When Things Fall Apart

by Rose Campion

Disclaimer: Any character you recognize doesn't belong to me. No profit, etc. made from their use. Warning: AU. Totally ignores canon from about mid 9th season on. The Gunmen aren't dead. Scully never gave up William for adoption. Sequel: This is the sequel I said I wouldn't write to my story "Midnight Train to Georgia." Best laid plans, I suppose. Never say never. Summary: Doggett returns to his hometown with Mulder. Answers challenge #12 of the Mulder Fuh-Q fest.

As they pulled into the Atlanta station, Doggett's stomach roiled with trepidation. He wasn't just going home, to the place where he was, in his own mind, just a punkass kid, too skinny, too cocky without any guts or glory to back it up. He was bringing home a male lover without warning to meet family members who didn't have the faintest clue that he was gay, and some who had a clue that he was, but weren't exactly best pleased by that fact. This was going to be so not good.

Mulder was not entirely oblivious, but he was mostly lost in his own thoughts. Any comfort he'd offered over the course of the train ride had been more abstract than not.

Doggett watched Mulder hesitate before standing when train came to a complete stop. It seemed he had to force himself to pull his hands off the arms of his seat. Then it hit Doggett. If anything, Mulder was more unnerved by this impending meeting and return to Doggett's childhood home than he was.

Mulder forced a smile, then said, "Nobody promised me an easy row to hoe. We'd better get going to meet your cousin."

"Take it easy on yourself," Doggett said. "Like I told you on the way down, some of these people ain't exactly the easiest people in the world to get along with, but it's not going to be any reflection on you if they take a while to warm up to you. And any problem they have with you, they have with me."

He hoped this was enough to reassure Mulder that he'd made the right decision in casting his lot in with Doggett. Because knowing what he was heading into, he wasn't sure he could face it without Mulder at his back. In his bed. In his life.

Like most train stations in this country, the station in Atlanta had hints of former glories left from a time when trains were still the king of travel, but mostly those hints were enshrouded in the grime and dirt of a big city or concealed behind ill conceived renovations from more recent decades.

Mulder walked just slightly behind Doggett. He was tired, hadn't been able to sleep at all on the overnight journey. It was still early, early in the morning, just barely light outside, Mulder could see through windows high up on the walls of the station. Doggett was tired too. He more trudged than walked, but he saw something then perked up, started walking faster.

"Junie!" he called out a few seconds later.

Soon after, a tall, lanky woman stepped out from the crowd and stepped up to John. Obviously, she was related to him, something about the hard jawline and the wrinkles of her forehead was very familiar. She wore a pair of stiff, dark blue jeans that had creases pressed down the front of the legs and a plaid blouse in a blue and orange that did little for her skin tone, managing to look both thoughtlessly casual and stiffly formal at the same time.

"John Jay!" she said, though she didn't reach out to hug him like Mulder thought she might. She barely smiled at Doggett. She hadn't even set eyes on Mulder yet. It hadn't, apparently, registered with her that Doggett had come with someone. She asked, "You had a good train ride down?"

If this was any example, Mulder could see where Doggett had gotten his stoicism. Mulder just hoped that somewhere in the family could also be found the good humor and intense decency that became revealed once you got to know Doggett.

"I can't complain," Doggett said. Then he seemed to realize that his cousin hadn't noticed Mulder yet. "Junie, there's someone very important to me that I want you to meet. I know I should have warned you, but it was kind of a last minute thing. This is Fox Mulder. He'll be coming home to stay with me."

The woman's eyes then lit on Mulder and he noticed that while they were steel blue like John's, they were more like icicles or scalpels. In one glance, she took him in, judged him and found him wanting. And she understood immediately what he was to Doggett. And she hated it. Hated him for being the one with Doggett. But then she put on a fake smile and said, sweet as you pleased, mannerly to a fault, "Nice to meet you, Mr. Mulder. Were you planning on staying long? I'm sure John Jay told you that we're having a bit of a family emergency."

Doggett cleared his throat and said, "Junie, I said he was going to be staying. As in indefinitely. Until death do us part."

The woman's face got icy when she was furious. White and very, very still. It was exactly the way his mother had behaved when angered. Junie pulled Doggett aside, saying to Mulder, "Excuse us, Mr. Mulder, but John Jay and I need a few words in private."

Despite that she took Doggett a good several feet to the side, Mulder could hear what they said in the big, echoing station building.

"John Jay," she hissed. "This is not the time to do this to your family. I know you've always done things your own way and damn the consequences, but don't do this to us. Everyone knows about you getting your leg over that Beecher boy in high school. Don't think that was any kind of secret. But we all really thought you'd grown out of that. You just cannot bring some strange man home and set up housekeeping with him in my aunt's house. You cannot do that."

Then Doggett did Mulder proud. He'd borne his dressing down in expressionless silence, but when she'd spoken her piece, his eyes flashed furiously and he asked, "Junie, just what made you think you got a vote? I'll give you a call at home when we're settled to see if you can behave civilly to my lover. For right now, Fox and I are going to rent a car to get back home. C'mon, Fox, let's get going."

With that, he turned away from her and started walking towards the nearest rental car counter.

"John Jay, don't you do this to us," she called after him. "Come back here. I'm not done yet."

He stopped and told her, "Well, I am."

Then he stormed right to the rental counter and slapped down his credit card before his cousin could say another word. His cousin turned on her heels and stalked away.

"I thought you said this was the cousin you got along with best," Mulder said, his heart sinking fast. Just the day before yesterday, Doggett had wanted nothing to do with the idea of bringing Mulder home with him, because of what people would say. And already, they were saying it.

"Oh, well, Junie and I are a lot alike," Doggett said. "Both of us are as stubborn as goats and she's ballsy enough for the both of us. But she'll come around soon enough once she starts thinking clearly. It's not you she doesn't like, it's the whole concept. It's not her I'm worried about."

They quickly arranged for a rental car and were on their way out of the city before very long. John drove only because he knew the city, knew the way to his mama's house. He'd rather have not driven. He'd said as much, that he was tired from the trip down.

"You're awful quiet," Doggett said as they hit the city limits and were immersed into the endless miles of suburbia that surrounded Atlanta.

"Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, John," Mulder said. "Maybe we should have introduced me gradually somehow. Have me down for a couple of weekends. Gradually introduce the idea of me before I just barge in. Maybe that would have been the easy way."

"Since when have you been concerned about taking the easy way out?" Doggett asked. He took his eyes off the road for a second to look at Mulder and give a half smile. "Besides, there's only two people get a vote in this decision. One of them's me and I've already made up my mind."

"Did you mean that?" Mulder asked. "About til death do us part?"

"You know I did, Fox," Doggett said. "I assumed that's what you thought you were getting into."

For the first time since getting off the train, Mulder felt a brief settling in of calm certainty. With a good partner at your back, you could do anything, risk anything. And John was just that partner. In a short time, the man had grown to become everything Scully ever was to him and then some. Not just the trust was there, but the lust, the catch of his heart, all of the things Scully never had inspired in him. Together, they could handle this, even with the whole world against them.

"I'm thinking we should get matching rings or something," Doggett said. "I want to make sure people get it. I've got no more reason to lie about what we are. Life's too damn short."

Somehow, Mulder thought that was about as much of a proposal as he was going to get from Doggett. The man was a rock, solid as they came. Those he loved, he loved deeply and well, doing anything he within his power for their needs and comforts. But there wasn't even a tiny streak of romance in the man. He was practical and the way he showed that love was in concrete ways, not ephemeral symbols.

"I do," Mulder said, with a half smile from the simple pleasure of being here with this man, of figuring him out. "I'll wear your ring. Be your man til death do us part. You want to stop somewhere and buy rings?"

"It should probably wait," Doggett said regretfully. "We really should be getting back home to mama."

Mulder felt a strange little twist of disappointment. He shouldn't have expected it right away. And besides, John was right. John should probably make it home around the time his cousin Junie did, so she didn't have the chance to spread rumors.

Home was about two and a half hours outside of Atlanta, down a lonely state highway that wound through small towns that were mostly tired, run down looking little houses with sagging porches, a lot of them looking like they weren't even occupied.

John's home town was a good bit bigger than the other blips on the map that they passed through. The down town extended for whole blocks of two story brick buildings with store fronts. They turned left at a courthouse square dominated by a big, square limestone courthouse. A tank on the lawn looked like it had been parked there at the end of world war II and hadn't been moved since.

Doggett caught Mulder looking at the tank. "Some, ah...buddies of mine actually managed to get that started. They drove it around town at two in the morning for a good half hour before anyone caught them. After that, the town filled in the cockpit with concrete."

"You had nothing to do with it?" Mulder asked. There was the sound of definite guilt in Doggett's voice.

"Well, I might have shown one or two of them how to hotwire an engine a couple of weeks earlier. But I was busy doing something else that night."

There was definite guilt in that admission, even more than the first. "Getting a leg over that Beecher boy? Whoever he is. Is he still around town?"

"Fox," Doggett said warningly. "Do not give me a hard time about Clayton. That was decades ago. It was nothing but two horny kids fooling around. And besides, he dumped me to marry a cheerleader. They were living in Marietta with three kids, last I heard."

John's mother's place was about ten minutes outside of town to the south, at the top of a gently rolling hill. That hill was covered mostly with pine woods. Just off the road, the woods looked deep and dark, like they hid a lot of secrets. Vines draped over branches and hung down like curtains, the ground nothing but a carpet of yellowed pine needles. Soon, they turned down a long driveway, approaching a big white cottage style house that had seen better days. There was a white picket fence surrounding it, missing several pickets. Three pickups were parked in the driveway and in front of them, another rested on blocks, its tires presumably long gone. That one was a classic, an old Chevy, the body in great shape though the paint job was a little oxidized.

"Looks like Junie beat us home," Doggett said, shaking his head, as he parked their little tin can rental car behind the huge trucks. All of them were big, but the middle one was extra huge, about as big as you could get, it seemed to Mulder, without actually driving a semi around. "And her husband's here. I wonder who the BFT belongs to."

You knew a truck was huge when John Doggett, the man who drove around a Silverado, thought it was big.

Neither of them reached for the door handles immediately. It took a few minutes before Doggett said, "No time like the present."

The front door of the house opened, and seconds later, Junie was walking out to meet them. She got about half way to their car before they were able to climb out. She reached Mulder first and actually smiled at him. "Mr. Mulder, why don't you go right on in. My husband's waiting in the kitchen, he'll get you some tea or ice water. John Jay," she said the last meaningfully. They were going to have another talk and this time Mulder would not be allowed to hear what was said. And that sank any trace of confidence Mulder had like a baseball sized stone thrown on top of a small lily pad.

Mulder obediently went up the steps to the house and was greeted by a large, dark figure in the doorway. Junie's husband, Abe. She should have known better than to say something, as far as Doggett was concerned. Wasn't there a huge scandal in certain branches of the family when she'd brought Abe home? Doggett liked Abe though, thought he had a much more sensible head on his shoulders than Junie ever had.

"Junie," Doggett said, as he turned around to face her. "Unless what you got to say to me is that you're ready to apologize to Fox for your behavior, I don't see as we've got anything to say to each other."

"Of course, John Jay," Junie said. Only someone long familiar with her and her understated emotions would realize that slight downcast of her eyes was honest contrition. "I sent your Mr. Mulder inside so that Abe could soften him up for me. I spent the whole drive down thinking and half of it being scolded over the phone by Abe. I was an horse's back end to the both of you."

He waited for her to continue her apology. She'd gotten off to a good start, just like he thought she would as soon as she'd come to her senses, but there needed to be more to it.

"You know me, talk my fool head off before I think a single thing. A real hot head. Like I'm one to talk about bringing home a man that will cause the family to talk," she said. "It's just a bit of a shock, sweetie. Seeing you come home as bold as you please with that man. You know Daddy Ray's not going to be happy."

Daddy Ray was her father, his own father's younger brother, the head of the family once Doggett's father had been felled by an unexpected, fatal heart attack at a young age. He'd watched out for Doggett's family, always seen that Mama had what she needed.

"Daddy Ray's not the boss of me," Doggett said, firmly, trying to believe it. "Lord God, Junie. I'm forty-three. When my daddy was my age, he'd been dead for two years. I'm on borrowed time as far as I'm concerned. Life is too short for me not to spend it with the one that I love regardless of what you or Daddy Ray or those good for nothing brothers of yours say."

"I'm just warning you, John Jay," she said earnestly. "Believe you me, I know how difficult Daddy Ray can make your life. I'm behind you, but I'm just saying, other people aren't going to be so understanding."

Abe, or Ibrahim formally, Mulder had soon discovered was not African-American, but rather half English, half Kenyan. He'd immigrated to the states a handful of decades ago, but still spoke with the softly lilting accent of the English language as it was spoken in the former colonies of the British Empire.

Regardless, that wouldn't have made a heck of a lot of difference to some people around here.

Abe spoke kindly to him, invited him into the kitchen and settled him down at the table with a slice of pecan pie and a glass of iced tea. Mulder sipped at the dark amber liquid. It had whole flotillas of small, white ice cubes bobbing in it and was strong and sweet. Not the way he usually liked it, but since Abe was the first person down here to show him any kindness, Mulder wasn't about to complain.

"I'm sure the tea's too sweet for you. Mrs. Doggett, she has a sweet tooth something awful," Abe said. "She's sleeping now, but she'll wake soon."

"How bad off is she?' Mulder asked. "John didn't really know."

Abe just shook his head. "She's been declining for a while, but she got real bad, real sudden. The doctors are saying she might have had a stroke. Caused some brain damage on top of all the rest possibly."

"That doesn't sound good," Mulder said, picturing himself in a hospital, weeping helplessly over his mother's still, sick form. She'd come so close to dying from a stroke. He could feel the echoes of the heartsickness he'd felt then, like his guts being ripped out even as the ground fell from underneath him. She had been healed that time- cured by some miracle. Mulder suspected, but had never been able to prove that it had been one of the alien healers that had provided that miracle. But there would be no such thing now, not for John's mother. There had been a price to be paid for the safety of all. The alien's miracles of technology had been a small price to lose in exchange for the safety of them all. And he was one of the few living people who knew of it, of the struggle. Even his own lover would never believe in it.

"The doctors say it's impossible to know if there will be more of these mini-strokes," Abe said.

Mulder tried to focus, to stay in the present moment, not to dwell on past pains, nor mentally cringe in anticipation of future one. Abe was talking about the medicines that Mrs. Doggett had been prescribed- the blood thinners, the blood pressure medications, all of it. Mulder only half heard, but he caught the rhythm of it, the technical turns of phrase Abe chose. Abe was in the medical profession, no doubt about it. He and Scully would communicate with ease. While he attempted to listen, he ate some of the pie, not really hungry, yet decidedly aware that he'd not taken substantial food onboard since Frohike had forced him, much earlier yesterday. The filling was cloyingly sweet, the pecans crunched under his teeth unappetizingly, putting him to mind of bugs or something. Perhaps sleep was more important than anything.

Finally, Abe wound down and switched to a more personal topic. With a curiosity so natural that Mulder couldn't possibly have taken offense, even if he were inclined to it, Abe asked, "How did you meet John Jay?"

Mulder wasn't sure he'd ever get used to hearing John called John Jay. He sought for something like the truth that he could tell this big, friendly man, but not so true that it would cause a breach. How had his life gotten to the point where his truth separated him from the normal universe of average people by a huge chasm? He was made breathless for a moment by the thought of everything he wouldn't be able to tell these people. Even if they accepted him as John's male lover. It was like a stifling blanket, suffocating him, smothering him.

The simplest of his truths divided him from the rest of the world. That was a fact. His only comfort was the fact that John stood in the gap, exposed to some of the same truths, even though he might have been unwilling to admit to them.

Abe was waiting patiently as Mulder recovered from this paralyzing realization. Patiently as if nothing was wrong in the way Mulder stared at the avocado refrigerator and the cluttered counter next to it as if he was a deer in the headlights.

"I'm sorry," Mulder apologized when he could talk again. "John and I met at work. I guess you could say I'm still recovering from massive burnout."

"You were at the Bureau with John Jay then? You worked with him?"

"Only a few times," Mulder said, thinking of the handful of times, the oil platform mainly. He and John had become lovers right after that. And not long after, no longer constrained by the Bureau and the fear that Scully's baby was a danger to them all, Mulder had fled DC, off in search of the thing that would save them all. "He's a good man. I'm sorry if this is difficult for your family to accept, but I love him. He is my everything."

"Mr. Mulder," Abe said. "True love needs no apology. And the last thing anyone around here expects from John Jay is for him to offer excuses or make apologies."

"Who's here, Junie?" Doggett asked, indicating the BFT with a slight jerk of his chin at the vehicle in question.

"Oh, that's Auggie's new showpiece," Junie said, dismissively. Auggie was August James Doggett, her youngest brother. Auggie worked for Clyde Beecher who owned the local GM dealership. Despite the fact that Auggie was Beecher's best salesman, he might have been sleeping in that truck too, for all Doggett knew. Auggie pissed away every cent of every dollar he ever earned. He'd slept in his truck before when he'd been foreclosed on. "He says he's here fishing in the creek. The new Mrs. August James Doggett is in the house. She'd offered to watch your Mama while I was gone picking you up and even though I told her Abe was going to do it, she showed up anyway."

