Unquiet Grave

by mimic117

Title: Unquiet Grave
Author: mimic117
Email: mimic117@yahoo.com
Category: X, MSR

Rating: R - NC-17, depending. Hey, it's me! Whaddya expect?

Spoilers: This takes place in season 6, sometime after Triangle. Unless you're one of the three people who still hasn't watched that season, you're safe.

Summary: "Death in itself is nothing; but we fear to be we know not what, we know not where." (John Dryden) A lot of snow, a couple of stranded FBI agents, strained nerves, and some unexpected visitors. How can anyone lie quiet in their grave with all that going on?

Archive: I'll do Gossamer and Ephemeral myself, thanks. Anyone else who wants it is free to filch at will. Just drop me a note so I can brag.

Disclaimer: Sheee yeah, right! Not even in my dreams.

Author's Notes: I was going to finish some of my half-written fics. Honest. But deciding something like that just makes my muse say "Wanna bet?" So I'm writing this instead. I have to keep my muse happy cause he's insane.

Beta Thanks: To Cindy and XochiLuvr for tackling the Beta Project From Hell -- again... and again... and again. You never let me be less than my best, and I appreciate that, even if I do grumble and curse you behind your backs. At least I know I'll get my turn, too. ~heeheehee~ If this story is any good, it's entirely due to them. And if there's anything wrong, it's entirely due to me not listening to them.

Feedback: Is printed out, fawned over, and stroked to tatters at mimic117@yahoo.com.

Special cyber kisses to XochiLuvr for building and decorating my fic home at www.surfacing.com/mimic117/Y'all come and visit. Your depravity levels may vary.


Unquiet Grave
by mimic117

April 1
Ashtabula County, Ohio
Monday
3:45 PM

"Mulder, how could it take you two hours to realize we're lost?"

"I didn't know we were lost. I only thought it was taking longer than I figured to reach the turn-off. It's hard to judge distances when you're driving in snow this deep."

"You shouldn't have let me sleep. If I'd been navigating, maybe we wouldn't be lost."

"I figured you needed the rest, Scully. You wouldn't have fallen asleep if you weren't tired."

"I fell asleep because I was hypnotized by the snow swirling outside the window. It's coming down even harder than it was two hours ago. Why didn't you wake me when you realized we were lost?"

"I did! I woke you just now. That's when I knew. Do you want to keep arguing with me, or do you want to help me figure out where we are?"

"Don't take your eyes off the road again. I'll keep watch for signs. You concentrate on --"

Scully was too late with her warning. Even as the words left her mouth, the wheels on her side of the car slid off the shoulder of the road. The crash wasn't sudden or jolting, but more of a pillowy slide into a ditch filled with snow. Mulder fought the wheel valiantly, using every ounce of skill at his disposal to prevent the inevitable -- including some very impressive cursing. It was all in vain. As the rental car tilted over the shoulder of the road like a carnival ride gone bad, silence descended on the occupants. The only sound to be heard was the muffled spinning of useless tires that weren't going anywhere.

Switching off the ignition, Mulder thumped his head in frustration on the steering wheel. Even if he could have come up with something witty to say, he would have kept his mouth shut in disgust. Soft, fat flakes continued to tumble down at an alarming rate, rapidly blanketing the windshield until the visible world was reduced to the car's interior. Neither of them stirred until she heaved a deep sigh and spoke.

"Let's get out of here before we can't dig to the surface."

Trying not to draw undue attention to his role in their mishap, he replied in a hushed voice, "Shouldn't we stay here until help comes along? It's pretty cold out there, Scully."

Her piercing stare informed Mulder that he was about to be grilled, and he'd better have the right answers to her questions if he didn't want to be abandoned by the side of the road in another ditch full of snow.

"Mulder, how many cars have you seen in the last two hours?"

Now it was his turn to sigh. "None."

"And how many houses have you seen in the same amount of time?"

"Umm, not many."

"Any signs for roads, towns, motels, rest areas?"

"It was snowing so hard I had to keep my eyes on the road... No, Scully. Nothing."

She jerked a nod at his responses.

"Well I noticed what appeared to be a house number nailed to a tree and what looked like a driveway cut into the woods just after I woke up. Maybe we can find help there."

He wanted to point out that wandering around in a blizzard probably wasn't a terribly sane thing to do, but he thought better of it after one look at Scully's set features. She seemed determined to cast her fortunes to the elements, and whither she goest, he must follow.

She fished around in her coat pocket, then pulled out her cell phone. Punching in three digits, she placed the phone to her ear, then frowned.

"I'll try again when we get out of this ditch. Maybe it's blocking the signal."

Putting the phone back in her pocket, she turned as far as she could toward Mulder. They sat there for a minute or so, until Scully raised both eyebrows. That's when he realized that she was waiting for something. He raised his brows in return.

"Aren't you going to get the luggage?" she asked.

"Why do you want the luggage?"

"It's cold out there, Mulder. Do you have any idea how many people die of hypothermia every year because they weren't wearing adequate clothing?"

"Let's put on more layers now."

"And then those clothes will get sweaty from the exertion of walking in snow. We'll end up chilled, and we won't have anything dry to change into."

"If that driveway leads to a chicken coop or hunting cabin, we could be walking a long time. You really want to struggle through a blizzard carrying a heavy piece of luggage? I don't think the pop-out wheels are going to work too well in snow."

"All the more reason to have extra clothes on hand for warmth."

Mulder could see from the expression on her face that he wasn't going to win this battle. Maybe he could at least come up with an acceptable compromise.

"What have you got in your carry-on bag?" he asked.

She tilted her head to one side and looked at him with a speculative gleam in her eyes.

"A couple changes of semi-casual clothes. A few toiletries. Some medical supplies. That's not a bad idea, Mulder."

"You keep medical supplies in your carry-on?"

"I like to be prepared. What do you have in your bag?"

"Oh, the usual." He waved a hand in dismissal. "Underwear, extra running clothes, jeans, T-shirts, a few issues of Celebrity Skin."

Scully's eyebrows rose again.

"Hey," he said, "I believe in the Boy Scout motto, too."

"You were never a Boy Scout."

"Well I knew a lot of Girl Scouts. Does that count?"

She ignored his question and said, "Carry-on bags it is. Now let's get out of here before we become part of the landscape."

He pulled on the door handle and pushed the door as hard as he could. The slant of the car and gravity were not in his favor, but he wasn't about to give up and suffer the further wrath of his partner.

A huge gout of snow slid off the door and into his face; he accepted it as penance for sins of commission.

Mulder considered congratulating himself on the foresight of renting a four-wheel-drive SUV, but he decided that back-slapping was probably premature. The rugged vehicle had kept them traveling for longer than a two-wheel-drive car would have, but in the end, it hadn't made any difference. He crawled between the seats into the back and handed their bags up to where she could grab them. She tossed them out his open door onto the snowy incline, then scrambled out after them. Mulder followed, boosting her up to the road with one hand while he dragged the carry-ons along with the other. He and Scully only slid back down the incline twice, which struck him as pretty good considering his sneakers were even less useful than her dress boots for traction in the slippery snow.

Once they reached the road, he took in his surroundings and had to admit that she was right. Getting out of the car was the best thing to do because at the current rate of accumulation their vehicle was going to be nothing more than a large snow-covered lump within a couple of hours. The skies didn't appear to be clearing at all, and the snow was already over his knees. Mulder could see where the chassis had been scraping ruts into the snow between the wheels -- ruts that were filling in as he watched. He slung his snow-covered bag over one shoulder, then turned and reached for Scully's carry-on as well. She sent him a glare that proclaimed, "Touch it and die." He waved his hand in a be-my-guest gesture. Instead of picking up the bag, she removed the cell phone from her coat pocket and clamped it to her ear again. The expression of annoyance on her face was not reassuring.

"Either we're out of range," she said, "or the storm is blocking the signal. I guess we'll have to walk if we want to find help."

He tried out an ingratiating smile. "Bring in on, Scully. I left my union suit back in DC, so I'm starting to feel a little chilly."

Shooting him one last aggravated look, she buttoned her coat all the way to the top and picked up her carry-on. Clutching it to her chest in an awkward embrace to avoid dragging it through the snow, she floundered toward the road and their car's vanishing tracks. The snow was packed down inside the impressions, making it a little easier to walk. Mulder followed her, each of them choosing one tire track so they could walk side by side.

They'd been toiling along in silence for several minutes, fat flakes pelting into their cold faces, when Scully pointed off to their left at an opening in the trees.

"Doesn't that look like a driveway to you?" she asked, tiny clouds puffing from her lips. "There's even a house number over on that tree."

He nodded. The trail through the dense forest was too straight and even to be naturally occurring. "Good eye, Scully. Let's hope the driveway isn't so long that they have to drive down to get the mail every day."

It very nearly was.

Even with Mulder in the lead breaking trail, it still took them the better part of half an hour, slogging through deep snow, to reach the house. By then, they were both cold and winded. The small, silent building in the cleared patch of trees was a welcome sight. They stopped at the bottom of the front porch steps to catch their breath.

"Lucy, I'm hooome." His joke might have gone over a little better if his voice hadn't sounded so wheezy.

"What if there isn't anyone here, Mulder?" Scully had already recovered enough to scowl at him. "We can't break into someone's house."

"I don't think we'll have to," he replied. "I'll bet someone's home, judging by the lack of tracks and that car-sized mound to the right of the porch."

"Well let's hope the storm hasn't taken out the phone lines."

Mulder glanced overhead, looking for the wires. Shit, there were no phone lines. He blinked several times in surprise, then scanned the surrounding trees, trying to find the perfect symmetry of a telephone pole. That was absent, too. He spun in a circle and looked back down the driveway for any sign of telephone, cable or electric lines leading to the house. Nothing.

Out of all the possible houses in all the possible towns in the whole state of Ohio...

Pointing upward, he silently drew Scully's attention to his discovery. But instead of having a tantrum and damning him to hell for getting them into this mess, she only grunted and said, "That figures." Then she indicated that he should continue to the door. Dragging her bag along as she trudged up the steps behind him, she had apparently abandoned the idea of keeping the luggage dry in favor of giving her arms a break. Mulder knocked on the door and watched it swing open.

"Oh good," Scully said sarcastically, "and here I was afraid I was going to freeze to death with my legs crossed on some stranger's porch. This is much more promising."

He walked through the door with her following a discreet distance behind. Without any discussion, they set down their bags and fished beneath their coats for their guns.

The house was silent and dim. Their breath continued to come out in misty clouds even after she closed the door behind them. There was no heat evident, either from the fireplace against the wall to their left, or from the wood-burning stove in the kitchen to their right. They would have assumed the house was abandoned if not for the dust-free furniture and accouterments of everyday life scattered about.

Mulder walked to a door at the back of the kitchen and looked out its window. No tracks led away from the house in that direction, either.

"Anybody home?" he called. When there was no answer, he turned back to Scully and shrugged. "Guess we should take a look around."

She snorted. "If we run into an irate homeowner sitting on the toilet, you get to do the explaining."

They lowered their weapons but stayed alert. Finding no light switches, they both pulled out flashlights to cut the gloom.

The long, ranch-style house had living areas on one end and bedrooms on the other. The main living space seemed to be three rooms all connected into one larger unit, without intervening walls. The front door opened straight into an area between the living and dining rooms. A sofa and loveseat were placed at right angles on either side of the cold fireplace to the left, with a couple of end tables and oil lamps to complete the grouping. The U-shaped kitchen was at the other end of the large room, a wood-burning stovepipe running through the wall to the outside and logs piled inside a woodbox next to the stove. There was an old-fashioned hand pump on the sink drain board, and lots of floor-to-ceiling cupboards. Coats, boots, umbrellas, coils of rope, baskets, hats, gloves and tangled scarves designated the kitchen door as the back yard entrance. Upon closer inspection of the kitchen, they discovered that the bulky refrigerator in the corner ran on a kerosene generator. It was now quiet, most likely due to a lack of fuel. In between the living room and kitchen stood a round table and two ladderback chairs in front of a china hutch which was pushed up against the wall next to the front door. Several Victorian-era gas lighting fixtures hung from the ceiling and perched on the walls. In all, an attractive, cozy space.

Moving to the left past the front door, they followed the back of the sofa toward the only hallway. Doors were lined up down the right-hand side of the hall, while the left was covered with family photos around two windows through which Mulder could see the storm raging outside. When Scully opened the first door next to the fireplace, she revealed a winding wooden staircase leading to a cellar. She called down the dark stairwell without receiving a reply so they agreed to leave that area for later exploration.

The next door opened onto a small bathroom, complete with a miniature twin of the living room fireplace. Smiling, Scully ran her hands over the enameled clawfoot tub. The ewer and basin on the pedestal table were a throwback to a much earlier age. She picked up the pitcher, then stopped, a frown creasing her forehead.

"If this is the bathroom, where's the toilet?"

Mulder was going to point out that there obviously wasn't one, but wisely thought better of it, considering the way things had been going. He decided not to bring up the lack of faucets on the tub, either. Glancing around for any answer that wouldn't piss her off further, he happened to look out the window in the end wall. The backyard had been cleared of trees in favor of small outbuildings and sheds. One of those buildings had a disturbingly familiar silhouette.

"Umm, I think it's out there, Scully."

Putting the pitcher down, she went to the window and pressed her face to the glass.

"An outhouse?" she whined. The window began to fog over as the snow increased its blizzard dance, turning the view white. "We'll get lost going out there! How are we supposed to use an outhouse in this weather?"

"Look on the bright side. At least it'll smell better now than it will in the summer heat."

The dirty look she shot him could have melted a crop-circle of snow.

Mulder suddenly snapped his fingers and left the bathroom, remembering that he'd seen a rope earlier. Walking back through the living room, he headed straight to the kitchen door. Yes, there it was, hanging with the coats and boots. Turning to his partner, who had followed him and now had a puzzled expression on her face, he presented the rope for her approval.

"I'll tie this to your waist so I can haul you back in if you veer off course," he said. "How does that sound?"

"It sounds like you want to find out if I know how to tie a noose," she replied. "I'm not letting you keep me on a leash while I'm doing my business. Next plan."

"I suppose fulfilling one of my bondage fantasies is out of the question, huh?"

A peeved frown was her only answer.

He thought for a moment, lips pursed, finger tapping his chin. Then his face brightened and he smiled.

"I'll attach the rope to the house and run it out to the facilities. That way we can use it as a guideline. It'll also give us something to hang onto if the wind is blowing."

"What if the rope isn't long enough?"

"One crisis at a time, if you please. Let's see if there's any place to tie it to the house first."

Mulder opened the back door and walked out onto the tiny stoop. There was less snow here than in the front, but it was still deep enough to cover his sneakers and creep up the legs of his jeans. Catching sight of a familiar outline around the porch post to his left, he grinned. Grabbing Scully by the coat sleeve, he pulled her up next to him and pointed.

"Great minds think alike. Your safe passage awaits."

In the swirling flakes, they could barely make out a dingy line of rope running from the post through the snowstorm in the general direction of the outhouse. He gave it a tug and nodded in satisfaction.

"Nice and sturdy, and not too high off the ground. Now we can answer Nature's call without straying into the woods."

Scully retreated back into the house and started rummaging through the boots beside the door. Pulling out the smallest pair she could find, she toed off her own dress boots and jammed her feet into the much larger rubber ones. Plucking a scarf from the coat pegs on the wall, she wrapped it around her head. She walked out the door, shoved Mulder to one side, grabbed onto the rope, and headed out into the storm without a word. He wondered whether holding in laughter would be harmful to his body. He decided that letting it out might cause even more damage. Returning to the kitchen, he replaced the coil of rope where he'd found it and waited for his partner.

