A fan fiction story by Melpomene based on the characters and backstory of "The X Files" and composed without permission. No copyright infringement is intended and no monies have been earned.

Modus Operandi


Dawn was encroaching on the field research arena, its rosy glow illuminating the eastern clouds with thickly veiled fingers of hazy light, throwing the towering trees into stark silhouette. The partially cleared area was enclosed by chain link and razor wire and carpeted with the previous autumn's fallen leaves. A car slowly approached the padlocked gate, its headlights further illuminating the rain sodden leaves.

Pulling the collar of a yellow rain slicker up against the steady, heavy mist, a woman exited the SUV and slammed the door shut. A grungy fishing hat protected her face as she approached the gate and a ringed assortment of keys dangled from her fingers, clanging noisily against one another as she wrested with the padlock.

Half a dozen steps into the arena she stopped, swaying unsteadily on her feet. She stared blankly at the new body that lay among the rotting leaves: a reeking intermingled mass of vegetation and carrion in various stages of decomposition. She sighed over the maggots that squirmed in the corpse's open wounds.

Damn it all to hell! The bloody flies are just too friggin' quick sometimes...

--XxXxXxX--

She lifted her head from the beckoning warmth and comfort of her pillow trying to shake the broken remnants of her nightmare from her head and glared belligerently at the clock. 3:08am. Her phone rang again, despite the lateness of the hour. Snagging it in a sleep numbed hand, she muttered a series of slurred expletives before placing it to her ear.

"Scully." If this is Mulder, and who else would it be at such an hour, with another of his ridiculous, extreme, implausible, hare-brained theories...

"Did I wake you?"

No Mulder, I'm one of your little green men, scratch that, little grey men. I don't require sleep. I just sit by the phone waiting for you to call. "What is it?" she responded, deciding avoidance would not be the best option if she wanted to return to the oblivion of sleep any time soon.

"We're on the 6am out of Dulles. I just got a call from Knoxville, sounds like an x-file."

And just exactly what doesn't sound like an x-file to you? "Uh huh. Knoxville? As in Knoxville, Tennessee?"

"Yep, as in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. We're meeting with their local PD at 10."

"Mulder, why is it that you can't decide to ditch me when you want to go tearing off in the early morning hours?"

"Hey, you're the one who complains about being left out of the loop when I do..." he replied. She couldn't decide if she was hearing hurt or humor in his voice, quickly realizing she didn't really care either way. At three in the morning she found she cared about very little with the exception of her claim on the sand man.

"I'll come and pick you up in an hour. I can fill you in then."

Scully fumbled with the phone, finally ending the call but not before punching a few wrong buttons in the process. She fell back against the cooling pillow, sighing heavily. And even then I'll be out of the loop.

--XxXxXxX--

The flight was nearly empty, allowing them to claim an entire row of seats. What little information Mulder had provided had not been adequate to explain why they couldn't wait to leave at a reasonable hour.

Still out of the loop.

Mulder watched Scully as she flipped through the glossy pages of the airline magazine; he saw the weariness that dulled and darkened her eyes and weighted her movements. He didn't need his psychology training to tell him she was exhausted and irritated, that much was blatantly obvious even to him, and his level of density was immeasurable when it came to his partner.

They hadn't even managed to finish the report from the last file they had been working on. The alien abduction turned familial abandonment of a Gainsville man who had simply decided to walk out on his wife of twelve years and their three children. It had held so much promise until they got a phone call from the man's resident mistress. Mulder had gotten enough Scully-glares from that fiasco to last him into his next life. But what if it had been an alien abduction...

Seeming to read his mind, Scully raised her head and brushed her coppery veil behind her ear, piercing him with those incredible eyes that so often transmitted such displeasure and disbelief, the pleasant expressions were few and far between and almost nonexistent on these frequent red-eyes. "This isn't another abduction is it?"

"No, ma'am. Just your average, run of the mill murder/mutilation and body dumping." He noticed the flight attendant a moment too late and watched in silent bemusement as she made a hasty retreat from their section of the plane, turning slightly green around the edges.

"Mulder!" Scully admonished before turning her attention back to the magazine.

"What?!"

--XxXxXxX--

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville wasn't a small campus by any stretch of the imagination and their rental car made several passes across the rain slicked pavement before they finally decided to simply park and wander the buildings on foot to find the appropriate department.

"Isn't this rain somethin' else?" The receptionist in the forensic anthropology department's voice drawled out.

"It's definitely something," Scully admitted, leveling another scowl at Mulder as she ran damp fingers through her bedraggled hair.

Ignoring the look, Mulder focused on the leggy blonde receptionist. Not bad, he thought. Not really my type, but not bad. Kind of resembles that woman in the new 'Debbie Does...' films. "I'm Agent Fox Mulder and this is Agent Dana Scully, we're from the FBI." That got a small glimmer of appreciation from the blonde. "We're looking for Julia Parker."

"Humph! That figures," she replied.

The obvious disapproval raised a red flag and Scully pounced on it. Any chance of wrapping this up early and returning her to her own bed was worth the chance. "And why do you say that?"

Leaning conspiratorially across the desk and subsequently allowing Mulder a clear shot of the deep V neckline of her blouse and the augmented cleavage the filmy material almost covered, the woman lowered her voice to explain, "I really shouldn't be saying this..."

Then don't. Scully thought and then remembered that she was the reason for the admission to begin with. Raising her eyebrows at the woman's blindingly obvious play for Mulder's attentions, she held her tongue. Give it up, he wouldn't notice if you showed up naked in his bed tonight. He might take notice if you starred in one of his videos but the real thing is just too easy to ignore.

"...But Parker's a strange one. You know the type," she raised adoring eyes to Mulder, "she keeps to herself, doesn't talk to anyone. Impeccable grades and all but she's just such a cold fish. You never know what's going on in that head of hers. And she's gorgeous, but she never goes out on dates...not a single one. Just spends hours in the autopsy bay and out at the body farm. She logs in more hours with the specimens than the professors do."

"So she's a dedicated student," Scully surmised. If you think this Parker woman is strange, what would you think of paranoid Spooky Mulder and his alien/government conspiracy theories?

"There's dedicated and then there's just plain morbid. Miss Untouchable is the latter by far."

"Miss Untouchable?" Mulder questioned, recalling his own nicknames both from the Bureau and Oxford as well as those Scully had accumulated since they had become partners.

"Yeah," she chuckled self-consciously, "it's just one of the names she's been given by the other grad students. It's the kindest by far, I assure you, Fox. May I call you Fox?"

Scully pursed her lips together to suppress her reaction, waiting for Mulder to respond.

"Mulder, you can call me Mulder."

Irritated with the receptionist for various unnamed albeit warranted reasons, Scully sought to end the character assassination she was bearing witness to and lead the woman in a more productive line of conversation, such as directing them to the morbid Ms Parker. "I'm sure the university is grateful that you keep up on idle gossip so well, and with so much paperwork," she gestured to the stack of back logged file folders resting in the in box, "How is it that you manage so well, Miss..."

"Abernathy, Marjorie Abernathy." She ignored Scully to extend a well-manicured hand to Mulder, her fingers lingering in his hand after he released his grip.

"Miss Abernathy, we would appreciate it if you could just tell us where we could find Julia Parker." She eyed the woman's dagger-like fingernails, half expecting the crimson lacquer to drip from the edges in testament to her latest kill.

Mulder stood silently by, watching the discourse and wondering at the source for the woman's patent disapproval of Julia Parker.

"Let me see now," her flirtatious feathers ruffled, Miss Abernathy flipped through a sheaf of papers, her nails tapping out a maddening syncopation of her irritation. "Just like I said," she indicated a neatly penned signature on the list, "always in the autopsy bays or at the body farm."

"Julia Parker," Mulder read out loud, "AB2 at 6:15am." He looked up into Miss Abernathy's eyes, "What's AB2?"

"Autopsy Bay 2, it's in the basement." Waving vaguely toward the hallway she redirected her gaze to Mulder. "If you need anything else," a smile meant only for Mulder and that was intended to be charming but appeared more bloodthirsty than appealing, curved her painted lips, "I'm always available."

Cringing at the reference and implication, Scully rolled her eyes and turned to leave the office. Mulder granted the woman a small smile as he followed his partner into the hallway, chuckling softly at the woman's behavior and Scully's reaction.

--XxXxXxX--

The first autopsy bay was dark and deserted but further along the dingy corridor, light streamed out from beneath a door whose peeling paint designated it as #2.

"Shall we knock?" Mulder rapped lightly on the hollow metal door.

"Come in," the voice that answered was muffled and distracted through the closed door.

"Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly..." Grinning, he pushed the door open to flood the hallway with bright light and the mingling sweet and sour scents of formaldehyde and organic decomposition. He stepped aside to allow Scully to enter the room first.

"What's the matter, Mulder?" she grinned, watching his complexion alternate from grey to green. "This was your bright idea."

"The file is mine," he clarified, "the morbid one is all yours."

If Miss Abernathy impressed him, Julia Parker positively stunned him. The woman in question stood behind a gleaming chrome autopsy table on which a mottled body lay exposed to the unforgiving blue-bright light. The green scrubs and white lab coat, rather than washing her out, accentuated a deep tan and flawless golden skin. Her long dark hair had been pulled back into a mussed ponytail and escaped strands fell forward to frame an oval face. From such a distance it was impossible to determine but Scully felt certain that even at close range she'd be hard pressed to distinguish between the pupil and the black-brown of her irises. Closer to Mulder's height, she exuded self-confidence and unforgiving austerity.

A question formed in her expression as Parker glanced up from her work, startled by the distraction of visitors. Almost as an afterthought, she set aside the scalpel and cast a wistful glance at her current project, before turning to devote her undivided attention to her unexpected guests.

Mulder must think he's died and gone to heaven. Scully cast a look at the corpse Parker had been concentrating on. Or to hell... "I'm Agent Scully with the FBI, this," she motioned for Mulder to close the door and extracted her id badge, "is my partner, Agent Mulder."

Parker remained silent and apparently rooted to the spot.

"We received a call about some recent discoveries related to the Body Farm and we were told you would be willing to assist us with our investigation. Miss Abernathy told us we would find you here."

Parker glanced quickly at the silent speaker that was mounted above the door, tamping down the rising anger she harbored for the nauseating Marjorie Abernathy. All the bitch has to do is push a button and tell me some one's one their way down. It's not brain surgery, it's one little button! Pushing aside her irritation, she stepped out from behind the table to carefully study the identification both agents proffered. She raised her eyebrows, satisfied that they were in fact who they claimed to be.

