slam it into the trash can. The wimpy sound of paper hitting paper was hardly satisfying, but it was something. I couldn't believe myself -- was I really just going to sit here and let Larry decide he owned the entire Hoover building, and Monica, without even trying to put him in his place? Who was I kidding, what the hell else could I do? Demand that he meet me out back for a shoot-out at ten paces? Even if that sort of thing was still in fashion, Monica Reyes wasn't mine to kill over.

I heard a familiar voice in the hallway, saying something about perfect timing, followed by Larry's obnoxious laugh. Just great. She had been AWOL all day and now she couldn't have waited another thirty seconds until Larry was gone from our basement hallway before making her appearance.

"I wasn't supposed to meet you here, was I?" Monica was asking as she breezed into the office like there was nothing strange about her putting in her first appearance of the day at 4:30. Her arms were full of files and books and she stopped a pace into the door to rearrange them so they wouldn't fall all over the floor. "Help me with this, would you?"

Larry and I both moved toward her at the same time, and we spent half of a ridiculous second staring at each other, playing some sort of silent game of chicken over who had more claim to helping Monica with her books. Monica, for her part, looked back and forth between us like we were possessed and finally brought the files over to her desk herself, dropping them on top of the already messy stacks of paper. A few sheets of paper fluttered off of the unstable stack to the floor, and with a final glare at Larry, I picked them up for her.

"Thanks," she said, still appraising the two of us.

"We weren't supposed to meet up," Larry said, grinning his way through her annoyance. "I just figured I'd stop by and see whether you wanted to cut out early. Your partner," he jerked his head in my direction, "didn't mind me hanging out."

"I'm sure," Monica replied with a glance in my direction that I didn't acknowledge. She would have had to be an idiot not to recognize the tension in the room and to guess at its origin, but Monica avoided having to address it by snatching up the file Scully had left. "Oh, did Dana stop by?" she asked me innocently.

"Uh... yeah. A little while ago. She was lookin' for you."

She didn't apologize for being absent, only nodded as she leafed through the pages with a sigh. "Have you heard anything from Skinner yet?"

I glanced back at Larry, who was trying to look comfortable leaning against my desk. Even if it annoyed the hell out of me to feel like she was using me more as a secretary than a partner, I wasn't going to have it out with her in front of him. "Not yet."

She made a frustrated face and sat down at her desk. She started rooting through the disaster area of paperwork looking for something. I wondered how I could rat Larry out for messing up her files without sounding like a complete child, but I couldn't think of anything before she looked up. "I'm sorry... Larry, you asked me something. I'm a little out of it -- I think the air in the archive rooms is at least twenty years old."

He snorted out half a laugh, more to humour her than because it was actually funny, and reminded her, "I wanted to come steal you away early. Figured we could get a head start on tonight -- if you're all done with your archives."

"Oh, right." She smiled her classic smile, and I couldn't help but stare at it. "What was it you wanted to do tonight? The Vic again? I don't want to stay out too late."

I wrenched my eyes away from her face and started rearranging things on my desk in a manner that I hoped suggested that I all at once disapproved of and didn't care that much about Monica's activities. Larry tossed me a look to inform me that he knew exactly what I was doing, and why, but that I should feel free to keep on doing it since it entertained him, and then he sidled up to Monica's desk with a grin. "Actually, I was thinking of someplace a little less... FBI."

"Like...?"

"I caught sight of a few places near my hotel." He stressed the words my hotel to ensure that I caught the innuendo even if Monica was too wrapped up in putting her desk back together to pick up on it herself.

She shut her desk drawer. "Good to know you haven't changed, Larry -- I can still drop you anywhere in the continental U.S. and you'll be able to find at least three seedy bars within half an hour."

"It's a gift. Or, you know, we could always trek over to Quantico, check out the ol' student hangs. I don't know about you, but when I was at the Academy we'd bus on over to Georgetown and GW..." he waggled his eyebrows. "College girls."

She barked out a laugh, "Thanks, the last thing I need tonight is some twenty-two year old kid calling me 'ma'am.'"

"Seedy hotel bar it is, then," Larry announced, sliding along the edge of her desk until he was almost right in front of her.

"Agent Reyes," I interrupted. She looked over at me expectantly, and Larry just smirked. "Agent Scully asked you to call her as soon as you got a chance to look through that file she left."

"Oh," Monica said, glancing between me and Larry, not criticizing me for speaking out of turn. "Thanks, John. I'll call her in a minute." She looked up at Larry with a shrug that was barely apologetic. "I've got a few things to catch up on here, obviously... what time do you want to meet?"

"Whenever you're ready, just call me." He leaned over her desk conspiratorially, and I tensed as I waited for him to touch her hair or kiss her cheek or lay claim to her in some other way, adding insult to possessive injury. He pulled away at the last moment. I could almost hear his sadistic grin as he asked, too loudly for the question to have been really meant for her, "Should we invite your partner who hates me?"

I pushed my chair back, unsure of what I was actually going to do to him, but ready to try, until Monica's worried expression deflated my rampage before it had a chance to start. She jumped up and held out a hand as though she could keep both me and Larry from doing anything stupid by sheer force of will. "Um... Agent Doggett isn't really-" she began, but I didn't let her finish making my excuses.

