[identity profile] discordantwords.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] scully_fest
Title: Stygian (1/2)
Author: [livejournal.com profile] discordantwords
Rating: R-ish for language and a bit of violence
Spoilers: Season 3
Word Count: 12k

Let's hop into a time machine and go back, back to the third season, before the cancer, before the bees, where UST still reigned supreme and every week brought a brand new mystery to unravel.


*

The widow wore red.

Slappy watched her from his place in the back of the room, across the veritable sea of mourners. The room was uncomfortably warm, and he tugged at the collar of his suit jacket, wishing he hadn't worn it. He'd already removed his tie.

She was sitting up by the coffin, listing in her chair like a drunk, her eyes roving around the room and never focusing on those that went to speak to her. She occasionally dabbed at dry eyes with a tissue.

Her shoulders were bare, her tattoos on display. She was resplendent in her grief. To an untrained eye, she seemed insincere. Slappy, who had stood behind velvet stage curtains and watched her screaming while she held her husband's bleeding head, knew better.

He had not yet gone up to the coffin, had not yet looked at Slim's still dead face. He knew they'd done some work on him, miracle work if Tony and Sug were to be believed, to make him presentable for public viewing. It gave Slappy the heebie jeebies. He'd rather wait until the whole thing was over, say his goodbyes privately.

He was grateful she'd given him a job to do, had seemed to understand instinctively that he might need to be shielded. She'd always been good that way, had always cared for Slim's friends like they were her own. In a way, maybe they were.

He watched as an elderly woman approached Dee with a laser focus, yet another face in the crowd that he did not recognize. There had been a fair amount of curiosity seekers; Slim had not been world famous but he'd had a particularly devoted following and his death had been an unusual and unexpected shock. He supposed it was only natural that his wake would attract rubberneckers.

Still, he watched, unwilling to take his eyes off of Dee. She had given him a job to do, had trusted him the same way that Slim always had. He did not want to let her down.

*

The armchair Dee sat in was modestly upholstered in a tasteful fabric that left no impression whatsoever. She noticed it, however, traced sedate neutral floral patterns with one long red fingernail, scratched ridges in the material.

She paid no attention to the person standing in front of her, an elderly windbag going on and on and on about how Slim had been her favorite student back in the day, and how sad she was to see him go, and what a tragedy, what a loss, what a veritable crime against humanity.

She doubted that half of the people in the room had ever really known him, even those who had talked their way past the somber attendant with his promises that curiosity seekers would be kept at bay.

In truth, she didn't mind, even if the woman standing before her now was the fourth such person to claim to have been Slim's kindergarten teacher. She didn't mind because Slim wouldn't have minded. He would have found it funny, the same way he would have found her funny, sitting by his side in the red evening gown she usually wore for Friday night performances, her hair swept up, eye makeup heavily applied for extra dramatic effect when the tears really started to flow.

And they would flow, she knew, eventually. She'd mustered up a few public sniffles, an artful turn of her head to hide behind a handkerchief. The real tears would come later, when all of these people were gone and it was only her and the empty vessel that had once been her husband.

"I always knew he would grow up to be a great talent," the old woman said. "He had such a fine spirit."

She looked up, nodded politely, went on absently scratching at the fabric of her chair. The old woman departed, knelt at the coffin, surreptitiously slipped one of the crumpled family photos Slim was to be buried with into her coat pocket.

Dee sighed, looked away, wondered how long it would be before that particular souvenir appeared for sale on the internet.

The old woman touched Slim's folded hands, brushed one wrinkled crone's finger against his wedding ring.

Dee glanced up, met Slappy's gaze. He was watching, of course. He never missed a trick. She nodded, a brief jerk of the head in his direction. She could have sworn she saw him smile.

Slappy fumbled in his pocket. She looked away, watched the woman at the coffin.

"Don't let them bury me," Slim said.

The woman let out a startled cry, stumbled back from the kneeler.

Dee smiled sadly, shut her eyes. Her husband had always been clear about his post-mortem requests, had gone so far as to make audio recordings of his voice for maximum effect. He was a performance artist to the core, and would never have passed up the chance for one last act. He had, of course, never expected his end to come so soon.

She had slipped the tape player under his satin pillow, given the remote to Slappy. Periodically, her husband's disembodied voice would chastise mourners.

What she did not tell anyone was that she'd sat up half the night with the tape, rewinding it and sobbing as he cursed and blustered and barked inappropriate staccato jokes.

She sat for another several minutes, watching the steady parade of people who came to weep at her husband's coffin. Some offered her disapproving glances. She supposed it was the dress. None of them had been there while she bent over his body on stage, cradling his head, watching the life stream out of him through his nose, his ears, through all of his caved-in places.