Mulder accepted her silence as an opening. "I was contacted by a Dr. Wendstrom in reference to some corpse mutilations you discovered in the outdoor forensic cadaver center. He assured us you were the only one to study the remains." Mulder paused in his discourse to watch an unnamed emotion flit across the graduate student's face. "He was referred to us by a..." he dug through the pockets of his trench coat, finally extracting a soggy, crumpled slip of paper, "...An Agent Jack Coleman of the Houston FBI field office."

"Oh." The woman's voice was deepened with fatigue and rough from a long morning of disuse; reminiscent of the actress Agent Coleman had likened her to earlier that morning. After speaking to Dr. Wendstrom, Mulder had rung up the Houston agent in a quest for further information.

"I can't tell ya' much," the drowsy agent had related, "but if Julia's there, she's got it covered. I trust her instincts implicitly. She pulled an internship down here last summer, she's the best I've ever seen. She's great: brilliant and beautiful. Reminded me of my mother's favorite silver screen actress, Linda Darnell."

"I'm sure Marjorie gave you an earful," she muttered, her distaste for the blonde upstairs evident. "I'm afraid the problem has multiplied," she began, shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her lab coat. "I'm no ME or even a pathology student, but I am sure of one thing." She crossed the lab to pull open two vault drawers, exposing another two mottled corpses to the light. "These aren't ours."

"What do you mean?" Following Parker across the worn linoleum, Scully gave the bodies a cursory visual examination, a concerned frown furrowing her brow.

"What I mean is that we didn't put these three out. We've got a number of corpses out at the farm, they're people who have donated their bodies to science and we're allowed to use them for our own means of study. We keep track of who we've placed out there and where we've put them. But these three..." she shrugged, "...These guys just showed up out of nowhere."

"Could they have simply been overlooked in the records?" Mulder stood just behind the two women.

"No. I'm Dr. Wendstrom's assistant and we're the only ones who put the bodies out. We also inflict any injury to the corpses, cuts and gashes and such to study the extent of insect activity. We wouldn't mutilate them like this."

Scully nodded slowly. The wounds to all three were identical; the skin of their faces and necks had been peeled away to expose the muscles, tendons and bone underneath. They vaguely resembled the series of sheep and cattle mutilation photos they had tucked away in the basement file cabinet back at the Hoover building.

"When did you find the first one?" Mulder questioned, this was Scully's area of expertise, he avoided watching the autopsies when he could. There was just something unnerving about watching someone calmly stand there taking a person apart piece by piece. And to do so with growing interest...

"He turned up about a week ago, number two made an appearance four days ago, and I found this one," she pointed at the body she had been studying when they had entered, "I found her yesterday. I've been working with the forensic pathologist from the city morgue to examine the bodies." She turned to face Scully. "I didn't want to miss anything by doing it on my own. Like I said, I'm not really studying pathology."

"Can I see the reports?"

"Of course, they're over on the table."

--XxXxXxX--

The autopsy reports had been exemplary, more thorough even than her own, Scully mused. Pathologist or not, Julia Parker was living up to the praises of perfection that had filled the descriptions from Dr. Wendstrom and Agent Coleman.

They had left the autopsy bay, just in the nick of time if Mulder's expression of gratitude were taken into consideration, to meet with the local law enforcement agency, arranging another meeting with Julia for after lunch.

The local police had been altogether unhelpful. They didn't want to sound a public alarm, enough trouble was raised annually concerning the university's Body Farm and the university itself had agreed about the necessity to keep the situation as quiet as possible. It had yet to be determined as to whether the bodies could be linked to area missing persons, or even whether they were murder victims at all.

Meeting with the forensic pathologist, and receiving yet another glowing report about the university's morbid 'cold fish', had been slightly more informative.

"Parker and I determined the cause of death to be due to extensive blood loss. I heard she found another one yesterday?"

"Yes." Scully shifted to a more comfortable position in the metal folding chair. "Same MO but the victim's female."

"So our guy's an equal opportunity mutilator."

"So it would seem," Mulder agreed, "I don't suppose there have been any reports of unusual activity in the area? Bright lights? Unrecognized aircraft?"

"Parker and I made the connection to supposed alien cattle mutilations too," the pathologist laughed. "No, it's been pretty quiet around these parts lately. More likely it's a series or serial murderer. I suppose only time will tell which, but I'd put my money on a serial murderer." He stood from his desk chair and gathered a small stack of files. "Give these to Parker when you see her. We were discussing some potential problems with the bodies. She could explain more thoroughly than I can, for the last week she's been immersed in this puzzle up to her eyebrows. Who knows, maybe she'll get that doctorate even sooner than she thought."

--XxXxXxX--

The rain had refused to slack off even by early afternoon and Scully sighed at her reflection in the car window. "So, this is a serial murder. I can see how the mutilations caught your interest but I don't see how this classifies as an x-file, Mulder."

Rising to the defensive, he sputtered, "There's more than just the mutilations, anybody can carve someone up. The victims are still unknown and their blood and tissue results..."

"Are unusual. I know, Mulder, I read the reports myself. Their DNA came out with no abnormalities, it's the chromosomal differences that are strange. What do you think they indicate?" She watched the picturesque homes glide past the window to be replaced by sprawling university buildings.

"That's what makes it an x-file."

"What? Alien-human hybrids? Mothmen? Yeti?"

"Why not?"

Recollections of the Gainesville case that could have been an alien abduction ran through her mind, joined by thoughts of her own empty, comfortable bed. "Why not indeed."

--XxXxXxX--

Deciding to avoid the 'available' Miss Abernathy, they detoured straight to the basement but found AB2 vacant; a trio of graduate students however, occupied AB1.

"Excuse me," Scully interrupted the group's laughter, "could you tell us where we might find Julia Parker?"

"Haven't seen her." A youngish woman replied, stifling a laugh, "Did you try the other stiffs?"

"The last time I saw Madame Bitch, she was headed toward Dr. Wendstrom's office."

"Daniel! It's one thing to call her that in private..."

"Who cares?"

Scully cut into their conversation again, "Where would Dr. Wendstrom's office be?"

They received a confused and rambling assortment of directions, all of which would lead them through the rain and into another building, and both agents left the students to their cadaver.

Miss Abernathy caught up with them just as they were about to step back out into the icy downpour. "Agent Mulder!" Her heels resounded off the tiled floor in harsh contrast to the silence of the hallway. "I have a message for you, from her." She extended a folded slip of paper. "She got a phone call and just up and left, no explanation or anything. Said she needed to speak with you both at her house tonight. These are directions."

Scully took the paper and unfolded it to reveal the same precise script they had seen earlier on the autopsy log. The short note included the promise of dinner and an apology as well as specific directions to her house. "Thank you, Miss Abernathy."

"Marjorie." Her eyes never left their adoring appraisal of Mulder.

"Yeah." Scully slipped the note into her pocket and leaned heavily on the door. A cold shower might be just the thing, she thought, Spooky.

--XxXxXxX--

Their hotel was crowded with a throng of conventioneers and they had to push a path through the milling bodies to reach the front desk.

"May I help you?" Amber, according to the glittering nametag on her lapel, forced a smile at their approach.

"Yes, we have reservations. Two rooms for Scully and Mulder." Scully hefted her briefcase up onto the counter, extracting the Bureau issued credit card.

"Ummm..." Amber's fingers flew across the keyboard. "Yes, here we are. Adjoining rooms for Agent Dana Scully and Agent Fox Mulder." Her brow creased in uncertainty. "The first name is Fox?"

"Yes." Mulder lowered his head and murmured in Scully's ear, "Adjoining rooms? There could be promise in that but doesn't it violate Agency policy?"

Scully ignored the comment and focused her attention on the girl who stood behind the counter.

Shrugging her slender shoulders with indifference Amber smiled again. "Must have been a hard name to grow up with. I have a cousin named Thunder and my best friend's Stormy." She chuckled, "We get a lot of ribbing any time we go out." She reached into a file box and lifted out a pair of magnetized cards. "You're in rooms 1011 and 1013, up the elevator to the tenth and then down the hall to your right. And..." a manila envelope joined the key cards in her hand, "this was hand delivered for you a little while ago. Enjoy your stay!" Her smile warmed and broadened.

"Thank you." Scully looked at the envelope; it was blank but for the hastily scrawled 'Mulder/Scully' and a red stamped 'eyes only' directive. She glanced up at Mulder, raising her eyebrows as she met his baffled expression, and handed him the envelope.

He accepted the folder, turning it over in his hands before addressing the girl behind the desk, "Do you know who left this?"

"Just some guy. I didn't accept it, one of the bellboys did. He said someone approached him out at the valet parking kiosk and asked him to deliver it to the FBI in the hotel; he didn't leave a name. Usually we won't accept things that way, but since it was FBI related we made an exception. Sorry I can't tell you more."

The elevator, like the lobby, was brimming with noisy professionals enjoying the break in their routines offered by the conference. The bellboy who had insisted on carrying their luggage formed a barrier between the agents and convention attendees, making sure the name-tagged group was deposited on the appropriate floor. "You would think that with their college educations they could read a floor map and find the right conference room," he muttered, shaking his head in exasperation. "I guess college educated doesn't mean much anymore."

--XxXxXxX--

"So what's in that file?"

The doors between the rooms stood open and Scully paused on the threshold, her things neatly unpacked and her laptop sitting on the table along with the files they'd been given by the pathologist to pass on to Parker. She found Mulder sitting on the floor next to the bed, the file in question and its spilled contents spread across the comforter.

"Have a look. It would seem that someone is intent on filling us in on the macabre Ms Parker. Do you get the impression someone's mistaken us for a currier service?" He picked up a handwritten note and handed it to Scully when she approached. "Might as well get comfortable, this'll take a while."

Scully looked down at the unsigned note. Written by a decidedly male hand: There are some things you need to understand about Julia and her time spent as an intern.

The pages of photocopied reports painted a gruesome picture of a nightmarish summer internship.