It seemed to take her an inordinately long time to return. Watching out the window in the kitchen door, he was considering sending out a rescue party of one when he saw her materialize out of the snow and stomp up the steps. He opened the door and let her in with a blast of colder air. Shutting the door again, he helped her out of the snowy scarf, brushing her coat off as best he could. She took off the boots, dumping ridges of snow off the tops.

"Does the little agent's room pass muster, Scully?" He couldn't hide the amusement in his voice, but he did make a valiant effort not to smirk.

She ignored him. "Watch out for updrafts, Mulder. Hope you brought your own Kleenex."

Leaving him with his mouth hanging open and a smile forming on his face, she put her dress boots back on, hung the scarf on its peg, and headed for the hallway again.

He followed her and found her already checking out the third door in the hall. It opened into a bedroom, possibly for guests, since the furniture consisted of one double bed and a small dresser with attached mirror. He noticed that some of the dresser drawers were pulled out. Leaving her to inspect the room on her own, he continued down the hall to the final door. He stopped in front of it and turned the knob.

"I'd like to see what's behind door number four, Monty."

He pushed it open and peeked into the room. But instead of entering, he backed up two steps and pulled the door shut.

"Monty, I've changed my mind."

"Are you talking to me, Mulder?" Scully appeared in the bedroom doorway, a question in her eyes. The look he gave her brought her to his side in three strides. "What is it?"

Mulder glanced at his hand, still wrapped around the doorknob.

"I think I've found your homeowner," he said, pushing the door open again. They stood side by side, staring at the man's body stretched out on the bed. It would have looked like he was sleeping if it hadn't been for the hole in his temple and the blood splattered on the headboard of the bed.


5:58 PM

After discovering the murdered homeowner, Mulder and Scully went into investigation mode. She gathered plastic bags and latex gloves from her carry-on so that she could examine the body while he inspected the bedroom. Just as he was getting started, she brought in a lighted oil lamp from the living room, placed it on the dresser, then left the room again, muttering something about primitive working conditions. The resulting illumination was overly bright and wavering, but it was better than hunting for clues with a flashlight.

It was obvious to him that someone had gone through the dresser and closet, leaving drawers open and clothing on the floor. A pump-action shotgun stood in a corner of the closet, clean and unloaded. Shoe boxes on the upper shelf had been searched without any regard for neatness. A man's watch and wallet sat on the dresser, and a few pieces of inexpensive-looking women's jewelry lay undisturbed in a velvet jewel box next to them. There wasn't anything of interest under the bed -- not even dust bunnies.

Expanding his scrutiny outside the bedroom, Mulder noticed muddy footprints in the hall coming straight from the front door. He mentally kicked himself for not seeing them earlier, but the damage was done. The other bedroom yielded results similar to the murder scene, minus the dead body. The bathroom was clean -- literally. There wasn't much to explore in there, other than the medicine cabinet on the wall, which revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Drawers in the kitchen cupboards had been rifled, but he couldn't tell if anything had been taken. The living room end tables yielded nothing but stacks of board games. The china cabinet appeared ransacked, although a checkbook imprinted with the address of a local bank was in the drawer. Besides table linens and what was probably the "good" dinnerware, there were a small pile of books, some flower vases and assorted serving platters and bowls in the rest of the cabinet.

Even the basement had been turned over. The rows of boxes and jars looked as though they'd been shifted, and large items had been pulled away from the wall. He wondered what the intruders were hunting for.

The basement turned out to be an honest-to-God root cellar. By the glow of his flashlight, he found shelves full of cheeses, butter, carrots, potatoes, and apples in a small room to one side. The larger room contained smoked bacon and ham, dried fish, preserves, canned tomatoes, pickles. Looking at all that food, Mulder realized he was hungry. They'd missed lunch while driving through the blizzard, then the discovery of a crime scene had further delayed any thoughts of food. His stomach was now loudly reminding him of his neglect. He couldn't help releasing a whoop at the sight of so much bounty.

Having exhausted any possible clues in the basement, he climbed back up the stairs, nearly folded in half to avoid braining himself on the ceiling. Unfortunately, he wasn't quite in the clear when he straightened up. The hollow thunk of his skull meeting wood echoed loudly inside his head. He stopped walking for a second and gingerly probed the newborn knot on his crown. There was no way he would be telling Scully about this. Just one more for the collection, and it wasn't even bleeding. He was sure the throbbing would stop soon.

His half of the investigation completed to his satisfaction, he walked back down the hallway and poked his head into the end bedroom. Scully was bent over the body, taking notes on a small pad of paper. Her shadow on the wall looked like a giant towering over the murder victim.

"I'm gonna get a fire going before we both end up with frostbite," he said. "Then I'll make us something to eat. You hungry?"

"I will be when I get done here," she answered, "but I don't think you should start a fire. The heat will accelerate the decomposition rate of the body."

"Not as fast as the cold is turning me into a brass monkey, chilly appendages included." She shot him an incredulous look, to which he replied, "At least let me heat up the kitchen stove so we can eat something hot. It's at the opposite end of the house, so the body isn't likely to be affected by the rise in temperature... for a while."

Scully cocked her head to one side, apparently considering the idea.

"Okay," she replied, "as long as you don't start the fireplace until I'm done with my exam. I'll shut the door when I'm finished. Maybe that will be enough to keep it cool in here."

He left her to her work and retreated to the kitchen. Gathering wood from the firebox next to the stove, he started a fire, accomplishing his first goal of getting warm and dry.

While Scully continued to examine the body, he changed out of his wet sneakers into a pair of borrowed boots, then checked into provisions for supper.

The contents of the refrigerator were a total loss. With the generator off, everything was spoiled. He slammed the door and decided to let someone else deal with it.

The kitchen cupboards were well stocked with canned soups, pastas, and broths, boxes of rice and macaroni-and-cheese mixes, hot and cold cereals and bags of noodles. In spite of the family pictures in the hall showing the murdered man with a woman beside him, there was no evidence of a wife's touch in the house. Mulder figured she must have died years ago, judging by the layer of "bachelor" overlaying the feminine influence.

His next concern was water. The pump in the kitchen and missing taps on the tub indicated an absence of modern plumbing. It seemed likely that the pump's pipes would be frozen due to the lack of heat, but he decided to try it anyway. He was pleasantly surprised when a few vigorous yanks on the pump handle resulted in a gurgling gush of clear, icy water.

Finding a box of wooden matches in a tin holder on the kitchen wall, Mulder lit the chandeliers, brightening the scene in a satisfactory manner. Opening a cupboard, he pulled out two cans of chicken broth and set them on the counter. Checking the drawers, he located a hand-crank can opener. He found a tall saucepan under the sink and placed it on top of the now-hot stove, then opened the cans and dumped the contents into the pot. He tossed the empty cans into the trash container in the corner then set off for the basement to gather additional supplies. His borrowed boots rang hollowly on the wooden staircase as he descended. Sorting through the shelves, he picked out carrots, potatoes, and ham to add to the broth. A nice homemade soup was exactly what they needed after their long cold day.

Climbing the basement stairs, Mulder was extra careful to avoid knocking his head again. That meant walking crouched over all the way up the steps. Reaching the top, he unbent his back with a groan. Why did old houses always have low ceilings in the basement? Were all the people midgets a hundred years ago, or did they get tired of digging the cellar? From now on, Scully was in charge of trips downstairs. Stepping out into the hallway with his armload of food, he pushed the basement door closed with his hip. He caught sight of his partner at the same time, closing the bedroom door at the end of the hall. When she glanced up at him, Mulder motioned with his head for her to follow him back to the kitchen.

Putting the food and flashlight on the counter nearest the stove, he pulled a cutting board out of a drawer, then asked, "Were you able to determine anything?"

Scully nodded. "There are mice in the house, so make sure you check for holes in any bags or boxes of food before you use them." Stripping off her latex gloves, she tossed them into the trashcan. "The victim was probably in his late seventies, and has been dead two to three weeks, judging by the amount of decomposition and rodent predation. I can't be sure that's an accurate estimate on time of death, though. It would take a number of hours for any residual heat to dissipate from the house, depending on the outside temperature, then a day or so for the interior to become as cold as it was when we arrived; less with the door standing open. Once the house cooled, decomposition would have slowed, though not completely stopped. If we knew how long it's been this cold, I could give you a better guess. Cause of death appears to be a single gunshot to the head, probably from a small caliber weapon."

While she talked, Mulder chopped the vegetables and ham. He scooped up large handfuls and added them to the broth that was steaming on the stove. A fresh, smoky scent bubbled out of the pot, surrounding them with fingers of fragrant steam.

"So was it murder or suicide, Scully?"

"I don't think he could have shot himself in the head and then gotten rid of the gun. Neither of us saw it laying on the bed or the floor, which is where it should have ended up if this were a suicide. The bullet went through his head, through the headboard of the bed and into the wall of the house. I didn't want to disturb the body any more than I already have, so I didn't dig out the bullet."

He stirred the soup and gestured for her to continue. "What else can you tell me?"

She chewed her lip for a moment before replying. "Well, he was awake when he was shot, or maybe had just been awakened by the intruder. The shooter was most likely standing at the foot of the bed, judging by the angle of penetration. The blood pattern suggests that the victim's head was elevated when impact occurred, so he was definitely awake. If he'd been lying down, the bullet would have gone into the pillow and mattress. Since he was dressed and on top of the covers, I'm thinking he was taking a nap when the murderer entered the bedroom and startled him awake. Death would have been almost instantaneous."

"Murderers," Mulder corrected.

"What makes you say that?"

"Footprints. It was either raining or snowing when they arrived, because there are two distinct sets of prints dried onto the bedroom floor." He pointed to a cupboard and she opened it. She pulled out a box of oyster crackers and set them on the table while he stirred the soup. "The UNSUBs went straight from the front door into the bedroom. They thought they could find what they were looking for there. Otherwise, they would have walked through the house and their shoes would have dried off enough to avoid leaving prints before they reached the bedroom."

Mulder ladled the finished soup into thick earthenware bowls and then set them on the table. He placed a pile of paper napkins between the bowls, added glasses of water and spoons, then gestured for his partner to sit down. She scooted into a chair while he took the seat opposite.

"At least one of them knows this house," he continued. "The killers may have even known the owner was home since they came armed. They didn't shoot him because they got caught, Scully. This was a very deliberate act. I can't confirm any of that by following their trail, of course. Not realizing we were looking at a crime scene, we unknowingly mucked up the evidence ourselves. But there's enough left in that one room to give us some good clues about what happened. We'd better keep the door shut while we're here, to preserve what we can of the evidence. This snow can't last forever, and when it quits, we'll need to find a phone and get help from the local authorities."

Scully was already eating. Anxious to appease his stomach's hungry grumbling, too, Mulder leaned forward to dig in. He was brought up short as the holster at his back caught on the bottom ladder of the chair. He wiggled to release it, but it wouldn't let go. Twisting in an attempt to see what was wrong, he whacked his chin on the top spindle of the chair's back.

"What's the matter?" Scully asked.

Rubbing his chin, he crooked a thumb over his shoulder.

"I'm stuck. My gun is hung up on the chair."

Putting down her spoon, she stood and walked around the able to his side.

"Let me see."

She moved behind him and crouched down. There was some tugging, and the holster dug into his spine at one point, but at last he was freed. She gave him the leather case with the gun inside, returned to her seat, and resumed eating.

Puzzled, he turned the weapon over in his hands.

"Why aren't you stuck?" he asked. "You're wearing your gun in the same place I am. How come mine got caught?"

She patted her lips with a napkin before answering. "Height difference, Mulder. My waistband is lower than yours, so my gun passes under the chair instead of catching on it. Simple anatomy."

He thought about that for a second, until his stomach let out a growl. The smell of the soup was making his mouth water. He set the gun on the table and grabbed his spoon to appease the hollow ache in his middle. In his eagerness, he bumped the water glass, slopping liquid onto his gun. Dropping the spoon, he snatched up several napkins and blotted the moisture from his weapon. He huffed in vexation and looked around for a drier place to set it. Standing, he carried the gun into the living room and placed it on an end table. When he returned to his seat in the dining room, Scully was watching him.

"I don't want to try explaining a water-logged weapon to accounting," he replied to her unspoken question. "Might as well save myself the headache."

She dipped up a spoonful of soup and continued with her supper, apparently satisfied with his answer.

They both ate hungrily, finishing off the hot, savory soup and crispy crackers. It had been a strenuous day. The soup was almost gone before either of them broke the comfortable silence.

"What else did you find out, Mulder? Do we know who the victim is?"

He sipped the last drops from his spoon, wiped his mouth on a napkin, then replied, "Tonight's supper was courtesy of Elver Smallwood and the late Marie Smallwood. The driver's license in a wallet I found on the bedroom dresser matches the name in a checkbook in the china cabinet. There were only a few checks written down each month in the register. If my guess is correct, Elver and Marie grew a lot of their own produce and only went into town for things they couldn't grow, like Spaghetti-O's. The last check was dated twenty-two days ago, so your estimate of time of death may be pretty accurate. I'm thinking he went into town to stock up before the snow hit and met someone he knew who decided to pay a hostile visit. I still haven't figured out what they were looking for, but I wouldn't bet against simple greed. Maybe old Elver had some money stashed away for a rainy day and word leaked out. Or maybe he didn't, and everyone just thought he did."

"I wish he at least had a phone," Scully grumbled. She picked up the dirty dishes and took them to the sink. "This place isn't so remote that he wouldn't have access to phone lines. Why no phone? I don't get it."

Mulder got up from the table and followed her to the kitchen. He dragged a large pot out from under the sink and pumped it full of water. He set it on the stove, then stoked the stove with a couple of small logs before answering.

"I think the answer is in this house, Scully."

"How so?"

"Look at this place," he replied. "If you take away the modern furniture, it probably hasn't been touched since it was built. Those gas lights are originals. So is the sink pump. I'll bet Elver was born here, maybe even lived here all his life. He was used to doing without the modern conveniences. It's a slower way of life, but not so bad if you're not used to electricity and indoor plumbing. He was an independent sort of guy --believed in taking care of his own, not meddling in other folks' business, hence the homegrown produce and infrequent trips to town. Anything outside the house that made life easier was accepted -- like a car. I'm sure there's one under the large mound of snow next to the porch. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a riding lawn mower and a rototiller in one of the sheds. But the house was fine the way it is, so he never felt the need to improve on it. I rather like the retro lifestyle. I might not want to live this way permanently, but at least we'll be able to stay warm and feed ourselves. And once the snow stops, we'll get the authorities out here, turn over the crime scene to them, and hightail it back to central heat, microwave ovens, and flush toilets as fast as we can."

She sniffed. "Too bad you didn't embrace modern civilization, Mr. Smallwood. Top-of-the-line technology is going to help find your killers. I hope you appreciate the irony."

After pushing a stopper into the sink, Mulder poured in hot water from the pot on the stove, then added cold water from the pump. Opening a drawer, he removed a towel and a dishrag. He playfully flipped the washcloth at Scully, who tossed it right back to him. They pitched it back and forth a couple of times, until it landed in the sink. He grinned.

"You're all set to do dishes, Scully. Wash in the sink, rinse in the pot, and you'll be done in no time."

"What do you mean, I'm all set to wash dishes?"

"I cooked, so you do the dishes."

"While you were cooking, I was performing a post-mortem exam on our host, so it's not like I was sitting around painting my toenails."