Even after he'd fallen, the crowd had remained calm, convinced it was still a trick, all part of the act. She'd known, of course, felt their tether snap the moment he'd lost his grip and come tumbling back towards earth.

The damn fucking fool. Someone had sabotaged his wire, and he'd never bothered to test it before beginning the act. He'd always believed himself invincible.

It was about time to get the show on the road, she thought, standing up and smoothing her hands down along her dress. She had half a bottle of Jack Daniel's waiting for her at home, and a real wake to begin with Slappy and Tony and Sug, the only three people in the world who had known Slim the way that she had.

She stepped to the podium, watched the roomful of strangers hush and take notice of her.

She cleared her throat, locked eyes with Slappy.

Behind her, the coffin burst into flames. The air filled with her husband's maniacal laughter.

The panic was instantaneous as the mourners began to push and shove towards the doors. She stepped aside, shut her eyes, tried to ignore the heat and the smell and the canned laughter. She could remember the night he'd recorded that laugh, when they were drunk and naked and happy and death seemed like an intangible, something they would not have to face for many years, if ever.

The fire alarm began to blare. Sprinklers chugged to life.

She sat in the chair and let the water soak her, heard the tape begin to warp and sputter as it was licked by both fire and water, as the impromptu cremation was slowly extinguished. His laughter stretched, slowed, died.

When she opened her eyes, the coffin sat before her, a smoldering, sodden thing. Slappy stood against the back wall, empty, overturned chairs between them. Tony and Sug sat on a couch, t-shirts plastered to their chests, hair soaking wet, passing a flask. Sug raised it in her direction and she nodded.

"Let's go," she said, wanting to leave before the fire department arrived. She would have to make restitution to the funeral home, she knew, had planned for it all along. All in the name of her husband's last prank.

She stood, stepped towards the exit. Behind her, Slim began to laugh again.

A tear, genuine this time, slipped down her cheek. His voice sounded so real. She wondered how the tape was still playing.

"Don't let them bury me," Slim's voice said.

She smiled, shut her eyes, walked away.

"Dee," he called.

She froze. He had not called her name on the tape. Across the room, Slappy's eyes had gone wide.

"Dee," he said again, and laughed.

She turned, slowly, felt as if she were moving underwater.

Slim was standing up in his coffin, brushing ash from his suit jacket. He grinned. "Miss me?"

*

Mulder was already in the office when she arrived, looking like he'd been there a while. Scully had given up some time ago trying to nail down his routine; she knew he returned to his apartment to sleep, and the presence of still-living fish seemed to speak to the fact that he spent at least enough time at home to feed them and keep the tank clean, but otherwise he seemed to prefer to spend his waking hours in the basement of the Hoover building.

He was sitting back in his chair, studying a photograph, and he glanced up when he heard her approach.

"Don't get too comfortable," he said as she set her briefcase down on a nearby chair. "We've got a plane to catch."

"Dare I ask where we're going?"

He stood, passed her a file folder. "Last week, a man named Slim Silverman was killed in a tragic accident on stage during a live act."

She took the file, scanned it. "He's a magician?"

"More of a performance artist. Sleight of hand, daredevil stunts, a high wire act."

"How did he die?" She rifled through the photos, found a stark black and white shot of a crumpled body on wood, dark blood covering his face.

"His cable snapped during a high wire performance. He fell sixty feet to his death in front of a live audience of almost three hundred people."

Something nagged at her, and she flipped back through the photos, back to his smiling publicity shot. "The name sounds familiar."

"It should," Mulder said, leaning against the desk, his knee bumping against hers. "Slim Silverman might not be the most famous illusionist working today, but he has attracted quite an ardent following." He picked a beige pamphlet off of his desk, waggled it at her.

She took it, read the text. "The Church of Dispelled Illusions?"

"There is a relatively small but surprisingly vocal group of people who believe that Slim Silverman is the second coming of Christ."

She raised her eyebrows, interest piqued. "Why?"

"They say that the tricks Slim Silverman performed were more than just impressive, they were impossible."

She frowned. "Well, the man made his living off of illusions. I imagine they'd have to be convincing."

Mulder gave her that smile, the one that let her know there was more to the story than what he'd told her. "Especially his last trick."

*

She had protested the need for investigation all the way to the airport; yet still found herself tucked against the window seat. Somewhere behind her, a small child began to wail.

"Mulder," she tried again, as the flight attendants began their safety routine. "I still don't understand what makes you think that this supposed resurrection is anything more than a publicity stunt."

An attendant brushed by, slamming shut their overhead compartment and Scully briefly shut her eyes, swallowed. She'd traversed the country more times than she could count, spent more nights in cheap motels than in her own apartment, and yet still felt unsettled, claustrophobic in planes.