Julia Parker had taken the Houston field office by storm, soaring through the application screening and interview process with flying colors, not surprising anyone when she was offered a position for the summer. Arriving early, staying late and often volunteering for weekend duty, she quickly became well regarded by those agents who knew her. Her devotion and undying curiosity permitted her an up close and personal look at several on-going cases. It was that open availability and desire to acquire knowledge that caused Agent Coleman to recruit her help with a file he and his partner were struggling with: profiling and tracking a serial rapist. It was thought that while Julia wouldn't be of much help overall, she would be able to gain some good experience. In the end, Julia's fresh perspective gave them a healthy nudge in the right direction and they were able to apprehend the perpetrator, but not before tragedy struck.

The report detailed a lunch meeting Julia had kept with an agent by the name of Jason Birdwell; an hour after leaving the office, Agent Birdwell called in to say she had disappeared. She had left their table to go to the restroom and never returned.

Agent Coleman and his partner, an Agent Pendergast, interviewed the wait staff and the remaining diners but no one had seen Julia. The next day, Agent Birdwell never showed up to work. Coleman spent the morning in the room she occupied at a local dormitory, searching her meager belongings for some clue as to where she might have gone. He found her notes on the profiling/tracking project, read her suspicions and damned himself for not seeing what she had. She had pinpointed their perpetrator as the very man she had agreed to have lunch with, Jason Birdwell.

It took them five more days to locate the desolate hunting cabin the agent had inherited from a deceased uncle. Coleman had insisted on entering the building alone, leaving the other members of the raid to deal with the perpetrator.

Julia had been held for a total of seven days. When he finally discovered her bound and gagged in a utility closet, he admittedly almost handed in his resignation on the spot. This woman he had come to know for the three weeks they'd worked together was so battered and bruised and bloody he could barely recognize her. The specific details of her week spent with a serial rapist never came to light and were sketchy at best. It was never determined whether that was due to her own confusion or a simple unwillingness to expound on her own trauma.

Birdwell, rather to allow himself to be apprehended, put a bullet in his brain and died on site.

She spent three days in the hospital and, against medical advice and the better judgment of the Bureau itself, returned to complete her internship. Her work remained exemplary but her personality had been drastically altered. The cheerful, bright-eyed jokester was replaced with a somber version of the same radiant beauty. She stopped using her first name and although she remained dedicated, she developed a much more rigid separation of the personal and professional aspects of her life.

The Bureau psychiatrist she had met with the mandatory three sessions dictated by FBI protocol, although wholly unsatisfied with her recovery, cleared her for return to the program.

The psych. records ended with a quote from Julia. "Who are you to tell me I'm not dealing with it in the appropriate way? You look at your case files and see that I'm going about it differently and that sends up red flags for you. Just because I choose to deal with this incident in another way, because I choose to utilize alternate coping mechanisms, doesn't mean I'm unhealthy, that I'm wrong. Regurgitating all that's happened isn't going to make it go away. What's done is done, it's in the past and all I can do now is get on with my life and move on."

Scully looked up at Mulder, placing the last of the photocopied sheets in a tidy pile. "My first question is who sent this to us."

"Agent Coleman?" he offered, stretching his arms over his head and rolling the stiff muscles in his neck.

"Okay, so why? How does this benefit us with this case? Does it benefit us at all?"

"Maybe he was bored."

Scully shot him a scowl that suggested she disagreed with his opinion.

"What? You should never underestimate the power of a bored FBI agent, Dr. Scully." Running a hand through his hair, Mulder adopted a more serious expression. "Maybe he," he began, enunciating each word clearly, "doesn't want us to fall into the same 'Madame Bitch' trough as the rest of the university." His hand was back at his temple, absently massaging the tension headache that had begun to build. "Perhaps we are being urged to look past the hard exterior she's created for herself. Maybe he wants us to listen to her and not disallow her findings based merely on her less than stellar attitude."

Scully watched him for another moment before glancing down at her watch. "Get ready, I'm going to change first but we should leave soon. We don't want to be late."

"Hey," he called as she walked back into her room, causing her to turn and lean around the doorframe, red hair swaying gently at her sudden stop. "You know these showers are just the right size for two, we still have a little time before-" He smiled as the door slammed shut.

--XxXxXxX--

Following the explicit directions as outlined in Parker's note, they arrived at an old stone farmhouse more than an hour after leaving their hotel.

It's the only two-story house in the area, the note had promised. From what Mulder could see, it was the only house in the area. The well paved yet little used FM road they'd spent the better part of an hour on had plunged them into thick woods that glistened in the steady rain. They were surrounded by green and brown and eerie silence.

The house itself was deeply shaded by ancient towering trees and was enclosed in a small cottage garden surrounded by a white picket fence. Two cars were parked on the pebbled driveway, 4WD utilitarian vehicles equipped for country living.

"This is not what I was expecting..." Mulder opened his door, tucking the pathologist's files beneath his coat to protect them from the downpour. The garden gate clicked shut behind them as they wound a trail through lilies, lavender, and bright-eyed daisies.

The windows along the covered porch were open to the damp breeze, emitting strains of a Broadway musical and scents of a home cooked meal. The knocker sounded its call, heavy and deep.

The door flew open, startling both agents with its suddenness, and a pair of young children smiled up at them with startling blue eyes.

"Hi," Scully addressed the pair, "I'm..."

"From the FBI," the little girl announced, nudging her brother in the ribs when he tried to snatch the remote control she held in her small hand. "Mama told us that we were having guests to dinner."

"And we have to be on our best behavior," the little boy added.

"Do you?" Scully asked suddenly wondering if she ought to have given Mulder that same dictate.

"Uh huh, she said we couldn't be savage children with guests in the house."

"Fin! Anne! Step aside and let them come in!" Parker's voice called from the depths of the house with the intuition of a seasoned parent.

"Oops! Sorry." Anne pushed her brother aside with a cheerful shove and politely invited Scully and Mulder into the house. "I'm Antigone but everybody just calls me Anne, he's Phineus but you can call him Fin." Leading her brother and their guests through the front room she explained, "Mama's in the kitchen."

Fin was quick to grab their dripping coats and deposit them on the antique coat rack as they progressed through the room before running ahead of them into the kitchen. "They're here!"

"Really?" Parker laughed, "And I thought those were hobgoblins knocking so politely on the door, coming to steal you away and give me changelings!"

"Mama!" Anne squealed with childish delight.

Any opinion they had formed in the autopsy bay was turned upside down by the vision that awaited them in the kitchen. Julia Parker would appear to be the changeling in question. Long straight hair dipped past her shoulders, shining in the light from the wrought iron chandelier. Her scrubs and lab coat had been exchanged for jeans, a scarlet blouse, and flour dusted apron whose strings were wrapped several times around her slender waist. Her sneakers had been abandoned in a heap by the back door and she padded across the flagstone floor in stocking feet. But it was her face that was most changed. Her mouth curved into a genuine smile and her dark eyes sparkled.

"I'm sorry about earlier," she began, picking up a wooden spoon and turning back to the stove, "a family emergency came up and my mother had to fly out to Texas unexpectedly. I had to go retrieve my monsters from kindergarten."

Taking their cue, both children dropped down onto the floor, prowling around on all fours and emitting what could only be described as 'monster noises'.

"Why don't ya'll turn off ol' Annie and set the table for me?" Parker asked, pointing the spoon first at the forgotten remote and then at the CD player on the counter. Fin leapt up to hit a button, neglecting the remote he had formerly been so avid to claim, and the pair charged into the adjoining room.

Smiling at their prompt abeyance she said, "They love musicals. This week it's Annie Get Your Gun, last week it was Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and they're already clamoring for Oklahoma for next week." Satisfied that dinner was progressing nicely she motioned Scully and Mulder to the kitchen table. "I really am sorry about this... I hope you were able to follow my directions alright."

"It's not a problem," Mulder assured her.

"I try to keep them as far away from my work as possible. It's not always easy, or possible." Sighing, she lowered into a chair. "I would appreciate it if we could discuss the case after dinner. I'll skip their bed time story tonight and we can work on it once they've fallen asleep."

Listening to the clink of silverware and clatter of dishes in the next room, Scully stated, "They're beautiful children."

"Thank you. It's funny, but except for their eyes I couldn't disclaim them if I wanted to. The resemblance still astounds me. I keep expecting something of their father to develop." She paused, smoothing the edge of the tatted tablecloth. "They'll be six next month."

Mulder watched as Parker threaded her fingers together. "If you don't mind me asking, where is their father?"

"He was in a fatal car accident before they were born." A dense sadness flooded her expression. "I was just three months along. He knew we were going to have a baby but he died the day I found out I was carrying twins, I never had a chance to tell him."

"I'm sorry..."

"There's no reason for you to be, you didn't kill him." The sadness began to lift again, "besides, it was a long time ago."

"They don't know what you do away from home?" Mulder asked. Scully, he knew, was good at compartmentalizing, but Parker was a master. He remembered his own childhood; his father hadn't been nearly so thorough.

"It's best this way. It's a lot easier to protect them if no one knows about them."

"What about the people you worked with during your summer internship? Agent Coleman?"

A shadow of a deeper menacing nature passed across her eyes, dissipating quickly. "Jack Coleman and Harry Pendergast know I have kids but they've never met them, I don't even think that they've seen pictures of them. I stayed at a dormitory during my stint as an intern. I went home most weekends to see them but that was the extent of it."

The oven timer sounded with a resounding ding and Parker rose again to open the oven door. The mouth-watering aromas of thyme and roasted chicken wafted across the room reminding both agents of their last meal, an airline breakfast of cold cereal and a banana.

--XxXxXxX--

An hour later the dining room table was littered with the remains of their meal. The plates and cutlery had been cheerfully toted into the kitchen and the freshly bathed children sent off to bed. Parker kissed and hugged them goodnight and made sure each had their preferred stuffed animal before herding them to the stairwell.

"We're sleeping in Antigone's bed tonight!" Fin exclaimed, dashing up the stairs, a tattered, three legged, one-eyed alligator tucked securely under his arm.

"Alright," Parker called after them, "I'll come up in a little while to check on you. Have sweet dreams."

--XxXxXxX--

They sat around the kitchen table, autopsy findings, case studies, and notated county maps spread out on the battered wood and starched cloth. Parker quickly read through the files the pathologist had sent, making her own notations in an old-fashioned composition notebook.

"It's just a habit now," she explained, "when you compile a site notebook you have to be sure nothing can been added or taken away at a later date. It's too easy to have the chain of custody questioned otherwise. The A&P in Marshall orders them specially, just for me. I've got a case of them out in the barn." She continued making notes as she spoke, rolling her pen between two long, slender fingers as she paused in thought.

