Animus Ligneus

by XSketch

TITLE: 'ANIMUS LIGNEUS' (Latin: 'Wooden Heart') AUTHOR: XSketch
ARCHIVE: The kid is yours to foster, as long as my name and all headers stay intact and you let me know :-) CATEGORY: Case-file, MSR
SPOILERS: 'Detour' specifically. Everything up to Je Souhaite and then AU. RATING: PG-13
SUMMARY: Hot on the heels of their last case, Mulder and Scully are sent back to Florida and the woods to investigate when bodies start turning up encased in the bark of trees. DISCLAIMER: Maybe in a perfect world, but no, Chris Carter, FOX and 1013 Productions, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and Co. own everything connected to the televised show. Andrew is the creation of Daydreamer - all used here without permission... The rest I dedicate to the fans - LOL! No copyright infringement intended. FEEDBACK: Loved, hugged, petted and made into a shrine at sketchney@ntlworld.com or SketchShipper@hotmail.com. Even flames will be put to good use - feeding our central heating boiler!!! AUTHOR'S NOTE: This was written for IMTP's Virtual Season 11. M&S are a couple but only Skinner and Scully's family know. Andrew is Skinner's adopted son and - I guess the only way to describe - a miracle worker.
DEDICATION: Biggest thanks to the IMTP crew for letting me do this, Sally for the friendly and super VS beta (down with the dots!), and Marcella for answering my questions on continuity with her ep - as well as being fun to chat with :-) This is for my younger sister, Camille, for encouraging me not to give up with it (I know how much you like to keep an open mind :-))!


x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x 'Living Nature, not dull Art
Shall plan my ways and rule my heart.'

~Cardinal John Henry Newman, 'Nature And Art' x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x

XxXxXxXxX


TEASER

EDGE OF DESHUI FOREST
8 MILES SOUTH OF TALLAHASEE, FLORIDA
10:27 PM

Sometimes you just know if it's going to be a beautiful evening or not. You don't know how and you don't know why, but when you look up at the night sky and feel the moon's beam raining down on you, something in your heart tells you that no matter what problems you're going through in your personal life, whatever war is starting up somewhere in the world, as long as you can look up at that silver saucer of light and feel free, you just do.

Tonight, Judy Gleeson decided, was going to be a beautiful night for her whether nature liked it or not, otherwise there seemed little point in carrying on. She'd just had an all-out argument with her husband, and - whilst she loved the oaf like crazy - she just couldn't see any way of repairing things. So, now all she could do was trundle down this well-trodden but dark track with 'What next?' thoughts chasing their way through her head.

That was when she noticed the parked car and the familiar figure standing beside it.

"Hey!" she called, approaching the bespectacled man. "What you doing out here at this time?"

Red eyes turned sharply to stare at her and make her stop dead still where she stood for a moment.

'It's just the reflection of the brake lights in his glasses,' she told herself, finally continuing in her approach.

Of course, none of the car's lights were on, but she had needed an answer and that had been the only one to hand, so...

"You've had another argument," the man stated flatly.

Stopping in front of him, Gleeson gave a confused frown and then smiled, "Wow! How do you do that? You always know exactly what's going on with me! You spyin' on me or somet'ing?"

The short, blond-haired man shook his head and then stretched out a hand to rest against her chest. "I can feel it - your conflicting emotions: you love him greatly, but you don't know how to be with him anymore, and--" Suddenly he burst into a violent fit of coughs, all the colour drained from his face and the press of his palm against her chest increased.

"Oh, my God!" Judy exclaimed, unsure of how to help. "Are you okay?"

"A-A-nother... They keep dying... M-Must h-h-help..."

"What?"

But he didn't answer, and the last thing Gleeson's brain registered was the feel of something penetrating her heart.

XxXxXxXxX

SIX WEEKS LATER

"Oh, c'mon Bob! I'm doin' better than you, and I'm the one carrying the gear!"

Teddy Lancet stopped in the middle of the dirt track and turned with hands on hips to stare accusingly at his hiking companion - who was lagging behind at least thirty feet.

"Hell, what you doin'? Examining every blade of grass as well as the wildlife?"

"Ha...Ha..." Robert Verrill croaked between laboured breaths. "Yeah ...but I..." Pause and hard swallow. "I...I weigh a-a...uh...a good fifty pounds...more...and...we h-h-haven't stopped walking f-for... Jesus...an hour and...and a half or s-so... Can't we stop j-just a minute?"

Lancet stood still for a moment, then smiled and moved to where his friend was now bent over. "Okay - of course! Look, there's a little clear patch with a fallen tree to sit on five minutes up the track. Think you can make it that far?"

A deep, heaving breath was the only response Lancet thought he was going to get until Bob cleared his throat and gave a small nod of his head. "S-Sure."

"All right. Come on."

Despite the time of year, it had been a perfect day to come out and explore the large woods - the sun had stayed out and the temperature had remained fair, leaving little need for the extra layers of clothing the couple had donned earlier that morning.

The only downfall, of course, had been the sight of the bare, dying trees. Whilst much of that had to do with the cold and the ensuing winter period, it saddened the two nature lovers when they remembered how much forestry had been killed off in the past six months alone by sporadic bush fires and tainted soil in this particular expanse of wilderness - the cause of which was still unknown, though many locals speculated and blamed it on the new development site in nearby Tallahassee.

Nevertheless, Verrill and Lancet had refused to let that ruin their hike and nature watch - especially when they had managed to get a close snapshot of a young deer.

"Who needs those nature programmes when you can come out here and experience it yourself?" Teddy had whispered. With a large grin spread across his face, he'd turned his eyes away from the sight of the doe only long enough to shoot his friend a glance.

Now, as they slowly neared their planned rest area and possible campsite, something on the horizon stood out like a beacon in the dark: a tree. But it was in full health - a bright, attractive trunk topped by a full and lush bush of green leaves.

Approaching even further, they then spotted the human figure that knelt in front of the oak...completely naked.

"What th--?" Bob coughed.

"Wait here," Lancet instructed, patting his friend on the back. "Maybe he needs help."

Verrill was more puzzled about the tree, but he didn't argue and watched as Teddy moved quickly toward the odd set-up.

"Hey! You alright there, buddy?" Lancet called out to the stranger.

The nude man turned to stare at the hiker with what looked like disgust, then raised to his feet and ran into the woods - somehow seeming to disappear from vision.

Lancet cocked his head to one side in confusion and kept walking until he stood in front of the tree.

If the sight of its incredible good health had shocked him, what he was now being faced with completely knocked the breath from his lungs. It looked like an intricate sculpture of a woman, but not carved into the wood. It was as if the woman had been carved out of a similar wood and then fused to this tree.

"Wow!" the last breath whispered as it passed the hiker's gaping lips.

He'd seen many beautiful pieces of artwork through the years, but this was so realistic and eye-catching that it practically hypnotised him.

At least until the eyes of the wooden sculpture opened.

XxXxXxXxX


ACT ONE

OFFICE OF WALTER SKINNER
FBI HEADQUARTERS
WASHINGTON, D.C
DECEMBER 12th, 2003
11:13 AM

Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully entered their boss's office just as he was finishing his conversation on the phone.

"Okay, and you... What?" Skinner paused and shot a glance over at the two agents as they moved toward his desk. "How did you-- Actually, maybe I shouldn't bother asking... Huh? Yes, yes, I'll tell them... Oh, I'm sure they will..."

The wry smile that lifted the assistant director's cheeks made Scully stop in her tracks and turn to look at Mulder with a raised, questioning eyebrow. The only answer he could offer, though, was an unknowing shrug of his shoulders and then the brief, gentle press of his fingers against her back to encourage her forward.

"You too... I'll see you next weekend... Bye."

"Sir?" Mulder queried, sitting down at the same time as his partner.

Skinner put the receiver back in its cradle to end the call. "That was Andrew," the older man explained.

"How is he doing?" Scully cut in.

"He's good, though he seemed more interested about how you two were keeping after your last adventure than talking about anything else. Said to tell you to try and be more careful in the future - you've already outlived your nine lives ten times over."

"Well, tell him we're trying. We have a warranty out on those lives, though, so we get a little more flexibility with them," Mulder joked.

Scully gave a small chuckle, but it lacked humour, and she found herself looking down at the hands that nervously fidgeted in her lap. After more than a decade, hospital admittances and brushes with death had become more a part of their lives than anything else, but the warranty had started to wear thin - especially since she and her partner had grown even closer and, ultimately, intimately involved two years ago - and, God help her, she couldn't stop wondering when it would disappear.

There was an awkward moment of silence in the large room as the two men stared at her, and Mulder was still fighting against the instinctive urge to reach for one of her hands when Skinner opened the folder that lay on the desk in front of him.

"Anyway, I know you two should be taking a couple days off to catch up with some rest, but I've got a new case that's right up your alley," he started.

Mulder watched his partner raise her head to attention and then shifted in his seat so that he was more comfortable and looking back at his boss.

"Yesterday a body was found in the woods-"

Both Mulder and Scully felt a chill run up their spines.

"-of northern Florida."

Suddenly they wanted nothing more than to turn their badges in right now and run as far away from the building as possible. Too many of their regular hospital visits had been caused by cases in the woods, and Florida had nothing but bad memories attached to it. They had tried working there, vacationing there even, but the state didn't seem to want them and they were ready to leave well alone if it would just stop beckoning them.

Scully could almost see in her mind another layer being slowly and painfully scraped off of their life's warranty.

"A-a body, sir?" Mulder almost choked, shooting his partner a brief, awkward glance. "Murdered, I take it?"

Skinner was now the one that looked awkward as he fidgeted with the case file. "Not exactly..."

"Not meaning to sound...uh...rude, sir, but can't the county police or even the Jacksonville field office deal with it?"

Again with the awkward fumbling and silence from the A.D.

"What I think Agent Mulder means is does this really fall under our jurisdiction?" Dana started, shifting in her own chair.

"Yes, agents, it does - and not just because technically you had the case first-- but I'll get to that in a minute. It can't easily be approached as a murder case because the woman - a Mrs. Judith Gleeson - was, by all accounts, alive when she was discovered," Skinner explained.

"Sir, again please excuse my apparent ignorance, but you're making no sense."

The assistant director gave an understanding nod and then handed both agents a copy of a photograph from the brown folder. "That is how Mrs. Gleeson was discovered."

"Oh, my God," Scully gasped, staring wide-eyed at the picture - a close-up of the wooden sculpture that Teddy Lancet had found. "This is a woman? Are you sure it's not just some young budding artist using the tree like a--"

"Not unless pieces of art have real, working eyes in them, Agent Scully," came Skinner's agitated reply.

"And she's alive?"

"No... She was when that picture was taken, but... Well, there was no way of extracting her from the tree, so they chopped it down just below her feet. As soon as it'd been successfully cut through there was reportedly a large echoing scream and her eyes just closed."

"Was there anything else odd about the crime scene?" Mulder asked - speaking for the first time since he had been handed the photo.

Dana could just imagine their boss developing a nervous twitch any second now. Not that she could blame him - the whole Florida and woods combination was still eating away at her, and now she had to contend with the idea that there might not be scientific rationale for this. But Mulder's question hadn't exactly helped much with that latter point; wasn't the image he was looking at odd enough?