"Because it wasn't public." He had already started in on his packet of airline peanuts, cracking them between his teeth.

She made a valiant attempt not to roll her eyes, failed, let out a sigh that joined the whine of compressed air overhead. "He emerged from a burning coffin at his own wake."

"With no witnesses except for his wife and three closest friends. Why wait until your audience has left to perform the grand finale?"

She shrugged. "Bad timing?"

"Or very good timing," Mulder offered.

The plane shuddered as the engines kicked in, started to gather speed down the runway. Bottles on the beverage cart rattled together. She glanced down at the file in her hands, focused on the clinical details of the corpse, ignored the lurch in her stomach as the world dropped away around them.

Next to her, Mulder shifted in his seat and craned his neck for the flight attendant, no doubt in search of more peanuts or some other salty snack to crunch on. He did not glance in her direction, a deliberate choice, and one she was grateful for. He seemed to instinctively understand her unease, right down to the fact that having it noticed only served to make her more uneasy.

She'd never said as much, but she thought, all things considered, they made damn good travel partners. It was the kind of observation she might have shared with Melissa, but had never quite gotten around to it.

The unbidden thought of her sister did nothing to help her sense of balance. Her eyes prickled and she shut them, wishing that the first image that came to mind was not of Missy's bruised and swollen face, of bandages and tubes and bleeping machines. Guilt, hot and unwelcome, flooded through her and she remembered how cold her sister's hand had been that last day in the hospital, right before they'd turned off the machines.

Her mother was still upset with her, she knew. Upset that she hadn't been there for the majority of Missy's hospitalization, upset that she returned to work so quickly, hell, upset that she wanted to keep working the job that had put her in this situation in the first place.

"I need answers, Mom," she'd said after the funeral, and her mother had given her a look she'd never seen before, a distant look, walled off.

"You are just like your father," she'd said.

Scully shifted in her seat, looked out the window. It was overcast and they climbed into a heavy bank of clouds.

The plane leveled off, the unpleasant pressure dissipated, and Scully took a steadying breath and gave the photos her full attention.

Slim Silverman certainly looked dead. He lay spread-eagled on a wood floor, neck cocked at an impossible angle, eyes open wide. There was a growing dark pool beneath him. His face was somehow warped, as though the sheer force of impact had caused his features to shift.

"Those photos might make a nice coffee table collection, what do you think?" Mulder asked, his breath warm against her ear.

She favored him with a distracted half smile, tucking the pictures back into the file folder. "I take it no autopsy was performed?"

He shook his head. "Local PD and the medical examiner didn't see the need. It was pretty apparent what killed him."

"Or didn't kill him," she said.

*

Dee wore the dress, stood on the stage, but couldn't bring forth the smile. Slim looked sharp in a new black tux, an indulgence he'd allowed himself since his first still carried the funeral home stink of formaldehyde and flowers. He was going through the motions, smiling, playing to the crowd-- nearly double what it usually was, but she supposed that was to be expected.

"Smile, buttercup," he said as he breezed past her, doves erupting from his jacket sleeves. He left a trail of a vaguely unpleasant odor in his wake, the barest wisp of sulfur smell.

She smiled, clamping her teeth together. Her lips felt like they might crack. She held out her hands and the doves flew to her, perched along her arms.

The audience applauded, and then he was climbing, hand over hand over hand, sweat beading on his forehead and that damnable manic grin on his face.

Panic flared and she shook her arms, disturbing the doves. They took wing, soaring for the rafters above. She scanned the sea of faces for someone familiar, locked eyes with Slappy at the back door. He looked similarly alarmed.

She watched as Slim reached the top of the ladder, heard his laughter start up. Bile rose in her throat. She could still feel the wrongness of his head in her hands, the shattered pieces of skull that didn't seem to fit together properly any more, the slick leak of blood and brains through her fingers.

His limbs had jittered a death dance on the floor under her feet.

She took a step towards the ladder, grabbed a rung, not sure quite what she intended to do but knowing she needed to get him back down, needed him next to her before she went and lost him again.

His voice boomed out of the speakers.

"I have crossed the River Styx and returned to the mortal world," he said, edging out onto the rope.

"Stop," Tony said, grabbing her arm, gently prying her fingers from the ladder rung. She had not even seen him approach.

"He wasn't supposed to--"

"He planned this. It's all planned. It's okay."

Dee allowed herself to be dragged back, unable to tear her eyes away from her husband, looking small and fragile up there against the hot lights.

Slim bowed and tipped backwards off of the rope, plunging into free fall. He dropped silently, his coattails flapping.