"It's all right, Monica." It was a hell of a weird challenge, but it was a challenge nonetheless, and, as a bonus, I doubted that Monica would really go back to Larry's hotel room if I was sitting right there. If Larry wanted me to ruin his evening by inviting me, then, more power to him.

"But, John, you don't have to-"

"No, I want to. Me an' Agent Walker here haven't really gotten the chance to get to know each other." I managed to make the words sound civil and composed, and I was rewarded by Monica looking more unsettled then I'd ever seen her.

Larry only shrugged, concealing his surprise within his unflappable idiot smile. "Suit yourself." He leaned over and kissed her cheek and mock-saluted us both on his way out. "I'll be upstairs, Monnie. Just ring when you're ready."

She nodded like she hadn't really heard him, and turned to me as soon as his footsteps disappeared down the hall. "John, you really don't have to do this. I know Larry was being an ass, but I promise-"

"Hey, it's just a few drinks between friends, Monnie," I said with my best Larry-imitation grin.

Her eyes flew wider than I'd ever seen them as she tried to process my use of Larry's pet name for her, and I guiltily enjoyed the way she seemed at a loss for words. It was a nice change of roles, since she'd managed to leave me tongue-tied with one emotion or another so many times over the past few days. To her credit, it only took her a second to regain her composure. "Fine, John, it's up to you." She sat back down at her desk and pulled out Scully's file like nothing had happened.

I felt a stab of guilt as the true childishness of my outburst made it up through the angry testosterone haze that had settled over my brain. "Look, Monica, if you really don't want me to go-"

"Why wouldn't I want you to go, John?" she asked with an infuriating, calm tone as she scanned the photocopies in front of her.

I didn't answer her, unable to force words through the layers of disgusting thoughts of her and Larry and an evening alone near his hotel.

She looked over at me without turning her head, as though I was hardly worth the effort. "I don't care, John. If you and Larry want to..." she turned the page she was looking at over with a tired sigh. "Just do whatever you want, okay?"

The guilt disappeared. If she didn't give a damn, then neither did I, and we could both be completely miserable all evening for all I cared. I snatched up the FBI policy guide again and leaned back in my chair. At least we were all going to be miserable together.

*****

The tail end of the Wednesday happy hour at the hole-in-the-wall Larry had selected for the evening was remarkably depressing. The small, poorly-lit bar smelled of the slightly sick combination of stale cigarettes and layers of spilled whiskey that had probably been soaking into the bar, tables and floor for years. The Longhorn, as the cracked, painted sign outside designated the place, had halfheartedly taken on a Texan motif. A pair of bullhorns were nailed behind the counter above a sepia-toned and beer-stained map of Texas in some earlier century. A few cowboy hats decorated the walls, as well as some old-fashioned lithograph prints. At least one glorified the battle of the Alamo, but most of the others looked like they depicted the California gold rush rather than something authentically Texan.

The human occupants didn't look much more inviting than the bar itself: a scattering of down-and-outs drinking and losing at scratch-ticket games at the bar, a pair of balding men and thickly made-up older women at the pool table in the back, and an aging woman behind the bar who absently dried glasses with a rag as she thumbed through Entertainment Weekly. In a business suit, I was ridiculously overdressed. Possibly the least attractive of the lot was Larry, clad in jeans and a Red Sox t-shirt and sitting at the far end of the bar watching the episode of Antiques Roadshow that was showing on the TV at the bar and half-heartedly scratching at a lottery ticket with a penny. It was completely beyond me why Monica had ever chosen to spend time with this clown.

He sensed my presence and looked over at me before I could turn around and leave. He put down his scratch card and swung around on his barstool. "Agent Doggett," he sucked down the dregs of his beer and put the bottle down. "Wasn't sure you were gonna show up."

I took a seat a stool away from him and nodded a greeting rather than having to force out anything civil.

"Didn't really think it was your... 'thing,'" he pressed. "Monnie makes it sound like you guys are all work and no play here in the D of C."

"Well, I'm here," I said.

He just smirked. "Where is the little lady, anyway?"

"Agent Reyes is comin'," I said. "Just went home to change." How the hell didn't Monica recognize how rude he was? She had never struck me as a particularly spineless person -- why didn't she just cut him loose if he was going to behave like this? Of course, I suppose the same question could be raised about why she didn't cut me loose after I routinely questioned her sanity for her investigative methods and had inexplicably been treating her like the enemy for the duration of this entire Welkin assignment.

"Got to make herself beautiful," Larry said, holding up his empty beer bottle until the bartender ambled over and brought him another. I ordered one for myself and she brought it to me without conversation or even eye contact.

"Nice place," I said, mostly to myself, as soon as she went back to her magazine at the other end of the bar.

Larry shrugged. "I've seen worse."

I was sure that he had.

The silence dragged on. I alternately watched Antiques Roadshow and the pool game at the back of the bar to avoid having to say anything. Larry finished up his stack of losing scratch tickets, and then pushed them all away.

"You gamble, Agent Doggett?"

"Waste of money."