"All the trees are dying," Skinner reported, "because of the winter--"

"Except that one?"

"Yes. The bark was healthy and you could have plucked it straight from a painting of a summer day."

"What are you thinking?" Scully quizzed, looking at her partner and almost seeing the cogs turning in his head as he concentrated on the photograph he held in his grasp.

He tore his eyes away from it long enough to glance at her with a raised eyebrow and smirk, "Well, that's just taking the term 'tree hugger' a little too far, don't you think, Scully?" before returning to his visual examination. "I...I don't know, but... But you said something about this already being our case?" he sighed hesitantly, turning his attention on Skinner.

"Two hikers found the 'body'. They reported they spotted a naked man kneeling in front of the tree before they saw 'it'. Before he ran away they got a look at his face and the description given to the sketch artist was run through our databases. It matched one Jeffrey Mark Glaser - a young tech-head you worked with in Leon County nearly six years ago. He disappeared then and was presumed dead...until now," the A.D replied.

"The Moth Men," Mulder told his partner. "Jeremiah Bullfrog."

"Look, this case was supposed to have been forwarded to Deputy Director Kersh, but somehow wound up on Kim's desk early this morning - whether accidentally or on purpose, I don't know. But sooner or later he's gonna get a whiff of this and demand a rational resolution to the case before getting into why he didn't receive the file," Skinner grumbled, closing the folder and handing it over to Scully - not noticing the smile of recognition and memory that had appeared on her face after her partner's last comment.

"Ah! Our speciality has always been the rational explanation!" Mulder remarked, dryly.

"Whatever. Seats have been booked for you on the flight out in just over an hour, so you'd better get going and get me those answers before the hounds come knocking."

"Yes, sir," both agents replied in unison, raising to their feet and then quickly leaving the office.

x~x~x

The journey down to the basement was quiet - the only form of communication between them being brief, furtive glances and the touch of clasping hands in the otherwise empty elevator.

It wasn't until the office door swung shut behind Dana that Mulder piped up, "So, are you thinking what I'm thinking, Scully?"

"You mean that maybe we should break a law or something in Florida so that they'll never let us back?"

"Nah-huh... Although, now you mention it, there is one law I wouldn't mind breaking with you--"

"Mulder!"

"What?" The smirk riddled with wanton mischief remained on his face as he stood by one of the filing cabinets behind his desk and waggled his eyebrows at her. "I don't know what conclusion you could possibly have believed my suggestion to mean-" wink "-but, anyway, what I was thinking is that it's Friday and maybe I should call to make an advanced order on the pizza."

"Mulder, Skinner's booked us on a flight in an hour. And what about the case? You can't seriously tell me that you, Fox 'Spooky' Mulder, are passing up the chance to investigate a perfect x-file? Especially one snatched from under Kersh's nose and with hints of the Moth Men attached to it?" she snorted, resting her hands on her hips.

"Not four days ago you were released from hospital...and..." He paused and stared at her through half-lowered lids as a sheepish blush spread across his concerned features. "And I'm not even sure you're strong enough to be back at work yet - Doctor Jacobs said you should at least keep your feet up for a week."

"You know he said no such thing," she countered. Mulder could be far too overprotective sometimes, but his show of sincere worry touched at the core of her heart and made her add with a small smile of reassurance, "but thank you for putting my health before the work. I'm fine - really - thanks to you and your twisted mind. I've rested, and now I'm ready to work again."

He didn't look convinced, but then let out a sigh and continued to worm his way out of travelling to Florida. "Yeah, but it's almost Christmas, Scully, and I haven't even gotten yo--" He quickly cut himself off. There was no way he was about to let her know he hadn't even bought her Christmas gift yet if he still valued his life! There had to be another way to twist her around his finger... "I'll let you pick the movie..."

'Look away!' the voice in her head cried. He was looking at her with those pleading puppy-dog eyes again and she knew she would do anything he asked of her when he did that. He looked so innocent, young, sexy--

"Mulder, no!" she spluttered, breaking eye contact for a second so she could regain control of her senses. "We're working - we've got work to do - and as tired as we both are...as much as we both hate it, we can't just pick and choose which case we do or don't investigate depending on where it is!"

He shrugged dismissively and then turned away to thumb through the files in the open drawer. "Why the hell not?"

There was a deep sigh from Scully as she opened the file Skinner had handed them and stared again at the image of the woman merged with the oak tree. "I just don't see how it's possible - firstly how she got like that and secondly how she was still alive when she was found."

"Jeff Glaser was the last person we saw on a case that centred around beings that were fighting back against development in the local area of the forest," Mulder muttered - half to himself as if to refresh his memory. He scanned down the contents of the old x-file he had just pulled from the cabinet. "He was never found... None of his bank, social security, medical records etc. have been accessed this whole time...four, five, si--" He cut himself off and looked up at her. "That's six years, Scully, of missing time. The second assailant was never found either... What if--" He got that faroff look in his eyes and expression on his face that she knew meant his brain was concocting a theory - his initial dismissal of the case and their shared hatred of some of the contributing factors seemingly forgotten.

"What is it?" Dana quietly asked, stepping closer to him. "Have you got a theory?"

There was a pause as he contemplated her question and the folder he held in his hands, then shook his head, closed the file and stared down at her. "No," he half-smiled. "Not yet - especially not until we've been to the crime scene."

Scully returned the smile and gave an agreeing nod of her head. "We'd better go catch that flight, then. I see an autopsy in my future!"

"I was kinda hoping I would be there somewhere," he replied, sheepishly.

"You are, Mulder - always and forever," she sighed, reaching for one of his hands. "But priorities first."

XxXxXxXxX

DESHUI FOREST
LEON COUNTY, FLORIDA

As the afternoon wore on, bringing light rain to the woods, Mulder stepped out of the silver Taurus, opened up his umbrella and approached the group of law enforcement officers that were still scouring the area for clues. After touchdown at the airport a couple hours ago he had driven his partner direct to the county morgue where an autopsy bay had been prepared for her to examine the victim's body, and he hadn't seen or heard from her since, so he had to confess that he was feeling a little alone.

He glanced up briefly at the bare branches that hung above him and then looked back down as he heard a voice call out, "You the fella from the Bureau?"

Mulder pulled his ID from the pocket of his trenchcoat and watched as a medium-built man in his early forties walked briskly toward him. "Yeah - Special Agent Fox Mulder," he replied.

"You alone?"

"My partner's conducting an autopsy on Ms. Gleeson, but she should be finished soon. Who are you?"

"Right. Oh, sorry, I'm Sheriff Crowley." The uniformed man outstretched a hand and shook Mulder's. "Deputy took the call and came out to investigate," he explained as they both approached the stump of the tree that had been cut down last night. "Found only two sets o' footprints - one being Teddy's, the hiker what found her - meaning the killer must have done her in elsewhere and then carried her here."

"Mm..." Mulder grumbled with a shake of his head as he crouched down and examined the wet soil in front of the stump. "We don't actually know yet if there is a responsible assailant that caused this."

"Did you see the pi'tures, Agent?" the sheriff scoffed. "Did you even bother to take the time to read the report? We got a description of the nut - it's just a matter of finding him, and I will find him. You're just here to explain it all so we don't look silly, remember!?"

Knowing he and his partner had to tread exceptionally carefully with this one because it hadn't even meant to be their case, Mulder held back the sharp rebuke he had wanted to give and looked up at Crowley as he pulled a pair of latex gloves from the pocket of his suit jacket. "I thought I was here to find evidence," he eventually retorted calmly, plucking two small flowers from where they grew out of the base of the tree remains. He put one in an evidence bag and the other carefully into the inside pocket of his black overcoat. "Besides, maybe you didn't read your own file properly, Sheriff, but Ms. Gleeson has been missing since the end of October. If she was 'done in' - as you put it - here, any sign of struggle would have disappeared by now."

Crowley looked speechless as he frowned down at the agent. Eventually he opened his mouth to respond, but that was when Mulder's cell phone chirped to life.

"Mulder."

"Mulder, it's me."

"Hey! What you got?" he smiled at the sound of his partner's voice sighing at the other end of the line as he raised to his feet.

"I think you should really get here and take a look for yourself."

Mulder frowned slightly and glanced down at his watch. "Sure. I'll be there with you in about half an hour." He disconnected the line and stared at the sheriff - handing over the evidence bag.

"What's this?" Crowley huffed.

"Probably nothing," the agent replied with a shrug, turning to walk away. "But if I'm gonna explain any of this, I'd like to know I've covered all my bases. Find out what that is and if it should even be growing here - I don't see it anywhere else."

With that he made his way to the parked rental - eager to see his partner again and desperate to get the case wrapped up as soon as possible so that they could get the hell out of Florida before it dealt them another bad hand.

x~x~x

For a moment the sheriff remained where he stood - watching as Mulder ducked under the yellow police tape that cordoned off the area and then drive away - until finally turning to the officer that waited behind him.

"Widen the search!" he ordered with a snarl, thrusting the piece of evidence into the unsuspecting officer's hands. "And get that to Thomkins at his lab - tell him Agent Mulder from the FBI wants an identification on what that is. I don't know who that jackass thinks he is, but I'll get my answers or at least gather as many clues as I can to pass off as answers - even if we have to comb through the whole damn forest!"

XxXxXxXxX

COUNTY MORGUE
5:07 PM

"Hey! How's the slicing and dicing?" Mulder called to his partner as he passed through the set of double doors.

Scully - dressed in her familiar scrubs - turned to watch him approach as her hands folded across her chest. "Not so much 'slicing and dicing', I'm afraid, as maybe 'chomping and chiselling' with a chainsaw," she said with a yawn.

"Now there's a sight I wish I'd been here to behold - my little redhaired partner wielding a large power tool..."

"Oh, I didn't do it," she smiled slyly, looking up at him as he stopped right in front of her. "I had to call for some professional help, and a young, muscular, handsome man came and did it for me."

"You temptress, you," Mulder breathed against her ear as he bent down slightly. "Was he good?"

"Very."

"Hmmm... That reminds me..." He paused, shot a cautious glance over his shoulder to check the room was empty, then turned back and placed a warm and tender kiss on her lips as he withdrew the small, still perfectly intact flower from his coat pocket. "I brought you a gift."

Opening the eyes that had slipped shut during the too-brief kiss, Dana carefully took the offered item and stared at it. "What is it?"

"I don't know - other than 'a flower', of course. I bagged another one that was growing with it from the stump of your tree over there and gave it to the sheriff - who, I have to warn, is far from likely to be our friend any time soon... Seems to be under the impression we're just here to be used as a scapegoat if they don't get a rational explanation. But, anyway, I saw it and thought of you - I know I still haven't properly made up to you for when that freaky stalker guy sent you a bunch of flowers and you were a little pissed to discover they weren't from me."

He trailed off as she stretched up to give him a peck on the cheek and whispered against his skin with a smile, "You've more than made up for that, but thank you."

A smile rested on his face also as he gave a nod and then watched her turn away to place the flower down on one of the metal worktops. "So, you said you had something to show me?"