"Oooh, what color are your toenails, Scully? Can I help you paint them next time?"

"Don't try to weasel out of this, Mulder. I'll wash and rinse, you dry." She suddenly shivered from head to toe, and peered around the kitchen. "There's one hell of a cold draft in here."

"I don't feel any draft," he said. "You're just trying to change the subject."

"I'm not changing the subject. I was making an observation."

"Well, your observation isn't going to make me forget that you're the one washing dishes."

"And you're the one drying."

"Hey, I never agreed to dry."

"Yes you did. I said I'd wash if you dried."

"You said. You didn't ask." Mulder melodramatically draped an arm over his forehead and moaned. "I worked my fingers to the bone, sweating over a hot stove so you could have a warm meal and this is the thanks I get. I'm nothing but a kitchen slave to you. Oh woe is me."

She fished the wet washcloth out of the sink, gave it a quick squeeze, then smacked him in the face with it. He grabbed it and countered by trying to stuff it down the back of her shirt. The resulting struggle ended when his hand landed in the sink, causing a large splash of water that hit her dead in the face. He snatched up the dry towel and presented it to his dripping partner. She glowered at him as she wiped her face, but the corners of her mouth kept twitching, as though a grin was trying to escape. He meekly took the now-damp towel out of her hands and indicated that he was quite ready to dry if she was done fooling around.

Even as they worked their way through the few dirty dishes, Mulder and Scully continued to tease each other. Behind them the curtains on each window moved in a non-existent breeze and then stilled -- swung and stopped, swung and stopped, all down the line, one right after the other.


8:45 PM

They finished the dishes, then built a fire in the fireplace, which took most of the available wood. Once they had a satisfactory blaze going, Mulder donned coat and boots, grabbed his flashlight, and headed out into the blizzard to hunt for the woodpile. He tied another piece of rope around their guideline as an anchor. Scully insisted on tying the other end to his wrist so he wouldn't drop the rope while trying to reach the nearby sheds. He squeezed through a crack, which was all the deep snow allowed when he opened the door, and found what he needed in the second shed over from the outhouse.

The small building was obviously intended to be a woodshed. By the glow of the flashlight, he could see saws, axes, and other tools hanging on two walls, a scarred stump in one corner, and stacks of dry, snow-free wood piled against the other walls. There was barely enough room to swing an ax if you left the door open. He was pleased to see that Elver had recently laid in a good supply of split wood.

Mulder filled his arms as full as he could manage and still use one hand to hold his flashlight and the rope. It would take several trips to bring in enough logs to last the night and into the next day. Trudging back out into the storm, he pushed the door closed as much as possible and slogged toward the house, rope line firmly in hand. Scully was waiting at the door to untie his wrist and take some of the wood from his arms.

The few logs he'd managed to bring in looked lost inside the living room woodbox. He groaned at the thought of how much work it was going to take to fill both this one and the one next to the kitchen stove. A piece of cloth peeking out from underneath the box caught his eye; it turned out to be a canvas wood tote. He smiled with relief. This would certainly make the chore go faster.

Once the boxes in the living room and kitchen were filled, he hung the tote behind the back door and returned to the fireplace's warmth. He stopped rubbing his hand in the heat and watched as Scully picked up her carry-on bag and started to half-drag it down the hallway.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

She halted, and swayed in place for a moment before turning to answer.

"I'm going to put my bag in the bedroom and get ready for bed. What does it look like I'm doing?"

"Why don't you leave your luggage out here?"

"Because we won't be tripping over it if I put it in there."

She turned back to the hallway and continued her trek to the bedroom. He thought about it for a moment, then picked up his own bag and followed her. He was halfway to the bedroom when he remembered his gun. It was still sitting on the end table where he'd put it after his accident with the water glass. He should have put the holster on again as soon as they were done with dinner. Mentally chiding himself for being careless, he retraced his steps to retrieve the gun. He'd no more than cleared the corner of the fireplace when there was an explosion in the living room.

Mulder dropped to the floor, hand automatically reaching for his weapon. He felt foolish when it came up empty. As he peeked around the wall into the other room, Scully's footsteps sounded behind him in the hall. He glanced back over his shoulder to see her standing with her gun drawn, head swiveling as she checked the hallway, all traces of exhaustion temporarily gone from her face.

"What the hell was that?" she asked.

He held his hand up to keep her back as he peered around the corner again. At first, the living room appeared to be the same as when he'd left it. The fire still blazed, the lamps still burned, the room was undisturbed -- except for the fact that his gun now lay in the middle of the floor.

Leaving his bag where it had fallen from his shoulder, he stood and slowly moved into the other room. He automatically scanned the kitchen and dining area as he moved toward his weapon. He poked it with his toe before bending down to lift it gingerly between two fingers, still inside the holster. Unsnapping the leather case, he pulled out the gun and set the holster aside. Ejecting the clip, he examined it, then brought the barrel to his face and sniffed. He stared at it in surprise.

"My gun fired, Scully."

He turned to find her standing right behind him, the muzzle of her own gun now pointed at the ceiling. She frowned.

"Fired? How?"

"I don't know." He showed her the clip, then slammed it back into the breech. "The safety's off, one round is spent and there's a strong smell of cordite."

"What were you doing with it?"

"I wasn't doing anything with it. It was sitting on the table. I was in the hall when it went off."

"Are you sure the safety was on?"

He snorted. "Of course I'm sure! I have no idea how it happened, but it certainly wasn't my doing."

In spite of her skeptical expression, he knew he wasn't to blame. Following the direction the gun had been pointing when he first laid it down, he located a small hole in the back wall. He caught her eye and demonstrated the trajectory with his finger.

She lowered her gun.

"Maybe being too close to the fireplace set it off," she said. "It was really cold in here earlier and you got it wet during supper. Maybe the moisture and the change in temperature when you set it near the fireplace were enough to cause a reaction. It shouldn't have responded that way, but I suppose it could."

"I wonder..." Mulder gazed around the living room. There was nothing out of the ordinary, other than his gun firing itself. It had to be a fluke. Probably wouldn't happen again in a million years. But just in case...

He slid the gun back into the holster, then headed toward the hallway, keeping the weapon pointed at the floor. As he passed the carry-on bag where he'd dropped it in the hall, he snatched it up and continued on.

"Mulder, where are you going?"

"I'm securing my weapon, Agent Scully. I suggest you do the same."

Entering the guest room, he walked to the dresser and placed his luggage on top. He looked up when she followed him through the doorway.

"You can't leave your gun so far out of reach, Mulder." Scully's bag lay on the floor where it had apparently been dropped in her hurry to reach him. She bent over to pick it up, then set it on the dresser. "This is a crime scene. What if --"

"We're snowbound, Scully." He cut her off, waving a hand at their surroundings. "We can't get out, so it's unlikely that anyone else can get in. I'll lock the doors. We'll be fine. I'm more concerned about another misfire -- this time with one of us in the bullet's path. I'm not willing to take that chance. Are you?"

Without waiting for a reply, he removed his gun from the holster and ejected the clip again. He checked to make sure the weapon's chamber was empty and the safety engaged. Then he took the clip over to the closet, opened the door, and placed the ammo on a shelf. Returning to the dresser, he replaced the empty gun in the holster, stowed it in his carry-on, then regarded Scully with a question in his eyes.

She blinked at him for a few seconds before reaching around to her back and taking off her holster. Unsnapping the leather, she pulled out her weapon and performed the same checks as her partner. Her ammo joined his in the closet before she put the holstered gun in her bag and turned to him. He smiled his approval.

Moving to leave the room, he bumped into the bed. Seeing the neatly made mattress with the plump pillows at the head reminded him that it was getting late and they were both tired. Shivering in the cold air, he eyed the double bed in apprehension.

One bed. One small bed. Sleeping in a small bed with Scully. If only that meant what it sounded like. He wasn't even thinking in the literal, Biblical sense, either -- more in the wrapped-around-each-other, sharing-warm-breaths sense. Instead, he'd have to lie there next to her, all night long, without touching her the way he longed to. And in the morning, he'd wake up and pretend that they were nothing more than best friends -- that he hadn't told her "I love you" only to be brushed off with an "Oh brother."

This was going to be a very long night.


10:17PM

"Don't drag it, Scully. Pick it up and carry it."

"That's easy for you to say, Mr. Six-feet-tall. It's almost as big as me. So if you don't mind, I'm dragging instead of carrying."

"Get a better grip and hoist it. My end is slipping because I'm trying to haul your half, too."

"It's not the grip, it's the weight, Mulder. This is heavy. Slow down."

They shuffled down the hallway past the back of the sofa, lugging the mattress from the guest bedroom. He'd suggested sleeping on the floor in the living room, with the fireplace pulsing out waves of heat, would be preferable to bunking down in the cold bedroom with a corpse next door. It had taken very little discussion to reach a consensus. They had also agreed that a mattress would be more comfortable than the hardwood floor, so they decided to haul one off the double bed and into the living room.

"Mulder, watch out for the lamp."

"I'm nowhere near the lamp."

"Yes you are. You'll hit it if you don't swing out farther."

"I can't swing out farther, Scully. I'm dragging your half of the mattress as well as carrying my own."

"Well whose idea was it to sleep out here in the first place?"

"It was mine, but you agreed with me. Now swing your end around so I can get past this table."

With a little more pushing and a lot more squabbling, they shoved the mattress into the space between the sofa and loveseat, then dropped it to the floor. Unfortunately, there was scarcely enough room to fit the bedding in a horizontal position, which meant that Mulder's legs became trapped against the sofa when the mattress fell. He shoved against the couch hard enough to scoot it backwards, then pulled his feet out from under the bedding, but not before the mattress' hard edge gave his shins a good scraping.

He started to complain about the mishandling of her end of the chore, but stopped himself when he saw her drooping mouth and tired eyes. It had been a hell of a day. At least they now had a warm, comfortable place to spend the night.

She went back to the bedroom and returned with sheets, pillows, and blankets. They made up the mattress on the floor and plumped the pillows. This was much better than being stuck in their rental car at the bottom of a snowy ditch.

Scully yawned. "Guess we'd better get ready for bed. I don't know about you, but I'm beat. You want to use the bathroom or the outhouse first?"

There was an off-color remark in there somewhere, but he tamped it down and stored it for another day.

"Why don't you hit the necessary before you get changed, while I heat water for washing up? I'll shut down the lights and bank the kitchen stove before I make my run outside."

"Sounds like a plan." She yawned again as she struggled into a coat and boots, then stumbled out the back door into the falling snow, closing the door behind her. He watched her with a small smile on his lips. As cold as it was, at least she wouldn't be able to fall asleep out there. He suddenly yawned, too, and decided he'd better heat up the water before it was his turn to use the facilities.

Once he finished refilling the large pot at the pump, he hoisted it to the stove top. He checked to make sure the fire was set for the night, then walked from room to room turning out the lamps and chandeliers. He left one lamp burning in the living room so they wouldn't trip over anything with nothing but the flickering fireplace for illumination.

Figuring he should probably get whatever he needed out of his bag so Scully could have the bedroom for changing, he went back to the cold guest room once more. He pulled a clean pair of boxers out of his bag and set them on the dresser. When Scully shuffled through the doorway and headed for her carry-on, he moved out of her way. Leaving her rummaging tiredly through her bag, he went to get the pitcher from the bathroom. He took it into the kitchen and filled it most of the way with hot water from the pot on the stove then added a little cold from the pump. In spite of the fact that the water was lukewarm, the pitcher was letting off steam when he carried it into the unheated bathroom. On his way out, he passed Scully coming in. She attempted a smile, but it didn't quite bloom past a wince. He patted her on the shoulder and headed toward the back door to hit the john.

By the time he returned from his chilly run to the privy, she was already tucked under the covers. Mulder went back into the bedroom and retrieved the shorts he'd left on the dresser. He got the empty pitcher and basin full of used water from the bathroom and carried them to the kitchen sink, dumping the bowl and refilling the stoneware pitcher. Then he returned to the bathroom where he washed as best he could with a cloth and warm water. He would have preferred a real bath to cut through the sweat and grime without getting chilled in the process. The wistful look on Scully's face when she'd entered the bathroom earlier told him that she was thinking the same thing, although he suspected her thoughts included scented bubbles in the water with plenty of time to relax and unwind in the deep tub. He made up his mind that she would have a chance to indulge herself the next day. It wouldn't be any trouble to build a fire in the small bathroom fireplace and make sure she had enough hot water for a nice long soak.

When he emerged from the bathroom, Mulder was struck by the stillness in the house. It wasn't silent, by any means --snow was still pinging against the windows, the fire crackled and popped, and the wood structure reacted to the heat by groaning as it expanded. Yet there was a sense of peace and comfort, an assurance that they were together and safe. Maybe Elver knew what he was doing after all, living without the modern conveniences.

The air was still cold in the hallway, but warming nicely near the mattress. He smiled at the Scully-sized mound hidden under the blankets. A wave of gratitude washed over him without warning. He didn't want to think about what this night might have been like if they'd slid off the road into a tree instead of finding shelter. Who knew that driving from Cleveland to Erie, PA, would send them into a once-in-a-hundred-years lake-effect blizzard?

He stretched his tired muscles and yawned. It was a bit earlier than his usual bedtime, but it had been a strenuous day. Time to get some sleep. Stripping down to boxer briefs, he tossed his clothes on the couch, draping his damp jeans over the arm to dry. He pulled back the blankets just enough to make room for his body, then slid underneath. The air outside of the covers might be toasty warm, but the bed was freezing. He scooted closer to Scully, searching for traces of heat. It wasn't a question of putting the moves on his partner. It was a matter of surviving the full-body tremors that were racking his frame on the frigid mattress. He was still wondering why he couldn't find her under the covers when he bumped into a fleece-covered shape which snuffled and mumbled in response to his nudging.

Lifting the blankets just enough to peek, Mulder found his partner swaddled in a navy sweatsuit -- one that looked exactly like the set he'd packed in his bag to use for running. The socks looked like his, too. One of Scully's hands reached into the cold air at her back and swatted around until it latched onto the covers. She drew them down and tucked them under herself as he watched her with a smile. It tickled him to think of her wearing his clothes without bothering to ask permission. Maybe she figured he owed her, after everything they'd been through that day. Or maybe it never occurred to her that he might mind. Of course, he didn't mind. In fact, he wondered how she might look wearing nothing but one of his dress shirts and beaming a secret smile at him. The improbability of such an event ever happening set up a tight ache in the middle of his chest.

He let her settle into sleep again before gently releasing her hold on the blankets and covering himself. The room was lit by the flickering fire as well as the one oil lamp he'd forgotten to blow out. As his breathing slowed into sleep, the wick on the blazing lamp cranked slowly downward until the flame went out. All that remained to illuminate the room was the fire.


Tuesday
2:57 AM

It was the cramp in his left shoulder that woke Mulder. He'd been sleeping on his arm the wrong way and now his hand was numb. He turned over, groaning at the resulting ache in his muscles. Pins and needles assaulted his fingers as he tucked his arm back under the warm blankets. He snuggled down into the pocket of heat next to Scully's back, brushing strands of her hair off his nose, and waited for sleep to return.

In that limbo state between sleep and wakefulness, he thought he heard the sound of footsteps. Instantly alert, he held his breath. The steps were moving past the front door, but when he ventured to peer in that direction, nothing was there. The sound continued down the hallway, then stopped. Silence for several heartbeats, then a new sound -- a door creaking open, then closed.