"NO!" She tore out of Tony's arms, rushed forward.

Slim erupted into black smoke seconds before touching the ground. She gasped, stumbled back. The stench of sulfur was overwhelming.

"He- he- he-" she gasped.

Applause thundered from the crowd. The very air seemed to quiver with it.

"Look," Tony said, tugging on her arm.

She looked.

Slim strolled from behind the curtains, grinning. He tilted his head towards her, winked.

"Smile," Tony hissed.

She smiled.

*

Mulder was clapping, grinning that smug, shit-eating grin of his that meant everything they'd just witnessed had gone exactly as he'd expected.

They were jammed in amidst a breathless crowd, the heat generated by all of those bodies so oppressive it seemed to make her trench coat wilt. Mulder had loosened his tie, a faint sheen of perspiration stood out on the back of his neck.

"It was a trick, Mulder," she said, but even she had to admit it was a damn impressive one.

"Some trick. Think he'll tell us how he does it?"

"I doubt it. Magicians are notoriously protective of trade secrets."

"He's not a magician, Scully," Mulder lolled his head towards her, still grinning. "He's an *entertainer*."

"And I was entertained," she said. "Now let's go talk to him, so you can see for yourself that he's very much alive."

He gestured ahead of him, gently guiding her with a hand on her back as they pushed through the masses of people making their way towards the exits.

"Big crowd tonight," he said.

"Exactly as planned, I'm sure," she said over her shoulder.

They reached the stage, stepping over garish purple pamphlets that Mulder stopped to examine. She flashed her badge to bypass security, they found themselves amidst a celebratory crowd on the other side of the curtain.

"Goddamn," a burly man in a black t-shirt was saying as he struggled with a champagne bottle. "Goddamn."

Slim Silverman himself sat in an arm chair, his jacket across his lap. He was smiling, but his smile did not reach his face as his eyes shifted to the new arrivals.

"I do believe we've attracted some interesting attention," he said, standing up.

The champagne cork gave way, foam spilling out and onto the floor as the man holding it spun around.

"Hey--" he said.

"It's all right," Slim held up his hand. "Police?"

"FBI," Mulder said, holding up his badge. "Agents Mulder and Scully."

Slim smiled, tented his hands under his chin. "FBI. Come to find out what happens when a man returns from the dead?"

"Is that what happened?" Mulder asked.

"You can ask any of these good people here."

"And who might they be?"

"My lovely wife, Dee," Slim snaked an arm out and tugged her close to him. Her sequined dress glimmered.

She favored them with a shy smile, eyes downcast. Scully noted her body language, the way she edged away from Slim the moment he released her.

"My oldest friends in the world," Slim continued. "Tony--" the heavyset man with the champagne bottle waved, sloshing more drink over his hands, "Sug and Slappy."

"All of whom happened to be present at your resurrection," Scully said.

"You seem unconvinced."

"Do I?"

"I can't blame you. It certainly does seem unbelievable." He sat back down, stretching back in the chair. The air held a faint odor of sulfur.

"It seems quite believable," Scully countered. "As a publicity stunt."

Slim laughed. "The moment of my death has been well documented. No fewer than three hundred people watched it happen. My own wife was there, isn't that right, Dee?"

She looked stricken, gave a quick short nod.

"We were very upset," one of the other men-- Slappy, she thought-- murmured. The other two nodded.

"Ah, you don't have to lie," Slim clapped his hands together, stood up again, all quick motions and kinetic energy. "Dee was at least a little excited about getting her hands on that bank account, weren't you darlin'?"

She lifted her head, met him with a dull stare. "I don't know how you could say that."

He shrugged, rolled his eyes back towards Mulder and Scully. "So what do you want to know? If my life flashed before my eyes before I hit the ground?" He grinned, a flash of white teeth. "That's a myth. The wire gave way, I had enough time to register that was probably a very bad thing, then... splat." He smacked his hands together loudly.

Dee jumped, crossed her arms.

"And then?" Mulder leaned in, looking engaged but not overly eager, something Scully saw as a good sign.

"Let me guess," she said. "Next thing you knew, you were sitting up in your coffin at the funeral home."

Slim pursed his lips together, shook his head. "Not even close."

"Enlighten us, then," Mulder said.

"Am I under arrest?"

"No."

He stood, stretched, slipped his jacket back on. "Then I believe I'm done for now. Slappy, if you'd show Agents Mulder and Scully the way out?"

The man he called Slappy approached, all nervous height and awkward limbs. "Please follow me."

She met Mulder's eye, nodded.

"You've known Slim a long time?" Scully asked as they eased down a dark hallway.

Slappy gave her a shy smile, ducked his head. "Almost my whole life."