She nodded and moved to pull off the sheet that had been covering what remained of Judith Gleeson's body. "Through all the years I've worked with you, Mulder - all the cases we've investigated - I've seen things that I could never have imagined seeing... Things that have made me question my beliefs and science, defied explanation - men made invisible by a djinn; bigfoot-like creatures that live in a beautiful, hyper-sensitive land of their own; genetic mutants; parallel universes and heaven only knows what else," she said, looking at him, a little flustered. "But this? Pardon the pun, but this really has me stumped. First off, we took a core sample from the tree to see if we could learn why the tree hasn't gone through the seasonal change, but as soon as we took it red blood flowed out of the cavity."

"Did you get a sample?"

"I sent the blood straight to Quantico to get a DNA test done. The core sample was taken away to be looked at by a local botanist. But that's not all. Take a look here." Scully lowered her gaze as, with a scalpel, she carefully lifted a layer of the wood - revealing the bare body tissue underneath. "I thought that somehow the bark had grown over her - encasing her within the tree - but on closer examination it turned out that the bark is her skin."

"Wh-at?" Mulder spluttered awkwardly.

"What I mean is that the whole dermal surface of Mrs. Gleeson's body has somehow had its composition changed so that it's now the bark."

"She became the tree?"

Scully paused, embarrassed, and then came her reluctant admission. 'Technically, yes, but even more so than that - and hold your hat, Mulder, 'cause this is where the ride'll hit its highest peak for you. My handsome chainsaw professional--"

"Who was well protected, I take it?"

"--cut through the trunk as close to the front of the body as possible... At least, that's what we'd hoped to do, but her chest was completely exposed - her ribcage was missing..."

"Why? If Glaser did do this, why take the time to cut open--"

"It wasn't cut away - there are signs that a strong corrosive agent was used, but delicately so as not to damage the organs within... From what I can determine, though, it was done to create an access path."

Mulder cocked his head to the side and leaned back against one of the unused gurneys as he placed a hand against his mouth in thought.

"A path to the heart, to be more precise," Scully continued. "Originally she may have been impaled on a branch, but further ones have grown inside - blocking off the arteries and dissipating through the chambers..." Scully paused and moved to the set of scales on her left. "This is what was left."

Her partner approached and stared over her shoulder at the object in the tray. "It's wooden."

"Almost completely. It's as if - and everything else I've said up to this point has sounded pretty foolish, so I guess it won't really matter if I put this idea forward - the tree was sucking the life out of her and leaving a hollow wooden casing behind!"

"That may not be as foolish as you think," he commented.

"Mulder?" Scully frowned and stared at him intently as her hands rested against her hips.

"You're sure there's no scientific basis you can think of right now?"

"Are you trying to rub it in that I can't think of a rational explanation to argue back with?"

There was a brief pause - as if he was contemplating the right answer to give - and then he smirked, "I'm in no doubt that you'll manage to find a way to debunk my theory somehow, but no - I just wanted to know in case it helped."

"I..." Scully shrugged and glanced over at the entombed corpse. "There's a form of sulphus polypore fungus that primarily grows on this type of tree - it's called, uh, Bracket Fungus. It causes rot in the heart of the trees... It's a pretty big leap, but I guess it could be possible this tree is using a similar--"

"Have you ever heard of Backster's Theory, Scully?"

"You mean the lie-detector expert? It's a controversial and welldebated subject amongst some scientists - specifically biologists for obvious reasons... But as nice and poetic as it is, Mulder, it's nothing but a fantasy out of a Disney film, and I don't see how it links to this? Don't tell me you think the tree killed her?! I--" She stared at the serious expression on his face. Of course that was exactly what he was thinking! After all these years, how could she question that certainty? "Why do you ask?" she sighed, lowering her head far enough for her chin to rest against the top of her chest.

"Cleve Backster believed and experimented to prove that plants have feelings just the same as we humans. What if - after being attacked by the Moth Men - Glaser managed to tune into those feelings?"

"I was wrong: You don't wanna talk about Disney. You'd rather quote from 'Fern Gully'."

"Huh?"

"Mulder, I'll concede to the fact that I can't come up with a solid answer to explain how this could have happened, but please don't ask me to believe that the trees were crying out to Jeff Glaser - who, by the way, I'm not completely convinced is really still alive."

"On my way to the crime scene - after booking us in at the motel and questioning the hiker that found her - I spoke on the phone to a local ecologist. Apparently there has been a continual deterioration of the habitat due to an abnormally high number of temperate changes in the area and an equally high concentrate of sulphates found in the soil."

Daylight was burning, she'd been trapped in here trying to conduct a seemingly impossible and inconclusive autopsy for the last two hours, and right now the only thing she was certain of was how wonderful the thought of taking a scalding hot bubble bath was.

That was the only excuse she could think of to rationalise her annoyance at Mulder's standard knack of reeling off wild theories he knew she would never believe - not until he'd convinced her otherwise, anyway. And yet--

"I'm still failing to see your point," she grumbled, snapping off her pair of latex gloves.

"My point is the Moth Men killed to protect their natural habitat. Glaser could be doing the same but going up a notch by...I don't know ...performing some kind of sacrifice to help replenish the trees? Using them as a substitute life resource?"

"'Them'? We've only found one!"

"But I get the feeling more will turn up. There's something just too ritualistic for it to be the only one."

"Okay, okay. So, how exactly are 'they' being used?"

Mulder looked over at the body on the gurney behind his partner, then at the wooden heart on the scales, and then back at Scully's impatient expression. "Through the heart. You said yourself it was as if 'the tree were sucking the life out of her'. The heart is considered worldwide in almost all cultures - as well as in the obvious biological and scientific capacity - as the symbol of life, love, faith, rebirth, fate... There are some cynics that believe emotions such as anger, grief, guilt, pain, love, happiness etcetera are just a series of electrical impulses our senses send to the brain, which in turn tell us what we are feeling..." He towered over her, and as his soft, hazel eyes gazed down upon her one of his warm hands lifted to cup her cheek - slowly stroking his thumb across the smooth skin.

They both knew it was dangerous for them to be this close in a place where somebody might walk in at any second, but it felt so right.

"But then there are the rest of us that know - have been gifted with the knowledge - that the heart is what keeps tabs on all of those feelings and lets us know when they're real. It's the keeper of our soul - when somebody else is not holding onto it for us, that is, or we're not holding theirs."

Scully flushed at the sentiment of his words and the deep, quiet growl of his voice, but then set her jaw and shook her head as he reluctantly lowered his hand. "I know what you're saying, Mulder, but I also know that just because something looks as if it explains what happened, doesn't always mean to say it actually does. I said that it looked as if the tree was doing that because there was no other way to describe it... There's no way to describe any of this, though. We have no MO - no understanding at all why, let alone how - and we don't have a definitive suspect. You keep mentioning the Moth Men, but as I recall you saying just this morning yourself, Mulder, that was six years ago. Six. Neither hide nor hair has been reported of the one that got away since--"

"Yes it has - in the mountains ba--"

His voice cut off abruptly as she raised her palm to face him and turned her head away. That was definitely one she didn't want to remember in too much of a hurry, and he damn well knew it. "Just... They only turned out to be mushrooms in the end, but... Just don't even think about mentioning that..."

He grimaced, awkwardly lowering his head and guiltily - regretfully - mumbling, "Sorry."

"But, anyway, likewise for Jeff Glaser," Dana continued, silently accepting his apology. "So why do you think either of them would wait until now to do any of this?"

"Maybe Glaser was evolving."

"Into what?"

Mulder opened his mouth to reply, but then shut it again - unable to argue anymore with a theory even he wasn't a hundred percent convinced of. "He was seen in front of the tree completely naked," he offered.

"Yes. But he was seen on the day she was found. Mrs. Gleeson went missing six weeks earlier, and for some reason - despite the very alive state she seemed to be in before the tree was cut down - from looking at the state of desiccation and decomposition evident in the rest of her body, I'd have to say she's been like that since she disappeared. Why risk being caught by going back to see his handiwork while undressed?"

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as Dana rubbed her temples and Mulder paced the room. They had performed this perfunctory dance of 'Suggestion and Rebuttal' nearly every time they'd been assigned a case - it was just what they did...What made their partnership tick. Yet this one time - possibly the first time since the giant mushroom encounter in 1999 - they didn't like it or know how to get through it. The reason? They didn't trust their own beliefs about the situation.

"I'm gonna go question Mister Gleeson," Mulder eventually said, glancing down at his watch. "You wanna come?"

"Sure," came the reply he had hoped for. "As long as you buy me dinner after."

"Deal."

XxXxXxXxX

LODGEPOLE TRAIL
6:21 PM

Kia Philips sat alone in her house and wept. Her boyfriend, who had died in a car crash three days ago, had been buried earlier today, and right now all the love and other emotions she had always held so dear were homeless because her heart couldn't think up a reason to keep beating. It was that simple, and she knew that no amount of crying would mend anything - wouldn't bring her Ben back - but she didn't know what else to do.

Suddenly there was the sound of someone knocking at the front door.

She contemplated ignoring it, but then swiped at the tears that hung from her eyelashes like leaves on a branch and opened the door to reveal the bespectacled figure that stood outside.

"Kia Philips?" the gentleman's soft voice asked.

"Y-Yes..."

"Hi. I've heard that you recently lost someone - a loved one. I'm a bereavement counsellor from the sheriff's department assigned to help you through this difficult time."

Normally she would have said 'no' and slammed the door in his face, or at least have stopped to question further this complete stranger. But the rational thinking person she had once been had died the same day as her boyfriend, leaving her lost in the desert of Loneliness and desperate for somebody to talk to - share her pain with. So, Kia took a step back to clear the doorway and let the visitor enter.

"Please, come in," she sniffed, "Mister...?"

"Glaser," he smiled with a grateful nod of his head. "But you can call me Jeff."

XxXxXxXxX


ACT TWO

GLEESON RESIDENCE
LEON COUNTY, NORTH FLORIDA
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12th 2003
6:24 PM

"I don't know what I can tell ya that I ain't already told Sheriff Crowley," Gene Gleeson grumbled, ambling to sit opposite the two FBI agents that had not long ago shown up. "I mean, we had a fight and she rushed out... I figured she'd gone visited her sister on the coast to clear her head when I didn't hear from her - Beth ain't got a phone, see, and I weren't about to go chase after her...not with the mood she were in! When a month went by I thought I'd give her one more before I went there... I didn't ever think that..."

"What was the argument about, Mister Gleeson?"

The bereaved man snapped his head up to stare at the woman that had asked the question and his brow furrowed. "Mind yer own damn business!" he snarled before he had a chance to consider his words more carefully. "You never had a disagreement that didn't mean much, ma'am? It was an argument - a few angry words that build up every now and then no matter how much you love the other person - and it's personal! Want me to ask you somet'ing private and see how you like it? Nah, I didn't think so! Besides, why's that important? You should be out there finding the bastard that done that to my wife, not interrogating me like-- Hey, wait a minute..." A shaky finger raised to point accusingly at Scully. "You think I done that? You really think I could possibly do that to her? We had problems, but I never lay a hand on her pretty little body - not violently, anyhow - let alone think about killin' her!"

"No, we're not accusing you, so why don't you just calm down," Mulder started, quickly raising to his feet to stand protectively in front of Scully and slapping the outstretched arm away.

Gleeson turned his angry gaze on the tall FBI agent and then sat down - the frown never leaving his weary face.