The new Mrs. August James Doggett? So Auggie had apparently sweet-talked some woman into marrying him again. Well, maybe the third time was the charm. "Who is she? Anyone from the area?" Doggett asked, curious. "Was it sudden? Seeing as I didn't hear of it, much less get an invitation."

"Oh, nobody did, John Jay. Seeing as he's her fourth, good sense ruled and they did it in front of a judge at the courthouse. She's actually pretty good with Mama. Used to work as a CNA at the old folks home," Junie said. "We should go in now. Get you settled in. Let me apologize to your Mr. Mulder. I'll bet you both are exhausted from that train ride."

Doggett walked up the steps of the house with a certain finality. He'd been back home fairly recently, but on brief visits, taking care of things, getting things set up. Now, though, he was coming home. And that was hammered home by the fact that when Junie started jabbering at him about whether to put him in his old room from when he was kid, or one of the other rooms, and where to put Mulder, it just rubbed him as wrong as petting a porcupine.

"Junie," he told her, stopping a few feet short of the front door. "I'm not a guest in this house any longer. I live here now. So does Mulder."

That shut her up real good. As if he was going to put up with any nonsense about Fox sleeping in a different room. He reached out and opened the door for her, showing her he was a gentleman, and making clear that from now on, it was her that was the guest. She walked in ahead of him into the front hallway.

They'd made good progress clearing away some of Mama's junk. She'd gotten to be a bit of a packrat in her later years, saving piles of magazines and newspapers, not to mention years worth of junkmail, all carefully rubber banded together. He was grateful to his cousins, especially Junie, for all they'd done for his Mama until he could get it together to get down here. Especially when they had their own mama in a similar state of decline. It was what families did, pulled together like this, even if they didn't always get along so well.

Most of the piles of newspapers and magazines were gone. There were a couple of open boxes left in the hallway containing piles of banded together junk mail. Junie caught how his eyes glanced on them, taking them in with a slight frown. "We discovered some important things in with the old circulars," she apologized. "Old social security checks, bank statements. We really need to go through those before we can toss them."

They'd made progress, true, but as Doggett walked into the main part of the house, he noticed that things were missing. In the living room, there was an empty spot on the shelve where Mama's clock should have been sitting. A painting, just of flowers, not very good as far as Doggett was concerned, was gone. It had always been there though, for as long as he could remember. A couple of other small knick-knack type things were gone from the shelf too. Not that he cared much one way or the other about capodimonte or whatever the porcelain figures had been but it was the thought that they might have been taken or tossed without thought. What had been going on in this house while he wasn't here to watch over things.

"I gotta use the little boy's room. Then I'm gonna see Mama," Doggett said to Junie. "When you're done apologizing to Fox, why don't you send him up to my old room? It's where we'll be settling in."

"Surely," Junie said, then walked back into the front hall and through the swinging door that led to the little hall to the kitchen.

Doggett saw Mulder's big, army-style duffle sitting on the polished wood floor of the front hall. He grabbed it, slung it over his shoulder and hauled it and his own luggage up the stairs. Mulder's duffle was heavier than it looked and the strap was digging into his shoulder by the time he reached the top of stairs.

In the hallway, a very blond woman was folding clothes into a box. She was one of those women who wasn't pretty, she just looked that way. She'd had a good bit too much sun and her skin was the color of leather, though she wasn't yet paying the consequences of wrinkles, but her skin had the kind of texture that suggested it might be only a few years wait. She was skinny and dressed in tight clothes to show that off, rather than looser clothes that might have let a man imagine she had better womanly assets. She looked up from her task at his approach and said, "You must be John Jay. I'm Auggie's wife, Charlene."

Doggett looked at the box and the outfit that Charlene was holding. It was the jacket to a pink suit that Doggett remembered his Mama wearing at Easter in 1969. The box was filled with clothes of similar vintage. Were they cleaning out Mama's closets already?

"I am," Doggett said. He didn't offer his hand or a friendly greeting right away. "Mind if I ask what you're doing?"

"Your mama's closet is so full we can hardly shut the door on it," Charlene explained. "I was just going to run some of them to the Goodwill. Just part of cleaning up her house for her."

"Thanks for your concern but I'll take care of it. You can leave those," Doggett said. He didn't like the thought of her, this woman who was practically a stranger, pawing through his Mama's closet as if she were already dead, taking her clothes to the Goodwill, even if they were decades old. "Where's Mama?"

"She's sleeping still," Charlene said, indicating the bedroom they were standing in front of.

Junie walked into the kitchen as Mulder was playing with the last bits of the pecan pie, deciding that he wouldn't finish it off after all. All the reassurances of Abe aside, Mulder felt certain that this had been nothing but a mistake, his coming down like this. But as always he was going to stand by his decisions.

Junie smiled briefly and said, "I see Abe got you settled down good with a slice of pie. I made it with John Jay's mother's recipe. Passed down from her mother I suppose. Her people were Dandridges you know."

Junie spoke nervously, her voice slipping into higher pitches occasionally. John must have put the fear of God into her somehow. As she talked, she grabbed a mug for herself and poured herself coffee. She reached seemingly automatically for a shirt pocket and pulled out a familiar red and white package. But then she put it back in her pocket. Ah, that would explain her overtly minty breath and perfumery odor. She was a smoker, but one of those who took pains to conceal it when in public.

"I suppose I shouldn't. John Jay would have a fit," she said, with a weak smile again. "He's made it clear as crystal that he's now the man of the house. As is his right. This is his Mama's house and he's the one with the care of her now that she can't care for herself."

Mulder had heard on the train down. How Mrs. Doggett had been afraid that the kind of decline she'd seen among numerous of the elders of her family would affect her. She'd asked John to take her power of attorney long ago, asked him to come and take care of her when it did. John hadn't been expecting it so soon. But you never did when it was your own parents. Somehow, in memory, they always towered over you, giants, fearsome in their power. To see the giants shrink was inevitable, but heartbreaking.

Junie had continued to talk as Mulder pulled his piles of fleece together. He turned away from woolgathering when he heard her say, "I'm sorry, Mr. Mulder. I'm sure John Jay would be quick to point out that my biggest flaw is to speak about a full minute before my brain is engaged. I was unspeakably rude to you. I hope you can consider forgiving me. The fact that John Jay chose you should have been good enough for me off the bat."

"Thank you, Junie," Mulder said, not quite sure what to take of the turn of events. John must have impressed something on her, somehow. "I appreciate that my presence is bound to be disruptive and that what John and I are to each other might not be as readily accepted as I'd like."

"We're old-fashioned here in this neck of the woods, Mr. Mulder," she said. "Or could I call you Fox? Seeing as I'm your man's favorite cousin."

That would be a tough call. He suspected that no one would want to just call him Mulder, like he was accustomed to asking. Fox might not be so bad, depending on how they used it. It was a word that could be a caress or a knife. Like any other word, he thought. And he was willing to give this cousin a second chance, just because a man like Abe had chosen her and that John seemed willing to extend another chance as well.

"That would be fine, Junie," he said. "Now, where'd John end up?"

Doggett peered around the doorway into the den of femininity that was his mother's room. A few years after his father's death, she'd redecorated, expunging all traces of anything masculine. The wallpaper was a florid cabbage rose print in a nearly lurid combination of pink, yellow and green. Though the colors had hardly faded since his teenage years, it seemed tired, worn out. There were gray-black smudges here or there, stains from being brushed by hands in passage. The carpet had once been the exact pink of the wallpaper but had faded unevenly and been stained, so some spots were dark, others nearly white. It had not, like his mother, held up well to the test of time.

When he'd last talked to the family before coming down, he'd been told about a probable mini-stroke affecting her higher facilities even more. The possibility of more on the horizon and a much quicker decline for her than expected. She should be in a hospital, he thought, then dismissed it. The family had dragged her to the doctors again and again. It mainly seemed to affect her language skills. She could hardly talk anymore and her motor coordination on her left side had deteriorated, they'd said. She wouldn't want to be there. She'd told him again and again that she wanted to die at home. It was her big fear- to die in a big city hospital, possibly with doctors and nurses controlling who could be there.

There was a small mound in the middle of the big high tester bed. Someone had put up guardrails on either side of the bed, like you'd put on a kid's bed so they wouldn't roll out. The mound was very small and very still and Doggett nearly ran to it, just to make sure that Mama was still breathing, the mound seemed that unmoving.

But then, if he listened hard, he could hear a rasping breath in, then a whistling breath out, all hardly louder than a whisper.

He walked carefully to the bed, silently as he could not to wake her. He regarded his mother, the wisps of white hair, the pale crepe of her skin, blue veins easily visible under it, same with tendons, all her integral structure becoming more and more revealed, apparent to the wide world. As if the substance of her was slipping away and there was only fragile structure left.

His father had been a hale and seemingly healthy man when he had died. Not like this. It had been shock that had rocked them all to the core. Doggett wasn't sure what was harder, seeing his daddy crumple to a heap right at his feet or watching his mama drift away like this.

Mulder made his way up the stairs noting the creaks here and there that must be so familiar they were unnoticed by members of the household. Dusty cases filled with small, stuffed birds lined the walls- the mottled brown of pheasants, small gray doves frozen forever into flight, one big case with a wild turkey was set into a niche in the wall. They must have been antiques- the cases themselves were finely finished walnut, patinaed with time, the glass rounded and bowed out like it never was these days. It was a sight both macabre and melancholy, these animals, so carefully preserved, so neglected, and trapped in the motions of freedom forever. Mulder's throat tightened looking at them for some reason. He was going to ask John, he decided, if they could possibly be taken down, at least temporarily.

At the top of the stairs, Mulder saw John, pawing through a box of old clothes, muttering obscenities that Mulder had never heard him use before, much less in description of a woman.

"Goddamn fucking bitch cunt," Doggett was muttering over the box. He noticed Mulder and looked up, perhaps a little irritated to have been caught in his swearing.

"What's wrong, John?" Mulder asked.

"This," Doggett said, lifting a coat to reveal a very expensive looking glass dome clock hidden in a box of clothing. Then he put the coat back in place, preserving the evidence like any good cop. "My cousin Auggie's third wife was stealing this. Going to sneak it out of the house in a box supposedly going to Goodwill. Other things, knick-knacks mostly have gone missing. But they've done a lot of cleaning and so I don't know what might have been tossed by mistake or if anything else was taken by this...woman."

"You should call the police," Mulder said. "That clock looks like it's worth enough to be felony theft."

"We don't do things that way down here," John said. "This is family. You don't get the cops involved."

"So, what do you do?" Mulder asked.

"Normally, I'd just talk to Auggie, settle it man to man. I already told the woman she's not welcome in this house," John said, shaking his head. "But Auggie and I get along like oil and water. We haven't seen eye to eye since kindergarten. I'm going to have to talk to Daddy Ray."

The way John said the name, there was a certain amount of fear and awe there, something Mulder had never heard come out of John's mouth. John had plenty of respect for those in power, sure, but there was never that kind of awe.

"Who's Daddy Ray?"

"My uncle, Auggie and Junie's daddy," John said.

Mulder wondered if Auggie and Junie maybe had a sister named May or April, but he didn't say it aloud. John was not in any state for that. "Not looking forward to talking to the man?"

"You could say that," John said. "He never could hear a bad word against Auggie. And he's not going to be pleased to find out that I never did grow out of that phase I went through in high school."

John pushed the box back against the wall, sighed heavily and stood up. "Let's go dig around for some lunch or something before mama wakes up."

Junie was waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. "John Jay," she said, worriedly. "Auggie is waiting outside the house. He wants to talk to you. What's this that you told Charlene she wasn't welcome here?"

"She was packing a box full of Mama's clothes, supposedly for the Goodwill. Mama's mantle clock was in it," John said, neutrally as he must have been able. It must have been an effort for him, considering the ire Mulder had heard just earlier.

At least Junie didn't try to make excuses for the woman or her brother. "I thought it seemed things had gone missing, but there was just so much of everything that went out this house so quick that I couldn't prove anything."

John, meanwhile, hadn't waited for Junie to finish talking, but was already out on the porch. Mulder and Junie followed.

Auggie Doggett was so similar looking to John that he might have been a brother, not a cousin. He was, perhaps, not quite so handsome, but the shape of his face was just like John's, his hair the same brown, brushed off his forehead. But where John always struck Mulder as being like a tightly wound spring, Auggie was slack, almost dissolute seeming. He didn't have half the wrinkles that John did, and even in anger, he was hardly frowning.

"John Jay, what the hell do you mean, insulting my wife like this," Auggie said. His arms were crossed and his legs spread belligerently.

John walked down from the porch and stood within swinging distance of his cousin. "I've got my Mama's clock upstairs in a box she was packing to go to the Goodwill. Now, I'm willing to consider that it was just an honest mistake and not the theft of a valuable if you're willing to admit that maybe your wife shouldn't be put in the way of temptation again."

"How dare you?!" If ever a man was itching to take a swing, Auggie would be the one. John was calm in that coldly controlled way of his, but if you knew the man, you knew that he too, was dying to throw a punch and get into it.

Junie whispered into Mulder's ear, "Best stay out of it. Lot of bad blood between those two."

Mulder hadn't intended on leaving the porch. This would be a strategically inadvisable time to get into who was he and what was he doing there. He might have been rash and impulsive on occasion, but he wasn't stupid.

"Is there going to be blood shed here?" Mulder whispered into Junie's ear.

"Nah," Junie said. "No worries there. John Jay can beat Auggie to a pulp any time he wants. They settled that much years ago. Nothing else between them is settled though."

There was a silent standoff between the two men, neither taking a step towards each other, nor saying another word. Charlene seemed worried that something might happen. She'd been crying, her tanned face wet, but too dark for the unpleasant mottled look some women got crying. "Please, let's just go, Auggie," she said, tugging at the elbow of her husband's plaid shirt. "It was a mistake. I'm sorry. It was all an honest mistake."

Instead of placating her husband, that made the situation worse. Auggie took a step towards John, then swung a wild punch, aimed generally at John's head. You could tell from even just that one punch, which one of the two had been a cop, a Marine, and a Special Agent with the FBI and which one had never been anything but a car salesman.

John ducked the swing, wove under Auggie's arm, had it in a lock before Auggie hardly had time to blink. John must have had him in a non-too-comfortable lock, maybe something involving a thumb, because Auggie huffed and then bellowed like a bull even as John was grabbing his other arm. John manhandled Auggie to the nearest car then threw him onto the hood, just like you'd do any perp. Probably only Mulder saw how John unconsciously reached for where his cuffs would have been. Unable to do more, John just said, his voice hard and harsh, "Auggie, don't you be giving me crap about how I'm watching out for my Mama's best interests. And the next time you take a swing at me, you'd better be prepared to have a foot or two of your hide stripped off."

"You'll be hearing from Daddy Ray," Auggie said, trying to struggle up from the truck hood he was draped over.

"Don't be a crybaby, Auggie. I was just going to call and let him know I'm back in town," John said. He patted Auggie's pants down, then pulled out a set of keys. He tossed them to the blond woman. "Charlene, I'd suggest you drive your husband home. He smells like a brewery."

Then John stepped quickly away from Auggie. Auggie's belligerence seemed to have fled, replaced with an angry shame. John would be paying for this later, in some way or another, Mulder thought. Charlene bundled Auggie into the big truck and drove them both away.

They stood staring at the dust that the truck wheels had left behind.

"Son of a bitch," John muttered, then more clearly, "I guess I'd better give Daddy Ray a call."

"Before Auggie gets a chance," Junie said.

John pulled out his cell phone and made as if to dial, then shut it off in disgust. "We're out of signal range. Figures. I don't know why I bothered to keep the thing."

Then it was back into the house. The phone was in the living room, sitting on one of those odd pieces of furniture that you'd never see in a man's house- a telephone bench. Made out of highly polished cherry wood with an upholstered seat, it looked far too fragile to support a big man like John. The big, shiny black telephone, old enough to have a rotary dial, sat in solitary splendor on the shelf attached to the little chair.

John looked at the phone for a long time, then squared his shoulders. Mulder decided John didn't need any more pressure. And there'd been more than enough family for one day. He said, "I'll just go back upstairs and get our stuff settled in your old room."

Junie spoke up as well, "I ought to be getting back to Mama. And then I'll be there to talk to Daddy Ray once he gets off the phone to you."

Mulder steeled himself not to look at the cases of taxidermy birds as he walked up. At the top of the stairs, he walked quietly past Mrs. Doggett's bedroom, not looking at the box still there, the glass of the clock just barely visible at the top.

He grabbed his own bag and John's from where they were dropped. John's old room, thankfully, had a double bed in it, not the bunkbeds or twin that Mulder had been anticipating. He set the bags down on the bed because it was the only clear space in the room, other than a path to let the door open and lead to the bed.

Mulder guessed that the housecleaning efforts hadn't reached this room yet. But it wasn't likely that John would allow anyone else to help out with the effort again. It'd be up to them to clear out all these piles of magazines, the boxes of what might well be random junk. He opened one box tentatively. Vases, plain glass vases, the kind you get when a florist delivers a bouquet filled the box. Mulder shut the box and went on to the next.

He had reached for it, but he ended up not opening it, feeling suddenly like he was prying. No, not just prying into these boxes, but like he'd inserted himself into a situation where he didn't belong, maybe where he shouldn't belong. He was adding to John's burden, rather than being in a place where he could shoulder part of it.

Doggett stared at the phone for another long minute past the point where Fox's footsteps up had ceased. Time to cowboy up and just do it.