"What have you been able to deduct so far?" Mulder questioned, mumbling around the pen he held in his teeth, a sheaf of papers in his hands.

"Death has been attributed to massive blood loss, there are no signs of a struggle with any of the victims but it's reasonable to assume the skin was removed peri-mortem. None of their injuries appear to have been inflicted post-mortem. Trace amounts of laudanum and Vicodan have been detected in the blood work. Even so, there doesn't seem to be enough of the drugs in their systems to have rendered them incapable of fighting back. I don't know, a bare minimum of Vicodan will knock me flat but I can still move, not well mind you, but I'm not totally incapacitated." Parker sighed and raised a hand to brush a silky lock of hair back over her shoulder. "As far as we have been able to establish the victims don't really have much in common. It would help if we could get some positive ids on these guys. So far the greatest common denominator seems to be their anonymity."

"Maybe he picks them up elsewhere and brings them here to dump," Scully suggested, thumbing through another file.

"That would be the most reasonable assumption. But why dump them in a place where they'll be found so quickly? There are lots of unpopulated wooded areas out here where they'd never be located." Parker looked up at Scully before setting her pen down. "He knows the area well enough to get in and out of the Body Farm without leaving any traces of his presence and the farm isn't exactly easy to locate."

"He wants them to be found."

"Obviously. And we do find them, within a day of their abandonment." She looked up into Mulder's questioning eyes. "The fly larvae," she explained, "We're getting bodies that were most likely dumped between five-thirty and eight the previous evening. The latest that anyone's been out at the farm is five or so and I generally get there just before or right at dawn; that gives our guy a time frame of less than three hours to dump the bodies. Fly strike generally occurs between one and eight pm." She halted her explanation. "But why does he want us to find them so quickly?"

"Mulder?" Scully looked across the table at Mulder, he was the expert at profiling after all.

"He cares about the victims in his own sick way. Even the way he removes the skin is not violent, he doesn't want to hurt them. He has some kind of medical or anatomy training, the skin is removed precisely, and he doesn't cut into the muscle underneath. He's trying to help them become someone else," he offered, reaching to snag the stack of photos that accompanied the autopsy reports.

"Okay, I'll buy that. But don't serial killers stick with one gender or the other? We are looking at a serial killer here aren't we? Doesn't our mystery lady from yesterday upgrade him from series to serial?" Parker shuffled through her own notes.

"I'd say it's probably a serial killer, yes. And yes, most do stick with either men or women, but the Son of Sam killed men and women both."

"But he only killed the men when they happened to be with the women, this guy doesn't seem to do that. He grabs them one at a time." Parker was about to continue when the kitchen phone rang, startling her enough to cause her to jump. She smiled sheepishly, "Excuse me, it's probably my mother letting me know her plane didn't crash. I'll take it in the other room."

Scully watched her walk out of the room and turned toward her partner. "So, what do you think?"

"I think Parker's a fabulous cook."

"And about the case?"

"I don't know, I agree that the killer knows the area well, perhaps one of the professors or students; someone associated with the university who has access to the site. Other than that? Caucasian male, 25 to 35 years, above average intelligence." He grinned slyly as he rattled off the generic serial murderer profile.

A few minutes later Parker hurried back into the room, a handful of papers in her hand. "We've got an id on two of our guys. That was the police on the phone, Detective Roberts just faxed me the information."

The reports were for the first body found and the third, both were residents of Georgia, the man, Alfred Wilkins, had been reported missing by his wife the day before Parker found him at the farm. The woman who had been found was Polly Green, reported missing by her roommate two days before her body was discovered.

Alfred Wilkins, a forty-two year old husband and father of five, had worked as a construction foreman in Folkston. He and his wife had been planning to get away from their children for a weekend anniversary celebration the morning he had disappeared. They would have been married twenty years. He had been a devoted husband and father, church leader, and all-around well-respected member of his community.

Polly Green, a twenty-year-old junior at the University of Atlanta, was a mediocre student, her official major was general studies according to her transcript but her roommate reportedly claimed that her major should have been fraternity parties. She had been out at a party the evening before her disappearance and no one could pin point a specific time of disappearance. She hadn't spoken to her family in a month.

They all read through the notes, no more enlightened than they had been when they didn't know their identities.

"Maybe it'll make more sense when we find out who number two is?" Parker offered, disbelief coloring her voice.

"One can only hope." A deafening clap of thunder and the sound of fiercely pounding rain punctuated Scully's reply.

Parker stood and opened the door; the back porch was illuminated by staccatoed light as another thunderclap tore through the house. Rain dashed against the screened in area, throwing the hanging plants into motion on their chains. A distant bleating caught her attention and she slipped on her discarded sneakers and lifted a raincoat from its peg on the porch.

"I'll be right back," she said before she stepped onto the porch, closing the door behind her.

When she reappeared she was drenched with rainwater, leaving a trail of puddles in her wake as she crossed the kitchen. "My children have pet pygmy goats. The fool things can never seem to figure out how to get into the barn and out of the rain."

Mulder raised his eyebrows, looking curiously at Scully. "Pygmy goats?"

They continued to peruse the reports until Parker returned in flannel shirt and leggings, her hair pulled back into a soggy ponytail.

"I don't like dogs and we already had a cat. The goats were my mother's idea." Parker shrugged. "The kids like them."

--XxXxXxX--

It was midnight before any of them thought to take a break. Five hours of staring at small type and wracking their brains for hidden answers had left them all wrung out and headachy. Mulder stood to stretch his legs and encourage his blood to circulate again and drew aside the striped curtain that covered the kitchen window to gaze out into the fury of the second line of storms that had swept into the area.

"I hope you realize I won't let you drive back into Knoxville tonight in this storm. That farm road ya'll took turns into a river with this much rain. I wouldn't try it in my jeep if I didn't have to, much less in your rental." Parker ran a tired hand across equally tired eyes, rubbing at the migraine that had taken up residency in her temples. The headache was nothing new, it had appeared the day she discovered the first body and had refused to diminish no matter what drugs she fed it; migraines were such a bitch. Her only hope was that it would go away when the case was closed. "I'll take Fin's bed. Agent Scully, you can have the bed in my room, and the guest room is already made up for Agent Mulder."

"You can drop the 'agent'," Mulder murmured, remaining at the window.

Scully shook her head, red locks swinging with her denial, "I couldn't possibly kick you out of your own bed."

"Of course you could, and you will; I insist on it. There are some clean towels on the shelf in the upstairs bath and extra clothes in the linen closet, I'd say you're about the same size as my mother, or at least close to it. And a friend of mine somehow managed to leave a whole collection of his clothes here the last time he visited. I'd say you're a pretty close fit." she nodded toward Mulder. "Now that that's taken care of, I'm going to fix a midnight snack. Would you like one as well?"

Scully stared at Parker, she hadn't been so soundly ordered about since the last time she'd gone home to visit her mother. Stifling a laugh, she marveled that she wasn't fuming at the woman with whom Mulder was still arguing with such absolute futility. Parker had made up her mind and didn't seem likely to be persuaded otherwise. The woman did have a point about the road and she was better informed than they were about regional traveling hazards. At the end of her musings Scully agreed to the snack but postponed it until after she'd showered.

Mulder sat at the kitchen table watching Parker busy herself with the half of cherry pie that had been left after their dinner. She set out milk and ice cream, saucers and mugs on the counter while she waited for the microwave to proclaim the pie reheated.

"So, what's it like to be a special agent?"

"You mean what's it like to be on the FBI's least wanted list? To spend valuable time chasing down meaningless leads that only result in dead ends or, worse yet, to covert government conspiracies? To drag my partner down into the murky, muddy depths of debauchery and depravity, destroying any opportunity she might have had to advance to a meaningful, upwardly mobile career within the Bureau? To be the laughing stock of the J. Edgar Hoover building, the person they call Spooky for lack of the imagination essential to conceive of a more ingenious nickname? What is that like?"

Parker slowly turned around, a grin befitting the Cheshire cat spreading across her face. "Touched a nerve, did I? I've heard the nicknames; you and Scully have achieved near legendary status, even as far away as Houston. But you're still considered the best the FBI has. I often wonder..." A wistful expression softened her warm eyes before she redirected the topic. "But I do understand the nicknames, I'm sure you've heard at least a few of mine by now."

"Miss Untouchable," he taunted.

"Spooky."

"Madame Bitch."

"Ooh, my favorite!"

"Watch it you two, don't make me call the Sheriff," Scully's voice preceded her.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Parker giggled, "I don't think you really want to irk them right now. They're the only law enforcement agency in these parts that hasn't been ostracized by the very presence of the Body Farm. But bear in mind," she continued, leveling a serious expression at Mulder, "when Dr. Wendstrom called Jack Coleman about our discoveries he was given your names." She paused briefly. "And Jack is my greatest defender, he wouldn't have recommended anyone but the best."

--XxXxXxX--

After working together for four days, Parker's ability to switch from one personality type to another was almost proving to be more interesting than the case itself. She maintained such strict control of her emotions and actions that Mulder was beginning to reconsider the notion of a changeling.

The second body had been identified as a Nashville resident, Jerrod Mann, who had been reported missing by his daughter when he failed to attend a family dinner. A widower of thirteen years, he lived alone but kept in close contact with his daughters and grandchildren. He had retired from his job as a construction foreman five years previously.

Mulder sat on the bed in his hotel room, staring at the pictures of the victims he had taped to the wall. Crime scene photos dotted another wall as did two maps, one marking the victims' placement within the Body Farm and the other marking the last known location of each of the victims prior to their murders.

No parallels had been made between any of the victims or their abductions. Ages, locations, ethnicities, and personality traits were so diverse that it seemed to be merely a random sampling of the American population. There were no known common denominators but for the strange results of the DNA analyses.

"The killer wants to change, to become someone else..." he muttered to the empty room. Scully had taken their rental car to the police department to speak with the local authorities again, hoping to glean something of value from their resources, and leaving him to ponder the profile alone. "He means for the bodies to be found when he's done with them. He doesn't want to cause them pain but he knows that the alteration cannot take place without it. He has access to the drugs he uses and administers only enough to render them incapable of fighting back. There are no signs of a struggle, suggesting the victims know him or at least trust him enough to go with him. No puncture marks are visible on the victims; the drugs are probably administered orally. He has access to a car, obviously. What is he looking for?" He rubbed his forehead with both hands and covered his eyes.

The call of his cell phone interrupted the silence of the room.