Larry grinned. "Figured you'd say that." I tried to convey in one glance exactly how badly I wanted him to shut up, but he ignored it. I figured he had a lot of practice in ignoring those looks, or else he'd probably never say anything at all. It seemed odd to me that, in an occupation where he would be perpetually surrounded by armed officers, no one had ever accidentally shot him. "You don't like the risk, I guess."

"Don't you work in the embezzlement office?"

He laughed, like his having a desk job and my being out in the field every day had no bearing on a conversation about risk. I noticed the muscles in his neck tense up through his laugh, however, and patted myself on the back for striking a nerve. He probably lied about his job to get girls into bed all the time, telling them that he wrestled terrorists to the ground bare-handed rather than working nine-to-five as a glorified accountant.

"So this case you've got going... what is it? Ghosts? Alien vampires?"

Oh, right. I couldn't really make fun of anybody else's job as long as I was posted to the X-Files. "I take it Agent Reyes has been tellin' you all about the X-Files."

Larry snorted. "Come on, Agent Doggett, everyone in the bureau's heard of your little..." I waited to hear how he would describe it, "...ghostbusting operation. But I've got to admit, I never really thought it was for real 'til Monnie got called up for service last year."

"Well, it's real," I said, probably betraying more with my sigh than I wanted to. Some days I could barely wrap my brain around my own placement on this detail, but I had become just as bound up in it as anyone else.

Larry seemed undaunted by my meagre attempt at keeping up my half of the conversation. "Well, it seems like the place for her, anyway. She's been gunning for a job like this since she was nineteen years old. That girl's a loony bin and a half."

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" The fact that I agreed with him didn't mean I was going to let him get away with saying it.

Larry lit himself a cigarette and waved at me to calm down while he held in the first drag. Finally he said through a cloud of smoke, "Hey, hey, you know I think she's a doll, but you know what I mean." He grinned like we were old pals and nudged his cigarette pack toward me. I ignored it. "Hell of an imagination on that one. Did she ever tell you about the time she started reading all these supernatural horror stories that were supposed to have taken place in Providence?"

I shook my head and tried to look bored, but I was curious. I knew shamefully few anecdotes about Monica's early years and it seemed almost rude to admit that and ask about them now. I suspected Larry was only sharing this story to somehow prove how much more he knew about her, but I didn't stop him.

"Monnie got convinced that that she could channel H.P. Lovecraft through her dreams. Spent about a month drinking some weird tea every night to 'enhance her psychic abilities' because she thought some dead author was trying to, I don't know, narrate his next anthology from beyond the grave."

Half a laugh escaped in spite of myself as I tried to imagine that. It wasn't hard to do -- for all I knew, she still drank that magic psychic tea every night. It would explain a few of her more outlandish theories.

Monica chose that moment to make her appearance. "Good to see you two are getting along," she said, seating herself between us with a false casualness I recognized from seeing her in interrogation rooms. Something about the way she was carrying herself made her seem smaller and more vulnerable than usual, and it took some of the energy out of the strange anger at her that had brought me to this bar in the first place. She crossed her arms and tried to make it look casual.

"God, Monnie, you're going to be late to your own funeral," Larry laughed.

"Sorry. Traffic." She had changed into a high-collared, long-sleeved button-down shirt that looked restrictive and uncomfortable. I caught Larry appraising her appearance with a frown, and hoped he translated her overly chaste outfit into a clear message that she wouldn't be going back to his hotel room, after all. At least, that was what I assumed it meant.

I offered her a smile in greeting that was intended to be reassuring, but from her slightly confused expression I imagined my own discomfort was showing through. It didn't help when Larry immediately pulled out a cigarette for her and extended his own for her to light it from.

"No... no, thank you," she pushed his hand away, and I flinched at even the innocent contact. Monica's eyes instantly flashed over to me, and I looked away to keep from having my thoughts picked apart. "So, what were you gentlemen talking about?" she asked. Larry and I exchanged a glance. "Or is that a bad question?"

I must have looked guilty. I covered it up with a smile and a wave to the bartender, who looked thoroughly perturbed at having to get up from her magazine again. "Larry was just tellin' me about you and H.P. Lovecraft," I said.

Monica smiled weakly. "You told him about the sacrifice, didn't you."

"I didn't," Larry held his hands up.

"Sacrifice?"

Monica turned to me and silently opened her mouth, apparently waiting for the right explanation to come to her, and Larry jumped in to spare her the trouble. "Yep. Virgin sacrifice. Her first introduction to ritualized crime, as it were." He laughed in a way entirely unbefitting of a gruesome crime.

"What? Was there some sort of... incident at your school while you were there?" I had always wondered what drew a person to a career in ritualized crime.

Larry nudged Monica relentlessly until she brushed him off and explained with a huff, "They sacrificed me. On the main green. You know, chanted things in Latin and stabbed me with a foam dagger covered in ketchup that they stole from the theatre department." She was bright red, and managed an embarrassed smirk as Larry burst out laughing. "Apparently I was the only virgin they could find."

Larry snorted. "Yeah, that, or you just looked the best wrapped up in a white sheet."

I felt Monica's warning hand on my sleeve before the impulse to leap over her and kill Larry was even fully articulated in my brain.