"We're just trying to find out what led up to your wife's disappearance." Mulder paused and then pulled a small photograph from the inside pocket of his coat. "Do you recognise this man at all?" he asked, showing it to Gleeson.

"Well, yeah, of course. That's Jeff. Why?"

"How do you know Jeff?" Scully queried.

"He's been our marriage counsellor for a while now... Well, rather he counselled Judy - said she needed to speak to someone privately and he'd help her. Didn't, though, did he? No wonder he didn't charge..."

Both agents glanced at each other.

"Was there anything odd about him?" Mulder quizzed, turning back to face the younger man. "Anything you thought didn't seem quite right?"

"You mean other than that creepy, soul-piercing stare of his and his lack of professionalism? Not really... Seemed like a fairly quiet guy that just wanted to help folk." Gene paused a second as realisation dawned. "Had a...a strange, like, obsession with the woods, though - said we were all like trees... That the healing of... uh...The healing of our hearts could be the, uh, key to rebirth, or somet'ing along those lines... I...I didn't--"

The voice cut off as Mulder unexpectedly turned and quickly left the house - slamming the front door shut behind him.

"I... I'm sorry, Mister Gleeson," Scully apologised, a little distantly, staring with concern at the front exit. "Th-thank you for your time... We'll be in contact if we learn anything..."

She was just about to leave the house also when Gleeson suddenly asked, "You think Jeff done it, don't ya?"

"We're investigating all possibilities."

"Steer well clear - you and Fox don't wanna run into him... He'll break you and then kill the both of you... He has to - you have exactly what he needs."

"Excuse me?" Scully choked, quickly turning on her heels to stare at the man who still sat in his chair with his head lowered a fraction. "What did you say?"

"I didn't say anything," Gleeson snapped, staring up at her. "But I'll tell ya somet'ing now: you'd better find that son of a bitch and make him pay for what he done to Judy before I do!"

"No... You sa--" Her words trailed off as she continued to stare at the man - thinking over the words she had heard him say - then shook her head and left the house.

XxXxXxXxX

Glaser stood over Kia Philips's motionless body with his head facing the ceiling - eyes unseeing, mouth open - as one extra-long, extended arm which resembled the bough of a tree hung down as far as the floor and penetrated her chest.

XxXxXxXxX

"What's going on with you, Mulder?"

The car door swung open and Dana stared in at her partner, who sat behind the wheel.

"What's wrong?" She tried to keep her tone gentle, but couldn't avoid the hint of irritation that crept in.

"Nothing," Mulder quietly replied, not looking at her. "Just need to rest and think a bit. Let's just go to the motel."

"Mulder, you've been acting strange ever since Skinner handed us this case! I mean, even your argument for your theory - which, in the absence of a scientific answer, I was ready to consider - lacked the usual fire and conviction I've always come to expect from you. What is it?"

He refused to look at her or answer. Instead he put the car into gear and drove them to the nearby motel.

XxXxXxXxX

"Sheriff? We found another one!"

The voice was distant...distorted...and yet it still echoed in his mind like a toll bell. It was the FBI's fault, of course. He'd been assured that Alvin Kersh would be the guy to contact to get logical explanations that could be signed off on... Even if it meant fixing them. Yet instead he'd been sent a couple of agents that not only weren't intimidated by him or giving any answers that he couldn't figure out himself with his squad of officers: they seemed to be examining all possible avenues of investigation. He'd received a call from the man (Mod--...Mol--... He couldn't remember the name) fifteen minutes ago saying that he and his partner were just arriving at Gene Gleeson's place to ask some questions. What the hell did they expect to gain there?

Crowley let out a deep sigh, stamped his cigarette out and then moved in the direction the voice had called from.

He really did need an explanation soon, but he didn't realise just how much until he saw what the search team member showed him - which was enough to drive him crazy...

It was his father, who had been missing since last November.

XxXxXxXxX

THE MOTHER COMFORT MOTEL
TALLAHASEE, FLORIDA

'You never had a disagreement that didn't mean much?' Gleeson had asked her, and the only answer she could have given was 'Of course!' - God only knew how many of the things she and Mulder had shared over the years.

But they hadn't had a serious argument or disagreement, yet the silence that had lasted between them during the car ride had been so awkward and cold that a casual observer would have thought they were enemies in a war. Even odder still was his eagerness to be alone in his room on their arrival, and if that wasn't enough to set alarm bells ringing, she didn't know what was.

Alone in her own cabin, Scully lay down on the bed, desperate for a little sleep to rest her still recuperating body. But she was far too agitated and hungry to completely relax. So, as she tossed and turned, she tried to recall the events of the day, trying to think if there had been anything that could have triggered his unexplainable mood. Everything from waking together at his apartment right up to arriving in Skinner's office. It was the case - it had to be. Why had he been so eager to avoid it? Not even the fact that it was here in Florida could be blamed - he'd never have ignored an x-file for that reason. They'd been separate when he'd visited the crime scene, so she wondered if Ken Crowley had said something to annoy him, but it was what Gleeson had said not forty-five minutes ago that seemed to have lit the fuse... Why didn't she know how to extinguish it?

Thoughts still wandering aimlessly around in her head, Dana let her eyes fall on the flower he'd given her earlier that now lay on the bedside cabinet. She picked it up. As impossible as it was, it actually looked as if it had grown more.

She sighed and let her eyes slip shut as she took a deep sniff of its sweet aroma and then carefully put it back down. Maybe they both just needed some rest... Maybe--

'He'll break you and then kill the both of you... He has to - you have exactly what he needs.'

She bolted upright - her head turning frantically left and right as she did a visual check of the dimly-lit room. If the words said to her were haunting her even a fraction of what Gleeson's words had done to Mulder, then she knew he needed help.

She was about to put on some clean clothes and sneak over to his cabin when a quiet rap at the door came and the familiar smell of cooked cheese filled the air.

XxXxXxXxX

J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING
WASHINGTON, D.C

As darkness enveloped the large building and only the sound of silence echoed down many of the halls, Assistant Director Walter Skinner couldn't help but ask himself as to why he was still here at work. Yet at the same time he just couldn't pull himself away from the research material he had managed to find on his laptop after receiving a progress report on the phone just under an hour ago from Agent Scully: websites about forests across the globe and the unexplained phenomena connected to some of them.

He thought he'd found the perfect page that connected to something she had mentioned during their brief conversation and was waiting for it to load when a figure slowly entered his office.

"Assistant Director?"

"Sir..." Skinner started - quickly turning off his computer and lowering the monitor - as Alvin Kersh approached.

"Busy, I see," the standing figure scowled, idly tapping his fingers on the corner of the wooden desk.

"I was just sorting some case and expense reports - making sure everything's in line...or at least making it easier for Accounting to understand some of my agents' spending necessities."

"Which neatly brings me onto two agents in particular. Are you aware of a case file that was sent to me but somehow did not make it to my desk?" A pause before, "Because I just received a call from a sheriff in Florida I've never heard of complaining about two agents I apparently sent down there."

Skinner's mouth opened to speak, but he faltered. He had no reason to and certainly didn't want to have to explain himself to Kersh, but at the same time he knew he had broken Bureau policy by intercepting and then acting upon a file not intended for him, and in his high position of authority that could only spell Trouble with a capital T if Kersh went ahead and put in a complaint to the Powers-That-Be.

"Where are Agents Scully and Mulder, Assistant Director?"

"You know the answer already to that one, I think," Walter snapped, standing up. "Yes, they're in Florida. The file was accidentally delivered to my secretary's desk and I opened it this morning before realising it was intended for you. But no matter what you may think, Mulder and Scully are the best agents for this case because of their expertise and familiarity with the suspect from a previous investigation. That's why I assigned it to them instead of passing it to you after realising the courier's mistake."

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" came Kersh's cold retort. "I may well have taken the same action and re-directed it down to the basement office."

Skinner fought against the anger that was swiftly rising within him because he knew that if he didn't he would strike out with a clenched fist any second now. The deputy director hated and had no interest whatsoever in the X-Files and the exemplorary work Mulder and Scully did...For that matter, he didn't even have the right to act as if he had any sort of power over the three of them...Yet still he went ahead with his mind games - over-estimating his position and power by hanging the threat of reporting them over their heads. And like dogs, they obeyed, because sometimes the seemingly empty threats were the most dangerous ones.

"There is no x-file in Florida - the killer has been ID'd. The only mystery is where on earth he is. But let them look for whatever they think they're after - saves me the trouble of assigning it to someone... We'll talk this out when they return," Kersh continued. "But, Assistant Director, you might like to warn your precious agents that if I get so much as a whiff of a wild theory that could cast the Bureau in a ridiculous light, I'll make sure I'm there to watch the director himself kick you all out of your jobs."

If the tall, balding man had found it difficult to control his anger before, now he was literally ready to burst at the seams as he watched the smug visitor turn and leave the office.

For a long moment Skinner stood still in the silent room - waiting in case Kersh should come back - then quickly moved back to his desk and laptop to re-find the information that could help his agents ASAP.

XxXxXxXxX

Ken Crowley stared wide-eyed at the most inconceivable thing he could ever have imagined seeing. Judith Gleeson's murder had shocked him and he had sworn he would stop the crazy SOB that had done that to her, but now it was personal, and what he was far from understanding (if he had even understood anything about the other find) was why this tree was completely the opposite to the healthy one that had been found yesterday afternoon.

He lowered his head and closed his wet eyes. Having not known where his father had disappeared to over the last thirteen months, the sheriff had always suspected that sooner or later the older man would turn up dead, so in some respects he had already mourned that loss, but this... This was just...

Suddenly the radio on his belt-clip crackled to life, interrupting his thoughts.

"Sheriff? Sheriff Crowley?" called the voice over the walkietalkie. "Sheriff, it's Deputy Friedman... You there? Over."

"Receiving you loud and clear, Deputy," Crowley replied, clearing his throat quickly as he snatched up the radio in one of his shaking hands. "What you got? Over."

There was a short pause of unnerving silence and then, "We think we found another body, sir, 'bout quarter mile east of where you are... But..."

"But what, Deputy? Over."

"...This one don't look like she were shocked when whatever happened happened. She's actually smiling. Over."

The sheriff moved closer to the tree in front of him and studied the surprised expression on his father's face until something occurred to him. "Deputy, are her eyes open? Over."

"Yes, sir," came the shaky response. "She's staring right at me now and I wish she'd stop 'cos it's scaring the living crap outta me!"

Crowley swiftly turned to face one of the officers that were with him. "Get those two agents from the FBI here now - I want 'em to see this and where Deputy F--"

"Sheriff Crowley!" a new voice suddenly rasped out, followed by the sound of snapping twigs as a short, uniformed woman crashed through the brush.

"Not another one!?"

"Call just came through that the suspect was sighted at Miss Philips's place not ten minutes ago!" the officer panted with a shake of her head.

"All right!" Crowley exclaimed - clapping his hands together after clipping the short-wave radio back onto his belt. "Now that's the break I was talking about! I want two cars there now and to use whatever force necessary. We're gonna catch this sick son of a bitch! Owens, you still get me a hold of those agents! The rest of you, keep searchin'!"

One more long stare at his father's closed eyes before he turned to help the rest of the search party.