"He seems like he cares a lot for his friends," Mulder offered, giving Slappy an encouraging smile.

"Oh," Slappy said. "Yes. He does. He trusts me."

He stopped at a metal door labeled EXIT, hesitated with his hand against it.

"I'm happy he's not dead anymore," he shoved the door open. Sunlight flooded into the dark little hallway. "Goodbye."

She hesitated in the blinding glare, but Mulder tugged gently on her trench sleeve. "Come on, Scully."

The door clicked shut behind them. She looked up at him, blinking.

He dug something out of his pocket, handed it to her. "Three guesses as to tonight's guest of honor."

She recognized one of the purple pamphlets they had stepped over on their way backstage. A crudely stamped logo at the top identified it as belonging to the Church of Dispelled Illusions.

"Mysteries of the afterlife revealed," she read.

"Cake and nonalcoholic refreshments to follow," Mulder added, pointing at the paper.

"Ah," she said. "Now it's a party."

*

Wayne Paulson stood before the mirror, patting powder into the lined creases of his face. Sweat had begun to bead on his brow and he swiped it away, dabbed on more powder. It was unseasonably warm.

There was motion behind him, a dark shape in the mirror, and he spun around, suddenly, irrationally afraid.

"Hello?" he called.

"Just us," Tony said.

"Jesus," Paulson said, sitting back down. "You should know better than to come here."

Tony moved his considerable girth into the room, followed closely by Sug, who was smiling like the cat that ate the canary.

"What," Sug said. "We can't come visit an old friend?"

"You shouldn't take the lord's name in vain," Tony added. "Reverend."

"Tonight is a big deal," he said. "It has to go off flawlessly."

"Slim's on board," Sug said.

"Yeah," Paulson said, looking from one to the other. "That's what concerns me."

He was supposed to be dead, he thought, but did not say aloud. He balled up his fists, took a steadying breath.

"I saw him fall," he said finally.

"We all did," Tony said.

"Maybe you were right about him," Sug offered. "Him being Jesus."

"Of course he's right," Slim said from the doorway, grinning. His teeth looked large and white and gleaming in the shadows. "I've come back."

He stepped into the room, smiling at each of them in turn. Paulson thought he looked downright predatory.

"You can't take it personally that this has me a bit freaked out," he said.

Slim smiled wider. "But you're a man of faith."

"I believe," Tony said quickly.

Sug nodded. "Me too."

"Smile," Slim said, stepping forward and clapping the reverend firmly on each powdered cheek. "I'm about to make you a lot of money."

*

"We are honored to have a very special guest with us tonight," Paulson said, stepping out of the spotlight a little bit, wiping a hand across his brow.

Slim moved to his side, still wearing his tuxedo jacket. The crowd around him broke into spontaneous applause.

"Your devotion shall be rewarded," Slim said, giving Paulson an odd sidelong look. "I have died for your sins and returned to you."

Paulson grinned, clapped Slim on the shoulder, gave him a little shake.

Scully glanced over at Mulder, caught his eye. He nodded back at her; he'd caught the strange body language as well. A current of something unspoken, possibly unpleasant, ran between the two men.

Paulson dug into his robe pockets, came out cupping a stiff dead frog. He held it up. "I propose a test for our savior."

"A test," someone in the crowd agreed.

"As Jesus raised Lazarus," Paulson said, dropping the frog into Slim's outstretched palm.

"Lazarus!"

"Raise him!"

Slim looked down at the frog in his hands, back at his fervent audience. He cupped his hand, breathed into his palm. "And Jesus said unto her--"

Of all the overused tropes, Scully thought, exasperated. She looked back at Mulder. "Can you believe--"

"I am the resurrection and the life!"

In his hand, the frog began to twitch. Someone in the crowd gasped.

"He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live," Slim cooed, sweat pouring down his face. He clenched his fist once, twice, and the frog gave a little kick.

"Praise the lord," Paulson whispered.

"Yet shall he live," Slim said again. He stroked the frog on its back and then bent, depositing it onto the floor.

It sat still for a moment, chest rising and falling, and then hopped off towards the crowd. People gasped, shoved aside to make way for the animal as it vanished through the open door.

"We have been witness to a true miracle, folks," Paulson said, slinging his arm around Slim's shoulder again. "A true miracle. Please do remember that it is your generosity that allows us to keep our doors open."

And give generously they did, Scully noted. Every single man, woman and child present opened their wallet as the collection tray was passed from hand to hand.

Slim shrugged out from Paulson's arm, tilted his head back, cast his eyes skyward. "I have died for your sins."

Paulson nodded, went to clap him on the shoulder again. Slim shifted, clamped both hands on Paulson's shoulders instead, locked eyes with him.