The bartender coughed for attention. "You want somethin' to drink, hon? A beer?"

Monica nodded, then glanced between Larry and I and stopped the bartender. "Actually, can I get a rum and coke?"

"Some things never change, huh?" Larry laughed again. "I thought you started drinking martinis after you hooked up with that... what was his name? That New York guy."

"Brad Follmer," I supplied. It seemed odd to me that Larry professed to be such a fantastic friend of Monica's, and yet couldn't even remember Follmer's name, but it was possible that Larry's self-centred brain couldn't be bothered to remember details about anybody else's life.

"That was it," Larry half-sneered at her. "Wasn't he the guy who wanted to play James Bond in the bedroom? Shaken, not stirred..." He gripped Monica's arm and mocked in falsetto, "Oh, Pussy..."

She slapped his hands away. "Is that really necessary?" she hissed in disapproval, before turning back to the bartender with a forced smile. "Better make it heavy on the rum." She turned to me and opened her mouth, her contorted expression suggesting that she was going to explain, or apologize, or deny Larry's accusation about her and our former boss's bedroom antics, but she didn't say anything, because it wasn't any of my business and it wasn't something that partners discussed.

The bartender nodded sympathetically, the closest to interest or emotion I'd seen from her all night, and, with a curious glance between me and Larry, ambled away to mix Monica's drink.

There was a moment of awkward silence, during which I could almost feel Monica collecting herself. "I called Scully to let her know I got the files," she said. "There wasn't much in there, though. Did you get a chance to look through them?"

"No," I shook my head, and at her slightly disapproving glance, I couldn't help but add, "I figured that research is your department now."

She knew exactly what I was insinuating, and crossed her arms. "You could have called me if you needed me to come back to the office for something," she said, conveniently forgetting that she had left her phone off and ignored all of my messages. Perhaps she expected me to start drinking psychic tea so that I could radio her telepathically.

"When did you discover your workaholic side, anyway?" Larry interrupted, sounding thoroughly childish in his constant demand for Monica's attention as soon as the conversation had turned away from him for all of ten seconds.

She flashed a snarky grin, evidently pleased to have a reason not to continue talking to me. "Maybe if you found yourself a workaholic side you could finally get that raise Reynolds was always passing you up for and you could actually buy yourself a new car."

"Ha ha," Larry intoned dryly, "Reynolds just doesn't like me."

"Nor should he, the way you mauled his wife in the copy room at that Christmas party."

"Ex-wife now, remember?" Larry grinned. "And I still maintain that she mauled me. I really should look her up again, huh? And what's wrong with my car?"

"You drive a twenty-year-old Chevrolet."

"And? It's got character."

"It's got fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror!" she exclaimed. "And you wonder why you can't keep a girlfriend!"

Fuzzy dice aside, there seemed to be no lack of reasons for Larry to have trouble getting anyone to put up with him for very long. What the hell did he have that I didn't, anyway?

Of course it wasn't what he had, it was what he didn't have. He had probably met her at a college fraternity party during frosh week when there had been no agenda except for drinking and getting laid; I had met her eight hours after my only child had been kidnapped when the FBI took jurisdiction of the case. His history with her was bloodless. He didn't have the strange moral issues of partnership and responsibility hanging over his head. He wasn't a walking minefield of taboo emotional issues -- death, divorce, failure.

"The fuzzy dice are there for purely sentimental reasons," Larry winked at Monica. "Hey, John," I bristled at Larry's sudden use of my first name, like we were old buddies just because we'd now officially had one drink together. "Did Monica ever tell you how she and I met?"

"No." Monica said firmly, as both an answer to his question and a command for him to stop talking.

He appeared to be immune to her death stare. "Well?" he asked me again.

"Actually, she never mentioned you," I said.

Larry was too caught up in making her squirm to mind that she never talked about him. "It's a good story," he continued, nudging her arm.

"Larry, come on..." she switched to an exhausted sort of pleading. "Don't do this here."

He looked at me, and back to her. He held up his hands. "All right, all right, don't worry. I won't spill all your dirty little secrets if you don't want me to. I didn't realize you'd gotten so..." he glanced at me with a sort of muted contempt, "... sensitive about stuff, babe."

"I just... it was fifteen years ago. All of that stuff." She grabbed her drink from the approaching bartender before the woman could even come to a complete stop in front of us.

"I've got it," Larry told Monica before she could open her purse, handed the bartender a credit card and told her to hold on to it for the night. I wanted to argue Larry's right to buy my partner's drinks, but I couldn't figure out a way to do it without making it sound like I was completely possessively insane. "My treat." He shot me a smirk. He knew exactly what I was thinking.

Oh, well. Possessively insane it was. "You don't have to do that," I said. Monica raised her eyebrows at my protest, but said nothing.

"Hey, it's not often I get to spend time with my darling Miss Reyes and her man of the hour."

"Larry!" Monica snapped. "For God's sake, he's my partner."

"I know that," Larry replied with a teasing smile, and turned back to the bartender, who was still there observing the show. "And bring us all a couple rounds of shots, will you? What'll you have, Agent Doggett? Captain Morgan okay with you?"

He was challenging me to a pissing contest, and Monica realized it at the exact same moment I did. "Come on, guys, we all have to go work in the morning..."