"Mulder."

"We have another victim." Scully's clipped tones cut through the receiver.

"Any luck with our boys in blue?"

"They have a suspect."

--XxXxXxX--

The rental car pulled up to the hotel's entrance and Mulder ducked in, folding his body to accommodate the cramped space. Glancing at Scully's drawn features, he asked, "So who's our man of the hour?"

"The victim is still unknown. He was found this morning by Dr. Wendstrom and removed to the university." She pulled the car out onto the street, veering away from the hotel and into the steady flow of traffic. The windshield wipers tried valiantly to compete with the pelting rain, five days and still no relief from the miserable weather.

"Who are they pin pointing as their suspect," he clarified.

"Parker was seen in Nashville the day Jerrod Mann disappeared."

"Parker?"

"Yes, and she has been known to occasionally drive into Atlanta for reasons as of yet unknown to the police."

"Parker's their suspect?!"

"She has access to the Body Farm and has the expertise to carry out the mutilations. With the exception of her gender, she fits the profile we provided them."

They rode in silence to the correct university lot, parking in front of the anthropology building. Scully turned the engine off and let the sounds of rain wash over her, staring at the watery scene that played across the windshield.

Mulder considered what they knew about the case, considered what they knew about Parker. "It's not her."

"I know."

--XxXxXxX--

Miss Abernathy smiled at Mulder's approach. "Agent Mulder, Dr. Wendstrom asked that you join him in AB2." She balanced a stack of paperwork in her arms and stepped aside to let them pass her on their way to the elevators, brushing against Mulder in the process. "It's a shame about Parker."

Scully's head snapped up. "How so?"

"You know. I guess the stress was just too much for her. But I can't say that I'm all that surprised, she's such a strange girl."

"Have the police been here?"

"No. I was talking to Dr. Wendstrom earlier; he said that she was the prime suspect. And to think that she's been right here all along, performing those atrocious things under everyone's noses, and no one even suspected..." She disappeared down the hall, leaving Mulder and Scully to stare after her.

The door to AB2 stood open and Scully peeked inside. Dr. Wendstrom, with whom they had met a couple of times already, was nowhere to be found. The most recent victim was lying on the slab, untouched except for the mutilation. She looked back at Mulder, curious as to where the professor might be.

A flurry of activity arose at the end of the hall and the aging Dr. Wendstrom emerged from a storeroom, his lab coat flying out behind him as he hurried down the hall. He waved a lab report at them and ushered them into the autopsy bay. Closing the door behind him, he turned to look at the intercom unit that was bolted to the wall above the door. Satisfied that the contraption was not in use he looked from Scully and Mulder. "I have something to show you both."

Scully took the report from his outstretched hand, scanning the contents.

"I just got that this morning at my home. I called in a favor to an old colleague of mine regarding the DNA findings. All of the victims had a genetic mutation, the same genetic mutation. Daskalos Syndrome can create serious consequences if left untreated. It's one of those things you never hear about unless you've been diagnosed with the syndrome or know someone who has it. It can be debilitating in its later stages, mimics artereosclerosis and sometimes causes Hodgkin's-like symptoms in young adults who have the syndrome." He pointed at the letterhead on the fax. "All of our victims were patients of the same physician, a Dr. Wright who specializes in the syndrome and works out of an office in Georgia. I'd bet that number four here will turn out be one of his patients as well."

"So we've managed to come up with the common denominator, but that still doesn't tell us who's killing them." Scully handed Mulder the report and looked up at Dr. Wendstrom, waiting for him to continue.

"But it does, in a way. Parker doesn't have Daskalos Syndrome, nor do her children. I called her family physician this morning and asked," he explained when he saw the unasked question form in the agents' eyes. "Her doctor's never heard of it, quite like the rest of us. But when I was on the phone, Marjorie Abernathy walked into the room. She not only knew about the syndrome she was also able to tell me the specifics of it. When I asked how she had heard of it she said she'd heard about it on a talk show."

"Do you know who her physician is?" Mulder queried.

"No," Dr. Wendstrom admitted, "but I've left a message with Dr. Wright's answering service asking him to call once he gets into his office. If we can link Marjorie to his office, we might be able to clear up some of our questions."

"Where should Miss Abernathy be now?" Scully asked. "We just passed her in the hallway."

"She should be in the office."

--XxXxXxX--

Marjorie wasn't at her desk; the student assistant they confronted said she had left early with a headache. But when they attempted to reach her at her home, they only got her answering machine.

Scully drew out her own phone and quickly tapped out Parker's number. After several rings she flipped the receiver shut. "Nothing."

"The girl refuses to use an answering machine," Dr. Wendstrom sighed, opening a file cabinet to search for her file. "Here, her cell phone is listed."

That too went unanswered. Scully glanced at her watch, the kids would be at school and Parker would, ideally, be on her way to the university. She knew that arrangements had been made for the children's after school care so that Parker could keep her extended hours on campus. Unless the rain was slowing her down, she should appear at any moment.

Mulder looked curiously at the intercom that sat on the desk. "Scully, go back down to AB2 and sing."

"Sing? Mulder, what are you talking about?"

"Just do it. Come on, Scully, where's your sense of adventure?"

Scully raised her eyebrows, tilting her head down until she was gazing at her partner through her lashes. "I must have missed the memo that included jaunts into empty autopsy bays as high quality adventure."

A few minutes later Scully's voice hummed out over the intercom, "I'm not singing, Mulder," she muttered to herself and tapped out his familiar number.

He flipped open his cell phone when it rang, "Oh come on now, Scully, what about a verse or two of 'Joy to the World'?" he teased, a grin spreading across his features. "Tell me this, is the indicator light on the intercom lit?"

"No."

Mulder shook his head at Dr. Wendstrom, listening to the sounds of Scully shuffling around in AB2 that emanated from the intercom speaker.

--XxXxXxX--

Parker glanced impatiently at her wristwatch, she enjoyed the school programs Ann and Fin participated in, she just wished the oligarchial leaders of the PTA would keep their mouths shut when the productions were over. She was already an hour late in getting to the university.

Cruel images developed in her mind's eye as she transposed the faces of the PTA board over the mental images she had created of the murder victims she'd been studying. A chuckle escaped her lips and she raised her hand to stifle the outburst, grinning sheepishly at the other parents who sat nearby.

Finally the group of bored housewives had exhausted their topics list, allowing the audience to depart the stuffy auditorium. Parker caught sight of her children running up the aisle.

"Hey!" She grabbed them both as they neared her. "Why are you two not in class?" She looked toward the stage and saw the smiling teacher's aide patiently waiting for them.

"We wanted to say goodbye," Anne cried, throwing her arms around Parker's neck with enough force to push her back a few steps.

Parker smiled and gathered Finn in her arms as well, "And I'm glad you did! Now remember that Miss Stacie's going to pick you up after school today. And I'll be home as soon as I can. I don't know when I'll be in but I promise to sneak up and give you both goodnight kisses when I do."

"Be careful, Mommy," Finn whispered fervently in her ear.

"But of course." She pecked them each on their downy cheeks and set them back down on the ground, a confused smile on her lips at their sudden concern. "Don't you worry about Mommy, ain't nothin' gonna happen to me! Remember, even the creepy crawly monsters don't mess with me," she assured them, watching their concern melt into relieved giggles.

"Even the wild things?"

"Especially the wild things!"

--XxXxXxX--

Mulder shifted uneasily in the chair. "She's trying to be someone else but that's not what she was doing with the victims. She was helping them escape what she considers is an unacceptable situation. The syndrome will ultimately take over their lives, their medical needs will only multiply. She was saving them from that and she was inflicting her own form of justice on them." He flipped through the stack of papers they'd compiled on the elusive Marjorie Abernathy.

"She was only recently diagnosed. The syndrome has already wrecked havoc on her. Because it wasn't caught early enough, it hasn't been treated and has shortened her expected life span by half." He looked up at Scully. "Where is Parker?"

"Sorry, I left my crystal ball at home. She should have gotten here hours ago, maybe the rain delayed her."

Dr. Wendstrom walked into the outer office with a young grad student in tow. The young man who Scully and Mulder recognized as one of the three they had seen in AB1 their first day in Knoxville, looked wide-eyed at them as he stepped through the doorway.

"Daniel," Dr. Wendstrom said, "has some interesting information for you. Go ahead, Daniel."

"Yeah, umm... It's just that Marjorie and I were talking about a month ago. We were just shooting the breeze, ya' know, and she mentioned that she was new in town. Mainly we were complaining about Parker and she mentioned that she knew her before she'd moved here. She'd just moved from Texas, I think she said she'd lived in Houston."

"Did she say why she moved here?" Mulder asked.

"I think she said she was trying to get away, her fiancÚ had died and she needed a change of pace. Said she wanted to start with a clean slate, no that's not really what she said. I thought it was strange at the time because she said she wanted to clean the slate herself." He paused and shrugged his shoulders. "It was a while ago that we spoke."

"Did she happen to mention her fiancÚ's name?" The pieces were finally falling together and Mulder was frantic to complete the puzzle.

"Yeah, Jason Birdwell. It stuck in my memory because he had the same name as one of my undergraduate professors."

"Thank you, Daniel." Scully smiled sadly at the young man. "You haven't seen Julia Parker today have you?"

"No ma'am, she was supposed to be at a lecture this morning but she never showed up."

--XxXxXxX--

Parker navigated her jeep through the foot deep water that had mistaken the road for a river, squealing around corners when she misjudged her speed. She was desperately late and she still needed to do the autopsy on the latest victim, not to mention meet with the FBI to see if anything new had surfaced overnight. But first she had to drop by her house to pick up some files she'd accidentally left behind in her rush to make it to the school performance on time.

She flew into the driveway in a spray of gravel, and leapt out of the vehicle without turning off the engine. The files in question were downstairs in her bedroom. Racing through the house, she didn't notice the back door standing slightly ajar or her cell phone lying on the kitchen table, blinking dimly with an unanswered call. Rummaging through the folders on her bedside table she didn't see the person step out of the shadows behind her until it was too late.

A movement in her periphery caught her attention and she turned, fully expecting to see her cat, Walter, sauntering across the floor. Shock filled her eyes once she realized the interloper was not Walter, but was instead Marjorie.

"You should have stayed in Texas, Julia."