"I have died," Slim hissed. "For your sins."

Mulder glanced at her again and she read his expression, they both had caught the subtle threat. For the moment, Slim Silverman had eyes only for the reverend, and what lurked behind those eyes wasn't pretty.

But then, just as she thought the moment between the two had gone on long enough that it might be appropriate to intervene, Slim spun around, scanning the crowd, his face splitting into a grin.

"You know," he said, his gaze falling on her. He took a step forward, she a step back. "You know what it is to lose someone you love. To have them torn from you."

She felt Mulder stiffen slightly beside her, just a faint rustle of his coat sleeve against hers. She straightened, met Slim's eyes, reversed her subtle retreat. "I'm sure most of the people in this room have known loss in one form or another."

He shook his head, still smiling, his breath hot and foul on her face. "If given the opportunity to take her vengeance, would she take it?"

She flinched, immediately cursed her weakness at betraying even that much.

"To willingly give one's life for another is a divine tragedy," he said, his voice dropping. His breath smelled of sour eggs. "The most sacred gift. But to lose one's life for another?" He shook his head. A bit of malodorous sweat dripped from his nose. "To have your life, your choice, taken from you?"

"Are you going somewhere with this?" Mulder asked, his voice low, a little dangerous.

"You don't think she'd be tempted by revenge? Vengeance for sweet Melissa?" he smiled widely, leaned in even closer. His face was inches from hers; she could count his pores under the shine of perspiration. "Against those who did the deed, and against the one who benefitted from it?"

Scully reeled back, feeling as though she'd been slapped. The steel in her spine had melted, leaving her without words. She turned and pushed her way through the crowd, towards the exit, heard Mulder say something behind her but the words were lost to the ringing in her ears.

She found herself outside, the cool night air a sharp contrast to the warmth of the crowded meeting room. A damp breeze ruffled the hem of her trench coat.

"Scully."

She did not turn around, held up one leather-sheathed hand. "I'm fine, Mulder."

"An internet search could have turned up that information," he said quietly, bumping up against her arm. He looked pained, in that awkward way he sometimes had.

"That trick with the frog," she said, lifting her eyes to meet his. Her tone was all business, aiming to chase that nervous awkward tenderness from his face. "Those people inside ate it up."

His expression didn't change. "Scully."

"The frog was never dead," she insisted, jutting her chin out in a stubborn motion that was a holdover from her childhood. "It was chilled. Amphibians are cold-blooded. Its body processes slowed down to imperceptible levels. The warmth from his hand, from his breath, revived it."

After her father died, she'd spent whole nights agonizing over conversations they'd had, thinking of words she should have said differently, reliving every rebellion, every single step of distance she'd ever put between them. She'd taken her mom to church, vowed to spend more time with her. But she'd regretted nothing, still felt sure and steady about her career, her life, her choices.

Her mother and father had loved each other, of that there had never been any doubt. But there had been fights, raised voices and once, only once, spoken softly over a packed suitcase at the bedside of a sweating and feverish child, the muttered accusation that career was valued over family.

She'd crouched in the doorway, watched as her father brushed the sweaty strands of hair away from Bill's forehead-- it was the flu, and before the week was done it would claim them all in turn-- before he'd turned to her mother with a resigned smile.

"You knew who you married," he'd said. "You knew what you were getting into."

Her mother had started to cry, but she'd nodded. Dana had never forgotten that little nod.

"I love my family," her father had said. "But I serve my country."

Even then, she'd understood. And when her father departed that night for his ship, she'd held steady, stayed stoic, did not cry even as she'd watched Missy and Charlie sniffling and holding onto him. He'd caught her eye and saluted, and she'd saluted back.

It had always been that way between her and her father.

But it was different with Missy. Her sister's death had come at a time when she had slid down a rabbit hole into paranoia and danger, into the kind of place where telephone interference was always sinister, where men in unmarked vans were always spies, where lights in the sky sometimes blinked to earth and carried you off from your bed.

There was no room for trust in such a world, no room for blind patriotism or civic duty. There was only Mulder, and elevators that only went down, down, deeper and darker.

"Scully," Mulder said again, her name on his lips a third time, like an incantation.

She tipped her head up, breeze ruffling her hair, cooling fevered skin. Aware that she was not acting herself; that her recent loss had sloughed off a layer of protection, left her emotions dangerously close to seeping through.

He lifted his hand, brought it forward as though to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, seemed to think better of it, let it drop.

I shouldn't be here, she thought, and immediately, savagely dismissed the thought. Work was what remained. It was what she had, all she had. And Mulder, of course. Whatever that meant.

"You were right," he was saying. "Slim Silverman is a fraud. A convincing fraud, I'll grant him that, but I don't see anything that warrants our continued involvement here."