XxXxXxXxX

CABIN 4
THE MOTHER COMFORT MOTEL
7:38 PM

Mulder glanced down at the boxed pizza in his hands as he stood in the centre of his partner's cabin, waiting for her to shut the door.

"I've been thinking," he almost whispered as Scully stepped in front of him. "I think you'd be safer if you went back to D.C..."

Dana's eyebrows raised and she stared at him intently - trying to gauge how much he was just kidding around.

"You just can't seem to grasp the concept of our 'No Ditching' rule, can you?" She smiled, but when not even a flicker of amusement flashed in his eyes the smile quickly faded. She reached out with one of her hands and lightly clasped his left arm in her grip to lead him to the bed. "You're not kidding, are you? Mulder? What. Is. It? I don't understand what's going on with you today! We've found one body and to our knowledge there's only one killer... There's no excuse to think we're in danger--"

"Yet," he cut in, bitterly. "This is Florida, Scully - last time I checked anything can happen here!"

"We have been through a lot worse... Even when you were possessed by the Devil and a danger to me as well as yourself we still fought against it and won... Together," Scully said quietly but insistently, sitting down on the edge of the mattress beside him and pulling the box from his hands to put it behind them. "Something's been eating at you and something Gleeson said took the final bite. I'm not going anywhere without you anyway, but I most certainly am not disappearing without an explanation as to what's wrong and why I would be safer back home. Come on... No secrets and no ditching, remember?"

"Phillip Padgett," Mulder choked out, staring down at the floor.

It took a moment for the name to ring a bell, but when it did all Scully could do was frown in confusion. "What?"

"It's obvious that the heart is what seems most appealing for some reason to Glaser as opposed to the whole body... Don't ask me why or how I can be so certain about that, but it's one of the few things I am sure of here after what you showed me at the morgue. Up until we visited Gleeson's place I didn't think... Well, other than the slightly egotistical fear that I couldn't come up with much of an explanation to dazzle you with, I didn't think it was bothering me as much as it obviously was...but when Gleeson said about the healing of hearts I just got the image in my head of your bloodied body lying motionlessly on my apartment floor and I had to get out of there."

"Oh, Mulder," she whispered, wrapping her arms around him and hugging his trembling body tightly against her.

"I don't know what it is, but there's this voice in me that keeps saying I should keep my faith in us but we're not safe all the time we're together here..."

'He'll break you and then kill the both of you.' Still the words wouldn't leave her alone! Was it exactly like the voice that was trying to direct him?

"Maybe we're just trying to solve this case far too quickly - we've only been here six hours and yet it feels as if we should have finished up and returned home ages ago. Maybe we're tired, or we need to approach this differently... Or the past couple of months are catching us up. With the finding of your mother's journal, and - more recently - the case in Cleveland, something has to eventually give and I fully understand..." Dana paused at the painful memories that had been dealt out to them this year and then tried to inject some indignation into her slightly choked voice as she finished, with a pout, "Or maybe you're conveniently going down with that flu you always manage to catch and use to get out of coming to my mother's house for the family Christmas dinner?"

"I wouldn't dare! This coming from the woman that was desperate to do this case 'cause she knew it was my turn to pick the movie!" he smiled, nuzzling her before lifting his head so that he could stare into the depths of her eyes. "I love you, Scully, with every part of my being, but if Glaser's exploiting the love people had in their hearts to use as a life preserver for dying trees I can't risk leaving you here where you'll be in danger like this. I--"

"You know, in these heels I'm pretty sure I could kick little Jeff Glaser into his own tree and then out again..." Their lips tenderly brushed together - preparing to go much deeper. "...Besides, again I hasten to remind you that only one body has been--"

Riiiiiiiiiiiinnggggggg

The trill of Mulder's cellular phone cut Scully off in mid-sentence and made them both let out a mournful groan simultaneously - knowing that with their luck the call was far from likely to be about the case's near end.

He didn't answer it straight away, though. Instead he continued to stare at her for a few long, precious seconds - his eyes trying to tell her all that his soul still wanted to say but his mouth just couldn't put into words.

As if in response her hold on his hand tightened and she gave a slight nod before he reluctantly reached for his phone,

"Mulder."

As he listened to the voice at the other end of the line telling him about the two extra bodies that had been found in the woods Scully's own phone buzzed to life - alarming them both.

"It can't be the lab already..." she frowned before raising to her feet and stepping to the other side of the room so that they didn't intrude on each others' conversations too much. "Scully."

"Agent Scully, it's A.D Skinner. I just tried to get through to Mulder, but the line seems to be busy..."

"Yes, sir. He literally got a call himself at the same time you must have been trying to dial his number," Dana explained, glancing over at where her partner still sat on the bed listening to what he was being told. "Was it Mulder you specifically wanted to talk to, sir? Be--"

"No, no, no - that won't be necessary... I'm sure you can fill him in on what I tell you." Skinner paused, and it gave Scully the chance to catch Mulder's voice ending his call with a "We'll be there in fifteen minutes." "I've been doing some reading on the internet," the A.D's voice finally continued, "and I found a newspaper story documenting a string of murders that happened in a British forest just over seventy years ago. I don't think it can help you much, but it rang a familiar chord with something you mentioned when we last spoke, so I thought I'd let you know about it."

"Yes, sir - go ahead."

"It happened at the same time of year as this case... In the space of a month seven newly-wed couples within a five mile radius of the woodlands in Stubhampton, Dorset, were found murdered in their beds... their hearts ripped from their chests and nowhere to be found. The killer - a, uh, Brian Roberts - was apprehended whilst in the process of breaking into the house of his next planned victims..." There was a pause on the line and the distant, barely audible sound of clicking (the A.D, Scully guessed, tapping the mouse buttons to scroll down the web page) before his deep voice continued, "Now, this doesn't go into too many specifics after the guy got captured - leaving me to question the legitimacy of the tale - but it does mention that after being questioned Roberts led the police into the woods and to fourteen separate trees that each had a couple of roots or so growing into something that lay on the ground... A clump of wood shaped exactly like a heart... Roberts is recorded as saying that he was 'doing God's work' - giving back to the earth what we had taken away for housing developments. 'Taking life to give life...'"

Skinner's voice faded away for a couple of seconds as another washed over her senses and echoed in her brain. *He has to - you have exactly what he needs.* She shuddered before the real world returned and the voice from the phone continued.

"He was institutionalised, still swearing that he had done it for the good of the planet, but he died there two weeks later... This doesn't say how. The difference to your case is the trees were all dead when they were found."

Dana smiled, shot her partner - who now stood patiently behind her with raised eyebrows - a glance and then chuckled quietly, "Of course, not too long ago I would have laughed that off as a piece of local folklore - an old wives' tale - and maybe I'd still be tempted to do that now..." Suddenly the seriousness returned to her voice and a confused, uncomfortable expression tugged at her face. "But I've seen the body... I conducted an autopsy (if that's what you could have called it) on her and there's no way that I can see to explain how Glaser did what he did." As her level of irritation heightened Scully began to nervously pace the room. "I mean, not only was the body encased, the actual heart - like in your story - has been turned into wood."

"What if your suspect somehow heard this folklore and - delusional after what he encountered the last time you saw him - tried to do the same?" Skinner tried to theorise, not too successfully.

"That still doesn't explain the condition of those hearts in your story or that of Ms. Gleeson's body or that of the tree or how she was technically still alive!" the female agent argued, waving a hand dismissively in the air.

"Fossilization?"

"I could run that by Mulder because I don't care how much he laughs in my face, sir--"

"Liar," her partner mumbled quickly with a smile as he moved toward the room's exit.

"--But I can't even begin to tell you how scientifically incorrect and even impossible that thought is - I mean, even more so, possibly, than Mulder's proposed theory..."

That earned her a mock hurt look from the man preparing to leave.

"...It's true that there's a slight similarity in the way the other organs have been preserved, but I don't think I can emphasise how long the list of contradictions would be... Can you hold on for a second, please, sir?" She paused and covered the mouthpiece on her phone as she frowned at Mulder. "Where are you going?"

"Got a call from the deputy... They found another two bodies in the forest... Same MO, but their condition is slightly different to Mrs. Gleeson," Mulder explained - his hand still resting on the door handle.

"And when exactly did you decide we weren't partners working on this case together, Agent Mulder?"

His hand lifted away from the handle, but then faltered.

"We can do this, Mulder, but together, remember?" she whispered softly.

He nodded with a smile, then crossed his arms over his chest and rested against the wall facing her as she finished her conversation with their boss.

"Look, sir, I need to get going - more bodies have been found...but there's something I need to know: You assigned us this case because you knew it was an x-file. Why are you now trying to come up with a conclusion that any other agent in the Bureau could have delivered without even coming down here?" she said into her phone.

Skinner let out a small chuckle. "You've certainly come a long way, Agent Scully," he noted with a smile.

"Well, I've been taught well - if not maybe brainwashed - by a very good, albeit eccentrically paranoid mentor, haven't I, sir?"

The assistant director nodded to himself - he could just see in his head the flame-haired agent smiling over at her partner, who was most certainly standing beside her. But soon the seriousness of the situation returned and he shifted uncomfortably in his chair as he told her, "Deputy Director Kersh knows about our interception of his file."

What could she say? For that matter, what could she do? Yet again she stared at Mulder - as if gaining strength just from the sight of him - and then sighed, "Okay. I've really gotta go now, sir. We'll be back in D.C as soon as we've wrapped this up."

Mulder watched her disconnect the line and pocket the cellular before asking, "What did Skinman want?"

"I'll tell you in the car," she said. "Come on, let's go."

They both left the cabin - the cooling pizza forgotten and neither noticing that the petals on the flower had fully bloomed.

XxXxXxXxX

RESIDENCE OF KIA PHILIPS
LODGEPOLE TRAIL
7:49 PM

Silence.

Seconds of silence and stillness passed before frantically flashing red and blue lights lit the darkness that enveloped the house. Not long after that the building was filled with chaos as police officers kicked down the front and back doors and stormed the rooms in search of Jeff Glaser.

Nothing turned up...

...At least not until they found the lifeless body of Kia Philips that lay on the living room floor - her chest open to expose the large knot of wood that rested where her heart should be.

XxXxXxXxX

DESHUI FOREST

"Oh, my God."

Scully - with a gloved hand holding onto her flashlight - approached the smiling wooden figure that stared back at her with human eyes. She had told her partner at the county morgue that none of their cases in the past really matched up to the bizarreness of this one. Having just seen the state of the sheriff's father ten minutes ago and now this, the observation was only made more true.

Of course, Mulder in his own way felt the same thing and was even beginning to have more faith in his theory - which had evolved somewhat - thanks to the story Scully had passed onto him on the car journey here.

"Do you know who she is?" he asked the sheriff, crouching down to see the full cluster of flowers similar to the one he had given Scully - though larger and more recognisable - growing from the base of the tree.

"Never seen her before in my life, and we pretty much all know each other in this little area - you know, quiet community an' all..." Crowley shot a nervous glance over at his deputy before looking back down at the FBI agent.

"Hmm. What about your father? Is there any reason why he would be out here?"

"Agent, as I've already told you I haven't seen my father since last year - since my mother walked out on him for a younger man!"