Black oblivion saturated her senses as intense pain blossomed in her left temple, instantly surpassing the intensity of her migraine. Just before the void claimed her entirely, her memory flashed with belated recognition. Agent Birdwell had shown her a picture just before he abducted her, a photo of his fiancÚ, a photo of Marjorie Abernathy.

--XxXxXxX--

"This is highly unusual," Dr. Wendstrom fretted. "Parker is rarely late, and when she is lagging behind she always calls to let us know."

"Perhaps she did call and Marjorie just didn't write it down," the office assistant suggested. "You know how well those two get along."

Dr. Wendstrom turned toward the young woman. "Do you mean to tell me that Marjorie doesn't like Parker?"

She laughed, "Duh! Man, Dr. Wendstrom, you need to start paying more attention to inter-office dynamics. They've had a mutual hate society brewing ever since Marjorie first started working here."

Scully redirected her attention to the young woman. "Do you know what started it?"

"Nah, who knows why Parker does anything? I don't even try to understand her any more."

"But you did try to get to know her?" Mulder entered the outer office with a pair of soft drinks he'd coerced out of the vending machine. "At one time?"

"Sure, I mean there aren't that many folks in the program, you know. But Parker was just so distant all the time; I figured she and Marjorie decided on site that they didn't like each other. It didn't strike me as odd though, given how Parker is." The woman paused to twist a short lock of blonde hair around her index finger, hazy realization dawning in her eyes. "You don't think there's a problem, do you? I mean Parker can be a bitch but she's basically okay."

"What about Marjorie?" Mulder leaned closer to the woman and she ceased fidgeting with her hair. "How do you feel about her?"

"I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her, and I have trouble picking up a ten pound bag of flour at the grocery store. The guys all seem to like her but, I don't know how to explain it, there's just something not quite kosher about her. It's like there's something lying just under the surface, like she's waiting for the right moment to strike, like a cobra. The guys think I'm just jealous."

"Jealous of what?" Scully wanted to know.

"Beats me, I wouldn't be Marjorie Abernathy if you paid me."

--XxXxXxX--

Parker's first awareness was of pain, excruciating all-consuming agony. She felt as though someone had replaced her brain with cotton batting and then confused her body with a punching bag; every molecule screamed in anguish. She decided not to try to catalogue each ache and pain, there'd be time for that later she hoped. But even worse than the pain, she couldn't feel her arms. Common sense assured her that they were still attached to her body; if they'd been cut off, she would feel more pain than what she was experiencing and the migraine that was undergoing a near nuclear implosion in her head would be only a dim glimmer.

There was no noise save the rush of her racing pulse in her ears. Deep silence surrounded her, accompanied by utter darkness. It was almost like being out in the woods around her house on a cloudy night, or in a sensory deprivation tank. The air smelled musty and old, reminiscent of her grandfather's gardening shed with its mixed scents of Seven Dust and earthy soil and musty, dancing dust motes.

She tried to roll over onto her back but found it difficult; at least she'd found her arms. Bound behind her, they began to throb as the circulation returned. Soon they would add to her pain with the pins and needles of feeling returning to them. She noticed her ankles had also been bound and she tried to bend her legs in her cramped quarters. Her knees hit something just above her. It was almost as if... She used her legs to scoot her body up until her head came into contact with another surface. She was in a box, probably a coffin she surmised with derision.

This was too much. She didn't know how she'd be able to convince anyone that she was fine, just fine thank you very much, when she kept letting herself be victimized like this. Twice abducted in less than a year's time. "Yeah," her voiced croaked, "not even the wild things bother me! I just keep running into the real monsters of this world."

She tried to adjust her torso so that the circulation could continue unimpeded through her arms. With each shift the sides and floor of the box scraped her bare arms and legs. What a day to dress casually! she berated herself, wishing she'd worn anything but the shorts and T-shirt she'd donned that morning.

She stilled her movements as she heard a small scraping sound coming from somewhere outside her containment. Please let that be my imagination. The thought raced through her mind, accompanied by frantic terror. So much for the stoic, fearless ice queen bitch facade.

--XxXxXxX--

The Knoxville police station was crowded with uniformed officers and detectives. One of the old-timers was retiring and his farewell party had taken over the precinct house. Mulder pushed his way through, leaving Scully in his wake to apologize for his rudeness.

The detective in charge of the Body Farm investigation was not in his office and they scanned the sea of unfamiliar faces in search of him. If Parker's disappearance was related to the recent mutilations and murders they needed to find her immediately. And if it had nothing to do with it, they needed to get her back to the university to work on the most recent victim.

After conducting a bit of research on their own, they had learned that she had been at her children's school that morning for a class production and impromptu PTA meeting. No one remembered seeing her leave, but her car was not at the school, nor was it at her house. Upon searching her home, they found the back door ajar and evidence of a slight struggle in her bedroom. A smudge of blood on the floor of her room raised their fears of foul play. Her cell phone had been lying on the kitchen table and the folders she had been working on were scattered through the hallway.

They had contacted the university with their findings before heading to the police station. Dr. Wendstrom was beside himself with worry. To be honest, most of the informed graduate students were also concerned. Not particularly liking someone was a lot different than wishing them outright harm. Scully only hoped the police would be helpful. She feared that due to their preconceived notions of Parker's guilt, they would view her disappearance as an attempt to flee justice.

The detective in charge, they were informed by a slightly inebriated partygoer, had left early to meet with an informant. Scully left a message for him to call her once he returned and left the building and its raucous crowd with Mulder.

"If Marjorie Abernathy is, and we have nothing concrete to substantiate our decision, but if she is the perpetrator, what would she gain from taking Parker?" Scully slid into the passenger's seat of their rental, leaving Mulder to fight the noon traffic.

"Revenge," he replied simply.

"But it goes against her MO. Parker doesn't have Daskalos Syndrome."

"But Marjorie does resent the lifestyle Parker has been able to maintain. She sees Parker as the root of her unhappiness. If it hadn't been for Parker's assistance with the profile it's possible that Jason Birdwell would not have been caught as quickly as he was. And he might not be dead today. She sees Parker as the cause of his demise, after all, if she hadn't made those notes he probably would have killed her long before the authorities would have been in a position to stop him. She also resents the very fact that Birdwell abducted Parker in the first place, she represented everything that Marjorie wasn't: young, unconsciously beautiful, brilliant, and fertile. And even now, Parker still has it all, and Marjorie has nothing."

Scully cocked her head at the last of Parker's attributes and Mulder continued, "Parker already had two children and is capable of having more, Marjorie, due to her medical condition..." Mulder pulled the car into the busy street allowing his observation to trail off. "Regardless of everything that's happened to her, Parker continues to function as a normal individual, a bit cold and aloof perhaps, but normal nonetheless."

Scully stared straight ahead. "Marjorie hates her strength."

"That would be my observation."

--XxXxXxX--

"It's wake up time, Sleeping Beauty."

Parker jerked at the sound of the disembodied voice, she couldn't tell if the voice was just a figment of her imagination or if she'd actually heard it. There was no way for her to determine how long she had been there, she'd been fading in and out of consciousness and was beginning to worry about the extent of her concussion. Loss of consciousness, localized swelling, feelings of nausea and sleepiness, internal swelling... She'd learned enough to know she was exhibiting most of the classic symptoms of a concussion, but they were the same symptoms of her migraines with the exception of local and internal swelling. If she could only free her hands and be able to feel the back of her head she would know a little more.

"We mustn't sleep the day away."

The voice was definitely real. She jerked again at the sound of splintering wood, squinting at the stream of light that streamed into the void of her coffin. The end of a crowbar worked to pry off the lid as the person behind it muttered unintelligibly.

"Damn nails! You'd think that the more you pay, the longer they'd last!" Marjorie paused to examine the damage she'd done to the crimson lacquer the girl at the nail salon had charged an arm and a leg for. "Damn!"

Parker's eyes widened as she remembered their altercation in her bedroom. Marjorie Abernathy was Jason Birdwell's fiancÚ, she had broken into her home and waited for her to show up. "My babies..." her voice cracked at the implication of what might have happened had Anne and Fin returned home first.

"Oh yes, your precious babies!" Marjorie mocked. "I wouldn't worry my pretty little head over them if I were you. Now that I have you, I don't need them."

"What are you talking about? What do you mean?" The pain in her temples was making any thought at all difficult, and complicated contemplation was impossible. She closed her eyes against the increasingly bright light as Marjorie continued to pry back the wooden lid.

"So perfect," Marjorie taunted, her voice oozing the hatred she felt. "How can you bear to be so flawless? How do you stand it? I mean, you're smart: you've got the highest grades in the school, you've published more articles than some of the professors, you'll even get credit for the help you've given Dr. Wendstrom with his new book. You turn heads everywhere you go and you don't even notice, you fall out of bed and look like you stepped straight out of the pages of a fashion magazine." Marjorie's voice careened wildly along a high-pitched course of loathing and accusation. "And your children, your perfect children with their perfect manners and educated names. You do everything you're supposed to do, never miss a school play or any of their soccer games, you praise their accomplishments, comfort their sorrows. Well that's all over now. They'll never see their beloved Mama again."

The fear Parker had managed to push aside returned full force. That's all over now. That's all over now. That's all over now. Over and over the sentence turned in her thoughts, blocking out everything else.

When Marjorie had at last removed most of the broken plank that served as a lid to the box Parker had been locked in, Parker raised her eyes beyond her abductor to survey the room. The light came from a bare bulb that swung on a cord from rough overhead beams. It resembled a barn or the basement of an old house. She didn't see any windows and the time was still a mystery to her. How she was ever going to save herself was beyond her.

Reaching into the grain bin, Marjorie took hold of Parker's arm to raise her to her knees. Gripping her forearm in an iron fist, she drew blood with the ragged nails of her mangled manicure. Parker was drug to her knees and pulled over the edge of the box, the splintery rim driving slivers of wood into her skin. She somehow gained her feet and stood on shaky legs in front of Marjorie.

Marjorie took in the other woman's appearance. Never before had she caused so much damage to a person, even those who she had left at the Body Farm hadn't been battered, but she had harbored such animosity for Julia Parker for so long that she couldn't seem help herself. Plus, she had needed to assure Parker's inability to escape. The younger woman was physically much stronger than she was, and besides, what were a few bruises and contusions when she wouldn't be living much longer any way.

Parker swayed unsteadily on her bare feet, unsure as to what was expected of her and not entirely certain she wanted to cooperate regardless of the expectations. She knew she needed to keep Marjorie talking, she wouldn't act as quickly if she was preoccupied. Parker sighed, she only hoped that talking wouldn't enrage her further.