Fully awake now, he reached to the side of the bed for his weapon before he remembered that the guns were in another part of the house. He scooted out from under the blankets and tiptoed toward the front door. It was still locked from the inside. Glancing toward the back door, he could see even in the dim light that it was locked, too. Looking down at his feet, he noticed that the floor was devoid of snowy footprints. Damn, he wished he had his gun with him. Glancing around, the most logical weapon he could find was the fireplace poker. He padded over to the hearth and picked it up. It might be cliche, but at least it was solid and heavy. Hefting it in his right hand to test for balance, Mulder crept down the hallway as softly as he could. When he opened the door to the guest bedroom, he realized that it didn't creak. It didn't make any noise at all, so that wasn't what he'd heard. He backtracked and tried the basement door. It, too, opened silently. There was no light downstairs, and he didn't think anyone would attempt those steps without at least a flashlight. So that left the bathroom and the master bedroom.

Swallowing hard, he peered back into the living room. Scully seemed to still be sleeping, the blankets nearly covering her face. He listened to her soft breathing. When he was satisfied that she was asleep, he gripped the poker more firmly and snuck down the hall. At Elver's bedroom door, he closed his free hand around the plastic bag Scully had placed over the knob to preserve any fingerprints. He held his breath, counted to three, then turned the knob. The door's hinges let out a shrill creak as he pushed it open as far as he could without hitting the wall.

The room was empty.

Or as empty as a room can be with a dead man inside. Elver Smallwood still lay where he'd been murdered, although thanks to Scully, he was now respectfully covered with a sheet. Creeping across the room, Mulder peeked into the tiny closet and even got down on his knees to look under the bed. The corpse appeared to be the sole inhabitant until a mouse scuttled past, right under Mulder's nose. He jumped and banged his head on the underside of the bed frame.

Rubbing the back of his head, he left the bedroom, and pulled the door closed behind him. The noises he'd heard must have been nothing but the warmed building contracting as it cooled off. Or maybe there were mice in other parts of the house, too. He walked back to the living room, glancing down the hallway once more before moving to the fireplace. He stirred the coals, and then placed the poker back in its place before adding two more large logs to the fire. He stayed crouched in front of the coals, warming his chilled skin until the wood caught. Returning to the mattress on the floor, he scooted under the blankets and lay on his back for a long while, all senses on the alert. As the minutes passed without any further disturbances, his eyes grew heavier and heavier until sleep came to claim him again.


7:38 AM

The second time Mulder awoke, he was aware of two sensations. First, his arms were freezing cold. Not surprising, since they were outside the blankets. The fire had burned down overnight, so the whole house was going to be very chilly until they could get the stove and fireplace going again.

The second sensation was one he hadn't experienced in a long time. A warm body was tucked up against his back, one leg thrown over his hip and an arm draped across his ribs, fingers twitching against his naked chest. The feeling of moist breath puffing against his back was doing disturbing things to the rest of his anatomy. He wondered how he was going to get out from under his partner without waking her. If he thought she would be pleased by their current situation, he would have tickled her awake and tried to get lucky. But after Scully and the guys had fished him out of the Bermuda Triangle, she'd made it pretty clear that she wasn't interested in a deeper relationship with him. She'd blown off his declaration and never mentioned it again. That hurt, but he'd gotten the hint. His body would just have to quit being so happy before it got its butt kicked.

Scully mumbled in her sleep and rubbed her nose into his back. He suppressed a groan through sheer force of will, but he couldn't stop the shudder that ran the length of his body. If he didn't get out of the bed soon, he was afraid he'd have to lie down naked in the snow to get rid of the kickstand currently propping him up in bed. His problem was solved when she rolled over, taking the covers with her. He sprang off the mattress, grabbed his jeans and hopped into them one leg at a time as he headed for the coat rack. He snagged a jacket and put it on before he opened the door.

The sight that greeted him was most unwelcome.

The path he'd painstakingly broken to the outhouse the night before was gone, the cut hidden under a new blanket of snow. Huge clumps of flakes continued to drop silently from the leaden sky. The amount of time it would take to wade through the thigh-deep drifts struck despair into his heart. The combination of just-out-of-bed warmth and standing-in-the-snow-barefoot cold resolved his dilemma -- Mulder unzipped his jeans and proceeded to take his morning leak off the side of the porch.

When he went back inside and shut the door, he was met by his sleep-tousled partner, hands on hips and lips pursed in disapproval.

"You'd better not have been doing what I think you were doing."

"I'm sorry, Scully, I didn't know you wanted to watch. Just give me a couple of hours and a few glasses of water --"

She ignored his remark and pushed her feet into a pair of boots. "If you're done marking your territory, maybe you could make us some breakfast before we try to get out of here." She pulled on a coat and wrapped her head with a scarf.

"We can't leave now, Scully."

"Sure we can. We'll have a good breakfast, borrow extra clothes and heavier shoes, and then wait by the car until someone comes along to help us. Or we can try walking to another house. There must be one nearby. This isn't the turn-of-the-century wilderness, no matter how outdated this house is."

When she opened the door, a blast of wind puffed a mound of snow off the porch and onto the kitchen floor. Her jaw dropped as she took in the fat, falling flakes, then closed with a snap as she turned to him.

"We'll discuss it when I get back."

Mulder's hand on her arm made her pause.

"That snow is going to be up to your waist." He held her gaze, trying to convey the serious nature of his words. "Don't expend your energy trying to adhere to social conventions that are pointless and dangerous under these conditions."

He didn't quite know how else to suggest that she pee off the porch without coming right out and saying it, and he couldn't tell if she'd gotten his oblique message. However, the amount of time that she spent outside after shutting the door seemed to indicate that she'd taken his advice. He hung up his coat and wisely chose to forego any comments about cold drafts or yellow snow.

Scully didn't offer her observations on the experience, either. She shook the snow off her coat and scarf, then toed off the boots before returning to their previous discussion about leaving.

"The roads are probably better than the yard." Her tone of voice lacked conviction, but he hadn't expected anything less than her usual persistence. "They'll have it plowed and salted by now. I'm sure we'll be fine once we get beyond the driveway to the road. We can still leave today."

"No, we can't." He ran a hand through his hair and huffed in exasperation. "Look, Scully, I'm as anxious to leave as you are, but hiking out in this weather is suicide. The snow is deeper than when we got here yesterday, the wind is howling, the temperature has probably dropped, and I really don't think anyone is going to be cruising the roads looking for stranded travelers. We've got a sure thing here. Let's stay until we can be certain we aren't risking our lives by leaving."

She blinked at him. "I can't believe it."

"What?"

"You're actually trying to be the voice of reason for once. Did we switch bodies overnight?"

He smirked. "Can I check and see if you're wearing mine? The clothes sure look familiar."

A faint blush swept over her cheeks. Clearly, she was embarrassed that he'd caught her pilfering his clothes.

"I was freezing and I didn't think you'd want me sticking my cold feet on you all night."

"Ohhhh, Scully..." Mulder purred, "I know lots of ways to keep warm. You should have said something last night."

Her blush deepened.

She spun on her heel and walked toward the hallway.

"I'm going to get dressed and have breakfast. I suggest you do the same unless you're planning to spend the day half naked."

Glancing down, Mulder remembered that he was barefoot and shirtless. And the house was quite chilly, according to the state of his nipples and goosebumps. He wondered if she had noticed. Maybe that's why she'd stomped off so fast when he mentioned other ways of warming her up. He snorted at the idea that she would ever be affected that way merely by seeing his bare chest. That happened in romance novels and on television, not in real life. Dejected by his own thoughts, he walked to the living room and donned yesterday's shirt. He worked on getting the fireplace going before turning his attention to the kitchen stove. By the time he was done, Scully had emerged from the back room wearing a sweater, jeans, and boots. Her hair was combed and her blush subdued. He silently took his turn to change, pushing unpartnerly thoughts about how beautiful she looked into a dark corner of his mind. It was shaping up to be a very frustrating day.


9:50 AM

Living without modern conveniences was damned hard work, Mulder decided. Everything seemed to take three times longer than normal to accomplish -- heating water, making oatmeal, washing the dishes. And that wasn't even counting the amount of time it took to trek to the outhouse and back. He finally broke down and shoveled a new path. Scully had insisted on tying a spare piece of rope from the guideline to his belt loop so he wouldn't wander off in the blizzard. It was probably a good thing she did -- the path began meandering a bit too far to the left, toward the woodshed. When he caught himself drifting, he finished a branch off the main path to the shed, then returned to clearing one for the outhouse. Hopefully the paths would be usable for most of the day.

Something else that took an exorbitant amount of time was warming up after being outside. The house was small enough that the fireplace and stove provided plenty of heat, but outdoors the temperature was down so low that he became thoroughly chilled after an hour, even when dressed in layers of clothing. Mulder rubbed his tingling hands together in front of the blazing hearth as his damp pant legs steamed in the heated air. He turned when the kitchen door opened.

"You really don't have to do that, Scully," he said through chattering teeth. "I can get more wood as soon as I warm up a bit."

She lugged the canvas tote to the fireplace and dumped the logs onto a growing pile. Pushing back her scarf, she revealed a bright red nose and watering eyes. She rubbed mittened hands over her face and gave a watery sniff.

"Nonsense, Mulder. You need to get warm, and we need more wood for the fire to get you warm. Besides, you already did the hard work by shoveling the pathways. It's no trouble at all to reach the woodshed. Two more trips and I think we'll have enough to last us through the night. Then, with any luck, we'll be able to get out of here tomorrow."

Picking up the tote again, she tromped back to the kitchen and out the door. He shook his head at her stubbornness. Still, she was right -- he was really in no shape to be hauling wood at that moment. While his shirt was sticking to the sweat on his chest and back, his hands and feet were so numb he couldn't feel them. Any warmth he might have generated by shoveling was lost to the bitter wind the minute he'd stopped. It had been far too long since he'd spent time outdoors in the cold, moving piles of snow. Next time he'd listen to Scully and wear a hat.

Once she announced that they had enough wood, Mulder relinquished his prime spot in front of the fire and stretched out on the couch. His jeans were mostly dry, he was full from breakfast, and the exertion of shoveling, coupled with his broken sleep the night before, had him feeling drowsy. He was half-dozing when Scully's voice caught his attention.

"So what are we supposed to do until the storm lets up? There's no TV or radio, and I've seen very few books laying around. I don't think the Smallwoods were avid readers."

He considered her question for a few seconds, then rose from the couch and moved to one of the living room end tables. He threw open the doors underneath and gestured with a flourish of his hands towards the interior.

"Ta-da! You get first choice, Scully."

Inside the end table was a stack of game boxes. Smaller boxes were wedged into the sides where the others left gaps. Moving to kneel in front of the open doors, she peered at the labels.

"I haven't seen some of these in years. I'll bet there are collector's items in here."

He squatted next to her.

"The other table has even more. I saw them during my inspection yesterday. I'd say we've discovered how Elver and Marie spent their spare time."

Running her fingers over the sides of the boxes, she bypassed Stadium Checkers, Boggle, Life, and Backgammon. She paused for a second at the Stratego game then continued on. Grabbing a dark red, cloth-covered box, she smiled and held it up in triumph.

"How about Scrabble?"

"That's your final decision? You're sure?"

"Yeah. Why?"

He rubbed his hands together, then interlaced his fingers and bent them backwards to the tune of cracking knuckles.

"You're looking at the Scrabble champion of my Oxford flat, unbeaten for two straight years. Prepare to meet thy doom, Agent Scully. You are goin' down!"


11:35 AM

"What do you mean I can't use 'carditis'? It's a perfectly legitimate medical term."

"No medical terms, Scully."

"I can so use medical terms. They're in the Scrabble dictionary I have at home."

"Well, we don't have one here so I can't double-check them. Besides, you wouldn't let me use a word I wanted before."

"Mulder, your word was vulgar. The game doesn't allow the use of crude terms for female genitalia. Let's see... I used all seven of my letters, so that's fifty points right there. I'm on a triple-word box, and the 'D' is on a double letter box, so I get thirty-nine points for that, giving me a grand total of eighty-nine points. Not bad."

"Eighty-nine points? Scully, you're killing me here! How come you keep getting all the good tiles?"

"Whining is very unattractive, you know."

"As well as useless."

"Besides, you had a triple word box under that 'S' I just used. I'm not getting all the good breaks."

"I don't think you're in much danger from my eighteen points for 'nails'." He rose to his feet and headed toward the back door. "I gotta use the can. I'll be right back."

"It's about time for lunch anyway. Why don't we pick it up again while we eat?"

Mulder nodded as he plucked his coat off the peg and shrugged it on. Jamming his feet into a pair of boots, he opened the back door to a virtual white-out. Once again he breathed a "thank you" to Elver for being foresighted enough to string a rope between the porch and outhouse.

Using outdoor facilities in winter was more than enough to squelch a person's desire to linger over their business, and the chance of getting lost on the way there or back didn't hold any appeal, either. At the current rate of snowfall, the paths weren't going to be passable for much longer. He was stamping his feet on the steps and back inside the warm house in record time. The smell of tomato soup and the scowling face of his partner greeted him at the door.

"You didn't have to be such a poor sport, Mulder."

"What?"

Scully gestured at the table. "You didn't have to mess up our game before you left. I never would have thought you'd be that mean."

Looking to where she was pointing, he saw that the letter tiles had been scattered across the board and tabletop. He shook his head.

"I didn't do that, Scully. You know I'm not that petty."

"Then how do you explain it?" she demanded. "I didn't touch them. I was in the kitchen opening a can of soup for lunch."

"And I was answering nature's call. The board was fine when I left."

She grimaced. "I'm sorry, Mulder. I'm sure it wasn't your fault. The wind must have blown in and caught the table just right. Get your coat off and let's eat. We'll start a new game."

After hanging his coat on the peg by the door, he toed off the boots. He walked to the disturbed game board, remembering the strange noises during the night. He picked up a playing piece and turned it over in his fingers. Shaking his head, he put the tile back on the table and continued into the kitchen to help with the lunch preparations.

No one was there to watch when the tiles started to spin on the table's surface.


11:35 PM

The day had been enjoyable in its own way, but for Mulder enforced closeness was turning out to be a new form of personal hell. Spending every minute of the day with the woman he loved was heaven, while not being able to touch her or express his true feelings felt like a hair-shirt that made him itchy and irritable. The result was a continuous flood of innuendoes and suggestive comments thinly disguised as word choices on the Scrabble board.

Being beaten six out of six games cast a pall on his frame of mind, but the improvement in his partner's disposition was worth the humiliation. Winning put Dana Scully into a very forgiving mood. In fact, she'd been more than happy to make them a veggie, ham, and cheese stir-fry over noodles for supper -- cooking was a sure Scully-sign of good humor.

He kept his mental promise to treat his partner to a long, hot soak in the clawfoot tub. While she was making a trip to the outhouse after supper, he built a fire in the bathroom fireplace and hung a large kettle of water on the iron pot hook embedded in the wall. By the time they finished their new round of Scrabble, the water was heated.

Mulder hauled a large pot of cold water into the bathroom and invited Scully in for her approval. The look of gratitude on her face when she understood his intentions was more than worth the effort. He shut the bathroom door as she began transferring potfuls of hot water to the tub.