"He was threatening Paulson," she said, and he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. She thought her voice sounded remarkably steady.

"Extortion of some kind, maybe," he agreed. "But it's not an X File."

"I'm not so sure," she said.

*

Slim was wired.

Wired wasn't even the right word for what he was. He was more than wired, he was downright electric, high-octane, boiling over. He had returned from his meeting with Paulson stinking of sweat and sulfur, barged into the house and thrown his jacket on the floor without saying a word.

She'd picked it up, smoothed it, held it against her chest as she watched him pace back and forth in front of the windows.

He hadn't noticed Slappy on the couch, seemed content enough to pass the time tearing at his own hair and muttering to himself, and might have gone on doing just that had Slappy not stood up and smiled and hollered "hiya boss!"

Slim had stopped in his tracks, did a double take that might have been comical under other circumstances, and then put himself right in Dee's face, close enough that she could see every pore, every stray hair.

"I'm glad you're not dead," Slappy said, and Dee reached over and squeezed his arm. He was the only one of them not put off by Slim's behavior in the slightest. Tony and Sug had declined her dinner offer.

"Are you?" Slim asked. "Are you both glad?"

"Of course," she whispered, reaching to touch him but letting her hand drop just shy of his heated skin.

"We did what you wanted at the funeral," Slappy nodded, his face absurdly proud. "With the tape recorder and the fire. People were real scared."

A smile flickered on Slim's face, and Dee thought that might be the first genuine one she'd seen since he'd clambered out of a charred coffin, brushing ash from his shoulders.

"I'll bet it was a real show," Slim said.

"Especially how it ended," Dee sighed, turned away.

"That was only the beginning."

She looked up, met his gaze. "That's what I'm afraid of."

He started to turn away, but she touched a finger to his cheek, stilled him. His skin was warm, his bones firm, solid. She remembered how the bones in his face had shifted in her hands while she cradled his head.

"We would've made you proud," Slappy said.

"I have just one small question," Slim said, and Dee straightened up, stepped back a little bit. She knew him, knew his voice and his posture and his face better than her own.

He was finally getting to the crux of the matter.

"Go ahead," she whispered.

"Who touched the wire?"

"I did," Slappy said immediately. "I always test the wire before your show, Slim, you know that."

"I know," Slim's voice was low, steady. "You always do."

"I tested it that night, same as always." Slappy's face crumpled. "But you fell."

"All an act," Slim took a little bow.

Slappy brightened.

"That's not what you're telling those assholes at the church," Dee snorted.

"Reverend Paulson and I have an understanding."

"You let him parade you around like a prize hog at the county fair."

He gave her a strange look, a sly look that she didn't much care for.

"Slappy," she said, and he glanced up. "I don't remember if I locked my car. Can you check for me?"

Slappy gave her a look too, the kind of look that said he resented her overreliance on his gullibility. Or maybe she was reading into it too much. He left without a word.

Slim was watching her, his eyebrows raised.

"Now," she said.

"I'm all ears."

"Let's clear the air." She stood up, realized she was wringing her hands together, cracked her knuckles instead. They popped like tiny gunshots. "You died."

"Did I?"

"Cut the shit, Slim. I was there. I held the pieces of your head together. That was no act." Her face felt warm and she was surprised and slightly disgusted to realize that tears were streaming down her cheeks. "You were dead. I held you."

"If what you say is true, and that's a pretty big if, regardless of what those so-called assholes at the church would like to believe, what am I now?"

She shook her head, shut her eyes. "I don't know."

"You don't deny that I'm standing in front of you."

"I can't deny what I see."

"Did you sabotage my wire?"

Her eyes snapped open. "Did I what?"

"It's a simple question."

She stared at him, at his oddly intense face, the features right but the expression wrong. He'd flailed bonelessly in her arms on the stage, his limbs kicking as life fled, his eyes open and glassy but rolling towards her, trying to focus.

"I won't dignify that with an answer," she said, and turned away.

She listened to him breathing, to the tick of the clock, the drip of the faucet, the crickets outside the living room window. He did not speak.

"I believe you," he said finally, his voice thick.

*

"Going for a run," Mulder said, leaning in her doorframe, wearing a tattered t-shirt and sweat shorts. "Wanna come?"

He always made a point to ask, and she always made a point to decline. It was part of their regular dance, their give and take. She wondered what he'd do if she ever surprised him and said yes.

She shook her head at him, gave him a rueful little smile. "Not tonight."

They stood in the doorway for a moment, she on her side and he on his, toes nearly touching, mere centimeters between them. He studied her face with a softness that was uncommon, and she felt heat rise in her cheeks, wondering if he was about to do something unexpected. With him, you never quite knew.