He told himself that now, then reached for the phone. It was heavy, not like phones were these days, light flimsy nothings. You could feel the weight of the wires, the electronics. This phone probably weighed more than any twenty of the little cell phones that sat useless in his pocket. What had he gotten himself into, coming back to this place he said he'd never return to?

He couldn't sit on the phone bench, not so much because he thought he'd break it, but because he needed to stand tall as he made this call. He dialed the numbers. Some things you just didn't forget. The rotary dial spun back into place with each number, a sound and feel from long ago, almost forgotten.

A gruff, yet somehow frail sounding male voice answered the phone, the voice of a man not yet ready to admit to his own decline. Daddy Ray was only sixty-eight to his forty-three, but the man was still probably smoking three packs a day. It was a miracle he'd not yet gotten lung cancer.

"Doggett residence," Daddy Ray said, impatiently.

"Daddy Ray?" Doggett asked. "It's good to hear your voice. This is John Jay. I just got back into town. I thought I should warn you. There's been some trouble here at my Mama's house. I wanted to let you know before you heard about it from elsewhere."

"Well, it's about time you came home to set things right. Your place is here and you should have been here long ago."

The stiffly righteous voice grated on Doggett like a handful of broken glass on raw skin. He started to wince, but stopped himself. No one said it was going to be easy, he told himself. Be a man.

But it was easier to be a man and take his licks out in the world than it was to be a man here where you could tell that Daddy Ray saw him as no older than the day he'd left to join the Marines, and very probably much younger.

"As I was saying, there was some trouble here," Doggett began again. "I found my Mama's mantle clock in a box of old clothes meant to go to Goodwill. That box was packed by Charlene, Auggie's new wife."

Daddy Ray didn't talk for a long time. Minutes that seemed to stretch into forever. The man must have been spitting mad. When he did talk again, he said, "That Charlene is nothing but trouble, has been from the very start. Throwing herself at Auggie the way she did. He just can't see her for what she really is, he's so head over heels for her. Sometimes love blinds even a good man like that."

Of course. Whatever the problem, Auggie could have no part of the responsibility for it.

"I told Charlene she wasn't welcome at my Mama's house any more," Doggett said. "Auggie took exception to that. Tried to throw a punch at me. He couldn't land it. He was drunker than a skunk."

"Well, you called his wife a thief, of course he objected. You can't be saying those kinds of things, John Jay, even if you think it's true. Now, you just keep a close eye on that vixen when she's over."

Uh-uh. No way he was going to let Daddy Ray steamroller him that way. "No, I said it before and I'll say it again. She's not welcome here. And to be honest, Daddy Ray, I think Auggie has a problem with his drinking. He was lit like the fourth of july fireworks and it wasn't even noon yet."

"Mind your business, John Jay," Daddy Ray said, warningly.

Doggett took a deep breath, trying to screw up some monumental courage and resolve. He didn't want this phone call to go on much longer. Not if he wanted this acid in his stomach to stop before it had completely burned a hole through. But there was something else he had to say. Best get it over with.

"There's something else you need to hear from me first," he said. Before Daddy Ray could inject even a word, he continued, "I brought someone home with me. His name's Fox Mulder. He and I will be living together in my Mama's house."

Daddy Ray didn't quite comprehend at first. "This one of your city friends? What's he doing down here?"

"Let's just say that I never got over that phase I went through in high school and I'm sick of lying about it," Doggett said. "I found someone I love like I should have loved Barbara."

Again, there was a long silence. Daddy Ray wasn't a man to speak off the top of his head. He thought things through before saying them. Too bad he was just such a pigheaded bastard that his logic went from wrong supposition to close-minded, idiotic conclusion with the inevitability of a freight train.

"You don't do this to your family, John Jay," he said about thirty seconds after Doggett was beginning to wonder if he'd had a heart attack or stroke from the outrage of it all. "You're your daddy's only son. You do not come home and announce you're a faggot and furthermore, you do not bring some sissygirl boyfriend to live in sin with you in your Mama's house."

"Well, that's just what I'm doing and you can't do a damn thing about it," Doggett said before he could think better of it. Damn his temper, but something about the man just stuck in his craw. And made him feel like he was about thirteen again, full of spite and vinegar, rebelling against him for the sake of rebellion.

"If your daddy could hear you say that right now, he'd be rolling in his grave," Daddy Ray said.

Bastard. That was a real low blow, bringing his father into this. Thing was, Daddy Ray was probably right, but that didn't mean they weren't fighting words.

"Well let him," Doggett said. "This is my life. Nothing to do with you. Nothing to do with him."

"Like hell it doesn't have anything to do with me," Daddy Ray said.

"Like hell it does."

"You don't talk like that to me, John Jay Doggett," Daddy Ray said, threateningly.

"What are you going to do about it? I'm forty-three, I've buried my only child and I served my country in the Marines. That means I'm a man. Not thirteen for you to take out behind the woodshed with a switch."

Daddy Ray snorted, "Some man."

"You know, I didn't expect that you'd approve and it doesn't matter to me that you don't. I just wanted you to hear it from me first," Doggett said. "I can't see that there's much more to say really. I'll be seeing you around, Daddy Ray."

First Doggett pressed down the button on the cradle to disconnect. Only then did he slam the phone down with a resounding crash. The ringer even chimed inside the phone. It wasn't quite satisfying enough, but it seemed foolish to pick it up and do it again. "Bastard!" he fumed, then turned around just in time to see Fox bolt back up the stairs again.

Mulder had made his decision. This wasn't the time or the place for him to be. He wouldn't abandon John completely. He was going to take the rental car back to Atlanta and get himself settled there. John could come visit. He could sneak back for a few discreet visits. John just didn't need the extra conflict of having a male lover around. It'd been a mistake, coming down here like this. It wasn't that Mulder was a coward. He thought he'd proved that again and again in his life. But there was facing the flames and there was standing there pouring gallons of kerosene on them, and he was pretty sure which one he was doing.

He went back down the stairs, wondering if John had worked up the courage to call this Daddy Ray man yet. Maybe John hadn't made the call yet. Maybe he should just go down, tell John it wouldn't be necessary. He crept down past the stuffed birds and had gotten as far as the doves when he heard John's voice rise in anger. "I've buried my only child," John was saying. "And I've served my country in the Marines. That means I'm a man, not thirteen for you to take out behind the woodshed."

John listened for a short moment then started again, obviously not liking what he'd heard, "You know, I didn't expect that you'd approve and it doesn't matter to me that you don't. I just wanted you to hear it from me first. I can't see that there's much more to say really. I'll be seeing you around, Daddy Ray."

Then came the phone slam, its ringing crash, and John's silent fuming. He was looking around the living room, looking for something to throw. Mulder was familiar from his childhood days, too familiar, with calls that ended this way. There would be an argument to follow almost certainly, the screaming, things ending up broken kind of argument that his parents always used to have. Mulder couldn't help it. He fell back on childhood patterns, back up the stairs, hoping he wouldn't be caught and drawn into it.

John had seen him afterall, because he started following Mulder, taking the stairs at a run. Then halfway up, quiet but penetrating moans could be heard from the upstairs. John's mama, in need of something, perhaps in some pain. Ignoring Mulder for the moment, John started taking the steps two at a time, brushing Mulder as he passed him.

By the time Mulder had ventured into the bower of pink that was John's mother's room, John was already kneeling by his mother's big, high tester bed, murmuring at her, touching her face. Mulder didn't pass much further than the door. At the foot of the bed stood a man, one who resembled John, long, slim, craggy looking. And a genuine red-neck in the truest sense of the word, a man who spent all his life working outside. This man turned at Mulder's approach, looked Mulder directly in the eyes, then nodded once slowly, as if in approval. The man turned back to watching the scene on the bed. Could this be John's father, dead from a heart attack decades ago? John didn't notice the man at all, but Mulder didn't think he would.

Mulder had seen ghosts before his brush with death, but since waking from the grave, it was hard not to see the departed. They gathered here and there, you could see them on street corners, in churches, in houses. Most of them seemed lost, or, perhaps just waiting for something. This ghost seemed to be waiting for John's mother. Mulder thought that it wouldn't be long that he was kept waiting. He looked down lovingly from the foot of the bed at the slight form now thrashing weakly.

"Mama," John said, anguished. "It's me. It's your John Jay."

John's mother stilled slightly, but only when the ghost walked around to the other side of the bed and sat down on it, then reached out a hand and touched her hand. John's mother kept on moaning slightly and her hand kept going to her head.

"Are you in pain, Mama?" John asked the non-responsive woman. Slowly though, whether from the touch of her son's hand, or her ghostly husband's touch, or from simple exhaustion, she drifted back to quiet again, her eyes closing. John gave her hand one very light squeeze then released it. He stood up and headed out of the bedroom. He'd nearly reached the door before he noticed Mulder standing in the doorway. Their eyes met and they stared silently at each other for a long time. John seemed to find something there, in Mulder's eyes, something that provided some comfort, some reassurance, because the topographical map of wrinkles that his forehead had become eased somewhat, the wrinkles smoothing. Mulder wondered what it could possibly be, but whatever it was, it made him feel like a traitor for even thinking about bugging out and a fool for feeling like John would behave like his father had behaved. Mulder was reminded why he'd insisted on coming down here and it had nothing to do with John's family, and being accepted by them or not. He was here for John, no one else, to be strong for this beautiful man that he loved in the same way that he could see the ghost of John's father looking at John's mother. Mulder's resolve strengthened, he could continue to look John in the eyes.

"Would you stay here and watch my Mama while I go call the doctor?" John asked finally.

"Of course," Mulder said, not mentioning that John's father was doing that. The ghost had kept his place on the bed, still touching John's mother. John and Mulder changed places, brushing past each other. Mulder grabbed John's wrists as they both stood for a moment in the doorway and he pulled John close. Mulder tentatively placed his lips over John's, the first chance they'd had to kiss since the train. Their kiss was surprisingly passionate for all that it was dry-mouthed, chaste. Despite that, it was a confirmation of everything that they meant to each other, which was as deep as it was fragile at this moment. It would have been a trying time in their relationship, even without outside pressures. And at this moment, to Mulder, so much depended on this man continuing to look at him like he had, with that look of love. Their kiss broke off soon, it had to. They couldn't, not in current circumstances, take it any further, though Mulder ached for that.

John was down the stairs. Mulder listened closely, counting John's steps. Yes, there was the squeak on the sixth step, and then the ninth step sounded, not a squeak, but different than the others, as if it were tighter.

Mulder turned back to the room. The only chair was the one at the vanity. It was a low backed, dark cherry with a pink upholstered seat. The vanity itself was fuzzed with a light layer of dust over the dark cherry wood, over the silver dresser set, over the mirror tray with the perfume bottles.

Mulder turned the chair so he could watch the woman in the bed. John's father looked up and spoke to Mulder. That was unusual. Usually only his own, personal beloved dead talked to him.

"You take care of my boy, hear?" John's father said. "These next days are going to be hard on him."

Mulder nodded. He didn't want there to be a chance that John would hear him. He just wouldn't understand, didn't want to understand. Mulder could accept that of him. It was a compromise the pair of them had come to. And Mulder was tired, after all the years with Scully, trying to turn her into a believer and time after time, butting his head against the wall of her disbelief. He just wanted to love and accept John the way he was, not make the same mistake he had made with Scully.

The phone rang as Doggett was about to reach for it. He picked it up and said, "Doggett residence."

"Is that you, John Jay?" the female voice on the other end of the line said. It was Barbara, his sister Barbara, not his ex-wife Barbara.

"Yeah, it's me, Barbie," he said, just because he knew she couldn't stand that childhood nickname. "Where are you calling from? Can I call you back. I really need to call the doctor for Mama."

"You can't call me back. I'm a public phone in a two bit village about a hundred miles from Guanajuato. We're about to move on back to the hill country. No phone there," she said. "I just was getting through with my duty call to Mama. Is she not well?"

"You could say that. I'd suggest you get your ass back here to the States now if you want to see her alive again, as in get on a plane today. She's had a series of strokes. Doesn't seem like she's got long. She's very weak, Barb. She's dying."

"I just can't come," Barbara said.

"Why not?" Doggett asked. It was always something. With Barbara, it was usually drugs, though last he'd talked to her, she claimed she was clean and had been for a while. Still, Doggett had to admit that his good for nothing sisters had nothing on Junie's good for nothing brothers.

"No money," she said.

"Get to someplace with a Western Union office. I'll wire you enough to get home."

"I can't come home, John Jay. There's an outstanding warrant on me," she said.

Jesus. He'd known she was trouble, but that was too much. How could two people so opposite have come from the same parents? At heart, he was a lawman. He loved the law, the order and grandeur of it. And Barbara, she was always petty crook at heart, always with some scheme for getting around the rules, some scam for having things her way.

"What for?" he asked, his voice tight with disappointment. There was a time where he'd adored Barbara, where she'd been the baby sister who gazed up at him with stars in her eyes.

"I passed a bunch of bad checks when I was last up there," she said. "I didn't mean for them to be bad. There was this deal that I was sure would go through and it didn't."

"So, we pay off the people you ripped off, and get it straightened out. You really need to get up here, Barbie. She's going to pass soon," he said, wondering just how much it would cost him to get her straightened out. He wondered if he could even afford it without going into debt. And that didn't even take into account the pride he'd have to put aside, bailing her out this way.

"It's not that simple, John Jay, and you know it," she said.

"You just don't want to come. Why don't you just tell the truth?" he asked. "I know you and Mama had your issues, but that makes it even more important that you get here before she passes."

"That's easy for you to say," she accused. "You were the favorite son. Nothing you could do or say was wrong."

"Now, that's not true," he said, knowing it was. Their mama could be mean as piss, but she saved the worst of it for her two girls. "I know she could be as mean as a cornered coon at times."

"At times? Jesus, did we even grow up on the same planet?" she demanded. Then she hung up. He stared at the phone handset. How was he going to get in touch with her now? He couldn't even do star 69 on a rotary phone, to see if it would call her back, if that even worked on Mexican numbers.

Who'd have thought that he'd have a sister who was a fugitive hiding out in Mexico? Him, Mr. FBI. Thank God she must have done it after he'd joined the Bureau and was just an ordinary, never been caught pothead and small-time dealer before. Otherwise, he'd never have passed the security check.

She did have a certain point, he could admit that. Some of the things his parents, and Daddy Ray had done to them growing up, would be called abuse in this day and age. They called it discipline back then, and back then, you'd practically have to half kill a child repeatedly for the state to take it away. His Mama had mostly left his disciplining to first his father, then to Daddy Ray when Daddy passed, making it seem even more like she favored him.

He was about to click the hang-up button again to get a dial tone, when he heard Fox call down to him, sounding desperate, panicked. He ran back up the steps, taking them two at a time. He found Fox, kneeling on the bed beside his Mama, applying compressions to her chest. Fox paused in the middle of a mouth to mouth to say, "I was just sitting there and she stopped breathing. I..."

Fox was about to dive back down, wild-eyed, for another breath, but Doggett stopped him with a touch of the hand on his cheek.

"No," he said. "It's her time. She'd hate to die in a hospital."

Fox seemed about to protest, but he did as John directed and climbed off the bed. She was gone already, truly. Her chest didn't rise again. She had that stillness that you saw only in the dead. This was it. He waited a minute, two, then he pressed his hand against her still warm skin, feeling her throat, trying to find a pulse under his fingers and not finding one.

"At least I had a chance to see her one last time," Doggett said, after releasing a breath out. "We should start calling people."

Mulder had been expecting to look in John's eyes and see a certain something in them diminished, the fight in him to be gone. Instead, it seemed to be flaring even higher. You had to know the man to know that the stillness was just a prelude to some action, that it was a quiet burning going on in there.

John made as if to go downstairs, but Mulder blocked his way, wrapping his arms around John as he attempted to pass.

"I'm sorry, John," Mulder said. "So sorry. I know you didn't think it would be this soon. You think you're prepared for this kind of thing, but you never are."

The tears started to gather in John's eyes, but then he pushed them away at the same time he pushed Mulder away. "Not now," he said. "Don't be sorry for me just yet. There's things we gotta do. People we gotta call. Don't make me feel weak in front of them. Later there'll be time."

Mulder nodded. He hadn't thought about that. John, for the sake of his own pride, would need to feel strong and unmoved, the epitome of a real man, in front of these people. Especially because at the same time as he was confronting his grief, he had come home with another man and that obviously made them think of him as less than a man.

"What can I do for you?" Mulder asked.

"Close her eyes," John said, avoiding looking at the still form of his mother. Her blue eyes, unseeing and clouded over, were still open, just as they'd opened half a minute before her last breath. He didn't wait until Mulder had done it, but immediately headed downstairs.

Mulder reached out and touched John's mother's face. One, delicate brush down was all it took to close her eyes. They were like crepe paper, like the rest of her skin. She must not have eaten or drunk much during the last couple of days, already starting to drift to the other side. It was strange to be touching someone so intimately, on the face, only after they were dead.

A short time later, a pair of serious men with a gurney were heading up the stairs, in no particular hurry. They were from the funeral home. There was a doctor up there already, John's mother's regular doctor and a friend of the family. He'd already pronounced. No need for the usual accoutrements of death as Mulder had usually experienced it. There would be no autopsy, no police inquiry, none of the inevitable post-mortem puzzle of a violent death.