In retrospect, it had been a nice thing to do for his partner's comfort, but became another layer of itching powder under his hair-shirt. Lying on the couch while she splashed and hummed in the bathroom wasn't calculated to relieve his level of frustration. Instead, it made things ten times worse. He couldn't seem to stop imagining her pale skin, slick with water and soap suds, gleaming in the light from the fireplace. He was startled to find himself rubbing at the woody that was straining against his zipper -- he hadn't remembered reaching for his crotch while the images of Scully played out in his mind. Pushing himself off the sofa in disgust, he strode to the back door and flung it open to the icy wind. The slap of snow on his face was a small price to pay for giving in to his lustful thoughts. His feelings for his partner didn't give him the right to indulge in fantasies... fantasies that would no doubt disgust her if she knew about them. He stood there until he heard the bathroom door open again. Only then did he shut out the swirling blizzard and return to the living room.

Scully emerged from the steamy room, rosy, smiling, and relaxed. The sight of her tugged at his heartstrings until he thought they'd unravel in his chest.

Now, lying next to her warm body, Mulder stared at the flickering firelight on the ceiling and wondered how he'd make it through another night in such close proximity without going insane. Or jumping her bones, which would definitely be worse. She would probably forgive him for being insane.

The sound of footsteps on the wooden floor intruded on his thoughts. He listened to them move from the kitchen to the dining room then down the hallway, until a door again creaked open, then closed. Last night, he'd been willing to believe that the sounds were his imagination and the noises inherent to an old house, but now he was certain there was more to it than that. His mind flashed on the scattered Scrabble game, and the strange way his gun had misfired the day before. The pieces shuffled into place and a pattern emerged -- Elver Smallwood hadn't quite left the earthly plain. Granted, he had nothing but a few unconnected clues as proof, yet it made sense. Elver was trying to contact them. Mulder smiled into the flickering gloom. How about that? He'd found a real, live ghost -- in a manner of speaking. Not that he was planning to mention this theory to Scully. He wasn't in the right mood for her rational logic and scientific facts.

There were times when he really wished she could believe without question. As much as he respected her opposing viewpoint, once in a while it would be nice if they could talk about out-there ideas without arguing over every extreme possibility. No way could he tell her that they were staying in a haunted house. She'd look at him as if he were a child and use small words to explain why ghosts don't exist. His faith in her reaction put a damper on his excitement. He loved her more than he would have thought possible when they first met, but sometimes he wondered how long he could hold out against this ache in his heart.

There couldn't be any harm in asking someone else for advice.

He whispered into the silence, "You wouldn't happen to know anything about unrequited love, would you, Elver old buddy?"

The only answer was a brief flare of light from the fireplace. Shadows danced and played in the corners, but no other ghostly revelation was communicated to him in the darkness.

"Thanks anyway," he murmured, getting comfortable under the blankets. "Guess I'll have to figure it out on my own."

As his breathing slowed, the fire flared again, bathing the two people in light. Scully mumbled in her sleep, tossing the covers off her shoulder. She quickly settled into deep slumber and never noticed when the blankets were pulled back up to her chin and gently tucked around her by an unseen hand.


Wednesday
9:37 AM

Mulder vowed never to take indoor plumbing for granted again. When they got home, he was going to clean his bathroom until it was sanitary enough to eat from every surface, and then he would keep it that way. In spite of the occasional clutter in his apartment, he'd never yet had to shovel his way to the toilet. And he was getting damned tired of having to do it now.

Since the snow hadn't stopped, the path he'd made earlier continued to fill in. Every time he moved the accumulated snow out, the sides of the path got higher, which meant it was more difficult to shovel next time. He didn't mind peeing off the side of the porch -- guys were built for it -- but it wasn't fair to expect Scully to risk losing her balance and falling into the snow at a vulnerable moment.

So he shoveled, and each time it took a little longer. He'd already been at it for an hour and a half. He was almost done, but even with the exertion of scooping mounds of snow to one side, his hands and feet were completely numb again. Just like the last time, his back and chest were sweaty beneath Elver's thick barn coat, so whenever a puff of frigid air made contact with his damp clothing inside a sleeve or up under the hem, it sent a chill into the pit of his stomach. Right now, his insides were attempting to generate heat by quivering like Jell-O in an earthquake.

Scully's good humor had taken a nosedive when they woke up to still-falling snow. He couldn't really blame her -- he was starting to go a little cabin crazy, too, but probably for an entirely different reason. His physical awareness of his partner had heightened to the point of pain. Ever since she'd emerged from her bath last night, his senses had been assaulted on all sides by her scent, the sight of her creamy skin, the silken tone of her voice. The itching powder on his skin had morphed into brambles, leaving tiny wounds behind every time he allowed his consciousness of her to have full reign. As much as he hated shoveling, at least it gave him a short break from the constant assault on his sanity and the inevitable swelling of a certain portion of his anatomy. The extreme cold helped, too.

Following one more heave of the shovel, Mulder leaned his back against the woodshed door and surveyed his handiwork. Finished. Again. Little clouds of steam puffed between his parted lips as he tried to catch his breath. It was still as cold as it had been when they'd arrived, but to his New England-trained eye, it looked like the snow was slowing down. Granted, he might be a bit rusty at weather prediction after so many years away from the northern reaches, and it might be no more than wishful thinking, but it seemed as though the flakes were smaller and spaced farther apart. He certainly hoped so. The sooner they got out of this place, the sooner they could get the appropriate authorities in to investigate and return to their own homes. Scully had been pretty testy at breakfast, snapping his head off at every remark he made. He suspected he was the itching powder on her skin right now, and not being able to get away from each other was only making things worse.

Pushing away from the shed door, he trudged back up the cleared path toward the house. He was chilled to the bone, but at least he'd used up enough excess energy that he'd be able to spend the next several hours in Scully's company without throwing her on the mattress and ripping her clothes off. If they didn't get out of this place soon, he was going to be spending all of his time shoveling snow, trying to keep his lust cooled down.

Mulder shivered as he stomped up the porch steps. At the moment, his libido seemed to be the one thing that wasn't cold.


3:32 PM

"Mulder, you sank my battleship! Again!"

"What can I say? When you're good, you're good."

"And when you're a poor sport, you're obnoxious. I swear you're peeking somehow."

He let out a perturbed huff as he reset his ships inside the game case. "That's the second time you've accused me of cheating, Scully. I'm hurt that you would think such a thing of me. Besides, you busted my ass yesterday. I'll be drummed out of the Testosterone Corps if I can't beat you at something. Wanna try for four out of seven?"

She plopped her game case on the couch cushions and stood. "No, I think losing three games of Battleship is quite enough for today, thanks." Walking to the kitchen door, she pulled back the window curtain. "I'm tired of being cooped up. I want to get out of here. The snow stopped an hour ago. Why can't we leave?"

She probably didn't realize how whiny she sounded. Mulder would usually find such an uncharacteristic display of childishness endearing. Today, it grated on his nerves. He glowered at her without trying to hide his exasperation.

"We already talked about this, Scully. It will be getting dark soon. Standing out by the car all night would be a stupid move. We'll leave in the morning if it doesn't snow again. I know you're finding it hard to keep your hands off me, but --"

She whirled to face him. Mulder wasn't sure if he heard her snarl, but her upper lip was definitely curled in annoyance.

"If you can't say anything constructive, then just shut up, Mulder!" She spun to face the window, yanking the curtain aside to glare at the snow-covered yard again.

He slumped on the loveseat and closed his game case. Okay, teasing was out, at least for today. Board games were wearing thin, even if he was winning this time. He pushed himself up and walked to the china cabinet. Opening the double doors at the bottom, he lifted out the small stack of books he'd seen on their first day there. Setting them on the table, he perused the titles and acknowledged that, while there weren't many to choose from, they were all classic stories.

Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

He'd read it.

First Men In the Moon.

Read that, too.

Robinson Crusoe.

Read it five times.

War Of the Worlds.

Read it until his copy fell apart.

Gone With the Wind.

Probably one of Marie's books.

There were about a dozen in all, an eclectic mix of old titles but none that could be considered modern. Mulder hoped there was something here that would soothe his partner's nerves, at least for a little while. He quietly cleared his throat.

"Um, I found some books when I was hunting around, Scully. Maybe you'd like to read instead of playing games."

She let the curtain fall and turned back to him, without the sneer this time. Her eyes widened when she saw the books he'd set on the table, and she moved over for a closer look. Her fingers caressed the covers as she sorted through his peace offering. He could tell which ones she'd probably read by the way her touch lingered and her smile widened. She picked up War Of the Worlds and turned it over in her hands. When she looked at him, there was a self-deprecating grin on her lips that reached to her eyes.

"Thanks, Mulder. I don't think I've ever read this one, although I've heard the Orson Wells radio version a few times. Maybe I'll get some useful tips on how to stop a world invasion. Might come in handy some day."

He smiled his acceptance of her unspoken apology. She went back to the couch and sat down as he moved through the house, lighting lamps. It wasn't quite dark yet, but it would be soon.

Once they had enough light for reading, he picked up the copy of A Child's Garden of Verses and returned to the loveseat. Scully glanced up, giving his choice the once-over.

"Children's poems, Mulder?"

He shrugged. "I loved Robert Louis Stevenson when I was a kid. I read everything he ever wrote, including the poems. Hell, I read everything by all the classic authors -- H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Daniel Dafoe, Kipling, Mark Twain. Especially the adventure stories. Always wished I could be stranded on a desert island, like Robinson Crusoe. I guess, in a way, I finally got my wish. You're a lot prettier than Friday, though."

Instead of chewing him a new orifice as she might have done earlier in the day, she treated him to a full smile, with teeth. Scully bent her head over her book as he opened his and did the same. They soon became so engrossed in reading that they didn't even notice when it began to snow again.


9:40 PM

They ate supper late. The luxury of reading without interruption was novel enough to keep them both interested until nature called loudly for food and relief.

Scully was the first to put her book aside for a trip to the outhouse. The little moan of despair she let out upon opening the door had Mulder rushing to her side, book abandoned on the floor in his haste.

The path to the sheds was half filled again. Fat flakes were descending at a steady, though no longer furious, rate. Stepping up behind her at the open door, he gripped her drooping shoulders and squeezed in sympathy.

"It has to stop sometime," he murmured into her hair. Placing a soft kiss on the crown of her head, he was gratified to feel her lean into his embrace. "We're in Ohio, not Alaska. We'll get out of here soon, I promise."

Straightening her back, she moved out of his hands, much to his disappointment. She stepped through the doorway, but gave him a wavering smile over her shoulder.

"Thanks," she said. "I'm... I'll be right back."

He stood there for a minute or so, staring at the closed door as though it held some secret he could discover by looking at it, before moving into the kitchen. Pulling a can of potato soup and a box of Pasta-Roni out of a cupboard, he scowled at them. God, he'd agree to do a months' worth of expense reports in exchange for a nice, juicy hamburger right now. Leaving the packages on the counter, he tossed a couple of logs into the stove.

In the heat of the fire, Mulder caught a whiff of himself and realized that he was probably due for a bath. He'd taken to wearing dirty clothes whenever he went out to shovel the pathway, figuring that he'd be reduced to raiding Elver's wardrobe in no time if he didn't conserve what he'd brought with him. But in spite of washing up and putting on relatively cleaner clothes afterward, his current bouquet left a lot to be desired.

Gathering up some logs and kindling from the pile in the kitchen woodbox, he walked into the bathroom and built a new fire in the mini fireplace there. Scully returned from her trip outdoors to find him pumping water into a large kettle. Seeing her look of inquiry, he explained, "I thought I'd better soak off some of the funk before you make me sleep with Elver tonight."

"You mean he isn't the one I've been smelling all day?"

He clapped a hand over his heart. "That's harsh, Scully, really harsh. Wait and see if I ever run a bath for you again."

The atmosphere at supper was decidedly more cheerful and friendly than it had been all day. Reading instead of playing board games had provided a much needed break from involuntary togetherness. By the time they were done eating, Mulder's bath water was ready. He let Scully wash up for bed first, since it was already late, while he headed to the outhouse. When he got back, she was dressed for sleep in his sweatsuit once again. He liked seeing her in his clothes, and wondered if he could convince her to keep wearing them after they returned home.

She borrowed a large saucepan of his hot water, volunteering to wash their few dishes while he made himself more presentable. He rather enjoyed his warm soak in front of the little fireplace. If he ever had a chance to own a house, he was going to make sure it had a fireplace in the bathroom. If it didn't, he'd add one. He knew Scully would appreciate the decadence of the idea.

That thought brought him up short. When had he started thinking in terms of what Scully would want in his future home? Right from the beginning of their partnership, he'd respected her professional opinion when they were working on a case, even if he often ended up convincing her to do things his way. Giving her the same courtesy in his personal life happened gradually, until her potential wishes were spilling over into his daydreams, too. If he was honest with himself, it had been a long time since he'd made any decision at all that didn't include her input. He could no longer remember a time when her happiness was just an afterthought. Given the chance, he would fulfill every dream of her heart for the rest of his life. But she'd made it pretty clear that the interest was one-sided. Considering the fact that he'd soon be sleeping next to her, this didn't seem like the best time for wishful thinking.

Finished with his bath, Mulder let the water drain from the tub. He doused the fire with what remained in the kettle. Dressed in clean boxers, he reluctantly left the warmth of the little room for the relative coolness of the rest of the house. Scully was already under the blankets and seemingly asleep. He moved through the rooms, first making sure the kitchen fire was banked, then adding logs to the one in the fireplace. The domesticity of his chores brought a lump to his throat. All through history, men have been considered the family protector. When people lived in caves, that might have meant keeping the fire away from sleeping family members, snuffing smoky torches, and barricading the entrance from marauding animals. As humans grew more inventive over time, the nightly tasks became easier and less time consuming. These days, those duties would consist of nothing more than turning a lock, closing a window, and flicking a few wall switches, but the symbolism was the same. What wouldn't he give for a chance to perform these types of chores every night, knowing that Scully would be waiting for him when he was done? Maybe wearing something a little less concealing...

As he crouched by the fire and fantasized, the increasing shadows caught his attention. Standing, he turned around to find the lamps and chandeliers slowly dimming on their own. He watched as the glow of each one faded until it was completely gone, with only the fireplace lending light to the room.

"You can't forget several decades of habit, can you, Elver?"

When there was no answer, he climbed under the blankets. He scooted closer to Scully's warmth, but refrained from touching her, even through the sweatsuit. Thankfully, the day had ended better than it started. But that also meant that he didn't have her shield of aggravation to hold between himself and his inappropriate yearnings. All he possessed was years of restraint that the past few days had worn thin around the edges.

On that unhappy thought, he drifted off into a restless sleep, with the sound of footsteps and creaking doors echoing in his dreams.


Thursday
2:48 PM

Although it had been snowing when they awoke that morning, the mood hadn't been as strained as the previous day. The flakes drifted down lazily instead of lashing against the house, and the lack of gray in the sky boded well for the possibility of Mother Nature's eventual cease-fire. With any luck at all, they'd be able to leave tomorrow.

When Mulder ventured outdoors after breakfast to shovel the small accumulation of snow from the pathways, he'd been pleased to find that it took him scarcely half an hour. In fact, the lack of exertion left him feeling so chipper, he offered a very rude suggestion on how Scully could help to warm him up. Instead of rapping him upside the head with a saucepan, she had simply stated that, in honor of their current antique living conditions, she was going to make use of the woodshed for it's historic secondary purpose if he didn't lay off the lewd jokes. He didn't know whether to laugh or find a paddle for her to use, so he clamped his lips together and tried to hide his grin.

After a pleasant breakfast, a companionable lunch, and the equitable division of chores, he had high hopes of being able to last out their forced confinement without doing something that might jeopardize their current relationship.

Until Scully decided to play a round of Scruples.

"Have you ever played that game?" Mulder asked.