"How long did you know Jason?" The question formed and flew out of her mouth before she could decide whether it was such a bright idea to remind her of her late fiancÚ.

"We were college sweethearts. When he joined the Bureau he told me he wanted to get married but not before he'd earned enough promotions to live comfortably. I waited six more years..." Marjorie trailed off, a wistful expression clouding her eyes. Suddenly, the venom returned, "And then you started working at the field office." Her eyes flashed cold fire. "All he could talk about was the incredible Julia Parker. Every night when he'd come in from work it was 'Julia this...' or 'Julia that...' He couldn't stop talking about how unbelievable you were, about how he had to have you."

Parker managed to control the tremors that coursed through her body and had nothing to do with the chill air against her bare skin. If what Marjorie said was true, then Jason Birdwell had already picked her out before he started the serial rapes. If that was the case, then she too was responsible for the attacks on those poor women, if Agent Birdwell had begun with them in an attempt to build up enough momentum to abduct her. And Marjorie had known about the obsession, and she hadn't done a thing to stop it.

"Yes, I knew what he was doing," Marjorie stated, reading the realization in Parker's eyes. "And as long as he came home to me, I didn't care what he did. I let him have his way with those sluts as long as he remembered what was important."

Memories of her interviews with Agent Birdwell's victims ran through Parker's thoughts: a young college co-ed, a single mother of three small children, two waitresses from an up-scale restaurant downtown, a middle-aged grandmother--they were all innocent of any wrong doing, were upstanding citizens, were anything but sluts...

"But he wasn't supposed to take you. Rape was one thing but he couldn't settle for something so simple as that when it came to his obsession."

As simple as rape. I don't think his other victims would agree with that assessment.

"No, he had to have you all to himself, didn't want to share you with anyone else, not even the agents at the office, not even with your children. And he got you too, didn't he, had you all to himself for what...a whole week? Those fools never would have found him either, but you had to be so thorough with your case notes..."

--XxXxXxX--

It was eight o'clock and neither Scully nor Mulder had paused for dinner. The fear of what Parker was enduring weighed too heavily on their thoughts for any other concerns to break through. They had returned to the police station once Detective Roberts had called them back, leaving Dr. Wendstrom to contact Parker's babysitter with the bad news that she wouldn't be returning home that evening.

Scully's fears of the local PD's disinterest in Parker's disappearance dissolved when she spoke to the detective; although he had been the one to initially point out Parker as the prime suspect, even he couldn't see her being so dense as to leave such an obvious trail. Parker was smart enough and knew enough, that if she wanted to start a serial murder spree, she would be able to do it without being caught so easily.

He had sent a team out to Parker's house to see if they could find anything to implicate Marjorie Abernathy or clue them in on where Parker might be. He had also sent a team to Marjorie's apartment. While Parker's residence had been clean, they'd uncovered a whole collection of evidence at Marjorie's. They'd discovered a cache of scalpels, itineraries, maps, newspaper clippings, and even copies of Parker's autopsies in a bottom drawer in her dresser. What they hadn't found was anything suggesting where she might have taken Parker.

Detective Roberts walked back into his cubicle. "We've got APB's out on both of them but I doubt they'll do any good. Marjorie's car was found out at the end of Fry Rd. One of the neighbors called it in as abandoned a little while ago. Wherever Marjorie's got her, they got there in Parker's SUV and they're not going to be out and about. I also asked for a list of all abandoned properties within a thirty-mile radius of the Farm. That should be coming up pretty soon. Canvassing the area hasn't brought any useful information yet, but you never know." He rubbed at his eyes and reclaimed his seat. "We did hear back from Marjorie's physician. She was given a prescription for Vicadan for migraines two months ago and the search turned up a bottle of laudanum."

"We need something to go on, to lead us to them," Mulder muttered. "Something besides speculation." He leaned back in his chair, staring at the water stained ceiling.

Scully looked up from the reports she'd been poring over. "Where was it that Jason Birdwell took Parker when he abducted her?"

Mulder snagged the folder from the desk and dumped its contents. "A hunting cabin in the woods."

"If she's angry because of his attentions to Parker..."

Detective Roberts leaned forward in his chair. "This area is dotted with cabins, I'm not so sure that would narrow down our search."

"She'd need it to be close to a road, or at least a drive. There's no way she could expect to lug a body any distance on foot, and I don't think any of her victims would be willing to go quietly. Besides, once she's killed them, she would have to carry them out."

Another detective entered the area with a small handful of printouts. Detective Roberts accepted them and spread them out on the table. Only eight of the properties were anywhere near a navigable drive, and two of those were little more than temporary sheds. Six cabins were left in their list.

--XxXxXxX--

"It would be easier if I could walk," Parker said, stating the obvious. Shuffling along the floor was taking forever and she was certain she couldn't shuffle up the flight of stairs that lay ahead of her. She looked down at her bound ankles, dimly aware of the raw and bloody mess the ropes were making. The realization that she was wending her way to certain death weighted her movements and she giggled a bit at the idea of hurrying up the stairs to be skinned alive. Yeah, I'm that anxious to finish this.

Marjorie seemed to consider this for a moment, looking at the rickety stairs. She glared at Parker before reaching into her pocket and extracting a scalpel case.

Parker jerked back as Marjorie approached her with the bared knife.

"If you move like that I'll end up gutting you. Hold still, I can't carry you up the stairs and I don't want to have to dig a grave in here."

Parker froze; she hadn't considered the notion that Marjorie could very easily just kill her where she stood. She shivered as she felt the cold metal against her raw skin.

"Oops." Blood flowed freely from the fresh gash on Parker's leg, and she struggled to remain still.

"Okay, up the stairs, slowly. And don't try anything stupid."

Parker carefully navigated up the steps, pausing on each one as she contemplated her escape.

--XxXxXxX--

"Two down, four to go." Detective Roberts emerged from the basement of the second cabin to meet up again with Mulder and Scully. They had considered splitting up but were uncertain as to what kind of weaponry Marjorie might have gained access to. Walking into a death trap wouldn't do Parker any good.

The next house on their list was twelve miles further along the little rough dirt road.

With images of the four victims dancing in their heads, the trio hurried back to Detective Roberts' vehicle. The road was becoming more difficult to navigate the further they got from civilization and the main road. Small steams of muddy water rushed across the dirt road, hiding the elusive potholes in their depths, jostling the truck into an agonizingly slow pace.

--XxXxXxX--

Parker continued to slowly climb the stairs, leaning heavily on the wall to her right with each step. Her head was beginning to get cloudy again and she struggled to retain consciousness at least long enough to get away. She could feel Marjorie behind her, the scalpel still in her hand.

One step from the top, Parker paused briefly before steeling herself and lashing out behind her to catch Marjorie across the jaw with her left shoulder. The scalpel cut into her arm as the older woman attempted to retaliate but Parker's assault had unbalanced her enough that the second blow sent her tumbling over the rotted railing.

Parker inhaled slowly and peered over the broken rail. Marjorie lay on the dirt floor in an unnatural heap of oddly twisted limbs. She turned back around and finished her climb.

Once Parker had made it outside she surveyed her surroundings; the cabin was deeply shadowed by the encroaching woods and the deepening twilight and she couldn't decide which way was the correct direction to the main road. Fearing her former captor was not fatally wounded, she plodded out onto the dirt lane. Any direction was better than just standing around waiting for Marjorie to regain her feet, even with the pounding rain and no shoes. She did wish she'd been thinking clearly enough in the cabin to cut through the rope that bound her wrists though, but the risk involved with retuning to the cabin was too great and she resisted the impulse.

The chilling downpour pulled her hair down over her eyes and fed the tremors that ran through her, slowing her already hampered pace. Shock, I'm suffering from shock due to trauma, blood loss... Her analytical thought processes were fading fast, right along with her vision.

--XxXxXxX--

"She's got to be out here somewhere." Detective Roberts pounded him fists on the steering wheel as he revved the engine again in an attempt to push through the sucking mud. "It's no good," he said at last, "we're not getting out without a tow. The last two cabins are on this road, three miles up."

Mulder was already out of the car and jogging lightly up the tire rutted trail before Scully had disengaged her seat belt. She caught up with him at last, sliding along the muddy path.

"We can't give up on her, not now." His eyes were flashing concern and despair at their situation.

"No one's suggesting that we do. Detective Roberts is trying to get through to the station to request help, he'll stay with the vehicle until backup gets here." Scully shoved the hair back from her eyes, grabbing his elbow with her other hand to keep from falling. "We're going to find her, Mulder." The assurance in her voice surprised even her. She looked further along the road, remembering the evening they'd spent with Parker and her children. "And we're going to find her alive."

They continued down the road, moving as quickly as they could given the pounding rain and slippery mud. Scully breathed a sigh of relief that she had foregone her usual business attire in favor of jeans and sneakers, the rain parka she'd thrown on as an afterthought that morning did little to protect her from the rain but at least she was able to move freely. The gun she'd slipped into the waistband of her jeans rested heavily against her hip, reassuring in its presence.

It seemed to take hours to reach their next destination, an empty vacation home owned by the county commissioner's sister and rarely used. The surrounding woods cast ominous dancing shadows as the trees swayed in the increasingly gusty wind. The constant rain intensified, drowning out even the sounds of their ragged breathing.

They stepped up onto the porch together, slowly drawing their weapons and checking the clips. The front door had been forced open, the jam splintered and broken in the dim illumination of the interior light.

Mulder glanced down to check his footing and saw the trail of blood leading across the polished wood. We've found her. He motioned to Scully before moving closer to the door.

The house was deathly silent. Only the noise caused by the wind and rain on the tin roof could be heard. Either Marjorie had not yet begun her desecration or they were too late and Parker had already given up her struggle.

Steeling across the floorboards, Scully slipped around the corner and into the kitchen. On the far wall, a door stood ajar heading a flight of stairs that led down into a dimly lit basement. Continuing to follow the trail of blood across the room, they paused at the open door listening for any sounds emanating from below.

A low keeling wail rose from the subterranean room. Whoever might be down there was at least alive.

What they found at the foot of the stairs surprised them both. Marjorie lay in a crumpled heap, her eyes glazed and wandering. She was covered with blood and dirt. Approaching cautiously, Mulder removed the scalpel from her clenched fist as Scully quickly examined her. A search of the room turned up few clues as to where Parker might be.