Death was a common companion of his, not as much since he'd left the Bureau, but he'd been part of the aftermath of so much death during his life. He'd been one of the people who peered at the pieces left over trying to build a picture of just what had happened. He'd been the agent of death more often than he cared to think. Hardly ever had he been a simple observer of a natural slipping away like this. It was almost gentle, comparatively.

The house was slowly filling up with people. Junie and Abe were back, talking softly and comfortingly to everyone. John still hadn't gotten off the phone. It was as if he was determined to call everyone in the family himself. The times where Mulder had taken a station near John, the calls had gone fast and furious. Though at the moment, John had been on the phone for nearly an hour with someone named Gin, who appeared to be a sister.

Mulder tried to stay in the background, out of the line of questions, until suddenly he was confronted by an older man who looked like both John and John's father. The man was smoking, using a drinking glass as an ashtray, which immediately stiffened Mulder's spine, thinking immediately of a certain, other old man smoking. The man hacked a rough sounding cough, before drawing in a deep puff from his cigarette. He breathed it out, thankfully away from Mulder, before he said, "You're Fox Mulder."

It was not a question. It was an accusation. He could not have said 'bastard' or 'faggot' with more disgust.

"Yes," Mulder said, as mildly as he could force himself. This was obviously some family elder, no doubt worthy of respect, at least in the context of who he was in the family, if not in the real sense of having earned it by his personal interactions.

"Raymond Doggett," the man said, but he didn't offer his hand to shake. "John Jay's uncle."

This must be the Daddy Ray they'd talked about. The man hardly wasted another breath before going on to threaten. "If you know what's good for you and for John Jay, you'll be gone before sunset. You won't be sticking around for the funeral."

Mulder bristled, but now was not the time for a scene. He chose a quiet voice, yet one that would brook no argument from someone who had any clue. There was an iron backbone to that voice, one that promised that nothing could make him step down. "I'm here because John Jay asked me to be. I'll be leaving when he asks me to leave."

With that, there was a big crash, the sound of a big glass object tumbling and breaking. It'd come from the direction of the stairs and everyone turned to look. The serious men from the funeral home had been carrying the gurney back down with its light burden. They'd brushed one of the cases and knocked it to the floor. The bow fronted glass had shattered.

John put the phone down and rushed there. Somehow, Mulder had expected John to be unhappy about the glass case. It seemed like the appropriate object for displacement, a display of anger that might express some of the grief he was feeling, but couldn't display, not without appearing weak. But he ignored that, brushed it away with an impatient sweep of a foot. Instead, he put a hand on the shoulder of the man at the foot of the gurney. "Be careful with her," John said, sternly, forbiddingly. Even Mulder when he was on a tear wouldn't have ignored that warning. "That's my mother. I expect you to take good care of her."

"Of course, sir," the funeral home man said. "I'm very, very sorry."

John seemed prepared to back off, but Daddy Ray approached them. The man just had a real talent for trouble-making, Mulder decided. But family was like that. They knew you so well. Of course they could push all your buttons with such ease. After all, they were the ones that had installed them.

"You leave them be, John Jay," Daddy Ray said. "The Finches have been burying Doggetts and everyone else in this town for four generations. They know what they're doing. They handled your daddy's funeral just fine. Let 'em get on with it."

John's eyes widened for a moment and you could see the anger flare in them. But he suppressed it, at least momentarily. "Right," he said. He turned to the undertakers. "That's right. I'm sorry to have spoken like that. My mama's dead, but that's no excuse for me to be less than a gentleman."

A few minutes were spent on small apologies and reassurances that no offense had been given, and gradually, the gurney with John's dead mother had made its way out the front door and into the black van that served as the funeral home's utility vehicle. Only once the van had driven away, John let his temper have its way, let it out all the way to the end of the leash.

"Daddy Ray," he said, as they stood on the front porch still, watching the van pull out the driveway. "Get the hell out of this house right now and don't you ever try and tell me what to do again."

"You can't talk to me like that, boy," Daddy Ray said, punctuating his sentence with flicks of his cigarette ash into the drinking glass.

John's father and mother had been walking around the room all afternoon, unseen except by Mulder and they were on the porch now, watching the altercation. John's mother still was wrinkled and gray, but she seemed much younger than she had been, standing tall, her face not ashen or crepe like. She had been, Mulder could see despite the years, a very pretty woman once. Now she stood side by side with the man that had waited for her. She was a short woman, not even reaching the tall man's shoulders. She wore, not the nightgown that Mulder had last seen her in, but a pink suit, like a woman of a certain age would wear to church on Sunday. Shouldn't the pair of them have moved on to the next world together? Or was there some reason for their lingering?

John had turned on the porch light, illuminating Daddy Ray and himself in dim yellow light, against the soft purple dark that had descended. Only a small cone of light was cast and the ghosts and everyone else stood in shadow. Mulder watched Junie mutter to herself under her breath and try and step forward. Abe restrained her with only a soft hand to her shoulder and a whisper in her ear that Mulder didn't catch. After that, they went into the house together, leaving Mulder uncomfortably trapped, with Daddy Ray and John standing in the way between him and the door.

"Until you treat me with the respect that I deserve as a man, I can't see as we've got anything to say to each other, Daddy Ray," John said.

"You're no man," Daddy Ray said. "You're a faggot. I told your mama maybe the Marines would cure you of being a pussyboy faggot, and we thought it worked. You never saw how many tears she cried when she found out you were carrying on with that Beecher boy. You don't know how hard your mama prayed for the Lord to change you and how happy she was when you brought a wife home. Now, you're just going to waltz in here, trampling on everything she believed, and you think I'm not going to say anything while you flount your faggot boyfriend in front of everyone?"

"Get out," John said, his voice low and furious. Mulder had never heard it like that before, not during any of their confrontations over the X-files. Never. It was almost frightening, the voice of a man that could do anything. "Get back in your car and drive away from here. If you ever decide you can talk civil to me and my lover, then, maybe I might accept your apology. But otherwise, don't bother to come back."

There was a long silence, more like the eye at the center of the hurricane than anything else. Mulder and the ghosts stared at John and Daddy Ray, watching to see what they would do next. John and Daddy Ray were staring at each other, glaring. Then Daddy Ray set the drinking glass he'd been using for an ashtray on the porch railing with a click that sounded unnaturally loud in quiet of the night. Daddy Ray walked away without another word. But this was not the end of it, far from it, Mulder thought, wondering what the next volley of shots in this little war would be. John, for his part, turned to the house. He walked in, hardly seeming to care even that he shut the door after himself. Mulder hurried behind him, worried what this intense silence meant. John strode through the hallway, ignoring Junie who was squatting on the floor, picking up pieces of glass from the case. She'd set the wood base and the stuffed dove that had fallen out aside.

"John Jay?" she asked as he passed her.

He didn't stop or answer her. Instead, he opened a door to a room off the living room that hadn't yet been opened. The room, Mulder saw through the door, was a kind of shrine to the masculinity that was missing everywhere else in the house. Paneled, knotty pine walls, more stuffed animals- these more conventional deer heads and a dusty mallard in frozen flight. There was a plaid couch and an old console television set. On the far wall was a big gun safe. John spun the combination quickly and the safe opened with a solid thunk. His only hesitation was over which one of the dozen rifles and shotguns to take out. A moment later, his hand was on one of the shotguns. John pulled it out of its rack in the safe and inspected it carefully, breaking the stock to look down the double barrels, looking over the trigger mechanism carefully. Junie joined Mulder at the doorway, staring in at John Jay. Mulder looked at her, asking silently what she thought was going on. Meanwhile, John was loading his pockets full of shells, inspecting each one at first, then just dumping boxes into pockets.

"What are you doing, John?" Mulder asked as John grabbed a set of ear protectors from the safe. Mulder really wasn't sure for a minute. Mulder thought he knew John, would have said that this was a man who would discharge his weapon only under the most severe duress. But that look in his eyes was wildfire anger, and suddenly Mulder wasn't sure he knew this man.

"Don't, Fox," John said, slamming the gun safe shut. "Just leave it for a little bit."

Then John was gone, storming through the house again, and Junie spoke up. "They've got kind of a shooting range out in the back forty," she said. "Lights and everything. He'll be fine. He just needs to blow off some steam. As you can see, talking to Daddy Ray can do that to a person."

Mulder relaxed when he heard that. He could understand that. There'd been times in his life where the only thing that had really helped was heading down to the range and putting round after round in the center of the target. Imagining the target to be the cause of his anger. A safe release, he supposed. "Is that shotgun he took safe? It looks like it's been a while since any of this was used," he said. This den looked like it might as well as have been shut up when John's father had died and not been opened since.

"Abe borrows the guns for hunting season. He won't have them in the house, but he seems to think that going along with the boys helps them accept him. So, Abe looks after the guns. The ammo is just from last fall," Junie said. "C'mon. Let's get some food into you. You're so pale. You look like you're about to fall over."

From the distance, Mulder heard the sounds of a shotgun blast, then again. "I think you might be right, Junie," he said, suddenly feeling how hollow he was, the day and its reversals and upheavals catching up with him.

"You can tell me about how you and John Jay met while you eat," she said, motioning him in the direction of the kitchen with a jerk of her head.

"It's a long, long story," Mulder said, thinking of how much of it she probably wasn't going to believe. Hell, when looked at objectively, it wasn't very believable, even for him. How was he going to tell her that her cousin was the man who hadn't wanted him dug up from the grave after three months in it? Or that he'd spent much of the last two years separated from John because he'd been fighting against an alien menace that was now gone? That there was no proof of any more, if there ever had been.

"We got a while, I figure," she said as she shepherded him into the kitchen. "I saw how much ammo John Jay took. Probably a while before he'll be back."

Doggett returned to the house feeling drained of his anger enough to function, but hardly any better. As he approached the back door, he saw light from the kitchen and heard voices talking. Not ready yet to talk to anyone, he headed through the side yard, finding his way around the garden with only the dim moonlight to guide him. If it hadn't been a familiar place, he would have stumbled around in the dark, tripping over plants. There was the concrete bench next to the angel statue. A stray moonbeam lit the angel's passive, serene face. Doggett sat down on the bench for a while and stared at the statue. Seconds stretched to minutes and probably added up to an hour as he sat there and thought.

If you believed in the God that Mama believed in, she was already there, where the angels were. He didn't believe. He couldn't. It was all just a bunch of stories that people made up to feel better about themselves. He couldn't believe in a God that would have allowed his son to be killed the way he was. And besides, if you believed in the God that Mama believed in, well, he'd never be allowed to join her up there with the angels. He and Fox were destined for the other place.

Doggett rubbed his face, smelling the residue of gunpowder that surrounded him like a fog. He wanted to get upstairs, to shower and change, to see if that helped him any. He turned his back on the angel and stood up again. Grabbing the gun, he found his way to the front door. In the hallway, the glass from the taxidermy case had been cleared away. The case itself had been set carefully on a table. No way they could probably fix it. They just didn't make glass like that these days. Those birds had been shot by his great-grandfather. There was even a Carolina Parakeet among them, a bird now extinct.

He passed the broken case by and went for the den. He didn't stop to clean the shotgun. He'd do that later. Gun stashed, the safe clanking securely closed, he went to go see who was still here. He hoped that Fox would be, but was afraid he wasn't. Doggett had gotten a good look at Fox's expression as he'd been grabbing the shotgun out of the safe and there had been fear there. Fear that Doggett might go do something stupid. Fear of the anger.

Doggett paused outside of the kitchen, listening before he pushed the swinging door in. Fox was asking, "So, John's friends really drove that tank down Main street?"

"Oh, you bet they did," Junie said. "I was there. I was just a twerp at the time, but John's buddy, Sandy Clemens, was sweet on me and I made him bring me along. Only I was smart enough to duck out soon enough and not get caught."

Enough of old stories for tonight, enough reminiscences. There'd be plenty of that soon enough when Gin arrived tomorrow. For now, he wanted, no, needed Fox in his arms. It'd been so long since they'd even been able to sleep together. He could almost feel that long, slender body in his arms, smell the musky, masculine smell of Fox's body, feel the silkiness of Fox's hair under his finger tips. And that was enough to propel him into the kitchen.

Abe, Junie, Fox and Junie's sister April were sitting around the table. A few remains of a meal lingered there, plates with uneaten pie crusts, cups of coffee at elbows, that kind of thing, but a sparkling clean load of dishes on the drainboard testified that a meal had been eaten already and mostly cleaned up. The instant Doggett poked his head into the kitchen, both the women were on their feet, trying to motherhen at him, asking him if he wanted anything, if they could fix him a plate, all of that. And that wasn't the kind of care and comfort he needed right now. Fox would understand. And Fox could let him cry without feeling any less of a man about it.

"April, Junie, Abe," he began.

But he needn't have spoken. Abe got to his feet, stretched and said, "Ladies, I believe it's time we got ourselves homewards bound. You need a ride, April?"

"I came up with Daddy Ray," she said. She seemed to have gotten on with Fox better than Doggett had expected she would. She was the older of Daddy Ray's two daughters by a few years. She was short, running to pudgy with age, built on her mama's frame, not the Doggett lean and rangy model. She was an enthusiastic church goer, though she didn't go to the same Baptist church they'd all been raised in, but to the Episcopalians in the next town over. She was the first to head out, stopping in the doorway to say to him, "See you tomorrow, John Jay. I'll be praying for your mama."

Then she made a mock punch at him, just tapping him on the chin with her fist, even though she had to reach up to do it. She added, "And it's too bad you've had to be such a stranger all these years. We've missed you down here, no matter what Daddy Ray says. At least I've missed you."

Doggett couldn't stop his eyes from flicking over to Fox, who was gathering the dessert plates and coffee cups.

"He's a handsome one for sure," April said, standing on her tiptoes to whisper at him. "'Bout breaks my heart he's taken. You always did have the best taste in boys. If anything, this one is even more handsome than that Beecher boy. You look surprised, John Jay."

He was. That April seemed to have taken such a liking to Fox. That she was so sanguine about the fact that her cousin was a fag. That she wasn't pouring her religious crap down his throat. But for the moment, what he wanted from her was that she be out of here. "We'll talk later, April," he said.

It took a little while, but at last, the three of them were cleared out of the house, leaving Fox and Doggett alone in a resoundingly quiet and empty house. Only the kitchen was lit at the moment, the bulbs in the fixture casting a tired, yellow light on the avocado and harvest gold room. They stared at each other, Doggett suddenly so exhausted he could do nothing more. Even moving to sit down seemed beyond his capability at the moment. He looked into Fox's eyes, a silent plea to do something, to take charge. And Fox did.

"You ready for bed?" Fox asked. "I know it's early, but neither of us got much sleep on that train and it's been a heck of a day."

"Yeah, I'm ready for some shut eye, I think," Doggett said. Suddenly, Fox's arm was around his shoulder and he was being led to the stairs. He didn't think he could do it, but one after the other, his feet lifted themselves and he climbed the steps, listening for the familiar sounds as first his, then Fox's feet hit all the usual squeaks. Doggett, for all that he'd been away most of his adult life, loved this house, loved the big rooms and the old, fusty furniture. He loved the woods and ravine behind the house, remembering many long summer days as a child spent there. Doggett stopped at the case with the brilliant red and green feathers. The Carolina parakeet. He touched the glass, tracing a finger as if he could stroke the feathers inside. He didn't offer any explanation to Fox. Fox looked away.

"They're creepy," Fox said, after a while. "Like they might start moving any minute."

"They're long dead," Doggett said. "My great grand-daddy killed them. This was his house once. It's been in my family since he built it."

"Let's go to bed," Fox said, taking the last couple of steps. He led the way into Doggett's old bedroom, through a path of boxes stacked waist high. At least the bed was empty, with a small path cleared around it. Fox started undressing, pulling the belt out of his jeans, kicking off his boots.

Doggett did the same, stripping down to his boxers, his usual choice for sleeping. It was a short trip to the bed. He got there before Fox, his head finding a pillow. Fox settled down next to him, then shifted until they were curled around each other, Doggett's head on Fox's chest, Fox's arms around him. One of Fox's hands drifted upwards, finding Doggett's hair and started stroking. Doggett felt a soft kiss on the top of his head. And that was when he lost it.

No, that was when he felt safe enough that he could let it go. Here in Fox's arms, he could weep, could let down the facade of being a big, strong man.

Mulder woke stiff and uncomfortable from sleeping in a strange bed, not used to sharing a small bed with another person. John was still cradled in Mulder's arms, his head weighing heavily on Mulder's arm. The pillows had both found their way, not to the floor, but some how pushed off the bed on either side and on piles of boxes. Mulder shifted just enough to free his arm from John's weight. As he flexed it to drive out the pins and needles, he reached with his other hand to retrieve a pillow. If they were going to stay here a while, something was going to have to be done about this room and the boxes in it, he thought sleepily.

John didn't wake, oblivious to the warm sunshine pouring in through the windows and to Mulder's motions. That was good, Mulder thought. John needed the rest. He'd wept himself to exhaustion in Mulder's arms last night, but for the moment, he seemed deep in the calm gravity of sleep. Mulder, in time, fell under the influence of that gravity and slowly drifted into the orbit of dreams.