"No," she admitted, "but I've heard about it from my mom, and the rules make it sound like Truth or Dare. I've played that. How much different can it be?"

"It's more like Truth or Consequences, Scully. I'm not sure it would be such a good idea right now."

"You're chicken."

"What?"

"I said you're chicken. You're afraid I'll beat your ass again."

"No I'm not!"

She made soft clucking noises.

"Right." He said, and squared his shoulders. "Let's see how tough you are then."

He crouched in front of the end table and pulled out the box. It was still sealed with plastic.

"Huh," he said. "It looks like Elver and Marie never got a chance to play this."

"Or someone else gave it to them, but they weren't interested. Maybe we should leave it intact."

Mulder sliced through the plastic with his thumbnail and peeled it off.

"If someone in their family gave this to them, it would be kinder to give it back looking as though it had been used, don't you think? I know I'd be hurt if I found out someone didn't like my gift enough to open it."

"Okay." She pulled out a chair at the dining room table and sat down. "But I get to go first."

"You're feeling sadistic today, aren't you? Be my guest, my dear Scully. After you."

She opened the box and pulled out the sheet of rules. He put more wood on the fire, giving her time to read through them before he joined her at the table. He'd played this game before and hadn't liked it much. He would find himself profiling the other players, which made it seem like work and took the fun out of it. As did the necessity of revealing pieces of himself that he'd rather keep hidden under their respective rocks. Mulder was getting a very bad feeling about this whole idea, but he couldn't let his own partner call him a chicken.

Apparently satisfied with the instructions, she pulled a pack of yellow cards from the box. She shuffled the cards, and dealt them each five, but left the red pack of cards where they were.

"You've sold your house," she read off her first card. "Before you move out, the roof starts to leak. Do you have it fixed?"

She stared at him expectantly. He blinked back in surprise.

"Scully, you just read the directions. You're supposed to give us each one red card, too. Then we have to guess what the other person is going to say."

"How many years have we been working together, Mulder?" It must have been a rhetorical question, because she waved a hand in dismissal and continued. "I know what you're going to answer. Besides, those rules are for a group of people. It says that you have to decide who would be most likely to give the same answer as the one on the red card. Not much of a challenge when there's only two of us. Instead, we'll give an answer and then try to guess if the other person is being honest. Now, would you fix the leaking roof or not?"

He was feeling worse about this idea all the time. There was a knot in the pit of his stomach that felt like barbed wire. His answer came out a bit more belligerent than he'd intended.

"Hell no! If someone has already bought the house, it's not my problem unless my head is getting wet. They're the ones who have to worry about it, not me."

"I can't believe you said that. You have a moral obligation to make sure that the house is in working order for the new owners. A leaking roof doesn't qualify."

"Not if the paperwork is already signed and they're just waiting for me to move out."

"There's nothing here about paperwork, Mulder. It just says you haven't moved out yet."

"Then you don't have enough evidence for me to be able to provide a proper answer and it's my turn."

He picked up his first card and read it. "You hit it off with someone at a party. Your lover seems jealous. Do you cut your conversation short?"

An amused snort issued from Scully's throat. "Not likely."

"Why not?"

"That's not on the card, is it?"

"No, it isn't." Mulder flipped the card so she could see it. "I was merely curious as to why you wouldn't cut short a conversation with some stranger if your lover didn't like you talking to him."

"In the first place, I wouldn't necessarily be talking to a man."

"You would unless you're gay. I don't think a male lover would be jealous of you talking to another woman."

She glared at him but didn't dispute his assumption. "Okay, so I'd be talking to a man. If the man I'm with doesn't like me conversing with another man -- who I will most likely never see again -- that's his problem, not mine. Why should I stop talking to someone simply because I have an insecure lover?"

"Because you love him? Isn't that enough?"

"Why should it have to be? We're both grown-ups. I should be able to talk to anyone I like without having to cater to someone with the emotional maturity of an adolescent."

Mulder squirmed. He had a strange feeling that she wasn't speaking in the hypothetical sense. True, he'd displayed a touch of territoriality on occasion, but that didn't mean he was jealous... much. Things were starting to hit a little too close to home, just as he feared they might. He pointed to her stack of cards.

"Your turn."

She appeared surprised by his attempt to avoid the issue but refrained from commenting. Choosing another card, she read, "If your lover had a nightmare and couldn't sleep, would you want her to wake you up for comfort?"

He didn't even have to think about that one.

"Sure. I'd want you to comfort me if I had a bad dream and you were laying right next to me. Why shouldn't I do the same for you?"

Oops. Should have kept that one impersonal. Time for another question. He snatched up his next card.

"A genie offers you a remote control device that will make your lover do anything you want. Do you accept the gadget?"

She chewed on her lip for a moment. "No."

"Care to elaborate?"

"I wouldn't want that kind of power over someone."

"But you could make them do whatever you wanted. You could change their annoying habits, or make them more romantic, or anything at all. Don't most women want to change a man once they have him?"

Scully looked him right in the eye. "If I really loved someone, it would be because of who they are, not in spite of it. I don't see the need to fix something that isn't broken."

They sat in silence for a few seconds, absorbing the implications of such power over another person. Mulder knew he'd never even be tempted. There wasn't one thing about Scully that he would change. Except for her constant skepticism, and even that was a good thing, because she made him work for his proof. He had to see every problem from all angles so he could find enough evidence to refute her inevitable nay-saying. No matter how frustrated he got sometimes, he would never want her to behave in any other way.

His drifting thoughts were pulled up short by her next question.

"You find a wallet with a large amount of cash inside. The driver's license is from another state, but there's an address listed. Do you mail the wallet back with the cash still in it?"

She smirked and said, "Not much of a question for a couple of law enforcement officers, is it? Let's try another one."

Mulder put his hand over hers as she reached for a new card. Scully obviously didn't realize what she'd just said to him. She'd implied that she knew him well enough to believe he was an honest man, yet she apparently didn't know him well enough to believe that he loved her -- even when he told her so. The irony was too much for him.

"Wait a minute. I'd take the money and throw the wallet away with my fingerprints all over it. You mean you wouldn't?"

"There's no need for sarcasm, Mulder." Shaking off his hand, she took another card and read, "The ship has sunk; you and your lover are treading water. You have only one life jacket. Do you give it to your lover?"

He knew what he was going to say -- there was only one possible answer. When he remained silent, she shot him a quick glance, and he knew that she knew as well. He'd already told her how things are for him, so his answer shouldn't have come as any surprise to her.

"Yes. I would."

"So you'd prefer to make her watch you drown while saving her own life?"

"Would it be better for me to watch her drown, knowing I could save her and that I wouldn't want to live without her anyway? Then the life jacket doesn't do anyone any good."

It seemed that fate was determined to make them uncomfortable. The good mood of the morning was long gone. They weren't sniping at each other, but neither was he as at ease as he had been. By the way Scully kept picking at the sleeve of her sweater, he suspected he wasn't the only one feeling uneasy.

He didn't wait for any comment she might have, but picked up another card.

"As a detective, you want to put away a vicious rapist, but a crucial piece of evidence is lacking. You can plant it. Do you?"

The silence that followed stretched on for several long seconds. Finally, she snapped, "Do you even have to ask? That one is as obvious as the question about the wallet. I would have thought you knew me better than that after all this time. Pick another card."

Yes, Mulder admitted, he knew his partner. He knew what kind of dressing she used on her salad. He knew when her rent was due -- he'd paid it for her a couple times when she wasn't in town. He knew her computer password. He knew she secretly loved cheesecake, even though it was too fattening, and openly hated pantyhose, even though she wore them every day. He even knew when her damned period was each month, for Christ's sake. So yeah, he knew how she'd answer the question, but he still didn't know the one thing that was most important to him.

Suddenly, it was too much to bear. Something inside of him snapped. Maybe it was his last shred of good sense. Maybe it was an overload caused by four days of being in too-close proximity to the woman he loved. He only knew that he was tired of never being sure where he stood with her. Whatever the cause, he made a sudden decision and acted on it before he could back out. The game was about to take a sharp right turn. They'd see which one of them was chicken.

He picked up a new card and pretended to read it.

"Someone you consider a friend blurts out 'I love you' while under the influence of drugs. Do you believe him and respond in kind, or blow it off and never mention it again?"

Scully's face paled, then flushed bright red.

"That's not on the card, Mulder," she stated. "It's not answerable with a 'yes' or 'no'."

"Answer the question, Scully. Do you say the words back?"

For the first time he couldn't catch her eye.

"No."

Mulder slammed his palm down on the table, making her jump.

"Goddammit, Scully! Why can't you accept it?"

"Accept what?"

"That I have feelings for you."

"I know you have feelings for me, Mulder, just like I have them for you. But we both know you didn't mean what you said."

"Of course I meant it."

"No you didn't. You were drugged. People say lots of things they don't mean when they're under the influence."

"Drugged or not, I didn't proclaim 'I love you' to everyone who stopped by to visit. I sure didn't say it to Frohike when I saw him hanging over my bed."

Scully was picking at the edge of a card instead of looking at him.

"I'm not your type, Mulder. As much as I didn't want to admit it, the evidence is clear."

"What evidence?"

"Bambi, Phoebe, Diana -- long legs, tall, busty. That's the kind of women you've always been attracted to. Who knows how many others there've been that I didn't know about?"

He felt like grabbing her by the arms and shaking her until her teeth rattled. Instead, he threw down the card in his hand, ran his fingers into his hair and tugged -- hard. The pain seemed to settle his raging emotions.

"Did you ever stop to think that my tastes might have changed over the years, Scully? Did you consider how those busty bimbos with the long legs treated me? Isn't it possible they came on to me, not the other way around? What makes you think I put the moves on them, or that I wanted to? There are other things that I find attractive now."

She chewed on her lip but didn't say anything.

"Things like loyalty, intelligence, trust, respect, mutual affection. Short legs aren't anything to be ashamed of, you know. When I hold you in my arms, you fit perfectly over my heart. None of those leggy bimbos ever filled that place the way you do. I can't believe you don't know that."

He reached out to still her nervous fingers, but as he brushed her skin, she pulled her hand away. Mulder frowned. There was something he was missing. He took in her downcast eyes, hunched shoulders, and tightly pursed lips, swollen from the rasp of her teeth. Remembering her peevish complaints about his off-color remarks the previous day, an unlikely idea occurred to him.

He stretched across the table to touch her arm -- and she shrugged him off.

All his doubts evaporated. "You're in love with me," he whispered in awe.

Her expression radiated panic.

"No I'm not."

"Yes, you are." A grin spread across his face, which only seemed to make her more stubborn.

"Mulder, what makes you think that every woman who comes in contact with you has to fall for your manifest charms? Simply because Doctor Bambi and Detective White threw themselves at you, that doesn't mean I have to. Get over yourself."

He didn't buy the confidence she tried to inject into her words. She was lying. It all fit together. In fact, he was willing to take another leap.

"You're using Diana, Phoebe and the rest as an excuse. You know how I feel about you. The idea that you're not my type is just a pretense to deny your own feelings. You can lie to yourself all you want, but you can't lie to me."

"Just drop it, Mulder. You don't understand."

"What don't I understand? That you find it hard to express your deepest emotions? I know that. Maybe you're afraid that I'll be possessive and jealous, demanding all of your time for myself. You're probably right, but how is that different from the way I've always treated you? I love you, Scully. And I know now that you love me, too. Why can't you admit it?"

She closed her eyes and dropped her head to her chest. He knew he was pushing her; he couldn't help himself. Not knowing would be worse than finding out that he was wrong. But he wasn't wrong. He was sure of it. well, pretty sure. There was a little doubt at the back of his brain that tried to niggle its way forward, but he smothered its voice under as much hope as he could muster.

When she finally spoke, Mulder was holding his breath.

"Because I've spent years trying to counteract the perceptions of a male-dominated institution," Scully said.

He gave thanks that he could breathe again. She hadn't flat-out stated that she didn't love him. He concentrated on clearing the dizziness in his head as she continued.

"The good old boy's network seems to think the one way a woman can advance herself is by lying on her back. When I slept with Jack, I was perpetuating that misconception, in spite of the fact that he had nothing to do with my actual career in the Bureau. I was too young at the time to realize the harm it was causing, but I'm not that naive now. How would it look if word got out that I was screwing my partner?"

Her eyes begged for his understanding and acceptance, but Mulder hardened his heart against her pleading gaze. He wasn't about to let her off that easy, not now, not when he knew the truth.

"Were you planning to get the words 'I'm fucking my partner' tattooed on your forehead afterward, Scully?"

"Of course not!"

"Well neither am I. So how is anyone going to know? We're adults. We can love whoever we damned well please without being answerable to our coworkers or society in general. We only have to answer to each other, no one else. Right?"

Scully fidgeted in her seat. "I suppose so."

"Then admit it!"

"Fine! Yes, dammit, Mulder! I love you!"

Annoyance and irritation couldn't hold out against the three words he'd been longing to hear. He reached toward her hand again, and when she didn't pull away this time, he laced their fingers together on the table. "Well. That wasn't any harder than explaining my last three health insurance claims. Kinda feels good to say the words, doesn't it? I've wanted to say them again every day since the first time."

There was regret in her eyes as well as her voice as she whispered, "I'm sorry, Mulder. I should have told you that day in the hospital, instead of treating your declaration like a joke."

He shook his head. "You don't need to apologize. I understand. Really, I do. You've always needed solid proof before you can begin to consider an extreme possibility. So don't believe in vampires. Blow off all evidence of werewolves. Doubt the possibility of alien life on Earth. But please, even without scientific confirmation... please, don't ever doubt that I love you."

He stood and pulled on her hand until she was standing, too. Wrapping their arms around each other, they clung together as their bodies slowly swayed to a melody they alone could hear.

After several minutes of silence, she said, "There are no such things as vampires or werewolves, Mulder, and you still haven't convinced me that aliens exist, either."

He chuckled and placed a kiss on the top of her head.

"Give me time, Scully. I'll find your proof." He tightened his embrace and mumbled into her hair, "These last few days have been sheer torture."

"I know."

Leaning back, he looked into her eyes and saw a rueful smile lurking there.

"What?" she asked. "You thought you were the only one going crazy? Being within touching distance and keeping my hands to myself has been one of the hardest things I've ever done. Why do you suppose I started to complain about your innuendoes?"

"Huh." He pulled her back into a fierce hug. "And here I was thinking you were just fed up with me. I figured you were itching to get back home so you wouldn't have to look at my annoying face for a while."

"I don't normally visit the bathroom as often as I have been the last couple of days, you know. It was either take regular breaks or make a fool of myself coming on to my partner."

He leaned back again and made sure she was looking right at him.

"If you wanted to touch, Scully, all you had to do was ask."

She shot him a glance filled with such desire it took his breath away.

"Mulder, may I touch you?"

It took a moment to get his voice under control. "You're doing a pretty good job so far, but please feel free to indulge yourself."

He was expecting the slow drag of fingers over his chest or trailing through his hair, not the sudden plunge of all ten digits down the back of his jeans. She'd managed to get right underneath his boxer shorts, too. The feel of her warm hands kneading his ass set off a firestorm of adrenaline that lit every fuse in his body. The resulting explosion of lust welded their lips together and carried their twined bodies as far as the mattress.

They flopped down in a tangle, jabbing each other with elbows and bumping knees. When Agent Scully finally made up her mind that she wanted something, apparently she didn't mess around. Mulder found himself stripped and flat on his back in less than two minutes.