Larry waved her off, like work was a minor consideration in his world. "I'm sure we can water yours down if you're worried I'll take you too quickly," he taunted.

She cocked an eyebrow. "Don't do me any favours, sweetheart. I've been drinking you under the table since you were eighteen years old."

"So what's the problem? Afraid I'll embarrass your new partner?"

I stood up reflexively. "Her partner can take care of himself."

Monica grabbed my shoulder and forced me back to sitting. "Stop it, both of you. Can't we just sit and have a civil conversation without doing anything stupid?"

"That's what we're doing, isn't it, Agent Doggett?" Larry asked, wide-eyed. "Completely civil."

"It's all right, Monica," I said.

"You mix or chase?" Larry asked me, nodding at the bartender, who started laying out shot glasses on the bar in front of us.

"Beer before liquor..." Monica warned halfheartedly, picking up my empty beer bottle to illustrate her point. The look she gave me clearly said that she was offering me an out she expected me to take, whether or not it would step on the toes of my masculine pride. She expected me to be the adult one, the rational one, to wimp out of the contest before it had even started to save us all a lot of trouble. Her ever-faithful, comfortable, dependable partner who was clearly no longer exciting enough to keep her interest in the face of young punks like Larry.

"You're only young once," Larry reminded us, like he'd already bested us both.

My rational side had no chance. "Chase," I said.

The bartender was laughing to herself as she filled the shot glasses. I took the first shot without even waiting for her to finish pouring our glasses of coke. Larry followed suit, the bite of the alcohol not even making a dent in his standard cheeky grin. Monica rolled her eyes dramatically as we waited for her to take hers.

"Fine," she said finally, and downed it. After chasing away the taste with coke, she managed a pained smile. "But you're both idiots."

*****

We were all smashed, Larry and I because we were idiots, and Monica because it was the only way for her to endure our idiocy.

"So... what... like spider-man?"

Monica flapped her hand as she swallowed a gulp of a dark liquid that I could only assume was rum and coke, although I had long stopped paying attention to who had ordered what. She coughed, and then continued. "No... the kid spit the stuff out of his mouth. It was more like... like those dinosaurs from Jurassic Park." Larry and I both shook our heads and she elaborated, "The ones that spit acid. C'mon, you remember..." she slapped Larry's arm for emphasis.

After the first few shots we had migrated to a booth under a lithograph of what appeared to be Davy Crockett wrestling a bear. After a few minutes of awkward staring, during which Monica had looked completely irritated by our behaviour, Larry had taken the seat next to her, leaving me to sit across the table and try to keep from glaring whenever he touched her.

"So... this kid spits up all over you... then what?"

"Then I had to wait for John to show up and rescue me!" Monica laughed, and flashed me an open, hazy grin that made me shamelessly grateful just to know her. "I thought I was gonna... come out with wings or something!"

Captain Morgan hadn't managed to rid Larry of his everpresent smug expression. "That would've been something," he said. "But then, you always liked being tied up."

I choked on the coke I was chasing with, and pretended it was unrelated to the conversation. I wasn't sure whether to be intrigued or revolted, as an unfortunate image of our former Assistant Director Brad Follmer popped into my head.

"I do not!" Monica squawked.

"Come on, Monnie... fess up... we're all friends here." He turned to me, smiling at the way I was still coughing. "Come on, John, tell her you want to hear it."

"I am not going to fess up!" she insisted. "Why do you keep trying to embarrass me?"

Larry gave her an indulgent look, like she was a five year old throwing a tantrum rather than a grown woman with a legitimate grievance against him. "Chill out, Monnie. Just kidding around, you know. You really have been in this town too long. You've completely lost your..."

She raised an eyebrow as the pause drew on, daring him to spell out what it was that she had lost. "Joie de vivre?" she finally suggested.

"I was going to say 'sense of humour,' actually," he smiled broader, maybe to show her that he didn't mean to hurt her feelings, or maybe just to show off his teeth. Maybe Larry thought teeth were attractive and that was why he refused to stop grinning like an idiot. "But, you know, it's the same thing. Don't worry, though -- I'm sure it's oppressive to be surrounded by concrete and bigwigs all day. Three days back in hot, sunny N.O. and you'll be back to normal."

"You goin' back to New Orleans all of a sudden?" I asked her before I'd thought it through, wondering whether that was why she had been avoiding me for two days. The drunken venom in my voice startled us both, and she looked at me with wide eyes.

"No, of course not."

"Good," I said, to fill the silence.

"At least there you got out every once and awhile," Larry barrelled through the awkwardness that had settled around the three of us.

"Larry..." she whined. She glanced at me and then back at him, and sighed. "I'm not really that bad, am I?" It was a joke, but there was something painfully honest in the question that made me feel horribly guilty for my part in messing with her life and her self-image. Larry clearly blamed me for exorcising the fun from his Monnie, and why shouldn't he? She had obviously had a great deal more fun at every other stage of her life than she was having now, chasing down goblins and ghouls with only a jaded ex-cop and a reclusive forensic pathologist for company.

"Of course you're not," I said, although she hadn't really asked me.

"See," she told Larry with a pout. "John thinks I'm fun."