Mulder woke to John's insistent grind against his ass and a wet, warm mouth on the back of his neck. Suddenly his shorts were being slid down and John's cock was hot on his bare ass. Mulder gasped as John's hand reached around front and found his cock, which had already been in the middle of its usual morning salute. By mutual unspoken agreement, they both rolled and turned until they were facing each other and John was partially pinning Mulder down to the mattress. Their lips found each other and wrestled for long minutes before Mulder tore himself away from one of the best kisses he'd had in ages to ask, "Are you sure, John?"

"Shut up, Fox," John said, then paused to kiss again. After a brief, breath-stealing moment, John added, "I need this. I don't know why, but I need this like nothing else."

"It's okay, John," Mulder said, as John's fingers were starting to find their way to his crevasse, parting his ass cheeks. He grew harder, anticipating what John's next steps would be. "I understand. Life, death, love, it's all a big circle. In the face of one, you reaffirm the others. Oh, God, yes. That..."

John, meanwhile, had moved his attention away from talking and had slid down Mulder's body, putting his mouth to another one of its uses. Their coupling was quick, but no less intense for it. Again, their ecstasy was grief transmuted to lust, the line between all heightened emotions somehow feeling very thin indeed at the moment. When their passion had finally been spent, when John allowed Mulder to lower his legs from shoulder height, then John had a few minutes of peaceful rest, lying on top of Mulder. But soon, the tears flowed again, just for a few minutes, but Mulder could feel the streams of warm damp on his chest where John's face was buried. He held and comforted his man as best he could.

Doggett spent the best part of the morning, sorting through old piles of junk mail. The biggest pile was the old circulars, some years old. He had another, much smaller pile of what looked to be old bills, some personal letters, a few that looked like checks. Stuff that might actually count as real mail. That would have to be gone through letter by letter later. But for now, this part was easy enough, the chaff from the grain, so to speak. It kept him occupied, doing something useful. Kept him from feeling like he was about to split in half or like he was about to go crazy. About to crack in half a hundred tiny pieces. He sat on the dusty floor of the front hallway, sneezing again and again from all the dust, his nose itching constantly until it felt like he might very well blow his brains out his nostrils. At the moment, no one was around to help him or even say god bless you.

Fox had taken the little tinbox rental car to go get a suit for the funeral. Arriving someplace with your only possessions on your back or in a medium-largish duffel bag kind of left you unprepared for big life events like this. Fox didn't have anything close to appropriate for a funeral. His pair of mostly clean black jeans wasn't going to cut it.

As Doggett worked, he wondered what he'd be doing next. He'd anticipated having at least the next couple of years spoken for. He'd never expected Mama to pass so soon. No one had. Death always, even when you were anticipating it, came like a thief in the night. And grief, death's familiar companion, was similarly unexpected. You'd think you'd know intimately, down in your bones what it felt like. You could remember the way it drained you, the way it tore you. But then when it hit again, it was far, far worse than you remembered. You couldn't remember how much it felt like your world was spinning out of control. The desolation sinking right into your bones, into your soft vulnerable belly. If he didn't have this work to do, this sorting, this cleaning, he might well go mad.

The worst part of it, he thought, was knowing how he'd wasted precious time. Putting off quitting the Bureau for as long as he thought he could get away with. Not listing the house as fast as he could have, not insisting that the closing be sooner. And then once he got here, arguing about that damn clock with Auggie, Charlene and Daddy Ray. He'd give the clock and the house and everything in it to Charlene, with ribbons on it even, for just ten more minutes with Mama. The finality of death was like a cliff, he thought. The ones you love the most drop off, all of a sudden never to be seen again.

To be in this house, though, was comforting. Like having part of his childhood back or something. And it would be his, soon. He knew how Mama had divided the estate, had been there when she'd written the will. There was money, investments, annuities- funds from when she'd sold off the acreage that Daddy had farmed all his life, plus the life insurance money. Most of that would be going to his two sisters, Barb's in a trust that paid an income, Mama being no fool. He got a small amount of cash and the house. He was inclined, despite how Daddy Ray and others had reacted, to stick around after the funeral. Would Fox even consider that?

The crunch of wheels on the gravel broke him out of his musings. That must be Gin and her family. He tossed his handful of mail on the right pile and stood up, pausing for one last sneeze. Then he wiped his face, cognizant suddenly of the tears that dripped from his eyes. He must look like hell, he thought. He caught a glance of himself in the hall mirror. Yup. Like hell warmed over in the office microwave. He raked fingers through his hair to tug it into a semblance of order and rubbed impatiently at his eyes again.

By the time he'd walked out onto the porch, a minivan had pulled up in front of the garage. Roger, his brother-in-law, climbed out first, followed closely by his and Gin's three daughters.

The oldest daughter wasn't quite graduated from high school yet, but close. She'd recently picked up that Goth thing some kids were into. Interested in vampires and all that crap. She was a pale, little thing, her mousy brown hair now dyed solid black, her neck and wrists bedecked with black leather and metal stud jewelry. Must be an awful hot look in south Florida, he thought. He wondered what she'd really think if she ran into some of the monsters he'd run into on the X-files, real bloodsuckers and bat creatures. Fox had claimed to find real vampires a couple of times and it sounded like they weren't anything like the things those Goths romanticized.

Gin's middle daughter was tall and slim, typical Doggett build. She, in contrast to her older sister, had dyed her mousy hair blond. She would be in the early years of high school. She was dressed in those low cut, flare leg pants that had been so popular when he'd been young and were popular again with the teenage crowd.

Their third daughter was really young. They'd never said as much, but she'd probably been a real midlife surprise to them. She must be about five now. She was rubbing her eyes tiredly and she carried a well worn teddy-bear upside down by the leg.

Roger himself was a man built along Walter Skinner's line, but had allowed himself to run to fat in middle age. He'd been a real football hero type, quarterback and all.

But Gin didn't get out of the van. Where was she? Maybe Roger had dropped her at some other family in town. Meanwhile, the girls stood leaning against the van, blinking their eyes, as if they'd just woken. Roger approached him, all good natured, manly enthusiasm. He didn't just settle for Doggett shaking the hand he'd held out. No, once Doggett had taken that hand, Roger had pulled him into one of those half hugs, then clapped him hard on the back.

"John Jay!" he said, still hitting Doggett.

It didn't hurt, per se, but it struck Doggett for the first time that straight men weren't really allowed to touch each other, even in situations like this. No, they had to hit each other. A little bit of the devil got into Doggett and he suddenly pulled Roger into a full embrace. Only briefly, then he let Roger go and held him at arms' length.

"Hard to believe she's really gone," Roger said.

"Yeah," Doggett said. "I thought she had years yet. Where's Gin?"

"She decided that she couldn't miss her closing after all. She'll be on the plane first thing tomorrow as soon as she gets out. She'll need to be picked up at the airport," Roger said.

Of course. Gin did multi-millions in the real estate business each year. God forbid her family come before that. Roger was a grade school teacher, making him the one that spent time with the family.

"We drove straight through," Roger continued. "I don't know about the girls, but I could use some shut eye."

"I thought you and Gin could go up in Gin and Barbie's old room, and between the pullout in the den and the sofa, we should have enough room for the girls.

"There's guns in there," Roger said. He might have been a big football type, but he was also an uneasily transplanted east coast liberal.

"They're locked up in the safe, Roger," Doggett protested. As if he'd knowingly endanger the life of a child by leaving a gun just lying around, where it could be gotten at.

"It's creepy in there," said the middle girl. That was Brittany.

"I'll take it," said the oldest, the Goth. She was a Jennifer. Jen, Doggett remembered. Never anything but. And woe to the uncle who accidentally called her Jenny.

"No, you won't," Roger said.

"Roger, we don't have much space, really. Mama's room can't be used. I..." he had to stop himself here. He almost automatically added Fox. "I'm in my old room."

"Why can't the two younger girls take your old room and you take the den?" Roger asked.

"Because its filled to the brim with boxes," Doggett said, glad that he had an excuse other than he wanted to be in his own room, with a door to close. With his lover with him. "Look, I'll go double check the safe. You can watch me. You know I know what it would be like to lose a child and that I wouldn't take even the tiniest chance with yours."

Roger relented and they did just that. Doggett demonstrated that all the rifles and shotguns were safely tucked away. It took a few minutes to get the pullout fixed up and the girls settled down for a nap.

Then Doggett followed Roger upstairs and let him into the pink wonderland that used to be Gin and Barbie's room.

"Is Barbie on her way?" Roger asked.

"Hell if I know," Doggett said. "She's in Mexico, headed for the hill country last I heard. You know she's got a warrant out for her arrest in this county."

Doggett had taken a few minutes this morning to talk to the sheriff, who'd been willing to talk, mostly on the basis that he didn't seem clear that Doggett was no longer with the Bureau. Yes, indeed, his sister was still wanted and yes, if she showed up, she'd be arrested. Though they'd be decent about it and wait until after the funeral.

"Those bad checks?" Roger asked as he sat down on the ruffled pink big canopy bed that Gin and Barbie had shared. "That girl! We wired her money to get that all straightened out."

"Well, she must have used it for something else," Doggett said. "Look, there's something I have to tell you. I'd hoped to tell you and Gin together, but it can't wait."

Indeed. Mulder was due in another couple of hours.

This should be a hell of a lot easier than Daddy Ray. Roger was liberal. Doggett had even heard Roger speak in favor of gay marriage once.

"Roger, I'm gay," Doggett said simply. "I got sick of living a lie. So I'm finally being open about it. And you need to know because my lover is living in the house with me. He's out buying a suit for the funeral, but he'll be home soon."

Roger didn't exactly break into immediate fury, but it was hardly welcoming, open armed warmth either.

"You're what?" Roger asked. If he'd been drinking on it, he'd have had to spit it out.

"I'm gay."

"That's a hell of a way to break it, John Jay," Roger said. "Never could accuse you of putting too fine a point on things. That's great you found someone. But I don't suppose you could, you know, keep things toned down around the kids?"

"Like toned down how?" Doggett wanted to know. Did Roger thing he was going to be shoving his tongue down Fox's throat in view of the kids?

"You know, just so they don't see anything untoward," Roger said.

"Like what? That I love someone again finally?" Doggett said. "You know, you're just as bad as Daddy Ray, only at least Daddy Ray says what's on his mind honestly."

"Don't even try and compare me to that man," Roger said. "I just don't expect its unreasonable to expect a certain decorum in front of my kids."

"It's a funeral, Roger. What do you think? I'm going to be humping him in the church?"

"Now don't go putting words into my mouth. Look, I know you're upset because your mama just passed, so I won't take offense. Nobody's at their best at this time. But just don't forget there's children around."

"I won't. We won't. And maybe I might feel better if you assume I'll remember that," Doggett said.

When Mulder pulled up to the house, a strange minivan was parked in front of the garage. He let himself into the house carrying a suit bag. It'd been a bit of a fuss to find a place that could do hemming on the spot, and even more of a fuss to find a suit that more or less fit him off the rack with no more alteration than that. Still, he thought he'd done well.

Inside the house, someone had made good progress sorting the old boxes of mail. A pair of girls was sacked out on the living room couches. Must be the nieces that John had said were coming. From upstairs, a pair of voices raised and fell. A spirited discussion, but not quite an argument was going on. Mulder headed upstairs to investigate.

"You couldn't have waited to reveal this? Maybe a few months after the funeral?" the strange voice said.

"At the time we came down together, there wasn't going to be a funeral. And anyway, he belongs beside me. If your mama died, would you leave Gin at home. Never mind. Bad example," John said.

The strange voice chortled a little. "Knowing Gin, she'd find some way or another to get out of it. My mom and Gin aren't even speaking at the moment," the person said.

As Mulder listened to them talk, he was suddenly faced with a teenager, one of the little Goth chicks who'd probably faint if they were faced with a real vampire. There was a certain family resemblance, despite the dyed black hair. She must be one of John's nieces. She didn't seem alarmed at the sight of him, but she looked at him quizzically and asked, "Who are you?"

He'd been expecting John to be making introductions and explanations. And this girl obviously hadn't been briefed yet on who he was and what he was doing here. "Mulder," he said. "Fox Mulder. I'm a friend of your Uncle John's."

"No," she said, piercing him with a fierce gaze that definitely was a family trait, down to the way the pale white skin between her dark pencilled brows wrinkled. There was definitely a more than coincidental resemblance between her and her uncle. "You're not just a friend, are you? Mom and Dad don't think we know Uncle John's gay. But I heard her talking with a friend when she was drunk and she thought I was asleep in my room. About this boy he used to do in high school and how she thought that was the real reason he got divorced. And that she just wished he'd come out and get it over with."

"I think she's getting that wish," Mulder said.

"So, you are his lover," she pronounced. Then she added, "Cool. So, I take it by your presence here that you're more permanent than a fuck of the week."

"I'm here for as long as your Uncle John will put up with me," Mulder said, suddenly feeling old. When he was her age, he'd never have dared to speak like that to someone his age, even unrelated. He found himself on the verge of thinking, 'kids these days...'

Her eyes widened suddenly, and she appeared to be watching something over his shoulder. As if she were watching someone walk down the hallway. She shook her head slightly, as if to clear it. Then she started shaking and she turned her head away. She looked down at the floor as she wrapped her arms around her torso closely. You didn't have to be a psychologist to read that gesture. "Damn, damn," she muttered. "Not up here too."

"Are you okay? Is something wrong?" Mulder asked, even as he looked over his shoulder at what she had been looking at. Standing in the hallway were the ghosts of John's mother and father.

"You're going to think I'm crazy," she said.

He leaned a little closer to her, and said conspiratorially, "I'm too used to being called crazy to go throwing that phrase around loosely. Try me."

"It's like that stupid movie. The Sixth Sense. I see dead people," she said. "Grandma is in the hallway. Right behind you. She was downstairs too. I guess I'm not going to be able to get away from her until we leave."

"Do you think maybe she has something she needs to tell you?" Mulder suggested gently.

"No," she said, immediately. She seemed horrified by the thought that a dead person could talk to her.

"How long has this been going on?" Mulder asked. "It's nothing to be scared of. You're not unique in your ability to see those who have passed on. It's a very common phenomenon. I used to work in a field where I gathered information and documentation of supernatural events. I had hundreds of case files on people just like you, who could see the dead."

"There was a car accident last year. I died in it. Not just coded. But I was pronounced and everything," she said, unable to look him in the eye. "About two minutes after I was pronounced, I started breathing again on my own. And ever since then..."

She wasn't able to finish because the door they were standing outside had opened up and a big, beefy guy stood in it, John behind his shoulder. The beefy guy frowned and immediately said, "Jennifer Lynn, you're not talking about that nonsense again, are you?"

"Of course not, Daddy," she snapped. Then she stalked off downstairs. The beefy guy hurried down the stairs after her, no doubt to do something appropriately parental.

That left John and Mulder standing in the hall, staring at each other. John, Mulder could easily tell, was furious. "Jesus, Fox," John said after long, uneasy moments. "It's going to be hard enough for my family to accept you without you bringing up any of that mumbo-jumbo, supernatural bullshit. I thought you would have had the sense to not bring it up."

"That mumbo-jumbo nonsense was my life," Mulder said. He tried to keep it low. He neither wanted to wake the two girls that probably remained sleeping nor did he want John's brother in law to have the satisfaction of hearing them argue. But he was still enraged, more furious at John than he'd been since before they'd been lovers. Angry like he'd been the first time they'd met and he'd shoved John and accused him. Mulder continued, his voice sounding low and menacing, even to himself. "I thought we were through with this crap of me having to prove myself to you at every turn. Or are you going to be like Scully? Am I going to be forever giving you evidence and you always rejecting it because it doesn't fit within your tidy world view? You've seen things. Things that you can't otherwise explain."

"Look, I'm not saying it's like that," John responded. He seemed surprised Mulder's anger answering his own. He'd immediately stepped down the volume and intensity. "But you know how rough things are around here. I don't need this right now. We've got a funeral to plan and family arriving. And the ghost thing is a pretty sore subject with my sister and her husband. Jen's just never been the same since that accident. They're convinced she's cracked in the head. You go around trying to convince her and other people she's not, they're not going to take it kindly. I think I might have warmed Roger up to you. We could use his goodwill. "

Somehow this made Mulder more furious than ever, for this girl that he hardly even knew, but then when hadn't he been champion for total strangers? "They've been telling her she's crazy?" he demanded. "She's not. She's really seeing things. Maybe other people don't see them, but that doesn't mean they're not there."

"Fox," John said. He put a hand on Mulder's shoulder. It was heavy, a firm, reassuring weight, as if John was trying to hold them both down to earth. "Jen was wrecked up real bad in that accident even if she doesn't look it now. The doctors said it was a miracle there wasn't any brain damage. At least not that they could see, but it might be real subtle. She didn't breathe for five minutes."

"Imagine, just for a moment, that this isn't brain damage. That your niece isn't crazy. That her brush with death did change her, but not in the way you think. That by taking a small step over into the other side, she was sensitized to those who have crossed all the way over," Mulder said.

"You're trying to tell me you think Jen can see dead people?"

"It's not an extreme possibility. It's not even outside of the realm of probability," Mulder said. John's hand was still on his shoulder and he put his own hand on top of it and squeezed. "Scully told me about a case you two worked together. A little boy returned to his family and in the end, you found out he'd been dead for years."

John squeezed Mulder's shoulder, hard enough it came right the edge of pain, obviously a case that would cut right to the bone for him. Thank God they were out of all of that, Mulder thought.