"Where is she, Marjorie? Where is Parker?" Mulder knelt beside Scully and watched as cloudy recognition dawned in Marjorie's eyes.

"Julia is not here." A deep chuckle rose in Marjorie's throat, eerie in its intensity. "I don't know where she is. Jason will find her, he always said he would, that she could never hide from him no matter where she went or how hard she tried."

"We know you took her, your fingerprints were pulled from her house this afternoon," Mulder continued. "If you tell us where she is-"

"Mulder," Scully cut him off, "this isn't Marjorie's blood. She doesn't have any injuries resulting in broken skin." She watched Mulder's eyes darken with fear and anger, the same emotions she was fighting to control.

"Julia is not here." Marjorie's laughter rang out through the stillness.

--XxXxXxX--

"Can't stop. Must keep going. Can't stop..." Parker kept trudging through the deepening mud. She knew she couldn't keep going much longer, exhaustion was quickly overcoming her senses and she could hear how slurred her voice had become. "Come on, Julia!" she admonished herself. "Anne and Fin are expecting you to tuck them in. They can't lose both of their parents."

She walked, leaving a quickly vanishing trough in the mud as her feet drug along.

Can't stop. Can't rest. I'll never get up if I do. Won't do any good to sit down in the road and get run over by the next car. Can't stop. Can't rest. Can't stop.

--XxXxXxX--

"Detective Roberts? Dana Scully here. Agent Mulder and I have located Marjorie Abernathy." Scully walked out onto the porch, putting as much distance between herself and the maddening hysteria of Marjorie's laughter, clutching her cell phone with white knuckles and striding around the rapidly congealing bloody trail.

"Parker's not here. She's been here though, recently. We've discovered a copious amount of blood in and around the cabin. Either Marjorie already disposed of her body or she managed to escape somehow. Miss Abernathy's suffering from shock and some minor injuries, but her state of mind is questionable." Scully tilted her head, listening to the laughter emanating from the cabin. "She's highly unstable and is ranting nonsense. By what we can get out of her, I believe Parker is still alive and got away." She paused to take in a steadying breath. "Which means she's wandering around outside somewhere. And with the amount of blood we've found, she's not in good shape."

Mulder joined her on the porch. "She's not going anywhere."

"Detective, we've secured Marjorie in the house. We need to find Parker. I don't know how long she'll last on her own."

The detective's voice crackled through the static on the line. "I've contacted the station and the team'll be here pretty quick now. We'll come for Marjorie." The detective's voice paused briefly, "You find Julia Parker."

--XxXxXxX--

"No, I can't..." Parker stumbled a few steps more before she crumpled into the mud and foliage that bordered the road. Won't get run over here. Won't be found either...

Infuriated by her own weaknesses and failures, Parker managed to pull herself a bit further from the road but had to slow her movements when her universe began to spin. The water got deeper the further she inched. Any more water and I'll drown before exposure becomes a problem. Shoving her fists deep into the mud, she lunged toward a rough barked tree growing a meter or more from the road. If only she could make it that far...

She leaned back against the tree, her breath labored and hitching with the exertion of her movements. Her chest heaved painfully with each strangled gasp and the tremors that had wracked her body since she had regained consciousness gained intensity with each second that passed.

The tree limbs whipped about above her head, restless in the gusting wind. No shelter was to be gained from the leafy boughs in their agitated state; they sent more icy droplets showering down on her head than they kept off of it. Her hair hung down, plastered to her face and obscured her eyes but she was too weak to remedy her vision problem.

She looked down at her injured arm. Marjorie had done a good job when she'd slashed out with the scalpel. Parker visualized the nick she had surely made on the humorous, groaning when she tried to apply pressure to the area. There were too many freely bleeding gashes to try to attend to, she'd have to worry over the worst and hope she lasted long enough for medical attention to deal with the rest.

--XxXxXxX--

"She must have gone further up the road. Surely she wouldn't have tried to find her way through the woods." Mulder scanned the area, shielding his eyes from the driving rain with an unsteady hand.

Scully stepped down from the porch, steeling herself from the cold onslaught. "We need to find her quickly, Mulder. Marjorie had to have done some significant damage to her while she was here. I don't know what we'll find when we do finally catch up to her."

Scanning both sides of the road, they pushed on through the mud and rain. Blinding lightning and its immediate deafening thunderclap startled them both; somewhere in the dense woods the crash of a falling tree sent chills up the agents' spines. The storm was worsening and its intensity worried Mulder. The worse the storm, the worse Parker's chances of survival became. Another flash of lightening illuminated the area with staccatoed light.

They'd made it nearly half a mile further before Scully called out to her partner. "Mulder! Over there, under that tree!" She raced through the mud, nearly losing her footing in the rushing water and fighting with the mud for possession of her sneakers.

Huddled against the thick trunk was a dark form, hidden by the shadows cast by the agitated trees. Scully was on her knees before she was sure it was Parker. A thick layer of mud and clinging leaves hid the woman's identity but the chances of two lost souls out in the ferocious storm were too slim to even imagine.

"Parker!" Scully's voice strained to call out over the din of the gale that roared around them. "Julia!" She reached out to push lank hair from the woman's face, hoping beyond hope that they weren't too late. Glassy eyes and a deathly pale face, what was visible of it through the mud, met her frantic inspection. She pressed icy fingers against her neck, desperately feeling for the carotid artery, and its tell tale flutter of pulse.

She grabbed Mulder's arm as he dropped down beside them in the thick mud. "She's still alive but..." The sentence was left hanging when Mulder reached down and lifted Parker into his arms.

He stood unsteadily, shifting Parker in his arms as Scully stripped out of her rain parka and draped it over their patient. "Come on, we've got to get her out of this."

--XxXxXxX--

The anthropology building was deathly silent; the sounds of sudden inactivity caused a hush to fall through the deserted hallways and classrooms. Bright sunlight streamed in through the glass doors and periodic windows, illuminating the waxed floors with golden light.

The muted sounds of rapid footfalls echoed in the stillness. Dr. Wendstrom glanced up at the door of his office, smiling at the pair who stood just within the outer office.

"I'm on my way there now. Would you like to walk with me?"

--XxXxXxX--

The applause was deafening as the last of the masters' recipients walked across the brightly lit stage, wending their way back to their seats amid the flurry of sudden activity.

Striding across the platform, his black gown fluttering with his movements, Dr. Wendstrom stepped up to the podium.

"We have one final degree to distribute for the College of Liberal Arts. The doctorial program within the anthropology department accepts only three positions each year and grants only one doctorial degree. Our candidate this year has maintained the highest decorum and outstanding abilities in the sub-field of forensic anthropology, even assisting on a federal case this past year. She has set a precedent of strength and determination, surpassing all of our expectations. Due to her dedication and exceptional strengths, I call on Julia Louise Parker to come forward. Dr. Julia Louise Parker."

Julia slowly ascended the steps, still favoring the leg Marjorie had injured during her captivity. Her solemn eyes watched as Dr. Wendstrom turned to face her.

"It is my greatest honor, Julia, to grant you the title of Doctor of Arts from this university. Once you have left us, you will be sorely missed."

Thunderous applause filled the theater and Scully laughed at Anne and Fin as they attempted to be heard above the roar of the crowd. The rest of the university had discovered Parker's input on the case after she had been hospitalized. Terrified at the implications and awed by her dedication, her hospital room had been a veritable florist's show room of flowers and get-well wishes.

Smiling her gratitude, Parker had scanned the audience for her children, spying them at last perched on Mulder's shoulders. She waved happily before accepting her diploma and walking off the stage.

After the commencement had ended Parker stood amid a rowdy crowd of well wishers, looking like she would rather make a mad dash back to the solitude of the basement autopsy bays than deal with her sudden popularity. Anne and Fin pushed their way past the milling crowd, wrapping their slender arms around her waist in a show of pride and desperate possession. Subconsciously, she rested her hands on their silky heads, assuring herself with their presence.

The crowd slowly dispersed and Mulder and Scully approached.

"It's good to see you both again. I'm so glad you could make it." Parker's voice sounded more relaxed with the disbursement of her fans and she relaxed her stance.

"We wouldn't have missed it," Mulder grinned. "After all, it's not every day that Miss Untouchable earns her doctorate."

"Well thanks, Dr. Spooky." Parker smiled again and reached to unfasten her graduation robe.

"How are you doing?" Scully's voice relayed her concern. Parker, although basically recovered, was still obviously weak and shaky. Her hands trembled as they struggled with the hidden zipper.

"I'll be fine. I always am. Two more physical therapy sessions and I'll be done with that even," she paused to catch her breath. "I put in an application with the FBI," she announced.

"What have you heard?"

Mulder reached out to help her with the zipper that still eluded her grasp. "You didn't tell them about your association with us did you?"

"Personal references, Mr. and Mrs. Spooky? Actually I did, you mean you haven't gotten a call yet to confirm my good character?" Parker's laughter was musical.

"Nope."

"Doesn't matter. I heard back last week." Parker nodded her thanks at Mulder and sighed in relief as a cooling breeze tugged at the gown.

"And..." Scully prompted.

"And I need to rest up and finish my physical therapy and I'll have a job." She smiled down at her children as they relaxed their grip on her to dance circles around the three of them. "We can put all this behind us and move on."

"You can do that?" Scully questioned. "Just put it all out of your mind and go on?"

"I have to. If I continued to dwell on all the horrors I've experienced, I'd go insane and that wouldn't be good of my little ones." She smiled sadly, "It's not so hard actually. You just have to accept the past as unalterable, there's nothing that can be done to change what's already happened. The only thing you can control is the present and the future."

"That's easier said than done," Mulder murmured. Scully glanced up at him, seeing the ghost of Samantha lingering in his expression and wondering how Parker could manage it.

"Not everyone can do it. But I've got Antigone and Phineus to consider, if it were just me...I don't know that I could do it."

END

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I took certain liberties with a lot of aspects of this story. Certainly I screwed around with crime scene protocol as well as chain of custody and even simple procedural aspects. Even the discoloration of the corpses was wrong. I know all this; like Julia, I'm a student of forensic anthropology-they say that you should write what you know, right? But rather than keep strictly to reality, I had some fun with the situation. Scully/Mulder characterizations were done to the best of my limited ability; I swear I've been working on this for months now and have finally decided that there is no more I can do short of finding out exactly what happens to a 3 1/2 floppy when you pop it in the microwave...

Thanks for making it to the end.

the end

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