Larry snorted. "He does, does he? I thought you said he was just your partner."

She glanced at me for a split-second, looking ashamed of the conversation and embarrassed to have me see this side of her, but she recovered in time to punch Larry in the shoulder and laugh.

She was so different around him. I didn't like it. I wanted Monica back, my Monica, the one who saw nothing boring about staying late at the office to review some interesting cases with me, who found it perfectly reasonable for the height of her week's social calendar to be dinner and a movie at Dana's, who would never avoid me for two days straight to do mysterious research without me, because she found my company comfortable and, I liked to think, enough. I could remember instances when she had bemoaned our communal lack of social life, because she was yet to truly resign herself to a life of televised entertainment and loneliness, but she had never actually done anything about it until Larry had shown up. As entertaining as her cheeky, spontaneous and entirely nonserious side was, I felt like she was pulling away from me irreparably, drawn to Larry's exhausting youthfulness.

I hated that she wanted anything I didn't have in me to give her.

I got so lost in pondering that topic that it surprised me to discover that Monica and Larry's conversation had continued without me. They seemed to be talking about Larry's case -- probably a last-ditch attempt topic to make the evening proceed civilly. I had seriously begun to doubt that there was a case at all, and that he was, in fact, solely here in Washington to piss the hell out of me, but he chattered on about audit data and financial books pretty convincingly for being more than half-drunk.

He took a long drink of the bottle of beer in front of him and crowed, "Poor Bobby Kendall spent the day today piecing together shredded memos looking for paper documentation of insider trading... I think the kid's going to lose his mind."

Monica laughed a little too loudly. "I remember when they had you doing that stuff. I guess you've moved up in the world, after the Savercom thing."

"What can I say? I'm a man appreciated in my own time," Larry said smugly, leaning back and crossing his arms behind his head like he was King of the fake Texan nightmare we had found ourselves in. "'Course, I don't get to run around chasing down alien vampire slime-demons in the middle of the night, or anything. I leave that to the professionals."

Monica laughed, weakly, and gave me a look out of the corner of her eye that said that I should be laughing as well. "Well, somebody's got to do it," she said. I finished the last of my own beer chaser and nudged the empty bottle a few inches closer to her, lest she decide she wanted to hit Larry over the head with it.

"And we all thought the FBI was too straight-laced for Crazy Monnie," he mused. "But girl, I think you're actually getting weirder as you get older."

She practically snorted her drink. "Sure, you call me crazy, but every year you bet that the Red Sox are going to win the World Series."

"Hey! What the hell happened?" he demanded. "You're a Sox fan, too."

"Only because you forced me to watch all those games with you. I can be a Red Sox fan and still be a realist." She shrugged expansively. "I believe in aliens, not hell freezing over."

I couldn't help but laugh at that, as Larry screamed, "Defector!" loud enough to make half the people in the bar look over at us.

She giggled too, and I couldn't look away. "It's part of their charm," she explained. "I like rooting for the underdogs." It suited her to be a Red Sox fan, I realized. Even if she hadn't gotten her degree in New England, she would be drawn to the unending hope in the face of a curse and an age-old streak of bad luck.

Larry waved her off with a disappointed sigh without even bothering to try and change her mind. "You're probably a Yankees fan, aren't you," he said to me with a resigned sort of annoyance, like just because he liked the Red Sox and disliked me, I would have to be a Yankees fan. "Figures."

My New York pride bristled. "Yeah?" I said, not intending to sound like I was challening him to make something of it, but sounding like it just the same.

Larry shook his head, and practically yelled, "God, Monnie, you left New Orleans for a Yankees fan?"

"Stop it," Monica fidgeted with her long sleeves like she was trying to pull them right over her hands. She gave me an apologetic look. "Please."

There was a long moment of awkward silence. Larry took three tries to light his cigarette. It hit me that he was halfway to falling over himself drunk, and that the rest of us weren't any better off. I hadn't let that happen in years, but somehow it was fitting that I should let my limits get away from me that night when I was already on such a roll with bad decisions. I watched Monica clumsily rebutton her shirt cuffs and collar like she wanted to disappear in the garment completely. I had rarely seen her look so ill at ease, and it was all I could do to fight off the desire to wrap her up in my coat and take her home -- take her anywhere but this bar.

Larry, as usual, was immune to her obvious unhappiness. "What's with the librarian look, anyway?" Larry exhaled smoke all over the place when he spoke.

"What?" she asked with cultivated innocence, balling up her hands to keep herself from fiddling with the long sleeves.

"I didn't even know you owned anything that proper," Larry said, giving her a leer.

"Leave her alone." Some combination of alcohol and hatred made my warning sound like a growl.

"I'm just cold," she answered him, practically curling into a ball. She pushed away the dregs of her rum and coke.

"You still feelin' sick? You prob'ly shouldn't be drinkin'..." I realized belatedly.

"Oh, so you're her moral compass as well as her partner, now, too?" Larry half-joked, half-accused me. "No wonder she never gets out anymore."

"I had a fever in Welkin. He's just asking after my health, you moron," she insulted him crossly, sounding as childish as she probably had the day Larry had first met her.