Time to wrap this up. Mulder said, "We talked on the train, on the way down, about being together forever. But that means we need to support each other. Stand on the same side. Not attack each other like we are now."

"You're right," John said, ruefully. "I guess I can't explain that little boy except as some kind of ghost. But that doesn't mean I'm going to believe every flim-flam idea you try and slip past me either."

"At least you're willing to be convinced by evidence," Mulder said. "We can agree on that. There's got to be something I can do to help Jen without pissing off her parents. She's terrified by what she sees. And that's not helped by people telling her she's crazy."

Doggett stared at his handsome, probably half-crazy himself lover, finding it hard to remember what he'd been angry about.

Fox was gorgeous like this, eyes flashing green, the expression on his face righteously indignant. It reminded Doggett of the first time he'd met Mulder, at least a living, breathing Mulder. And that indignation was at the behest of a young woman Fox hardly new. Perhaps that was the thing that had drawn Doggett to Fox in the first place- the way that the man was a tireless crusader, and not just for his own causes, but to protect the innocent and those not able to defend themselves. Case record after case record had born that out.

Yes, their shouting was over, and Doggett found it utterly impossible to be angry at Fox anymore. He hadn't even really been furious in the first place, just worried. The last thing Fox and he needed was another enemy.

"Okay," Doggett said. "I'll talk to her. Tell her about some of my experiences. Some of the tamer ones. You really think she's seeing ghosts?"

"I know she is," Mulder said. "Your mother's house is haunted."

"Haunted?" Doggett couldn't help ask. It didn't feel haunted or even creepy in the slightest to him. No, he'd not felt this comfortable in a house for a long time. Sometimes he'd even been getting this sudden sense of well-being and comfort that had no explanation, especially in light of how things really were going. It was kind of the exact opposite of the creeps, in a way. Not anything at all like the eerie, hair rising on the back of your neck, all your cop instincts kicking in feelings of being in the presence of "things that couldn't be explained."

"Haunted," Fox affirmed. He smiled slightly, a wry, knowing grin. "Let's not get into how I know right now. I get a feeling we'll both be happier if we don't."

"You're probably right. Let's leave any ghost busting until after this funeral," Doggett said.

Fox leaned close and kissed him. It was a chaste kiss mostly, but when Fox's tongue started questing, asking for entrance to Doggett's mouth, Doggett pulled away. "Kids in the house," he said, by way of explanation. "Roger doesn't want us to let them see us do anything untoward."

Doggett could see another flash of anger across Fox's face, but then it was smoothed over just as fast, Fox deciding he wasn't going to fight over this, that they'd fought enough already.

"We're not bending, or selling out or bowing to a miserable compromise," Doggett said. "You should know me better than that. It's reasonable. Just the kind of things you wouldn't normally do in front of a kid. No tongue kissing, that kind of thing."

"Fair enough," Fox said. "What's next?"

"I meet with Mama's minister in an hour," Doggett said, checking his watch. "After that, I figure we could work on cleaning the house up a little."

Of all funeral customs, the wake was the one that Mulder understood the least. This one, they were calling a "visitation" but it was a wake just the same. It seemed archaic, almost primitive, yet at the same time, strangely remote to sit around the serene, pristinely calm room in the funeral home, with a dead body. And just sit there. Occasionally people would talk quietly to each other. People would come up to John and say all the meaningless yet appropriate words meant not so much to comfort but as to be the right things to say.

The furniture in the funeral home was deep blue brocade, the carpet a matching deep blue figured pattern. Rows of dark wood folding chairs were lined up in front of the coffin and a large handful of people sat on those, but most of the people in the room either stood in clumps here and there or they sat on the settees and arm chairs scattered around the room.

Mulder gone up to the coffin once, more out of curiosity than any sense that it was the right and appropriate thing to do. They'd chosen a dark wood coffin, with a light pink liner. The top part of the lid was propped open. John's mother had been dressed in a pink wool suit. She looked like a dead person. Mulder had heard snippets of a few of the expected comments, about how good she looked, how natural. But all the cosmetic work of the morticians couldn't hide the unnatural stillness of her face. Not serene, not as if she was resting. Just still. Just nothing. It had seemed strange to be saying goodbye to a woman he'd hardly met, so Mulder had kept his visit to the coffin brief.

John, on the other hand, kept coming back to it. At one point, as John stood next to the coffin, he reached a hand out towards it, but then paused. Mulder thought he understood. Touching the dead was a deep fear, a taboo in some cultures. John overcame his fear after a moment though, and completed the motion of his hand towards his mother's face. He brushed her check very gently, just once, then turned away. He walked over to the place that Mulder was sitting and sat down heavily, with a huge sigh that seemed full of something that couldn't be expressed in words.

"You know," John said after a short while. "When Luke died, it was Barb's idea to cremate him. I went along with it, because it seemed like forever was a long time for a little boy to be shut up all alone in a box. But sometimes I wonder if we didn't make the wrong decision. Maybe he should have been buried down here. He'd be surrounded by family down here. His grandma. Her heart broke too when he died. Her first grandchild, you know."

Mulder couldn't stop himself. He reached out and grabbed John's hand and squeezed it. That earned them a glare from Daddy Ray, as well as several stony stares. Mulder dropped John's hand like it'd burned him, which earned him a glare from John.

"Fuck 'em," John whispered, then grabbed Mulder's hand again.

He'd survive this somehow, Doggett thought as he walked up to the coffin yet again. He almost couldn't convince himself that this was real. That that was his Mama up there. Thankfully there was that impossible stillness. It was almost beginning to sink in that she wasn't going to sit up in that coffin and start ordering them around, letting them all know in no uncertain terms that she thought they'd made a dog's breakfast of the flowers and the rest of this whole sloppy affair. Yeah, a few more hours of this and he almost might be ready to bury her.

When Luke had died, there hadn't been a wake, just a funeral, in a church, the remains of his son already in a box, which hadn't even been in the church. His son had been represented by a picture. At the time, he'd thought it was for the best. He'd thought he'd seen plenty enough of his son's dead body. There'd been enough decomposition that it would have a been closed casket funeral anyway. But somehow, he'd ended up feeling as if his son had just disappeared one day. As if the body they'd found in the field had belonged to some other boy. It hadn't been until after they'd released the ashes and the killer had been caught that it truly seemed that Luke was gone.

A woman walked up to the casket and stood next to him. Before he even could glance up from his mama's face to see who it was, she gasped audibly.

"I didn't know she'd gotten so old," his sister Gin said. She'd made it. Finally. They were almost to the end of visitation hours and he'd been afraid she wasn't going to make it. What kind of real estate deal was more important than making it to your own mama's funeral, no matter how much money was involved?

Gin was not a pretty woman, but rather a handsome one, built on the same lean frame that Doggett and their daddy had been. Typical Doggett looks. She'd spent her whole life resenting that. Resenting that she hadn't been built on the pretty and petite frame that their mama and sister Barbie had. That was only one of the things she'd been bitter about. Doggett thought maybe her pursuit of the almighty dollar, sacrificing everything else to it sometimes, might have been trying to make up for some of these perceived inadequacies in her life.

"Maybe if you'd been up to visit once or twice in the last five years you'd have noticed," he said, bitterly, ashamed at himself even as he couldn't stop the quip. What was it about this particular sister that could make every word turn to vinegar in his mouth, even when he didn't intend it to.

"Now is not the time or place for you to point out how I've let the family down and all of my failings, real and perceived," she said, low, not quite whispering at him.

"You're right," he said. "I'm sorry."

"No doubt there'll be plenty enough time for us to get into it later," she said. "Give me a minute with Mama now."

He turned away from her and immediately wished he hadn't. He caught sight of a man he kept hoping he'd never have to see again, but life coming from a small town being what it was, he kept running into again and again. Clayton Beecher.

Clay was still blond, tall, had lost none of his quarterback's build. Still just as handsome. Doggett was over Clay. It'd been over twenty years ago that they'd snuck around together. But in some way, Doggett thought, you never do get over the first one, do you? Clay's blue eyes met his over the long distance across the room and Clay started closing the distance between them.

Fox had been closer at hand and reached Doggett first. He stood next to Doggett, their shoulders just brushing. "You know, your niece smokes."

"Jen?" Doggett asked. That didn't seem likely. Gin had been a chain smoker until Jen's accident. Jen had always been full of acerbic comments about how much she hated smoking. Gin apparently had made a promise, to Jen, or to God, or something, to give up smoking if Jen would live. Say what you like about Gin, she did keep promises.

"No, the other one. The middle one," Fox said.

They didn't get any further because Clay stepped right up to them, Janie, his wife not far behind.

Clay reached out and punched Doggett on the arm. "How do, John Jay," he said. "So sorry to hear about your mama."

"Yes, we're both very sorry to hear," Janie added. "It seems so sudden."

"Clay, Janie, thank you both for coming," he said.

Fox seemed on the verge of slipping away as he'd done a lot this evening. Doggett turned slightly and caught his eye. Fox recognized the name for sure, from the look of worry that clouded his eyes.

"There's some introductions I have to make," Doggett said. "Janie, Clayton, this is my lover, Fox Mulder."

Janie was a beautiful woman, blond hair, no hint that she'd reached her forties. She wore a long black dress and one of those big black hats with the mesh veil on it. Did they still even make those anymore? He hadn't thought they did.

The worst part about Janie wasn't that she looked so good that he understood why Clay had chose her, not him. And it wasn't even that, all things being equal, she'd held the trump card of being the right sex. It was that she knew that in the poker game of the heart they'd played for Clay, she'd known who her competition was. And as the winner, she'd always favored him with that kind condescension that passes for good sportsmanship. He was the loser and they both knew it. But that had been over twenty years ago, all water under the bridge, right?

Because of the look in Fox's eyes, he couldn't bear to be anything less than honest. And if it made Janie, who liked to pretend that he was never anything but one of Clay's good high school buddies, nervous or unhappy, all the better.

"Fox, this is Clayton, my old high school sweetheart. And this is his wife Janie, the beautiful woman who stole him away from me."

Janie's mouth twitched for a moment, then settled back into the neutral, not quite smile it'd been in. Clay looked at him for a moment with naked, unapologetic desire. Not the first time that he'd been given that look by Clay over the years, but then Clay hadn't made any kind of move on him either. Not that Doggett would have even considered taking him back. Well, the majority of the time, he wouldn't have considered it.

Still, Doggett almost reflexively slipped his arm around Fox's shoulder with a possessiveness that he hoped Fox could feel through the layers of light, dark-gray wool and white cotton.

It was Janie who broke the silence. "I supppose we should go pay our respects to your mama. Clay..."

Clay followed obediently, with a backwards glance for Doggett, who found himself wondering if Janie's upset was just that she didn't like to be reminded that her husband had walked the other side of the street before, or if he still strayed there, and she just kept finding reasons to put up with it.

Later, just as the visitation hours were winding up, his suspicions were, if not quite confirmed. He was standing outside in the parking lot, staring up at the stars. He was in a patch of dark, a blind spot not illuminated by the big overhead lights. He'd just been thinking about life, death, how much this all would have been impossible without Fox. Nearby, Janie stepped up to a patch of light where his cousin Junie was standing. Junie was smoking and Janie asked for a light. Junie and Janie had been good pals in school, inseparable once.

"You have no idea how glad I am that John Jay's found someone," Janie said after a while, and several puffs. "I don't think I could stand it if he were available."

Ashamed that he was eavesdropping, Doggett stepped further away into the shadow, on his way towards the little rental they still had. He was just waiting for Fox to come out of the funeral home. He leaned against the car's side and stared up at the sky, wondering if there really was some place "up there" where his mama had gone to.

Someone stepped out of the shadows. Not Fox, but two of his three male cousins. Junie's brothers. Not Auggie, but the other two- Dec, pronounced like 'deck', short for December, and March. Their mama hadn't been very imaginative, Doggett thought, not for the first time.

They were younger than him by several years, both of them. And unlike Auggie, neither of them was a drunk. But March wasn't too smart. Brain damaged at birth, they said. And Dec didn't have an ounce of ambition in him. March pretty much did whatever Dec told him. Neither of them had ever been married and they shared a trailer on the back forty of Daddy Ray's property. March did menial work, landscaping that kind of thing. As far as Doggett could tell, Dec had never done a lick of work that he didn't have to.

"Heard it turns out Mister Bigshot Eff-Bee-Eye really is a faggot underneath it all," Dec said. It was in that neutral tone, that by not being overtly threatening, is even more so.

"Well, I heard that ain't really any of your business," Doggett said. "You know what your daddy always says. 'Mind your business,' Dec."

"Family business is my business," Dec said.

"Yeah, our business," March added.

"Okay then, how about this?" Doggett said. He wasn't ever going to ask for trouble, but if it found him, he was never going to walk away from it either. "Wrap your little mind around this. I'm a faggot. You might as well get used to dealing with it because there's nothing you can do about it. You can't scare me out of it. You can't shame me out of it. And an appeal to my sense of family loyalty from you two yahoos sure isn't going to cut it. My whole life I've lived a lie and I'm not lying any longer. Get over it."

Dec shifted uncomfortably and grumbled something under his breath. For a brief minute, Doggett was afraid his next move was going to be something to do with flying fists. Either one of the two of them, he was pretty sure he'd walk away with minimal damage. They were both built on the standard Doggett frame, about the same height, same weight as him. And their little bit of youth on him was more than made up for by his training. But if the two of them ganged up on him at once, that might hurt. Unlike Auggie, March had a pretty heavy right hook. Probably because he didn't know not to hurt himself in the process of fighting.

Instead, Dec said, "Don't think you've heard the last of it."

Then they were gone, leaving Doggett kicking the tires of the rental, cursing mentally and trying to figure out if Fox maybe would want to come out to the range with him this time.

Fox finally walked out of the shadows. Jen was at his heels. Her black hair was wild. Her eyes rimmed with red and she had bits of black makeup smudged over her pale face.

"Uncle John, I had a big fight with Mom in the lady's room about my black lipstick," Jen explained. "Can I ride back with you two?"

He'd wanted to kick the tire again. He'd really been hoping for a while alone with Fox. But then he caught a bit of the gleam in Fox's eyes. This was definitely the chance to talk to Jen that Fox had been hoping for. Besides, what were uncles for, if not to aid and abet kids in their struggles with their parents. It really wasn't much different than giving out lollipops before dinner or some tacky, plastic, forbidden toy when they were younger.

"Sure," he said. "Hop right in."

Mulder had only been in the area a few days, but even he could tell that the route John was taking them down was not the direct one back to the house. So, John probably planned to talk with Jen. He probably just needed some time to work up to it.

Mulder had crammed himself into the back seat and offered Jen the front seat, claiming courtesy, but really hoping that it would force this conversation. It would be worth it if it happened. Meanwhile, as they drove silently through back country roads, Mulder wondered who exactly was intended to fit in this back seat. Midgets?

Finally after long miles, so many that they well might be in a different county, John spoke up. "Jen, I know things haven't been the same for you since your accident. Your parents are worried for you. I know it doesn't seem like it from your perspective, but a parent never wants anything but what's best for their child. Your parents just don't want you to get hurt again. And I think they think that if you talk about what you've been experiencing since the accident, the world will hurt you. People will look at you differently. But I just wanted to let you now that the world isn't all as black and white as that.

"I've experienced some things. Things I don't really have answers to. There's this guy. I saw him buried. I'd found the body myself. He was dead. Like weeks old dead. And he's walking around today, living and breathing, after he'd been buried three months."

Mulder was shocked to hear John talk about this so casually. To be honest, Mulder almost never thought about the time he'd supposedly been dead. Or at least he'd been buried in some state of very low metabolic activity. He didn't remember any of it, of course, though sometimes he still had nightmares of what must have happened during his abduction. They'd faded with time, luckily. As Mulder thought about the not-far-enough past, John continued to talk.

"There was another case I worked. There was a little boy. He'd been missing for years but he showed up looking just like he'd been. He disappeared again, but soon after, we found his grave in the woods. He'd been buried there for years. It was just a skeleton we found.

"I just want to say that this world is full of things that don't have easy answers. And you have to understand that what most people want is the easy answer. I'm not saying what you're seeing is ghosts, but I'm not saying it's not.

"Fox here says my Mama's house is haunted. I don't know if I believe that myself, but one thing I do know for sure is that Fox is very seldom wrong."

"You believe me?" Jen asked, relief audible in her voice.

"He believes you," Mulder said. He reached up and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Jen, most ghosts can't hurt you. And they don't want to. They just have a message for you. Something they need you to understand. I'd say that in all likelihood, all your grandmother wants from you is to tell you that she loves you."

Jen's only response was to break into big, sobbing tears. John, at least, was prepared. John reached into the chest pocket of his suit and pulled out a handkerchief. He handed it to her without comment. Mulder, for his part, mulled over something someone had once said. That a gentleman is a man who carries around a hankie, just on the off chance that he may run into a lady who might need it. No doubt about it, John was, at heart, a gentleman. Mulder thought about all the different layers and depth he'd discovered to John in the brief time they'd known each other. He was not just an agent and a cop, but an honorable one. A good one, with integrity that went right down to his core. He was a grieving father. A man who'd risk his own life to save others without a second thought. A man who trusted, not easily, but deeply. A man who had a backbone, but was not so inflexible that he couldn't withstand his world being turned on its head. And lastly, a man who'd willingly given up the career that had meant the world to him to care for his dying mother. All in all, a man most worthy of his love and trust, Mulder thought. If only he was that worthy of John's love. Thankfully, love, Mulder thought, has little to do with worth, and everything to do with fate. John had been a gift of fate, one that had fallen into his lap at just the right time.