"Agent Mulder?" Before Scully had a chance to say anything a police officer approached the group - gesturing toward Mulder. "I have a call from Professor Thomkins for you."

The male agent took the proffered phone from the rookie cop, but a puzzled frown spread across his forehead as he answered, "Yeah. Mulder."

"Is that Agent Mulder from the FBI?" an old, gravely voice coughed down the line.

"Speaking."

"I was told you were sending me a flower to be identified? Well, I don't know how you do things in Jacksonville or whatever office you're from, but next time could you maybe try sending me something that I can look at?"

"What are you talking about?"

"'Talking about'?" the professor choked. "Unless there's been a mistake, the evidence bag that turned up on my desk had compost in it!"

Mulder glanced up at Scully, who was still examining the victim, and then back at the bunch of flowers. The small one he had given her was still very much intact the last time he had seen it at the motel. How could the one that had been safely kept in a bag have disintegrated so quickly? He guessed it probably wasn't important, and yet he just had to know...

"Is there anything there that can be analysed?"

"There is a petal--"

Reaching for one of the flowers in front of him, Mulder gave a slight nod and stared at it. "Is it possible that it's from a rose?" he asked directly.

Scully tore her eyes away from the ones that were staring back at her from the tree and frowned with confusion at her partner.

"The shape is similar, but it's much too small and - apart from the fact that they do not flower this time of year - I was told you picked this from a tree." The professor paused, and then chuckled softly, "I don't know how much you know about plants, Agent Mulder, but I would've at least thought you clever enough to know that roses grow on bushes, not trees."

"I know...I know... But we've got more - larger - flowers growing out of another tree and they look exactly like roses," Mulder explained.

"Where are you again?"

The professor waited for an answer, but Mulder had already disconnected the line and raised back up to his feet.

"Sheriff, you mentioned that a sighting of the suspect had been made?" he started, staring intently at Crowley.

"Yeah, at Kia Philips's place - poor woman...only lost her boyfriend the other day. Anyway, I sent a couple o' cars there to flush him out," came the irritated reply. "They should be calling in soon with their progress."

"Scully, can I have a quick word?" Mulder asked the woman beside him.

She nodded and he wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they stepped out of earshot.

"Mulder, I think Crowley's withholding something. He seems more angered by the sight of this woman than the discovery of his own father," Scully muttered, staring at the lean figure that towered over her.

"Mm."

"And now I think you're withholding something from me."

"No, I'm not - I think you're right. I think he knows who that woman is, I think he knows more about Glaser than he's letting on, and I think he's made a connection between the victims that I've only just latched onto: Gleeson, Crowley Senior and Philips - if she's dead - had each lost someone dear to them in some way - their hearts were vulnerable. That's how Glaser chooses them. But I can't explain why Crowley, who obviously wants to stop the killings, won't work with us... I mean, we've got three known victims, possibly four, and God knows how many more could be hidden out in those woods, but what is the good sheriff's primary aim? To make sure we cover up anything that can't be explained."

"No wonder he contacted Kersh."

"Yeah... Look, I want you to stay here and see if there's any way of getting her out of there without chopping down that tree," Mulder sighed, glancing briefly over his shoulder. "We can solve this..."

"Mulder, how can we solve this? We have no answers, no-- The only thing we have are theories that have no place in reality. It's bad enough Kersh knows we're here, but we go back with wild theories of trees with some form of PMS and Glaser trying to comfort them, we'll have more than our jobs to be afraid for!"

"So...so what? You think we should just cover it up? There are roses - flowers that symbolise eternal and true love - growing out of that tree just as there were out of the tree Judith Gleeson was cut from... Trees that should be dead are seemingly living off the emotions in peoples' hearts... W-what basis do you see for reality in any of that?"

Scully reached for his right hand and squeezed it to try and calm him. "I don't, and you know that. Your theory is the only one that works from what little I've seen and heard, but... Maybe it should be enough just to find Jeff - whether he did any of this or not. We just..." With a sigh she shook her head. "Where will you be?"

"I'm going to go check out where Glaser's been seen. I'll contact the guys on the way to see what they can pull up on Jeffrey Mark Glaser and Sheriff Crowley."

She gave a nod - knowing it was the best move to make if they wanted to finish the case - but the fear still tinged her voice as she whispered, "Be careful."

For a heartbeat or two their eyes locked and their bodies were paralysed - as if their souls were desperately and tightly clinging onto each other. Eventually, though, he nodded back and waggled his eyebrows at her, smirking, "When ain't I?"

The two of them turned back to face the sheriff.

"Anything you, maybe, wanna let me in on?" Crowley snapped. "You know, like what you were sent here to do - give some answers!?"

"Maybe," Mulder retorted - barely keeping tabs on his temper for the second time today. "But, first, can you take me to where the suspect's been seen?"

Crowley shifted his gaze from one agent to the other and then to Deputy Friedman before snapping at Mulder, "Now, you listen--"

"No, Sheriff, maybe you need to stop and listen to us," Scully suddenly cut in, stepping in front of her partner - whose eyes briefly flicked down to look at her in surprise. "I have performed an autopsy today and gathered evidence that has been sent for further analysis. Agent Mulder has interrogated a couple of people, come up with a theory to work with and discovered evidence as well... We were assigned this case due to what has turned out to be an administrative mistake straight after our last one; we flew straight out, reading the file on our way... We haven't eaten-"

'Except for a bag of sunflower seeds,' Mulder quietly smiled to himself.

"-haven't stopped looking for answers all day, so why don't you calm down and give us a break?"

Silence filled with tension descended upon the group that stood by the tree staring in complete shock at the short, red-haired woman.

"I...uh...I'm sorry..." Crowley apologised with an awkward shrug of his shoulders. "I just... This has all been like something outta the Twilight Zone or somet'ing, you know, and I just found my dad... What am I supposed to do but wanna get this sick bastard locked up as soon as possible?" He shrugged again and then turned to stare at the odd tree.

Deputy David Friedman cautiously stepped toward his boss and friend. "How 'bout I take Agent Mulder so you can keep an eye on things here?" he offered.

Crowley didn't want to show his weakness...show that he was anything other than the stern sheriff everybody respected him as. But as he tried to pull the pieces of the puzzle together in his head, he realised he didn't have much of a choice. "Yeah," he muttered with a cough. "Thanks, Deputy."

Friedman moved toward where his patrol car was parked out on the road, gesturing for Mulder to follow.

"You go girl!" the tall agent smiled against his partner's ear as he turned to leave also. "I'll see you at the motel in an hour, but try not to beat the poor sheriff up anymore in the meantime... At least, not too much."

XxXxXxXxX

Eyes stared out from between the trees at Kia Philips's house; red eyes that showed nothing but pain.

But then they snapped shut and Glaser dropped to the ground, coughing violently and clutching at his chest with stiffening arms. He had come here hoping to help replenish the life that was slowly draining out of him, but he had made a mistake - a miscalculation - and the bereaved woman had turned out to not have anything of use in her heart... If only it hadn't taken up so much of his energy to kill her...

It had been six weeks since the last time he had killed someone and the seizures had begun to worsen. He knew it wasn't going to be long before the stiffness and lifelessness became permanent, but it was just so difficult to find people that had enough true love in their hearts worth spilling to heal the earth.

The forest was dying. He was dying. But...

Twelve minutes passed before his muscles relaxed and his eyes opened to stare at the canopy of bare, skeletal, wooden claws that rattled with the wind above him. He had to stop the seizures before they killed him for good, but time was running short and he didn't know how much longer he could keep this up.

Suddenly, as he shakily raised to his feet, Glaser felt something tug at his chest. A feeling - a vibe - that something was near...

A source of life and hope.

Maybe he didn't have to keep it up for much longer after all...

XxXxXxXxX

PATROL CAR #25
EN ROUTE TO LODGEPOLE TRAIL

"You'll have to forgive Ken - gets so quiet 'round this area sometimes it's easy to forget there's such evil out there, and he don't like not bein' able to figure stuff out. Guess it don't help none finding his papa dead like that," Friedman sighed, idly drumming his fingers on the steering wheel.

Mulder, in the front passenger seat, gave a nod of his head, but was more interested in reaching for his phone to call the Lone Gunmen... until he realised that he couldn't pick up a signal.

"Dammit!" he growled under his breath, switching the useless thing off and jamming it back into his pocket. After phoning the guys he had hoped to call Scully to check she was okay. He was a little dubious about leaving her alone with the sheriff who had done nothing but raise their suspicions so far, but now the both of them were stranded apart.

"No signal," the deputy stated flatly without question. "Middle o' nowhere, and the trees don't help much."

"I had a little trouble on the way here, but it was alright earlier," Mulder retorted.

"Different time, different weather - the slightest little thing can cut you off." Friedman paused for what seemed like an eternity to Mulder before finishing (with a shrug of his shoulders), "Guess it's like life, really... Though you and Agent Scully are a lot different to anyone else I ever met..."

"That's one way of putting it." Suddenly, Mulder turned his head to stare at the uniformed man - fully catching on to what had been said. "Wha--"

"But I gotta know, does she love you as much as you love her, d'you think?"

XxXxXxXxX

Dana Scully's small, prophylactic covered hands examined the wooden surface of the victim and the tree. She only occasionally moved away to either jot down notes in her writing pad or reach for her penlight and shine it in the helpless eyes that watched her every move - checking that the woman was still responsive.

So deeply occupied was she with her examination that she didn't hear the sheriff behind her ordering his men to spread the word that the search should be suspended until tomorrow morning... Nor did she turn or sense his approaching presence until his voice started, "Agent Scully, can I ask ya somet'ing?"

XxXxXxXxX

"What did you just say?" Mulder asked harshly - a mixture of surprise, confusion, irritation and realisation dawning on his face as he stared wide-eyed at the deputy.

Scully had been right. They needed to stick together - splitting people up was what the Moth Men needed to do and thrived on. He had learnt that on their last visit to the area, but...but...

"It's a simple enough question, I guess," Friedman shrugged, continuing to manoeuvre the car along the dark and deserted road. "She's pretty closed off and I was wondering if maybe she just don't like expressing her feelings so much - you know, hides 'em behind a wall that she rarely lets down... Or she don't feel the same way - maybe tells you one thing but thinks another..."

The FBI agent was ready to just strike out a fist before asking any further questions of the driver, but instead he found himself shifting uncomfortably in his seat and remaining silent, and he just didn't know why, dammit! He knew Scully. He knew what she felt for him - what they had together - and had no reason to doubt that certainty. But for no conceivable reason this man's words were unnerving him...

Seeing he had succeeded with what he had set out to do, Friedman smiled and turned the wheel to steer the vehicle off the road - increasing the pressure of his foot on the gas pedal - and into the brush, pointing out, "Whilst you... You show it all and it's not hard to see how strong and true your love for her is. You could give rebirth to a whole forest with that! You keep your feelings near the surface and that's exactly what we need."

Mulder tore himself out of his disturbed reverie as the car drove over the bumpy ground and turned to see the driver's seat beside him empty. A fraction of a second later he snapped his head round to see the approaching tree.

And then there was nothing to see but darkness.

XxXxXxXxX


ACT THREE

LEON COUNTY, FLORIDA
8:58 PM

Dana Scully stared at the looming figure in front of her - her right hand reaching back to rest on her gun in case she should need to quickly draw it. Her primary concern had been about how on earth they were going to help this woman, but as she looked round at the departing law enforcement officers she felt Mulder's panic surging through her veins.