He experienced a moment of panic when she scooted off the mattress and stood up. It scarcely lasted as long as it took her to pop the first button on her sweater. He wondered if his eyes had just bugged out like a cartoon character. As her fingers flew from button to button, revealing her milky breasts, he felt the urge to hoot and whistle and clap his hands like the worst kind of animated lothario. But he didn't because this was Scully, not some bottle-blonde pole dancer in a sleazy bar. He should be worshipping her on his knees instead of watching her with his tongue hanging out.

Her sweater went flying. She pushed her jeans and panties off in one movement while his eyes darted from her busy hands to her bobbing breasts. Once she pulled off her socks, she dropped to the mattress and crawled toward him on all fours.

He gathered her into his arms, skin on skin, and breathed in her scent. The smell of her desire was strong, or maybe it was his, or maybe it was both of them combined. He didn't know where to touch her first, there were so many possibilities. This was a moment to be savored, something he'd waited years to achieve. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, not even in his best wet dreams about her. He opened his mouth to suggest that they set a more leisurely pace, but the words were vaporized as she clamped her lips over his and shoved her tongue in his mouth.

Their first kiss didn't last nearly long enough as far as he was concerned. She nipped and sucked at his tongue and lips while her hands set off sparks on his nerve endings every place she touched. They tumbled back and forth on the mattress, groping every square inch of skin they could reach, until she pulled him on top of her and wrapped her legs around his waist. The chorus of moans and groans they produced would have done credit to any haunted castle. He wondered briefly if Elver would be rude enough to watch. The feel of her soft hand on his hard cock stopped that thought in its tracks, and his wet slide into her heat derailed it altogether.

Balancing on his hands, he looked down at her flushed face beneath him -- a sight he'd never dreamed he would get to see. It was exhilaratingly painful; wondrous torture; the most pleasant agony he'd ever experienced. He could feel all the aching holes in his heart closing up, leaving nothing but Scully to fill the hollow places.

He never wanted it to end, but the noises she was making weren't helping his self-control. Neither was the way she jerked her hips off the bed to meet him on each thrust. In fact, any control he might have had was useless against the flood of sensations assaulting his body. His orgasm hit so hard and fast, all he could do was squeeze his eyes shut and gasp as he emptied all the love he possessed into her accepting embrace.

His shaking arms couldn't hold out, and he collapsed to one side. It took a few seconds for the ringing in his ears to stop enough that he could hear Scully's panting breaths beneath him. He tried to move, but she tightened her grip. He was beginning to get his breathing under control when a horrible thought struck him.

"You didn't come, did you?" His voice was muffled by a pillow, but he knew she'd heard him.

"Couldn't you tell?"

"Well, I was in the middle of a major religious experience, so I may have been a bit distracted. I'm sorry I was selfish, but it was rather out of my control."

"You don't have anything to apologize for, Mulder."

He picked his head up and stared at her, wide-eyed.

"You mean you came and I missed it? How did I miss it?"

Scully smiled. "Just because I didn't scream 'Oh my god, Mulder, you're such a stud' that doesn't mean nothing happened. I think watching you set me off."

"If I wasn't so tired right now, I'd be incredibly turned on."

She chuckled softly, snuggling her nose against his breastbone. He moved to lie next to her and gathered her back into his arms.

They laid under the blankets for a long time, hands moving lazily over sex-warmed flesh. He couldn't remember ever feeling so relaxed and at peace. To be here with her, touching her naked skin, murmuring endearments into her ear, making her chuckle, was a gift beyond words. He would gladly give up concrete proof of extraterrestrials, let someone else put Bigfoot in a cage, and watch the world go to hell in a colonization handbasket if he could just stay in this very spot and never move.

Little puffs of warm breath on his chest told Mulder that he wasn't the only one feeling worn out. He smoothed a strand of hair away from Scully's cheek and pressed a kiss onto her forehead. The rest of the day stretched before them, just like the other days they'd been stranded in this house. When they woke up they would need to keep the fires burning, make supper, trek to the outhouse, talk about the possibility of leaving tomorrow, maybe play a board game, and finally get ready for sleep again. And yet, everything was different now, new in ways he couldn't even begin to contemplate. Was it only yesterday morning they were irritated and angry with each other? It seemed like a lifetime ago. His mind boggled at the realization of the leap they'd just taken. Scully shifted in her sleep, cuddling closer. He clutched her fiercely, a familiar protective feeling swelling in his chest until he didn't know if his flesh was strong enough to contain it. This was a leap worth making, no matter the distance or risk involved. He was going to do everything in his power from now on to make sure she never regretted making that leap with him.

As he felt himself dozing off, his last thought was that maybe Scruples wasn't such a bad game after all.


Friday
8:23AM

Mulder awoke to the sound of dripping water. Lots of dripping water. So much dripping water, in fact, that his bladder urged him to get out of bed immediately if he didn't want to embarrass himself in a way he hadn't done since he'd passed out after drinking six bottles of home-brewed ale at Jimmy McGinty's flat in Oxford. No one ever admitted to sticking his hand in that bowl of warm water, but he'd always had his suspicions.

Scrambling from the mattress, he didn't even bother reaching for his clothes. They were all alone, the house was isolated, and he really needed to pee right now. Expecting to be body-slammed by a wall of frigid air when the door opened, he was surprised to find that the temperature had actually risen overnight. There was still a deep layer of snow covering everything in sight, but the snow banks were noticeably shrunken and the path to the outhouse had tiny thin patches of dead grass starting to show through. However, making it to the outhouse wasn't even an option, what with the warm air at his bare back and the colder air at his naked front. Man, he was going to miss pissing off the porch once they made it home.

When he shivered his way back into the house, he found Scully standing just inside the door, swathed in his discarded shirt and the pilfered sweatpants. She was pulling on a pair of boots as he walked into the kitchen.

"Mulder, you haven't got a modest bone anywhere in your body." He glanced down and she snickered. "Obviously not there, that's for sure."

He reached for her, but she side-stepped to the door.

"Bathroom," she stated. "Be right back."

She tugged on a coat, opened the door and stopped short.

"Thank goodness for sudden warm snaps," he observed. "I think things are looking up."

Scully threw him a grin and walked out the door. He closed it and watched her through the window as she scurried down the path to the privy. Moving back into the chilly house, he took time to restoke both fires, being careful to keep certain tender parts of his anatomy out of the reach of sparks.

He was still naked when she returned. Her eyes sparkled as she raked him with her gaze. He grabbed her around the waist as she walked past and went straight for a lip lock, but she twisted out of his arms.

"Ugh," she grunted. "Morning breath."

"Yours or mine?" he asked.

"Mine."

"I hadn't noticed." He lunged for her again, but she scampered backward, out of his embrace.

"I'm going to get dressed," Scully stated, "then I think we should take care of breakfast. We can discuss what we're going to do about the change in the weather while we eat. You might want to put some clothes on before you damage something I'm fond of while you're cooking."

She tossed a smile over her shoulder before entering the bathroom. Mulder couldn't stop a happy sigh that seemed to originate in his toes. He pulled on his jeans, then headed for the kitchen to see what delights he could concoct to keep up their energy.


1:45 PM

He wasn't entirely clear on how they'd ended up with him laying on top of her, making out on the couch, but he wasn't about to complain.

Following breakfast, they'd agreed to wait one more day and leave Saturday morning if the warmer weather held. By then, the snow should have melted enough to make hiking out easier and their chances of finding help more likely. They'd spent some time bringing in more wood, tidying up the breakfast dishes, and then it was time for lunch. Which left the rest of the day open for whatever they wanted to do to occupy their time.

Apparently, Scully wanted to neck.

Neither of them was in any hurry. The slide of lips on skin and the warmth of roving hands was enough to keep them occupied for the moment. They had the whole day in front of them and nothing else to do besides take turns driving each other crazy.

Right now, it was Mulder's turn.

He nipped at a pulsing vein in her throat. It was jumping very rapidly at the moment. He kneaded her breast with one hand while his lips moved up to her earlobe. He sucked it into his mouth and gently nibbled. She went still beneath him and gasped.

"Oh my god..." Her voice was filled with awe and wonder.

He chuckled into her neck. "I haven't even started. If you think that was good --"

She poked him in the ribs several times, making him squirm. "Stop, Mulder."

His head popped up, a frown crinkling his brow. When he got a good look at her face, the crinkles reversed direction as his eyes widened. "What's wrong?"

Peering over his own shoulder, his jaw dropped when he saw what his partner was seeing.

The ghost of an elderly man was standing in the middle of the dining room. Mulder assumed it was a ghost since he could see the kitchen cupboards right through the middle of him. He also felt it was safe to assume that their visitor was Elver Smallwood. He couldn't think of any other ghosts who might have an interest in breaking up his first make-out session in years.

As they watched, the transparent figure looked pointedly at each of them in turn, then walked to the front door. Gazing back at them once again, he passed through the closed door and vanished.

Mulder scrambled off the sofa and ran after the ghost. Pulling back the curtain over the window in the door, he expected to find Elver standing outside, perhaps waiting to be followed. Instead, he saw an empty, snow-covered porch, and two snowmobiles roaring up the driveway toward the house. He turned to tell Scully, to see her standing right beside his elbow.

"Look, Mulder. Now we can get out of here and find help." She reached for the doorknob. He grabbed her hand just before she pulled the door open. Scully raised an eyebrow in surprise.

"I don't think Elver was showing us that the cavalry's arrived." He dropped the curtain into place, then unlocked the door and stepped back. "I think he was warning us about danger approaching. I hope they didn't see us."

The sound of engines grew louder as her eyes traveled from her partner to the door and then back again. He knew when the pieces clicked into place because her hand shot to the small of her back, hunting for her weapon.

"The killers?" Her hand came up empty.

He nodded. "Which means they didn't find what they were looking for the first time. We have to hide. Now."

"We need our weapons," she said, dropping into a crouch behind the sofa.

Mulder joined her and whispered, "Crawl to the bedroom and get our guns. Don't let them see you through the windows."

She set off down the hallway, as fast as she could go on all fours. He was close behind her, commando crawling with his nose scant inches from bumping her ass.

"There are two of us and two of them, and we've got the advantage of surprise," she said. "Why did you unlock the door? We could have kept them outside and crept around the house unaware."

"Because the house was unlocked when we got here... that's how they left it."

She eased the guest bedroom door open and Mulder followed her into the room. He stood once they were all the way inside and kept watch on the front door as she hurried to the closet. He continued, "If they were to find the door locked, they'd know someone was here and there goes your element of surprise."

"What about the mattress on the floor and the fire in the fireplace?"

Thinking of the now-warm house and the evidence of occupation, he shook his head. "There's no time to clean up. We'll just have to hope they're focused enough on their mission not to notice until we can get the drop on them."

Her whispered "Shit!" made him turn his head. Scully was looking hesitantly at the ammo in her hands. She held out the clips for him to see.

"We can't use these, Mulder."

"What?" The snowmobile engines had stopped. He checked the door again. "We have to, Scully. I'd really like something besides an empty gun between me and a couple of killers."

"It could be unstable," she hissed. "We've already had one misfire. What if --"

He cut her off with a shake of his head. He knew exactly what had caused the gun to discharge, and it wasn't faulty ammo. Taking his eyes off the front door for a moment, he tossed a grin over his shoulder.

"There's nothing wrong with the ammo," he assured her. "Go ahead and reload."

"But --"

Another shake of his head. "Trust me. I'll explain later."

Wearing a doubtful expression, she tiptoed to the dresser with their clips and rummaged through their carry-on bags. He went back to his surveillance just as heavy boots pounded up the porch steps, making the floor vibrate. Mulder closed the bedroom door almost all the way and watched through the crack as the front door flew open.

The intruders weren't trying to be quiet. Under cover of the slamming door and stomping boots, Scully crept back across the room and handed Mulder his gun, clip, badge and cuffs. She reloaded her gun, clicked off the safety and tucked her badge and cuffs into her back pocket as he did the same. Taking up a position at his side, they listened to what the two men were saying.

"Are you sure you checked the basement, shit-for-brains?"

"I said I did, Rusty. You got no need to be calling me names. I looked and it weren't there."

The second speaker sounded young. The voice was high and whiny, very nasal, as though his sinuses were stuffy.

Steps rang on the floor, straight toward Mulder and Scully's hiding place. Moving out of sight, they flattened themselves against the wall inside the bedroom. They both slumped in relief when the basement door opened and the footsteps descended the stairs. The killer's voices were clearly audible as they continued to bicker in the cellar.

"Well, it's gotta be here somewhere. Check that little room over there. Make sure you move stuff this time, just in case he hid it under something. We coulda come back sooner if you hadn't took sick, you stupid jackass."

This was the person in command. The voice wasn't much deeper than his cohort's, but he sounded older, harder. He also sounded pissed.

"Can I help it if my little brother was sneezin' on me? I got all wet the first time we came out here and caught his cold. It weren't my fault or anything."

"Aw shut up. Shit! It ain't here." The sound of boxes and bottles hitting the floor in a fit of pique echoed up the stairwell. "It's gotta be upstairs somewhere. We'll have to look again."

"I ain't goin' in the room with him, Rusty. I'll do the whole rest of the house by myself, but I ain't goin' anywhere near a corpse."

"You're such a pussy, Lloyd." Boots clomped back up the stairs and into the hallway, headed toward the other end of the house. "Fine. I'll look in that room, and you take the kitchen. That far enough away from the stiff for you?"

"You know, you never shoulda shot him in the first place, Rusty. We coulda knocked him out and tied him --"

Mulder and Scully held their breath as the voices grew silent. They strained to hear any clue that would help them locate the intruders.

"There's someone in the house." Rusty's voice barely reached them, almost a whisper.

"How do you figure --" Lloyd hadn't caught on right away; his words carried just fine, cut off by the sound of skin smacking skin.

"Look around you, dickhead! This ain't how we left the place."

Mulder figured they weren't going to get a better chance, now that the element of surprise was gone. He caught Scully's eye and held up three fingers. She inclined her head once, twice, three times. They burst out of the bedroom and into the hall together, Mulder high, Scully low, guns clenched in a double-fisted grip.

"FBI! Don't move!" they shouted in unison.

The two intruders stood in the middle of the dining area. Despite the larger man's angry scowl, they both raised their arms into the air.

"Hands on top of your head," Mulder yelled. "Stay right there."

He walked out from behind Scully, being careful not to block her line of fire. Crossing in front of the fireplace, he circled around the loveseat to get behind the men while she crept down the passageway behind the sofa. Mulder was almost into the dining area when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Risking a glimpse into the kitchen, his eyes widened as the cupboard doors burst open.

"Scully, get down!"

She dropped to the floor as a food can shot past her head and dented the wall next to her. Mulder crouched behind the loveseat and watched cans, boxes, bottles, dishes and glasses fly out of the cupboards one after another. They weren't falling -- they were being thrown. A few of the missiles bounced off the furniture or shattered on the fireplace, but most of them were aimed right at the two intruders who were now cowering on the floor, arms over their heads. Mulder winced as a can of creamed corn thwacked the head of one man, then jumped off the floor and pummeled the back of the other.

"That's gonna leave a mark," he muttered. He peeked around the edge of the loveseat toward his partner's position, but was forced to duck for cover again as a six-pack of pudding cups thudded off the cushions. The cardboard carrier ripped open and two of the plastic cups leapt over the back of the loveseat, bopping him on the head.

Mulder's mouth dropped open as he saw the coil of rope fly off its peg by the back door, unwinding as it hissed through the air like an anorexic snake. Even as it twined around the cringing figures on the floor, the ends were whipping up and down, striking welts onto their hands and faces.