"Yes, I believe you, Jen," John said after a while. "We'd better be getting back home now."

Later that night, Doggett unable to sleep, and not wanting to disturb the rest that Fox seemed to be getting effortlessly, crept downstairs.

The two younger girls were asleep in the living room. All the downstairs' lights were off, leaving the house in deep blue darkness, broken only here and there by patches of moonlight spread on the floor, pouring through the windows. The girls made soft, breathing noises and as he looked, the youngest turned in her sleep, dragging her teddy bear with her. Jen had crept into the den and shut the door earlier. He had no reason to believe she was any place else. The porch light was on though. Doggett walked through the dark house towards the glow visible through the front door.

Gin was sitting up late. She sat on the steps, arms clasped around her legs which she'd drawn close to her chest. When she noticed him, she looked up and said, "God, I could just kill for a cigarette. Want a drink?"

She held up the bottle she'd brought out onto the porch with her. Some ancient bottle of Southern Comfort. She'd only brought one glass though.

"No, thanks," he said, thinking of one time, long ago, where he'd gotten to see what it tasted like both on the way down and the way back up. He settled himself on the steps across from her and looked out into the moonlight illuminated night. The soft sounds of the night surrounded them. The bugs were just getting started really. At high summer, they created a buzz that seemed to permeate everything.

"Now don't you even start on me, John Jay," she said, defensively before he'd even said anything. "I don't want to hear about how late I was, and why I didn't visit. Believe you me, I can beat myself up just fine without you doing the job for me."

"I wasn't going to say a damn thing, Gin," Doggett said defensively. "You know, we're grownups. We don't have to fight all the time. I was just wondering how you were holding up."

"You know me. Old Ironsides doesn't have nothing on the unsinkability of a Doggett," she said, sounding not as brave as she intended. She took another slug of her Southern Comfort. She'd probably drink herself into at least at headache by morning, if not an out and out hangover. But then, he knew better than to try and stop her. You knew siblings that way. Possibly better than anyone else in the world knew you, better than parents did in some ways. He wished deeply that he and Gin could talk like this more often. If their talk was not completely free of tension, at least they were in some easy, armed truce for the moment. Something kind of like that legendary Christmas during WWI, where both sides came out of the trenches for a brief while and played a soccer game and shared whatever scant rations they had.

Gin continued, after wiping a grimace from the booze off her face. "God, that stuff's nasty without a mixer, but it's all there is in the house. How are you holding up? I loved Mama, no doubt. But you're the only one of us who actually liked her."

"It's not as easy as you think, to be the favorite one," Doggett said. "And you think I would have lit out of here as quick as I did if my life was all peaches and cream?"

"I thought a certain Beecher boy had something to do with that," she said.

"Not entirely," Doggett said. "Daddy Ray had words with me. You know. Those kind of words. Behind the woodshed. Words about having to be a man and all of that. The next day the recruiter came to the high school and I signed on the dotted line. I was going to show him what kind of man I was."

"Anyway, it appears, that you're no better than you should be," she said. "Is he good to you?"

"The best," Doggett said. And it was true. Fox had been like a dream come true to him.

"The sex must be good," Gin said. "Do you, uh, how should I say this, pitch or catch?"

Doggett was thankful the dim light of the porch fixture didn't reveal much. Because if it did, it would surely have shown him blushing a deep crimson blush. Siblings were permitted certain liberties that not even close cousins were not, but that didn't mean it wasn't embarrassing to be, uh, probed about your sex life. Especially because he'd just been catching not long before he'd wandered downstairs.

"Mind your business, Gin," he said, sharply.

"The sex is that good, huh?" she asked. She reached out one of her long legs and poked at his belly with her foot, snickering slightly. "It must be fantastic."

"Oh, God, Gin," Doggett said, not able to help himself suddenly. Sex with Fox was still new, considering how recently they'd reunited after their forced separation. Every time they made love, it was like discovering some strange new paradise, a land populated only by the two of them. "It's amazing. It's never been this good before with anyone."

"Toe curling?"

"And how," he said.

Then suddenly, it was all over and they were standing around the grave, the services over. People started to walk away. John remained the longest and for his sake, Mulder remained at the grave. The cemetery people had put artificial turf, virulently bright green, around the edges of the grave, to conceal the dirt edges of the hole. It was a jarring contrast to the just starting to green of the natural lawn of the cemetery.

John stared at the open grave for a while longer, then turned away with a heavy sigh. He walked only a few feet though and stopped at another headstone. Mulder didn't have to read the engraving to know that it belonged to John's father.

"They're together again," John said as he ran a hand across the flat top of the granite marker. "She missed him every day of her life. She might not have always said she was still grieving him. But she was. She was a pretty woman still when he died. She had men trying to court her for years, all while I was in high school and the Marines. But she never gave 'em one lick of encouragement. We buried her wearing his ring, just like she wanted.

"You know," John said, looking up. "Maybe tomorrow we'll go into the city and buy rings. I wanted to do it sooner than this."

Mulder imagined a glimmer of gold on his finger. Wearing it for years. Them burying him with it still on his finger. It was a thought that made him feel warm all over, even though it had started to rain a cold, damp, penetrating spring rain that soaked through his suit jacket. He didn't have a trench or top coat, hadn't thought to buy one the other day.

"I like that idea, John," Mulder said. "Have you thought at all about what you want to do next? I mean after we get your mother's house and affairs into order."

"Her affairs are in much better order than the house," John said. "Everything's going to be real easy. No need for the estate to go into probate or anything. Most of it was in trust already. We know who gets what. The house is mine. Oh, hey, you're getting soaked. We should go talk about this at home."

The rain had picked up, turning to a steady soak. They walked back to the little rental in silence. John walked to the passenger side. He probably wanted to do a lot of talking. So Mulder took to the driver's side.

Once they were on the road, John didn't talk though. First he fussed with the dashboard controls, adjust the defroster until it was just right. Then he stared out the window into the rain for a long time, though when Mulder reached the turn to the country road the house was on, John spoke and said, "Left, not right. I'm not ready to go back yet."

Mulder nodded and took the direction indicated, turning them down a heavily wooded, hilly gravel road. Big branches flushed all over with early spring leaves hung over the road. Here and there, glimpses of open fields could be seen through the trees. The rain stopped and slowly, the clouds drifted apart, revealing patches of azure blue.

"I've been thinking," John said, after a while. "I don't know how to put this except directly. I'm getting the house and I'd like us to live in it. I can understand if you don't want to. I'm not married to the idea. It's not exactly the bright lights and big city you're used to and our welcome from my family has been less than stellar. So, you wanna go somewhere else, we can negotiate. But I'm thinking I want to stay here."

Tough questions to answer, but he owed it to John to think carefully about them. On one hand, John's family might well be the deal breaker. On the other hand, Mulder had no other plans. No job to go back to, no reason to want his old job back. No home, his apartment long rented to someone else. He had the answers he'd spent his whole life looking for and had discovered that in the end, all that really mattered was love. And he loved John. He would do anything that made John happy- it was as simple as that. That had a far greater pull to it than any worries about John's family.

"If you think we can handle your Daddy Ray, then I'm all for staying," Mulder said after a while. "With one condition- we move those birds on the staircase. Maybe into the den or something."

John looked relieved and said, "I think that can be arranged."

"There's a little money. I won't have to work for a while, a year or two," Doggett said, thinking about the nest egg that the house came with. If he was careful, he definitely might be able to stretch it out to two years. "After that, it's a heck of a commute, but I should be able to find work near the city. One of the closer suburbs. I figure there's nothing for me in town."

"John," Fox said. He took one of his hands off the steering wheel and reached out for Doggett. Fox's warm, comforting hand came to rest on the back of Doggett's neck. Fox squeezed gently a few times, like a massage. "You don't have to work, unless that's what you want to do. There's plenty of money."

Doggett wondered how this might be and how much Fox meant by 'plenty.' Then he remembered a little better certain things he'd learned while investigating Fox's disappearance. The man had not just one, but two trust funds, not to mention two substantial inheritances, which included four houses belonging to Mulder's parents.

"I never asked to be born into the family I was, but at least I can use their money to make our lives easier. It is a lot easier to thumb your nose at people when you're sitting on a great big wad of money."

"You know this from experience?" Doggett asked. His life had always been average but comfortable. Not a lot of money, but then he'd never had to worry about a lack of it either.

"Well, it's certainly easier to be a loose cannon in the Bureau when you're not worried about losing your job. There've been times where it would have been inconvenient not to have my paycheck, but only temporarily. Most years, my trust fund income went right into off-shore accounts. Inconvenient, but not impossible to get to."

"So, you want to be my sugar daddy?" Doggett teased, feeling suddenly elated for some reason he couldn't quite explain. This was going to work, he thought. Fox was going stay with him and they'd grow old together in the house that he loved. It was going to be as much of a happy ending as anyone ever got.

Spring turned to summer. Things settled into patterns that approached almost... normal. They spent most of their days working on the house. It was a good, solid house, well maintained mostly. It had just needed to be cleaned up mostly.

Or at least they started that way. The boxes slowly made their way to Goodwill and the house started to feel almost a little empty.

The redecoration of the house was almost accidental. They hadn't really intended to do much more than repaint John's mother's bedroom. But one day they finally got around to moving the stuffed birds from the stairs. They found several of them had left big pale shadows against the darker wall. After scrubbing did nothing to eradicate the marks, they ended up painting the hall. Which meant painting both the upstairs and downstairs hallways. Things sort of snowballed from there.

Of course, anytime they needed so much as a nail, it meant a trip to the city suburbs. The one hardware store in town was owned by one of Daddy Ray's old friends. The old man just stared at them so coldly when they walked into the store the first time, that John's spine had stiffened immediately. His face had turned into a roadmap of wrinkles, centering on the eyebrow crease that Mulder loved.

"C'mon, Fox," John had said. "There's a Home Depot about twenty miles away where they don't care who I love, so long as my money is green."

And then they'd walked out and gotten into the truck and driven out of town to buy their paint and brushes. Yes, they had a pickup. John had worked on the classic pickup in the driveway for a few hours one day, and then, it had roared to a sudden, startling life. John had worked on it, poured a bit of the money that Mulder had happily given him into it, and then they had a working, classic Chevy. They'd also had the sensible Camry that had belonged to John's mother. Mulder drove that most of the time. They were happy. At least Mulder was happy, even though Daddy Ray's pal was far from the only local shop owner that was rude to them, to the point where they were heading into the suburbs just to buy groceries.

As one blazing hot summer afternoon melted into a sultry evening, John finally put down the paint roller. His nose had a small spatter of the blue they were painting the room that would be their bedroom.

"I'd say we're about done for the moment," he said.

Mulder looked around. They'd gotten good coverage of the dark blue, so dark it was almost navy. He put his own roller down. "It's looking good, John Jay," he said.

John gave him a look. The one that said, 'don't even start with that.' But what he said was, "How about, after we clean up, we go put a little lead down range?"

"Sure, sounds good," Mulder said. It'd taken him a while to get used to target shooting with a rifle, not a handgun, but his marksmanship was back up to where it'd been before. But there was little incentive like having an outdoor range in your backyard practically, and a friend, lover, partner to practice with and against, especially one as good as John.

They cleaned up, got a little dinner, then headed down to the range with their favorite weapons. The shots started as soon as they left the house though.

"I wonder which one of 'em is using the range?" John asked. "You still want to go down?"

Technically, the range was on John's property, but Daddy Ray's extensive lot backed right up to John's lot and another cousin owned property that touched both of theirs. In practice there were parts of all three lots that were used and maintained in common by the family. Like the range, the creek that was large enough to catch some small fish from and the corner of the small lake on their cousin's property.

"Sure," Mulder said, hoping it wasn't Dec and March. He'd met them. Dec was a real piece of work and if Mulder were still in law enforcement, he'd have wanted to slap cuffs on Dec, just for the principle of it, the way the man looked at things. He made Mulder feel the same way he'd felt when looking into the eyes of the killers he'd once tracked down for a living.

It was Dec and March. John turned to go, but before they could, Dec caught sight of them. "Well, lookee here, March," Dec said. "I can't believe John Jay lets his little woman have a real gun."

Anger immediately began to churn in Mulder's gut. He wasn't going to lose it. He'd faced down far worse than these jokers and not lost his cool.

Neither did John lose his cool. "Tell you what, Dec. I'll make you a bet," he said. "Hundred bucks says my little woman here can shoot rings around you."

"Two hundred," Dec said.

"Where you gonna get that kind of money, Dec," March asked.

"Shut up, March," Dec said.

"You up for this?" John asked Mulder.

"You bet," Mulder said. Then he waited, purposefully holding his gun as if he didn't know what he was doing with it while Dec and John hammered out the terms of the contest. Twenty shots. No stands. No scopes. Just the pair of them and their guns. That was fine by Mulder.

Dec went first. He plugged about ten of his shots right into the bullseye. All of the rest of them were in the first ring. He seemed pretty pleased with himself as they examined the paper target. And he'd done pretty well. But Mulder knew he could do better with one hand tied behind his back. He thought about doing something showy, like all his rounds into one hole, but in the end, decided against it. Instead, he just planted each and every one of his shots into the bullseye of the target. He raised the now familiar wood stock to his shoulder, feeling the rifle, like his handgun had always been, like an extension of himself. The smell of gunpowder was sharp, but oddly pleasant to him, bringing back a whole cascade of memories if he let it. It was a dance, like running. Like sinking a hoop. Just a motion that was as smooth as silk to pull the trigger and put each and everyone one of those shots just exactly where he intended to put them. He was so used to the kickback of the rifle by now that he hardly remembered adjusting for it. Even through the earmuffs, the sound was almost ear numbing. Then he set his rifle down and waited to see what John's cousin said.

The man didn't protest or try and fight it like Mulder thought he would. Instead, he just pulled his wallet out of his pocket. He pulled out a small stack of twenties and threw that in Mulder's general direction. Then he stalked off, March trailing him.

"But Dec, Daddy Ray gave that money to me for the phone bill," March called out as they walked away.

Summer turned into fall and suddenly, it was late fall and hunting season. Doggett woke up one morning to find himself alone in the dark blue bedroom. He looked out the window. Rain poured steadily against the panes. Dark gray clouds crowded the sky down low.

Doggett wandered down, wondering if Fox might have gotten the coffee started yet. He found Fox in the hall, dressed for a run. You couldn't keep the man inside when the urge to get some miles under his running shoes hit him. Doggett snorted, shuffled over to Fox and kissed him soundly, wondering idly about the possibilities of a warm up shower together once Fox returned. "You drown out there, don't come crying to me," Doggett teased.

"Don't worry," Mulder said, grabbing the blaze orange hat Doggett had gotten for him.

"You running the back trails today then?" Doggett asked.

"Yeah," Mulder said. "I get sick of being buzzed by yahoos who think my running is funny. If I hear 'get a car' one more time, I'm going to hurt someone."

"Okay, see ya later, lover," Doggett said, then went off in search of coffee. He didn't worry overly much about Fox's safety. He heard a few, muffled shots in the background, but they sounded far away. Fox would stick to the main trails and away from the salt licks and the places where whichever one of his family who was hunting today was liable to be. Fox was many things, but stupid wasn't one of them.

Doggett sat in the kitchen a long time, with his cup of coffee, looking at the kitchen around him, wondering if maybe this would be the project they would tackle next. The avocado and harvest gold really had to go. Not that either Fox or himself were big cooks, but the room was hardly functional.

He was sitting in his bathrobe still over an hour later when he started wondering why Fox wasn't back yet. He'd already stood up, suddenly not feeling so sure about things, and intending to get dressed and go out looking for Fox, in case Fox had twisted an ankle on a slick mud path or something when he saw his Mama.

She looked like she had years ago, dressed in that pink suit they'd buried her in. "Fox needs you," she said. "Hurry."

Then she was gone and he was moving, running up the stairs before his disbelief could even kick in. He threw on the first pair of pants he came to, not even bothering to pull off his robe. He didn't know why he felt the urgency, just that he did. He slowed down for a moment, questioning himself suddenly. He happened to glance up at the mirror.

Standing behind him was his father, looking just as he'd looked the day he'd died, down to that same plaid shirt. "What are you waiting for, John Jay. Move your ass, boy."

It suddenly occurred to Doggett that the intermittent shooting he'd heard all morning had stopped a while back and hadn't started up again. That worried him for a reason he couldn't name, far more than the sight of his long dead father scolding him through the mirror.

He was out the door in no more time than it took for him to grab a rain jacket and shove his feet into boots. He took off down the path that Fox would have taken. If Fox was fine, he wondered what he was going to say when he caught up. How he'd explain his foolishly sprinting off, still half dressed in pajamas, in the pounding rain. Mud squelched into the boots that he hadn't taken the time to tie up.

At the bottom of the ravine, the path split. One to the right. That led to the range. Fox wouldn't have taken that. He had to have taken the other path, to the left, which would loop around to his cousin's lake, connecting eventually by way of a friendly neighbor to a county park. That's the way Fox had to have taken. Hoping he was right, Doggett turned left.

Feeling more and more worried the further he went without seeing signs of Fox, Doggett started running.