"You aren't sick," Larry declared, like he would know.

Instead of sticking up for herself, for some reason, Monica looked helplessly at me.

"What, now you're her doctor?" I asked him, cursing my voice for the way it sounded louder than I wanted it to. The table seemed to shift in my field of vision. "You don't know what you're talkin' about."

"I know better than you do," he said with what was probably trying to be a grin, but looked more like a sneer. "You've got the boy disease," he accused her.

"I'm going to go get us a pitcher of water," Monica said, half-standing, gripping the edge of the table either for balance or to keep her hands from shaking.

"No, you do." Larry fixed a glare on me. "What -- over him? Is that what this is all about?"

She said nothing for a moment, only sat back down and recoiled further into the booth as though the Davy Crockett lithograph would defend her against her bar companions.

"D'you know, she used to do this all the time," Larry drawled, a Boston accent creeping through. "Start running a fever, get sick as hell, we'd have to drag her to Health Services because she got all hung up on some some bastard who was messing with her head..."

"Larry, just..." she scowled at him. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"What, she's got to prove it to you now that she was sick?" I demanded.

Monica's eyes met mine and for a brief moment it looked like she was terrified of me. "Stay out of this, John," she pleaded, but I was well past the point of staying out of it.

"What gives you the right to show up here and mess with her life?"

"You want to talk to me about messing with her life?" Larry asked.

"She wanted to join the X-Files. I didn't make her do anything. She can leave whenever the hell she wants to."

"Stop it! Both of you!" Monica snapped, but it was as though she was speaking from across the room.

"So, that's the story, eh? You move across the country for him and now he doesn't even want you? Is that it? Jesus, Monnie, he doesn't even seem like your type."

I wasn't even aware that I had thrown the first punch until we were already on the floor. Any complicated self-defense skills were blanked out by testosterone and alcohol as Larry and I attempted to beat each other senseless the old-fashioned way. Something, a fist or an elbow, collided with my face as Monica screamed for us to stop with words I couldn't parse out. The pain felt good, necessary, finally being able to feel something besides frustration and exhaustion, finally able to drown out my brain's incessant chatter by just doing something. We got in a few more hits before Monica hauled me off of Larry with a flurry of yelled curses. The room spun and I waited for my vision to clear.

When it did, Monica was nowhere to be found. A few other bar patrons had come over to see what the excitement was about, and one of them was halfheartedly holding me down to keep me from attacking Larry again. My pulse pounded in my ears and pain began to register as my brain started to sift through my blood alcohol level and process what I'd just done.

The bartender was standing over Larry, watching as a female customer tended to Larry's bloody nose in the perfunctory fashion of someone who had to clean up after far worse bar brawls on a fairly regular basis. The bartender looked bored as ever as she mustered up the energy to drawl out, "Am I gonna have to call the cops?" as I knelt on all fours, trying to get my bearings enough to stand up.

Larry pulled out his FBI badge for the bartender's inspection and shot me a dirty look. The man who had been hovering over me handed me a napkin and made to wipe off the blood that Larry had drawn from above my eye, but I brushed him off and staggered to standing. "Where'd she go?" I demanded. I probably sounded crazed. I didn't care. I probably was crazy, but I wasn't about to sane up yet, not before I found her and made sure that ruining her evening and assaulting her friend wasn't going to be the last straw.

My rational investigator's mind kicked in just long enough to notice that Monica's purse was still in the booth -- she couldn't have left the bar without it. The cluster of people who had ambled over to watch the fallout of our spat parted for me as I struck off after Monica's next most likely route of escape -- a narrow hallway leading to restrooms and payphones.

I wasn't sure whether I was actually planning to break down the ladies' room door if she refused to talk to me, but, fortunately, I didn't have to make that choice.

"Monica." It took me two tries to get out her name. She was leaning against the wall of the hallway, her eyes closed. The emotion lining her face looked foreign on her -- I had never seen it before, and because I couldn't identify it, it terrified me. I had gone too far. We had gone too far. I reached through my brain, looking for sanity, sobriety, anything that could clear the fog and instruct me clearly on what to say to make all of this disappear and make everything go back to the way it was, when being partners wasn't awkward and being around her didn't make me lose my mind.

She didn't open her eyes, but she knew it was me. "Are you okay?" she asked, her voice choked, like she had asked the question a hundred times, a thousand, and was beyond caring about my reply.

She wasn't really asking, but I answered the question anyway. "I think so."

"Good," she said. I could hear how tight her throat was in her voice, as though she were physically choking in possible emotional replies, clearly willing me to back off and leave her alone.

"Monica..."

"I can't talk to you right now, John." She snapped, still not looking at me.

I had meant to say more, to make it eloquent or at least convincing, but once I had said two words, my mantra of the week, it was as though I had completely forgotten how to speak. "I'm sorry."

That got her eyes to open, and she flicked a disgusted gaze over me. Something about the way the glaring light in the hallway flashed off her eyes made it look like she was willing back tears. That stung more than anything else she could have said or done to me, and I willed her to yell, to strike at me, to do anything other than allow my stupidity to make her cry. I clung to the possibility that I was imagining it. Still, the sight drew me forward, like my lame apology would resonate better if I invaded her personal space.