"Mulder--"

"What he said back there at the church--"

She shook her head, stepped back, putting a solid foot between them and clearing the air of the warm intimacy that occasionally seeped between them.

He took a step in, a step closer, bringing his warm heat back into focus and pursuing the conversation further than he normally would have, ignoring her subtle back-off signs.

"Scully--" he said, and touched her shoulder. He looked pained, had looked that way every time he was reminded of what she'd lost this past year.

She shook her head, firmly this time, and managed a smile, albeit a shaky one. "Mulder, it's fine. He hit a little close to home, that's all."

He made no further move towards her, but made no move to leave either. His eyes were on her face, searching.

Finally, he sighed. "Sure I can't interest you in a run?"

"Not tonight."

He nodded, turned to leave.

"Mulder?"

He paused, turned back to her.

"There's more going on here than fraud."

"What do you think it is?" he asked her.

She shook her head. "I'm not sure. But I wouldn't book our plane tickets home just yet."

He nodded, still watching her more closely than she'd like. If he asked again about Melissa, if he pushed a little bit, she thought she just might crack, and that was the last thing she could possibly want.

She had a job to do, and had to be focused, had to be able to do it properly. Her father would have expected nothing less from her, regardless of her career path. Brave face on for the world, fall apart later if you had to.

"Have a good run," she said to Mulder, gently shutting the door.

*

Slappy did not go to check on Dee's car.

She loved him, he knew that she loved him, but he also knew that she sometimes banked on him being easy. She'd met him and taken an instant shine to him but more often than not treated him like a big dumb puppy dog.

Slim never made that mistake. Slim, who he'd known for ever and ever and ever always talked straight to him, always told him what was up. And once they'd gotten in tight, Tony and Sug, who he'd always been a little scared of in school, wound up being just as straight shootin' as Slim.

They were good friends to have. He'd appreciated Dee's careful handling of his feelings around the wake. She'd known he'd take it hard, she'd taken time out of her own deep grieving to think of his wellbeing. Just thinking about it made him want to cry. Thinking about the looks she'd gotten in that red dress made him want to cry, too, since he knew and she knew and Tony and Sug all knew it was a tribute to Slim and what they'd shared and didn't mean anything else.

But Slim, now...

Slappy wasn't quite ready to believe what he'd said, about it all being an act. If it was an act he was pretty damn sure Dee hadn't been in on it, and that was an awfully mean trick to play on her. On all of them, really, but especially her. And Slim had never been a mean person.

What Slappy found himself thinking about was the way Sug had been that morning, the morning Slim had fallen. He'd been funny, and not in a ha ha sort of way. Nervous, maybe. A little jumpy. And that had been weird in Sug, normally easygoing, quick to laugh and clap you on the back.

Slappy had taken one look at his friend's shattered face and thrown up on his own shoes. Tony had held him up, one arm tight around his shoulders, his face pale. And Sug had seen to Dee, crouched down next to her, tried to pry her away from the bloody mess that had been her husband.

He'd been efficient, thorough. Slappy had not thought much of it at the time, but now...

Sug had jumped into action when the rest of them had frozen. Almost like he'd been ready.

But that was impossible, wasn't it? Not Sug, who'd known Slim for more than half his life, who was part of their own unusual little brotherhood.

Slappy found himself at Tony's door, not so much knocking as he was battering, his face red, snot dribbling from his nose. Tears stung his eyes and he hoped he wasn't about to start the conversation by bawling all over his friend.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Tony asked him, swinging the door open, his big frame filling the entrance.

"I need to talk to you," Slappy said, dragging his sleeve under his nose. "I need to."

Tony moved aside, frowning, working his lower lip between his teeth a little bit the way he usually did when he was nervous or thinking real hard about something.

"I think someone tried to kill Slim."

Tony rocked back on his heels, studied him curiously. "What makes you say that?"

"Someone tampered with his wire. No. Not someone. I think I know who did it."

"Slappy, it was all an act."

"No!" Slappy shook his head, shutting his eyes started his mind movie of Slim falling and falling and thudding to the ground with awful finality. "Not an act."

"He thought it would be more realistic if you guys had surprised reactions. Would squeeze more money out of the church."

"I think Sug tried to kill him," Slappy whispered. "He was there that morning, checking the equipment. I told him I usually check the wire but--"

"Slappy--"

"And when Slim fell, he didn't seem surprised." This point seemed especially important to Slappy, so he said it again. "He didn't seem surprised."

Tony sighed, sat down on the couch. "You tell anyone this theory of yours?"

"No," Slappy shook his head.

"Good," Tony said, and hit him across the face.


Continued in Part 2

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