"Sheriff?" she asked hesitantly.

"I know what you probably think o' me, but I just wanna solve this like y'all... But d'you think we really can? D'you think we can help her?" Crowley paused and pointed at the tree behind Scully.

Her hand moved away from the gun and she took a deep breath. Maybe she'd just read the guy wrong - let Mulder's paranoia get the better of her again. That didn't mean to say she had a good answer to give him, though. Of course she wanted to believe there was a way to help this woman, but in reality she couldn't see how it could be accomplished. So, sighing with defeat, she pulled off her latex gloves and moved away from the tree she'd been examining. "Maybe we can't help her, but we can stop anybody else turning up the same way."

Crowley remained silent - nervously and almost guiltily staring down at his feet.

Oh yeah, he was definitely hiding something - of that the FBI agent was certain. But how to--?

"I should o' kept an eye on that bastard from the moment Gene Gleeson first called me to check the guy wasn't a crank. If I had, maybe Judy would still--... Oh heck, who am I tryin' to kid? There's no 'maybe' about it: Judy would still be alive... And Kia Philips, too... I would o' been too late to save my dad, but at least I would have protected a couple... Could have done my damn job... Just goes to show how loopy he must have been in the head for him to kill his sister, though..."

An owl flew low overhead, but it went unnoticed as Scully stared with disbelief at the taller man. There had been something, but why on earth had he kept quiet this long? "Sister?" she eventually managed to croak.

"I did a little background check on Glaser after Gene came to me asking if he were okay to trust as a marriage counsellor... Read his file and there were a recent picture of him and his sister... Her..." A hand raised to point at where Scully had just been yet again.

Finally! At last something she could say they definitely had an answer to, and yet at the same time all it did was raise more questions: why would Glaser kill his own sister? Why did she look so happy? Mulder had mentioned that the connection between all the other cases was the fact that each had had their hearts broken in some way or another, so how did this woman fit into that pattern?

W-H-Y? It should have been an easy enough question to figure out, but the only answer that came to mind was the usual patronising one of 'Because you're not supposed to know.'

"You can't blame yourself, Sheriff," Dana slowly remarked, moving past the uniformed man. "By the looks of it, Jeff Glaser is a man on a mission, and no amount of close surveillance would have stopped him. For now, though, I'm going back to the motel. We'll see you early in the morning."

"Wh-what about her?"

She glanced over her shoulder in the direction of where he still pointed and shrugged, "By the looks of it she's been like that and coped for quite a while... One more night won't hurt."

It was a reply that had even surprised her, but there it was and Crowley seemed to accept it as he muttered, "G' night, Agent. Thanks for helping out on this - and please pass that on to your partner... It's greatly appreciated."

"I will."

XxXxXxXxX

"Never doubt what you have together. Never doubt that she loves you so much it hurts her to know she'll never be able to let you know just how much that is."

It was the sound of his own voice that beckoned him back to consciousness, but not a word had passed his lips... It had come from in his head - not imaginary, but as if a part of his psyche was trying to nurse the rest of his body.

Mulder kept his eyes shut for a moment longer - the feel of warm blood trickling down his forehead being his only connection to reality - as he tried to recall the events that had led him to this point... He drew a complete blank, though, so he opened the heavy lids and looked around the dark area that surrounded him.

He appeared to be underground...in a hole similar to the one he and Scully had fallen into on their last trip here to seek out the Moth Men. ...And he was tied to a chair by vines.

"Very tasteful," he grunted in disgust, staring at the damp that oozed from the soil walls and sniffing in the smell of...decaying flesh.

It wasn't long after that he realised he wasn't alone.

"Scully?"

A figure stepped out of the shadows, but it wasn't his partner as he had hoped.

"She'll be along soon," Jeff Glaser said, smiling weakly.

XxXxXxXxX

THE MOTHER COMFORT MOTEL
9:57 PM

"Mulder?"

After waiting a whole half-hour in her cabin for Mulder to show up, Scully found herself standing outside his room tapping at the door - only to receive no sign of him there either. Even her call to his cell phone had only returned the hauntingly familiar refusal of 'The cell phone customer cannot be reached at this time'.

Something had to be wrong... They'd made a deal to meet back here... She tried to tell herself that maybe the capture of Glaser had taken longer or he had had to stay at the house for some reason, but the worry that had been eating away at her since the visit to Gleeson's house wouldn't let her be.

"Dammit. Where are you?"

She wandered back to her own room to wait there. And then an idea kicked in. She quickly reached for her phone again and dialled the number for the Gunmen's office.

XxXxXxXxX

OFFICES OF THE LONE GUNMEN
WASHINGTON, D.C

It wasn't often he got the place to himself, but tonight Langly had dragged Byers out on some governmental surveillance heist, so poor Frohike - currently going down with a case of the Flu - was left alone to keep an eye on the equipment...and maybe play a little D&D...

Not that he minded as such (maybe later he'd have a good look at those videos Mulder had given him), but he couldn't deny the fact that he felt a little too lonely...

Thank God for the ringing phone!

"The Lone Gunman."

"Frohike, it's Scully." the agent's voice replied.

"What can I do for the lovely Agent Scully on this fine night? You and Mulder having a nice break?"

There was a nervous pause on the line, and then, "We're in Florida on another case... I was kinda hoping you knew that - meaning I probably now know the answer to the question I phoned to ask..."

He could hear the anguish in her voice and it immediately put his protective streak into overdrive. "What's happened?"

"Has he not called you at all tonight?" Scully's voice hitched.

"No... Last time I heard from him was Monday. What's happened?"

"We were sent to investigate unexplained murders where the victims were turned into wooden sculptures... To cut a long story short, the suspect was seen at a nearby house and Mulder went with the deputy to check it out - he told me he'd call you to see if you could pull up any information on our suspect, Jeff Glaser... Are you sure he hasn't called?"

"Nada. I've been here all night and you're the first person to call - aren't I the lucky one?" He softly chuckled, hoping to ease her worry.

A sigh escaped from her down the line, but that was the only response she gave.

"Is there anything I can do this end?" he queried.

"No... He'll turn up eventually, probably with another pizza that can be left to go cold, but...but if you do hear anything can you please just...just tell him I'm waiting, and then call me. Please?"

"Sure thing."

Before he had the chance to say anything more the line disconnected.

XxXxXxXxX

UNKNOWN LOCATION

Mulder stared at the familiar face that looked back at him with red eyes. Sure, he'd had his theories and he'd been certain Glaser was behind the murders, but it still shocked him to see the man that he had thought dead six long years ago.

"You leave her alone," he growled through clenched teeth - struggling against the restraint that held him to the chair. "You want what I've got in my heart, fine - take it - but let her go!"

Glaser slowly shook his head and stepped toward the seated FBI agent with a wry smile on his pale face as he coughed, "You're no good without her here too. Haven't you figured it out yet?"

A momentary pause for thought as Mulder considered the voice in his head that had been telling him to never doubt the love he and Scully shared. He still didn't know what it meant, though - he'd never doubted her, so why--

"It's all to do with survival of the fittest - separating the stronger one from the rest." Glaser had intended to say more, but his body was wracked by another fit of coughs.

Mulder frowned in confusion. "I'm not the str--"

"No, you're not - which is the point! But she'll be here soon, and then you can both be reborn."

"Reborn? You mean turned into one of those trees? Why'd you do it, Jeff? I heard the story about the guy that did it to give back what humans had taken from nature - is that it? It's admirable, Jeff, but killing people won't help this forest - it's dying and no matter how many bodies you tally up you can't change that... Maybe in a perfect world, but not this one!"

"This isn't just about the forest!" Glaser snorted. "Look at me!!! You left me here to die... I was trapped in a hole like this, but I couldn't move... All there was was stiffness and death. But somehow I came back to being - perhaps by the one that attacked me - and now the only way I can stay alive is if the trees live... Every time another dies, part of me dies with it, so I have to compensate by taking the life from others... You're next."

XxXxXxXxX

The Taurus - driven by Scully - sped along the road, trying to retrace the journey Mulder would have taken. Waiting around wasn't going to find him, and if something was wrong she needed to attend to him immediately, so this was her last hope of action.

XxXxXxXxX

COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT
LEON COUNTY, FLORIDA
10:02 PM

A couple banks of fluorescent strip lights flickered to life slowly as Sheriff Crowley entered the quiet office and shut the door behind him with a sigh.

He tended to live here these days - working on whatever he could even, when there was no crime to fight - simply because there was nothing else to do...to go home to: no loved one, no family... It was what made him angry when he saw couples arguing. Sometimes he just wanted to go up to them and show them pictures of murder scenes to make them realise what they had whilst it lasted.

Now it was time to rest, though. After a long day filled with images he wanted nothing more than to forget, he needed a good sleep. So, he had just stopped by here to put the case file in his desk and check everything was in order. But on his way to the wooden desk at the far end of the room he saw something through the corner of his eye laying on Deputy Friedman's desk.

On closer inspection he found several candid Polaroid images of Kia Philips at her boyfriend's funeral earlier today, a copy of Philips's address written on a scrap of paper, and a sketched map that led to an unrecognisable place in the heart of the forest.

"What the hell...?"

XxXxXxXxX

Scully stopped the car behind the one that had crashed into a tree, then quickly got out and rushed to the passenger side of the police vehicle - only to find no sign of the deputy or Mulder. Just a small splatter of blood on the dashboard.

"Mulder!" she called out, lifting her head to stare into the darkness that surrounded her. "Mulder!"

Only silence answered.

She should get back in the car and carry on along the road - see if he turned up further along the way. But something was telling her he was here - very close.

And then, for no reason other than it felt the thing to do, she turned right and quickly ran into the brush with her gun drawn.

XxXxXxXxX

UNKNOWN LOCATION - UNDERGROUND

"So, how do you do it?" Mulder pressed, never averting his eyes away from the threatening figure that loomed over him. "You take their lives to feed the trees and yourself... But how do you get them in the trees like that?"

Glaser struck out an arm and hit Mulder across the face with such force the agent and the chair toppled backwards. "Always with the damn questions!" he yelled.

Silence for a moment as Mulder tried to regain control of his senses. "You said I'm next," his voice rasped groggily - blood now pouring from his cut lower lip as well as his forehead. "That's nice, but at least give me an idea of how it works!"

"It's all to do with putting a tear in the heart so you can suck the life out of it... And I don't mean a physical tear... Through the emotional barrier... Break the person and then the emotions are there to suck out like a straw."

Still laying on his back, Mulder couldn't see the distant look or smile on Glaser's face, but he could hear the pride in his voice and it made the agent realise just how much Glaser really did need to be in an institution.

Suddenly, he was pulled upright again and found himself staring once more into the bespectacled man's red, piercing eyes.

"I'll break you with the knowledge that I'm gonna kill her, and then I'll make her watch me kill you... That should split her open a bit!" Glaser informed Mulder with a wide, manic smile.

"You touch her and I'll kill you!" Mulder snapped. "Is that how you used the deputy, then? Access to people that could then be swept under the carpet, like you used him to get me away from Scully?"