"Don't." She held up a hand and then yanked it back when she noticed it was trembling. She gulped for air and then said, stronger, anger giving her words spine, "I'm leaving."

I knew that she only meant that she was leaving the bar, forcing an end to this disastrous evening, but my body reacted as though I was never going to see her again, constricting my airways until it felt like I was drowning. "I'm not letting you leave like this," I told her, everything pathetic about me resounding clearly in my voice.

"Why not?"

I could just stare dumbly at her in response. My head throbbed where Larry had hit me, and I could hardly think around it. I was out of practice with the words to keep an angry woman from walking away from me, and I had never been very good with them, anyway.

My silence spurred her question into a full-fledged tirade. "Why not?" she repeated, louder. "What are you waiting for, John? Do you want me to forgive you? Fine, you're forgiven. We're drunk. It happens. Larry used to get into fights--" she cut herself off and swallowed forcefully, reaching up to yank her hair behind her ears. Tears balanced precariously on her lashes but she ignored them. "Are you trying to drive me away? Because I'll go if you want me to."

"No... I'm sorry..." Alcohol was dragging out of her a level of honesty that I couldn't bear to witness. I couldn't have that much power over her. She couldn't be on the X-Files just for me. I couldn't take the responsibility -- if she ended up like Scully, lost and broken, clinging to threads of what she had once been, it couldn't all be my fault.

"I know you're sorry. You're always sorry. Just... stop it, okay?" She gasped for air. "Do you even know what you want?"

That was the question, wasn't it. "I don't know..."

She stared at me for a moment, looking almost sympathetic behind her fury, like she couldn't help but pity me. She drew in a shaky breath. I could feel her misery on my skin from that distance like it was my own.

"I'm sorry, too," she said finally, sounding angry and upset and resigned. She turned in the direction of the ladies' room, the closest escape route with a locking door. Panic and alcohol directed me and I put out my hands to block her path, hitting the wall on either side of her, barricading her against it with my limbs. I was losing her.

Her hands rose up reflexively to my chest in response to being trapped, and her touch burned through me until I thought I would break apart.

I waited for her to tell me to let go, to force me off of her, to despise me even more, but, for a split second, she waited to see what I would do.

I kissed her.

She gasped as my mouth met hers, but she didn't force me off of her and I didn't let go. My brain reeled. I had forgotten what this felt like, somehow, and the longer I kissed her the more completely I forgot everything except that she was warm, and real, and necessary. I hurt all over, as though every single nerve ending in my body had decided to go off at once, but her touch felt healing, saving, and her warmth stole over me like I was going to be all right.

Her arms wrapped around my neck and I felt something snap inside me. I wanted to break away, to tell her that I loved her, that I wanted her, to beg her to stay and try to turn me into whatever she needed, but I couldn't trust my voice. Legs faltered -- hers or mine -- and we slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor and I was crouched over her in a position that would have been strange and awkward if I had been in any mood to mind.

I didn't deserve it. I didn't deserve her, not even for a few drunken moments stolen in the back of a bar.

I didn't deserve it, but God, it felt nice.

Finally, the awkward angle broke the kiss apart for us, and I willed myself to open my eyes. God, I had done it. And she had kissed me back, the consequences of which seemed too remarkable and terrifying to contemplate in my current state of inebriation and shock.

She looked just as stunned. The tears that I'd seen brimming when I'd first found her in the hallway had boiled over and run down her cheeks. She made no move to wipe them away and I wasn't sure I had the right to do it for her, if our brief moment of intimacy, or whatever it was, granted me permission to touch her without guilt.

Neither of us could even manage a smile, only stared at each other. The old fears weren't gone, and they pounded down inside of me with renewed force. She looked defenseless and I couldn't help feeling like I had damned her. She appeared to be searching my face for answers, and I had no idea what she would find there, like I had lost touch with my own skin.

"What..." she started, unable to formulate a complete question.

I hated myself the moment I said it. "I'm sorry." The hopeful openness of her features disappeared almost instantly, and she drew her knees up between us to defend herself. I foundered for what I had meant to say, but only dug myself deeper. It felt like the room was spinning. "I didn't mean-"

Monica gasped out loud when the bartender spoke from the end of the hallway.

"I put your friend in a cab," she said. I recoiled away from my partner like I had been somehow violating her, and tried to pay attention to what the bartender was saying as my heart raced. She looked thoroughly unimpressed at what she might have interrupted. "Are you kids all right?"

"We're... um, we're fine," Monica stammered, struggling to standing. I leapt up to help her, but she slipped out of my grasp and stood up on her own. The subtle dismissal hit me like one of Larry's right hooks, and internally, I staggered under the impact.

"Okay," the bartender said, heading back into the bar. Monica followed her. I chased after her although I didn't trust my legs not to collaspe at any moment, grabbing at her sleeve.

"Monica-"

She gave me a guarded look. I could infer nothing from it. Her emotional barriers were solid when she wanted them to be. "I'm... I'm going to go now," she said as we arrived back at our booth and she grabbed her things. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"

I couldn't even nod in response. She wasn't waiting for an answer.

I could do nothing but watch her go.

*****

(to be continued...)

 

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