The dining room chandelier swayed back and forth in an unnaturally wide arc, creaking and squealing as the suspension chain protested the unaccustomed movement. He would have preferred to let the forces at work have their way, but when the knife drawer in the kitchen flew open, Mulder knew it was time to intervene. No one would ever believe that he and Scully hadn't beaten and stabbed two unarmed men to death. The true story would be a little easier to swallow if they had living witnesses.

"Elver," Mulder shouted, "stop! I know you're angry, but you have to let us take it from here. We'll make sure they pay for what they did to you. Please, don't let them turn you into a murderer, too."

For a few seconds, it seemed like he'd wasted his breath. Kitchen utensils and canned goods continued to whistle overhead. Mulder was getting ready to renew his plea, when suddenly, everything stopped moving and simply hung there. Then, without warning, all the suspended objects dropped like lead weights. Anything hanging over the two whimpering intruders got one last shot at their hapless bodies. The rest landed on the floor and rolled to a stop.

Mulder was up and moving before the last echo had died away. Scully crept in from the opposite side of the room, gun drawn as she covered him. He pulled the cuffs from his back pocket and grabbed the unresisting arm of one man. The beaten-down killer let out a quiet moan and didn't move.

"Rusty and Lloyd, you are under arrest for the murder of Elver Smallwood. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. If you're lucky, Mr. Smallwood won't show up to testify for the prosecution at your trial." Mulder finished the standard Miranda warning, covering Scully out of habit while she cuffed the second man.

Bruises and bumps were popping out on every exposed inch of the intruders' skin. Neither seemed inclined to resist arrest or make a break for it. Mulder figured there wasn't even much sense in moving them right away; they didn't look capable of going anywhere under their own power.

Leaving the groaning men on the floor, he walked over to the fireplace and gestured for Scully to join him. She glanced at their prisoners, then followed.

"There are two snowmobiles out there," Mulder said. "I think it's time we got some help."

She tilted her head toward the men on the floor. "What should we do about them?"

"I don't think they're going anywhere right now. Elver will see to that. I'll take a snowmobile and follow their trail. Maybe it will lead back to town, or at least to another house with a phone."

She placed a hand against Mulder's chest to stop him as he made a move to walk away.

"Hold it. What do you mean you'll go for help? Why shouldn't I go instead?"

"Weeeelll...." He gave it some serious thought, but he was damned if he could come up with a reasonable argument for why he should go and she should stay. Scully was perfectly capable of shooting the prisoners if the need arose, but he didn't relish the idea of leaving her alone with them, no matter what their current condition. Nor was he happy about sending her out into the cold to track down assistance, which could take a while under the current weather conditions. And they couldn't both go -- even Mulder wouldn't break the rules so far as to leave suspected murderers unguarded. His shoulders sagged in resignation.

"Okay, Scully, it's your choice. You want to play guard, or ride off into the sunset on a cloud of fuel exhaust?"

The smile on her face told him that he'd made the right decision. Now he merely had to accept hers, whatever it was.

"I think I should go for help while you stay here," she stated in a determined tone of voice. "Like you said, I can follow their trail to start out. Besides, I'm lighter than you, so I'll travel faster. If I get lost or can't find anyone in a reasonable amount of time, I'll come back here and you can try. Sound like a plan, partner?"

He couldn't help grinning. "Sounds like a good plan. Let's do it."

While Scully bundled into extra clothes and borrowed boots, Mulder helped the injured men through the broken crockery and scattered packages into the living room. He put one on the loveseat and the other on the sofa, then drew a dining room chair to where he could watch both of them. He was going to be the least comfortable of the three, but Mulder figured they'd suffered enough for the moment. Neither man could move without groaning and it looked like one of them might have a broken hand. He decided not to mention it to Scully; it would only delay getting someone to help them and there probably wasn't much she could do under the circumstances anyway. He'd scoop snow into Ziploc bags to use as ice packs after she left.

He looked up to see her standing at the front door, belting an oversized parka around her waist. Keeping his gun in hand, he walked over to say goodbye. Suddenly, he remembered something important.

"Hang on. I have to see which of them has the keys."

Scully grabbed his hand.

"If the keys aren't in the ignition, I'll let you win the next game of Scrabble."

He gave her hand a little shake. "You'll let me, huh?"

"Yep." She grinned at him. "But I won't have to because these types of bozos never bother to take out the key. They'll be there."

"Well we'll see about that, won't we? I'll leave the door unlocked in case you have to come back and search their pockets."

They stood for several seconds, gazing into each other's eyes before Mulder twined his fingers through hers and pulled her close.

"You be careful," he murmured for her ears alone. "Don't take risks. Once you're clear of the driveway, if you lose the trail, try to stick to the road, in case there are air pockets under the snow. I'm going to worry until you get back, so don't dawdle unless you want me to turn into a wizened, gray-haired gnome."

"Any more instructions, Dad?" Scully's eyes twinkled at him, a little smile pushing up the corners of her mouth. He felt a sudden urge to kiss that smile.

"Yeah," he replied around the lump in his throat. "Dump that geeky guy you're seeing and find someone more deserving of you."

"Nope." Her fingers tightened around his. "Not gonna happen. It took me long enough to tell him how I really feel about him and now I intend to reap the benefits. Besides, he's not geeky, he's gorgeous. Get used to the idea."

Reaching up on tiptoe, she pressed a quick kiss to Mulder's lips. He shot a brief glimpse over his shoulder to make sure their prisoners hadn't seen. They were both lying with eyes closed, apparently oblivious. So he put his hand behind Scully's head and pulled her in for a deeper, more satisfying kiss. Both were breathing faster when they finally parted. Smiling, she drew on a pair of thick gloves, then opened the door.

"Be back as soon as I can," she said. "Try not to worry. I like the color of your hair."

He closed the door behind her and returned to his post in the living room. A couple of minutes passed, and then the whining roar of a snowmobile engine filled the room. He huffed a laugh. Scully was right. The idiots had left the keys in the ignition. Moving over to the fireplace, he threw more wood on the blaze, causing the other two men to jump in surprise. They watched as he walked back to his chair and sat down, balancing his gun on one thigh.

"So," Mulder said, "who's in the mood for a nice ghost story?"


5:15 PM

Mulder wasn't worried. Not really. Well, maybe a little bit. Almost forgetting to eat supper might count as being worried. He'd had to recuff both the prisoners with their hands in front of them so they could eat. Didn't want any charges of cruel and unusual punishment on top of the ones for assault with a deadly entity. But he wasn't worried much. Except that it had taken him a while to figure out how to handle bathroom duties. His and theirs. He could usually think of things like that with no problem. Maybe being worried had something to do with it. The prisoners were starting to sound pretty desperate by the time he got around to letting them piss off the porch. Worrying made it hard to think straight. He couldn't very well make the trip to the outhouse and leave them inside without a guard, and he damned well wasn't taking both of them in there with him, either. So he'd done his own business with the back door open so he could keep an eye on them, then he'd taken them outside one at a time and watched through the window until they were done. It worked fine. But now he was really getting worried.

He used his foot to shove the worst of the wreckage out of the way while his prisoners laid on the furniture and moaned every once in a while. When the gloom of evening settled on the house, he lit the lamps and sat down to wait. He entertained himself by reading Gone With The Wind out loud, complete with different voices and Southern accents. The dirty looks on Rusty and Lloyd's faces helped to keep his mind off his absent partner. Mostly. It would have helped more if he'd actually enjoyed the story.

The sound of a very loud engine made all three heads swivel toward the door. Mulder was out of his chair in a matter of seconds. He flung the door open to the sight of very bright headlights moving up the driveway. A green and brown Humvee trundled through the softening snow and pulled to a stop near the porch steps. The sigh of relief that swelled Mulder's chest felt like his first full breath in hours.

Waiting for his partner to climb out of the bulky vehicle took what little patience he had left. Still, he smiled as she trudged up the drive. Three men followed at a discreet distance, one in camouflage and the other two in State Trooper uniforms.

Scully gestured behind her with a wave of her hand and called out, "Here's the cavalry. Sorry it took so long."

"I wasn't worried." The expression on her face told him she wasn't buying his lie. He cleared his throat and continued, "How long did it take you to find them?"

"Would you believe that we're about five miles from the nearest town?" She led the rescue party toward the house as she continued, "The snowmobile trail ran up another driveway about four miles down the road, but by then I'd seen signs for the town, so I kept going until I found it. In fact, we would have seen a sign if we'd gone around the bend instead of sliding into the ditch. Didn't take more than half an hour, but the roads are still bad. They had to call in the National Guard and State Troopers to help rescue people still in their cars. They were going to send someone right out here, but I told them that you had things under control and the body wasn't going anywhere, so we were triaged to non-critical status. Our number finally came up, and here we are."

"Like I said, I wasn't worried. Much."

Mulder held the door open as Scully's escorts followed her inside. The National Guardsman took up a stand by the door while she led one of the Troopers down the hall to the crime scene. As the door shut behind them, Mulder pulled another dining room chair next to his and gestured for the second Trooper to sit. He was already running over how much to tell and how much to leave out of the narrative of events. He didn't need to worry. By the time he'd worked his way up to that morning, the prisoners were ready to contribute their own version of what happened. He was rather glad they weren't smart enough to use the information to their best advantage.

"So where was Agent Mulder again?" Officer Ledert had already gone over this line of questioning -- twice. The answers he was getting didn't appear to sit well with him. Rusty pointed behind the loveseat currently holding his partner-in-crime.

"He was back there, tryin' to protect his pretty-boy face." Rusty's face wasn't nearly as attractive as when he'd first entered the house, so a little bitterness and envy was understandable. Mulder couldn't help mentally cringing at the size and coloring of Rusty's right eyelid.

"And where was Agent Scully?"

"Like I told you before, she was right over here, hidin' behind this-here couch."

"And they didn't throw anything at either of you?"

"I swear to God, them cans and shit came flyin' outta the cupboard like they had wings. Me and Lloyd didn't stand a chance. We was beat to the ground in no time."

Officer Ledert looked a question at Mulder, who simply spread his hands in a "what can I say?" gesture. They both looked up at the sound of a door closing off the bedroom containing the mortal remains of Elver Smallwood. The other Trooper followed Scully down the hall to the living room, both of them stripping off latex gloves as they walked.

"We won't be able to take the body with us, I'm afraid, Agent Scully," he told her. "I'd be happy to remain behind, but with two prisoners to guard, I'm afraid that's not possible. I'm sorry. I hope you don't mind having to stay here with it another day."

She gave him a small smile. "It's okay, Officer Carney. We'll be fine. We've spent most of the week with Mr. Smallwood already, so one more day won't hurt."

"Why aren't we leaving today, Officer?" Mulder rose and moved to stand close to his partner, although he did make an attempt not to hover over her. "I seem to have missed part of the decision-making process." He glanced pointedly between the Trooper and Scully, waiting for an answer. He should have guessed it would come from her.

"It's a matter of security due to limited space in the Humvee, Mulder. They're going to take the suspects with them now, but Officer Carney assures me someone will be back for the rest of us at some point tomorrow."

"He does, huh?" Mulder narrowed his eyes in mock jealousy just to see what Scully would do.

She pressed her lips together in a thin line, obviously holding in a snicker, and answered "'M hm."

"Well then," he stated, "let's not keep these busy officers any longer. Gentlemen, they are all yours."

The exit of law enforcement and prisoners was swift and efficient, and punctuated by the closing of the front door as Mulder leaned his weight against it. Before he could move, warm arms were snaking around his waist from behind. In his new role as the lover of Dana Scully, he couldn't resist a chance to tease.

"You and Officer Carney sounded like you were getting awfully close."

She pinched his stomach. "Not as close as I am to you."

Mulder turned within the circle of her arms. He drew her in tight, leaning back so he could see her eyes shining at him.

"So you weren't turned on by Carney's concern for the poor defenseless little woman? After all, you're alone here, with only another FBI agent to protect you."

"There's just one law officer I'm hot for, and it isn't Officer Carney."

He threw up his hands. "I knew it! Officer Ledert's paunch got to you, didn't it? I've always suspected that portly men were a secret passion with you."

"That's why I hang out with you, Mulder. Those little love handles are sooo sexy."

"I do not have love handles!"

Scully cupped a hand on either side of his waist and pulled him flush against her body. "Sure you do. See?"

That little maneuver called for a kiss. A long, deep, soulful kiss that left them both moaning and gasping. Pushing away from the door, he led her to the sofa and stretched out down its length. He pulled her on top of him and waited while she got settled.

"So what should we do for the next twenty-four hours or so?" he asked. Scully was lying with her hands folded on his chest, chin propped on top of them. Her nose was so close he couldn't resist the urge to lean up and kiss it. She gave him a blinding, toothy smile.

"We could always play another game," she replied. "I'm sure you must know lots of interesting games."

He pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "What's your pleasure? Risk? Monopoly? A nice rousing game of Yahtzee?"

She squirmed in his arms, rubbing against portions of his anatomy that hadn't seen this kind of action in years... until recently. Mulder's eyes grew wide in understanding.

"I was thinking of rousing something else," she purred. Her breath tickled his lips and he smiled. "Do you think you're up to it?"

"Bring it on, partner. I'm up for whatever you've got in mind." He leaned in to kiss her again and caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. The curtain over the back door was gently swinging, as though someone had just taken a peek outside.

"Hey, Elver!" Mulder shouted. "We really appreciated your warning, but do you think we could have a little privacy for a while?"

The sound of footsteps crossed the dining room and moved behind the sofa toward the hallway. As they passed the front door, the faint outline of a man's body could be seen. They proceeded to the very end of the hall, where a bedroom door creaked open, and then closed.

Mulder had a wise-crack ready on his lips, but before he could speak, he heard a new set of footfalls on the hardwood floor. These were lighter than the first, with a shorter stride and a higher-pitched sound. They followed the same path as the other footsteps, and when they passed the front door, the shape of a woman's body became visible against the dark wood for a second. It disappeared, but the steps continued down the hall. The door at the end creaked open and then closed again. The fire hissed and popped in the following silence.

Letting out the breath he'd been holding, Mulder couldn't help grinning at the shocked look on Scully's face.

"Now," he whispered into her mouth, "where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?"

THE END


Author's end notes, cause she likes to babble afterward the way some people like to smoke: I have no idea where this story came from. There have been some of interesting discussions on message boards recently about where authors find their ideas. Lots of people are inspired by a particular piece of music, or something else that they read. I have no earthly clue. It was just there, so I wrote it down.

This story would never have been finished without the amazing help of Dan and Cindy, who assisted in hashing out the early details and doing pre-beta beta. For some reason, this one gave me no end of fits. I even had trouble with where M&S were going to be stuck in the snow. It didn't seem to matter in the grand scheme of things, but it irked me. So I finally plunked them down in my own general bailiwick. Anyone who watches the national weather knows what a good old lake-effect snow off Lake Erie can do to the northeastern portion of my state. As much as I dread winter in my declining years, sometimes I wish I'd moved to that area a long time ago. I figure if it's gonna snow, let's get enough to shut everything down for a few days. I'm getting lazy in my old age, too.

Special disclaimer: I don't own Scrabble, Scruples, Battleship, Stadium Checkers, or any of the other board gamesmentioned, except for personal copies of the games themselves. No disrespect was intended by mentioning them here, and who knows? It might even increase sales a little. You'll have to try the online auctions for Stadium Checkers, though. Production was stopped years ago, and that's where I found mine during a sudden bout of nostalgia.

Feedback: Is printed out, fawned over, and stroked to tatters at mimic117@yahoo.com

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