"That's one way of putting it... But you should be careful with him - he's a little insane... Obsessed with trees..."

"Oh, and of course you're not, I take it?"

"I need them to live! He used me to help the trees...but I wanted them to help me!"

Another fit of coughs, and Mulder watched in shock as Glaser's right arm morphed into the long bough of a tree.

XxXxXxXxX

FBI HEADQUARTERS
10:13 PM

Walter Skinner was just turning his office lights off on his way out when the phone rang. He was tempted to ignore it, but instead he moved back to the desk and picked up the receiver.

"Skinner."

"Walter, call an ambulance for where Mulder and Scully are!" a small voice urgently panted down the line.

"Andrew?"

The other end hung up.

XxXxXxXxX

"Mulder!!!"

Dana stood still - flashlight in one hand, gun in the other - and struggled to listen for his reply over the jack-hammering of her heart.

He was here. She didn't know how and she didn't know why, but she knew without a doubt he was here, but she couldn't see him.

"Mulder!"

x~x~x

He heard her voice desperately calling out his name above where he sat and he didn't know what tore at his heart more: the fact that he would never see her again if he didn't call back, or the knowledge of what would happen to her if he did.

"I told you she'd be here soon," Glaser croaked, glancing over his shoulder at the hole in the ceiling. "Call her."

Mulder kept his mouth shut and shook his head in denial.

"Call her!"

Still Mulder refused to do as he was ordered, and yet again he was struck in the face.

'I tried, Scully...I swear I didn't ditch you this time...' Mulder's thoughts were disjointed as he made the silent apology - hoping that in some way she would hear him and believe him. They managed to stay intact enough, though, for him to whisper the hauntingly familiar "I'm so sorry."

"Call her or I'll go up there and kill her!!!"

Before the agent could shout back, his partner jumped down through the opening in the ceiling and aimed her gun at Glaser.

"Let him go, Jeffrey - it's over," Scully barked - staring with a little disbelief at Glaser and then at her partner. She did a quick visual sweep over his body, checking to see if he was okay.

"It's never over," Glaser replied, grabbing a tight hold on Mulder and stepping behind him so that the female agent couldn't get a clear shot. "I tried to help them so it wouldn't be that way, but the soil's bad... Judy Gleeson was a success, but you cut her down. I bet you cut Aimee down too, didn't you? You can't stand the thought of success..."

"How did you do it? How did they get like that?"

"I didn't do it... I killed them but...but the trees...they..." His words trailed off as he felt the beginnings of yet another seizure build up within him. He had to get this done and soon, but the coughing fit was already taking him over. Instinctively his hold on Mulder increased - causing the agent to wince in pain.

"Mul--"

"Scully, get out of here or he'll kill you!" Mulder cried out.

"What?" She frowned in confusion - desperate for some sort of explanation as to what was happening here - but then shook her head and tried to gain a better aim on Glaser. "I'm not going anywhere."

"You don't understand, Scully... He needs to break you so that he can then kill you and turn you into another of those trees!" The pain increased in his shoulder as Glaser's grasp tightened. "He'll kill me 'cause he thinks that'll break you! Go!"

The phrase she could have sworn she'd heard Gleeson say, despite his refusal, earlier came back, but this time it repeated itself in her own voice.

'Steer well clear - you and Fox don't wanna run into him... He'll break you and then kill the both of you... He has to - you have exactly what he needs.'

They hadn't steered clear, though, and they had to face this. But she wasn't going to leave her partner... It wasn't about their 'no ditching' rule - it was about the fact that she wasn't about to turn her back on the man she loved...her everything.

"Jesus, Scully... Don't let him break you!" Mulder cried out over the noise of Glaser's continuous coughing. "Whatever happens, remember that I love you with every part of my body and soul - not only my heart!!!"

Catching a breath, Glaser lowered his right hand down to press against Mulder's chest. "You'll...both be...successes..." he gasped.

The next thing Scully knew Mulder's upper body slumped forward and, aim clear, she took her shot at Glaser - hitting him in the centre of the chest.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk... Really, that's no way to make friends!"

Before Dana had a chance to move to Mulder, she turned to see Deputy Friedman standing behind her - aiming his own weapon at her.

"And my plan was going so well," he sighed with a shake of his head.

"Wh--" She stared in confusion at the taller man, but then turned back to face her partner - desperate to tend to him.

"How do you think you got this case? I met you both briefly the last time you were here - I was one of the cops looking for Michael Asekoff. Wasn't hard to see how much you two cared for each other even back then. So when I finally found Jeff I knew the perfect couple we could use to help save this forest... Anyway, I made sure the file got delivered to the wrong desk. Pretty good, huh? At least, it was, but now you gone an' ruined it by killin' Jeff... I guess that makes you useless too!"

Scully's head snapped round. "You were using Jeff?"

"I was looking for one of the Moth Men, but he was even better! You don't see: I've watched this forest die because of the stupid ways of mankind. This was a perfect way to give something back! Jeff needed to do it to save himself, but I forced him to sacrifice for the trees."

"'Taking life to give life'," she murmured, repeating the words from Skinner's story.

"Exactly!!! So quick, but sadly I now must kill you."

Scully turned back to face her partner with bleary eyes as Friedman steadied his aim and rested his finger against the trigger. Her lip trembled violently as she whispered, "I lov--"

BANG!

The shot was immediately followed by the dull thud of a body dropping like a sack of potatoes to the ground.

"Now that's definitely not the way to make friends!" came Crowley's distant voice.

Eyes fluttered open and Dana nervously glanced over her shoulder to see the body of David Friedman crumpled lifelessly on the floor and the sheriff standing with a smoking gun in his hand at the entrance to the cavern.

"You okay?" he asked, jumping down.

But Scully had blocked everything out... The only thing she cared about right now was getting to her partner.

"...Mul-der?" she whispered, kneeling down in front of him as Crowley moved to untie the agent. "Mulder...it's me..." A shaky hand outstretched to search for a pulse whilst the other moved to where a splinter of wood stuck out of his chest. The words 'just one more chance' echoed in her head and she knew that that wish had been answered far too many times now for God to rush to her aid. What was it Skinner had said earlier? 'You've already outlived your nine lives ten times over'? But... 'But God, please, no... Don't... Please, jus-- Let him live... Please...' "Please," her tearchoked voice whispered as her quivering lips pressed against his cheek. "Mul--"

Beat.

Beat.

It was only a heartbeat, but under the press of her fingertips it felt like the most glorious thing to her.

"Oh, my God!" she gasped in exultation, wrapping her arms around his body and holding him against her.

"...I've got a...grasp of the...ow...'no ditching' rule...Scully," Mulder whispered against her ear - wincing as the branch dropped out of his chest. "But I wish you'd...ow...wish you'd listen...to me... ev'ry now and then..."

A relieved breath of laughter escaped her and she tightened the embrace as his own arms weakly snaked up to hold her. "Oh, God, Mulder, I thought-- I lo--"

"Holy crap!"

Crowley's exclamation made her jump and she lifted her head to look at where the sheriff was pointing - at the wooden corpse of Jeffrey Mark Glaser.

"Please tell me you got an explanation for that!?"

"Sometimes..." She paused and pressed another kiss against her partner's cheek. "Sometimes it's best not to question."

Though she was tempted to ask a lot of questions when the sound of the ambulance's siren filled the air shortly after.

XxXxXxXxX


EPILOGUE

GEORGETOWN, WASHINGTON D.C
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 17th 2003

        'Case File #X1109172427
           'Much remains unexplained about this case - the condition 
        of the victims, what transformation Jeffrey Glaser did in 
        fact go through and how he killed his victims, to name but a 
        few things that both Jeffrey Glaser and David Friedman will 
        take to their graves.  But whilst we stand in the shadow that 
        bears no knowledge, we still strive to find answers with 
        evidence collected from the crime scenes that has been sent 
        for further analysis.  Closer inspection of the blood sample 
        collected showed it to be riddled with forms of altered 
        diatoms - usually the sign of a drowning victim - whilst 
        early PCR and DNA tests match it to that of Judith Gleeson.  
        Examinations of the core sample are yet to turn up anything 
        abnormal.' 

Dana Scully paused her typing and glanced down with a smile at the slumbering figure that lay beside her on the bed. Somehow the wood that had been pierced into his body had done barely more than tear his pectoral muscle and put another dent in his ego. The wound had been stitched and he had been kept overnight at the hospital (much to his usual reluctance) but that had been all. After what she'd seen, it didn't make much sense, but it didn't really matter - all she could do was thank God yet again that he was okay... The warranty was still intact.

"How?" she had asked at the hospital - tightly clasping his hand in hers as she sat on the edge of the bed.

"You're not the only one who has a wall around your heart..." came his wry smile. "You're the only one allowed past mine, though, so I'm guessing the guard stopped Jeff entering!"

She smiled at the memory and the sincerity she had seen on his face, and then sighed as she continued to type up her report.

        'To date no record of a 'Missing Persons' report ever being 
        filed on Aimee Lynne Gleeson has been found, nor is it known 
        for how long she was in the condition she was found.  She is 
        another who will take her answers to the grave, however - two 
        days after her brother died, Aimee's eyes slipped shut and 
        the tree she was joined to has since shown rapid signs of 
        necrosis.'

A brief meeting with Skinner on Monday had revealed that Kersh had backed down with his hollow threats...And they were being granted two weeks vacation time for some much-needed R&R.

"Finally, some rest!" Mulder had joked (wincing at the pain his soft chuckle cost him).

Both agents had quickly agreed that they wouldn't be going away anywhere, though - home was definitely the safer option.

        'Whilst Agent Mulder's theory that Glaser was using the 
        emotions in people's hearts to survive and give health to the 
        forest cannot be substantiated in the realms of science, it 
        is the only plausible one, and makes us realise that 
        sometimes the human soul presents us with things that go 
        beyond that boundary... Things that call out to us to direct 
        us safely on this rocky path of Life - a sign, a warning...a 
        revelation.'

Her head turned to stare at the rose that stood healthy and proud in the glass vase on the bedside cabinet. It had grown even more - a little each day - and it had become the symbol of their relationship...proving that no matter what they went through, they would always come out the other end stronger than ever as long as they were together.

Suddenly, an arm reached out to block her access to the laptop's keyboard and the mattress moved as Mulder snuggled closer against her warm body.

"...No work..." he slurred, never opening his eyes. "...Supposed to be helping me heal..."

Another smile tugged at her features as she glanced down at the white bandaging that covered his chest ('another scar to take note of,' her mind heeded), and then knocked his hand away.

"Just a second," she assured. "I get this done now and we'll have nothing to worry about for the next two weeks."

        'Unless any other evidence turns up to encourage further 
        investigation, X-File case number X1109172427 is closed.'

She was about to close the notebook when she suddenly paused - her thin fingers hovering over the keyboard, eager to write more. Another glance at the flower in the vase, and then - just above the last sentence she had written - Scully added:

        'An old proverb states 'Food nourishes the body, but flowers 
        heal the soul'.  Perhaps, as Jeffrey Glaser believed, it 
        should be added that the human heart can give life to 
        anything - even Nature.'

THE END

x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x 'Only love can break a heart,
Only love can mend it again.'

~Gene Pitney: 'Only Love Can Break A Heart' (1962) x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x~x


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