He'd nearly reached the lake before he found Fox and as it was, he nearly missed the man. He would have, except for the small splash of blood on the path which pulled his eye to some crumpled undergrowth. And from there to the very still, very bloody form of his lover, sprawled out across the weeds. There was so much liquid red that Doggett could hardly see Fox's face, so much so that he couldn't tell where the wound was and how bad it was. So much blood that not even the hard rain diluted it away. And Fox was still bleeding. At least he didn't see brains or bone. His own heart just about stopped. This was not happening. It could not happen. Not in any kind of universe where justice prevailed. You didn't go through what Fox Mulder had gone through and survive it, only to die from a hunting accident, a simple gunshot wound.

He crashed through the brush heedlessly and knelt down by Fox's head, instantly assessing, forcing himself to act with the cop self, the steely eyed and stone faced portion of himself that could think and act through any crisis. He was no EMT, but he'd had his share of first aid classes. He checked Fox's pulse and breathing. Both of them were fast and weak, but at least they were still there. Mulder was completely limp, non-responsive. Like a rag dolll. Doggett whipped off his jacket heedlessly, and cold rain chilled him immediately. He pulled off his cotton flannel robe and wrapped it as tightly as he could around Fox's head, hoping to stop some of the bleeding. Every minute counted at this point, he knew that much. Sooner they got Fox to the hospital, the better his chances. Once he was sure the makeshift bandage was in place as tightly as it could be, he pulled Fox out of the brush and onto the path, then up onto his shoulders in a fireman's carry. With an adrenaline rush of strength that he didn't know he could call on, he trotted, not quite a run but not a walk either, to the nearest house. His cousin April's house was much closer than his. The path branched off fifty feet ahead. Then another couple of hundred yards and he broke out into an open lawn. Then only a couple hundred more yards to her back door.

He took the stairs to her deck already starting to call out for her, loud as he could, part of him praying to a God he didn't believe in that she was home and that he wouldn't have to break into her house to use the phone. She was home. And Junie was with her. It was Junie who opened the back door and gasped in horror when she saw the bloody load that Doggett was carrying.

"I'll call 911," she said, backtracking into the house immediately. "April, get clean towels or something. There's been an accident. A bad, bad accident."

Doggett found himself suddenly almost staggering under Fox's weight. Fox weighed only slightly less than himself, Doggett realized suddenly. And he'd carried Fox a considerable distance at a near run. He followed Junie into the house and suddenly April was at his side. She helped him kneel down and gently place Fox on the kitchen floor.

"Help's on the way," Junie said, looking up from the phone. She exchanged a look with April then they changed places, April at the phone, Junie kneeling by Fox's head. She was just a pharmacist, like her husband Abe, but it was the closest to medical training they had, just at this moment.

"Still breathing," she said as she fussed around, checking him for pulse and respiration. Tightening the impromptu bandage that had fallen off slightly during that rushed trek through the woods. She held pressure tightly to where the wound probably was.

"Goddamnit Fox, excuse my French, but you'd better make it. You are not going to do this to my cousin," Junie said as she knelt there. Really, there wasn't anything more that she could do than he could. But it was a relief to have someone else take charge, because suddenly, he just couldn't do anything more. The shock finally hit him and he choked up, his mind feeling both like a complete blank and like it was running at a million miles an hour.

It seemed forever until the ambulance arrived and the EMTs got to work, preparing Fox for transfer, slipping on an oxygen mask, starting an IV, putting Fox on the gurney. It was another eternity, the trip to the hospital, riding in the back with Fox, hoping that minute by minute, his life wasn't slipping away. He was still bleeding, the red seeping through the thick white bandages that the emts had applied.

Then, finally, an eternity later, they were wheeling Fox into the emergency room, into a place he could not follow. He could only trust that the doctors here could save him. He stood staring at the swinging double doors for a while, feeling more than a bit shocky himself. He stood there staring until he felt a hand on his shoulder and then a nurse was in his face, pushing a clipboard at him.

"There's some paperwork, sir," the nurse said.

He took the clipboard numbly and went to sit down. The waiting room had rows of hard plastic seats, all clipped together, for maximum possible discomfort. He stared at the form in front of him, but he didn't start filling it in. It was in English, but it failed to parse just at this minute.

Soon after, Junie and April burst into the waiting room. April held out a bundle of clothes to him and he suddenly realized he was only dressed in the t-shirt he'd slept in, the pants he'd pulled on in haste and boots. Nothing more. And furthermore, those were soaked, not just with rain, but blood. And he finally noticed that he was shivering and he couldn't seem to stop. That his hair was plastered down on his face in wet tendrils.

"You get changed into some dry clothes, that paperwork can wait a minute," April said.

He wandered around until he found a bathroom. He changed into the clothes April had brought. They probably belonged to her husband, who was much shorter than he was. The shirt and pants left his wrists and ankles exposed, but he was dry and warmer. Still, he couldn't stop himself from shivering. Maybe that would stop with time. Or maybe only with hearing that Fox would be okay. That the wound wasn't as bad as it looked.

Doggett grabbed a quick look at his watch. It seemed impossible that just over an hour ago, he was sitting in his kitchen, drinking coffee, wondering why Fox wasn't back yet.

He could feel Fox's blood drying on his face and hands, almost to the point of cracking already. The sensation itself was bad enough, about the most unpleasant thing he could think of, but the fact that he knew it was his lover's blood made it untenable. Intolerable. He bent over the sink and scrubbed himself clean and kept scrubbing until his face was bright pink from friction and hot water. If Fox died, he'd never feel clean again. He'd always feel that blood drying on his skin.

"John Jay?" Junie called from the other side of the door, after knocking once. "Sheriff Jefferson wants to talk to you."

"I'll be right out," he answered, shutting off the water. He blotted his face dry with paper towels. He was still shaking and it was starting to feel like he'd never stop. Throwing the used towels away, he wondered what to do with the pile of damp, stained clothes that he'd just dropped on the floor in his haste to get them off. Unable to figure anything else to do with them, Doggett gathered them into his arms and carried them out of the little tiled room with him.

Junie took them from him as he walked out of the room. He wanted to tell her to just throw them away. Besides the blood, the clothes were stained with mud- red Georgia clay. Between those two things, it was unlikely that the t-shirt would ever get clean.

"Sheriff's over there," she said, indicating with a look. "You sure you're up to talking to him now?"

He just stared at her. Of course he wasn't up to talking to anyone at the moment. Couldn't she see that? That he might not be up to talking to anyone ever again. But he didn't have a choice, did he? If only because he couldn't be seen to be taking this anyway but like a man. Doggett swallowed hard.

"I'll talk to him," Doggett said, then went to face the sheriff.

Sheriff Jefferson was a big man with a bigger beer gut, one barely contained by the brown uniform. He was one of those men whose hands seemed to always end up resting at his waist. Or in his case, at his belt, which dipped dangerously south of his belly, especially under the weight of his equipment, the gun and walkie-talkie and all. Unlike city cops, none of the cops out here had taken to wearing bulletproof vests. Not usually as much violence here. This might be their first shooting in months. The sheriff was generally a genial man, smiled a lot at people. He wasn't smiling now though.

"Mr. Doggett," the sheriff started. "I was hoping you could tell me what happened out there. I've already got statements from your cousins, but obviously, they don't know the whole story."

What had happened? Hunting accident, everyone was going to call it, Doggett was suddenly sure. Nobody was going to want to look into this one too closely. He'd seen it happen before- scores settled by the time honored method of murder, then explained away as an accident.

But this was no accident, Doggett was suddenly sure, in a way that almost curdled his blood. No one in the family would dare shoot so close to April's house. She'd have a fit if they did. And Fox had been wearing a blaze orange hat- he shouldn't have been able to be missed, should he?

No. You couldn't have missed him, if what you were trying to do was make him your target.

"Can I sit down?" Doggett asked. He felt about ready to fall over. The sheriff nodded and Doggett found one of the hard plastic chairs. "Fox went out running this morning, about seven fifteen. He was going to take the trails that run along the outside of the family property. That worried me some, but he's harassed a lot by cars when he takes the roads. But it didn't worry me a lot, actually a lot less than the possibility that someone might try and run him off the road. No one in the family hunts that side of the property and he would have been heading to Sunset Hill Park, where there isn't any hunting either. And he was wearing a blaze cap, just to be on the safe side. He's usually gone forty-five minutes or so. I got worried when he wasn't back after an hour, so I went looking for him. I....uh...."

He had to stop for a minute. The sheriff's face was so cold and unmoving so as to be almost glacial. He couldn't tell this man that the ghosts of his dead parents had warned him.

"I can't rightly say why I got so worried suddenly. I guess I thought he might have twisted an ankle or something. The trail can be kind of slick in the rain in some spots. I didn't imagine that. I couldn't have imagined that I'd find him...shot in the head."

He was not going to do it. He was not going to break down and cry, as much as he wanted to. But the image of Fox's body sprawled in the undergrowth taunted him. Kept flashing in front of his eyes. In the end, Doggett didn't break down, but he earned himself a long, impatient stare from the sheriff as he composed himself.

"As soon as I found him, I got him to the nearest house. Somehow or another I found the strength to carry him to my cousin April's. And she called 911 for me," Doggett finally finished.

"You said he was wearing a cap?" the sheriff asked.

"Yeah," Doggett said. "Fold down earflap style cap, fleece lined."

"He didn't seem to be brought in with one," the sheriff said.

"It must have fallen off when he fell. Or when I was carrying him."

Then Doggett remembered as the scene flashed in front of his eyes again. No, Fox hadn't been wearing the cap when Doggett had found him. In fact, he didn't remember seeing it at the scene at all. You couldn't have missed it in the woods, even if it'd fallen off into the undergrowth. The damn thing was an unnaturally bright orange, meant to be visible at hundreds of feet.

"Maybe he took it off. Got hot from exercising or something. If he was almost to the park, like you said, he might have thought it was safe," the sheriff said.

"No, Fox wouldn't have done something like that," Doggett said, insistently. "Have you been outside today?"

"It's a pisser of a day for sure," the sheriff answered. "Okay, so that's not likely. I know I'd keep my hat on. We'll take a look around where you found him. I'd appreciate your cooperation, telling me where that was. I'll also be asking around your relatives, seeing who might have been out this morning."

The sheriff asked a few more questions, nothing that seemed really germane to the investigation as far as Doggett was concerned, then took his leave, leaving Doggett to wait helplessly. Doggett paced for a while, then took back to the seats. He watched with numb fascination how his hands trembled unless he was holding his head in them. Grief and fear, he thought, were close companions, so much so that you could hardly tell them apart. What he was feeling right now could have been either. Junie disappeared for a while and came back with a sandwich and a cup of coffee for him. He stared at them, as if they were the strangest objects he'd ever been presented with.

"Eat something, John Jay," April said from his other side. "You're about to faint it looks like."

He got most of the coffee down, no problem. He made a vain attempt at the sandwich, but abandoned it after two bites, where bread and meat turned into sand in his mouth. Finally, the doctor walked out, wanting to talk to him.

"How bad is it?" Doggett blurted out before the doctor could speak up.

"His condition is critical," the doctor said. Dr. Sethi according to her name tag. "We're transferring him up to the surgery unit. Our best neurosurgeon is prepping to work on him, to remove the bullet and relieve the pressure on his brain. We're going to do our best, but you should be prepared. He's in very serious condition and his chances are not good. He lost a large amount of blood and continues to bleed internally. His vital signs are still very weak, but we have no choice but to risk surgery. We'll inform you the instant there's any change in his condition. I noticed he's wearing a ring. You'll want to notify his wife."

Well, it was a small town, but then not everybody knew everybody. She obviously didn't know. Not everyone did, even though walking through the town had made him feel that way, given the usual assortment of cold stares they got.

"I'm his wife," Doggett said, flatly, holding up the gold ring that matched Fox's.

"Oh," the doctor said, then retreated.

Doggett turned to Junie. "I need you to do something for me, Junie," he said. "I need you to go to my house. In the den is a file cabinet. I need you to get a file. It's filed under partnership. It's got Fox's living will and power of attorney papers, all of that. Just in case these people decide to give me a hard time about things."

Junie nodded and went to go take care of things, leaving him and April to find the waiting room upstairs near the surgery unit.

"I should call some people," Doggett said, catching sight of a pay phone. "Fox's friends. They should know."

Skinner, the Lone Gunmen, they should be told immediately. If it was possible, Dana and Monica should be contacted. They were still in Mexico, last Doggett had heard. All of them had proven to be good friends, to Fox and to himself. They owed a great deal to the Gunmen, and Frohike in particular, for forcing their reunion and refusing to allow Doggett's boneheadedness to get in the way of true love. Fox had kept up his friendship with them over the phone and the Gunmen had been threatening to descend on them for the holidays.

Skinner first. He would be easier. Doggett's fingers trembled as he dialed the numbers to Skinner's personal mobile phone.

"Skinner," the voice on the other end of the line answered. He sounded like he had been disturbed from something important.

"Walter? This is John Doggett. I hope this isn't a bad time," Doggett said as he suddenly realized it was mid-day on a weekday. Skinner was at work, of course. Possibly in the middle of some important meeting. Since he'd taken early retirement, it was hard for Doggett to remember what that was like, the pressure of work. "It's about Fox."

"What about him?" Skinner asked, sounding worried. He must have known that there was no way Doggett would have called at this time of day except in an emergency.

Doggett explained the situation briefly, then added, "It might have been a hunting accident. That's the angle the sheriff seems to be pursuing. But I'm thinking it's not."

"I'll be on the first plane down," Skinner said. "As soon as I can get away from here."

"Thank you, Walter, but that's not necessary. I don't want to take you away from your work."

"Don't you even dare try to tell me that, John Doggett," Skinner said. "Mulder's family. I'll be down as soon as I can. Have you told the Gunmen yet?"


"I'll call them. They'll want to come down as well."

And after that, it was just waiting. That was all. The impossible, tedious yet excruciating torture of waiting for someone to get out of major surgery. Hours passed. Literal hours. Every now and then, a nurse or someone would take pity on him and tell him that, yes, they were still in surgery, that progress seemed to be going well. That these things took time, neurosurgery always did.

It was long dark before an exhausted looking man, obviously a doctor, dressed in hospital scrubs, approached him. "Mr. Doggett?" the doctor asked. Doggett looked up. "I understand you're Mr. Mulder's significant other."

Doggett nodded.

"I operated on Mr. Mulder. Would you come with me to my office?" The doctor asked.

Doggett's heart stopped. That was never a good sign, being taken aside into the office. It was a softening of the blow, the start of soft but wounding words that started with, 'we did everything we could.' It was so that loved ones didn't have to fall apart in a hospital corridor.

He was led down the hall and into a small office. A big bookshelf of medical textbooks dominated the room, the closest thing to a personal touch the space had.

"I'm sorry," the doctor began. "You probably are expecting the worst now. I assure you, my news isn't the worst. In fact, I'd say we have some room for cautious optimism here. I asked you in here, so I could show you what we did."

The doctor opened a file and pulled out an X-ray. It was of someone's head. No, Doggett realized. Fox's head. You could see the bullet, standing out, bright white among the gray shadows of bone, darker shadows of brain.

"The bullet entered here, just over the right eyebrow," the doctor indicated. "Mr. Mulder was extremely lucky. The bullet traveled through the brain in a very direct, very clean path. Then, instead of tumbling around when it encountered bone again, it lodged solidly, here."

The doctor indicated the bright, white shape. "I'd say the damage was about as clean as you can get and still be hit in the head by this kind of projectile. If it had been going much slower when it hit, it would have tumbled around in his skull, causing much more brain damage. If it went faster, it possibly would have blown away a large portion of the back of his skull."

Doggett swallowed hard.

The doctor continued. "We went in here, lifting a small portion of the skull here. We do this to relieve the pressure on the brain. That pressure will cause more brain damage than the passage of the bullet itself. Between the surgery and some promising new drugs, I believe we have a good chance of avoiding this. But I have to tell you honestly, Mr. Doggett, I can't say how much brain damage he might be facing, assuming he survives. The prognosis for his survival is good, but its far from certain at this point."

So they weren't out of the woods yet. Hope was born, and died, then was born again, in the space of these brief moments.

"But, like I said," the doctor said. "I believe we have cause for some cautious optimism. He's strong. He's still young. The damage was clean."

"You said brain damage?" Doggett asked. "What kind of damage are we talking about here? Never mind. I don't care. We'll handle it. So long as he lives."

He'd take a broken Fox, one not able to care for himself, maybe not even able to communicate, any day, so long as there was a Fox around.

"It's really impossible to say so soon, Mr. Doggett. The brain is a complex thing. He could bounce back and it could be minimal. It could be extensive, but its just really too soon to say. The brain works in ways we don't quite understand. In some people, a kind of holographic effect takes place and other portions of the brain sort of step in to take over the functions of a damaged portion. But I believe its too soon to worry about this. If he makes it through the next several hours, his chances will improve markedly. I've done what I can, Mr. Doggett. He's in God's hands at the moment. He was transferred to the ICU almost immediately and you should be able to see him briefly soon."

And then his interview was over and Doggett wasn't sure if he was more or less worried.

A forever later, Doggett was allowed into the ICU. The figure in the bed was hardly recognizable as Fox. Fox's head was swathed in big, white bandages, concealing part of his face. Fox was intubated, the tube taped down. Lines, and more lines snaked out of him, like strange, malevolent plastic serpents. And he was surrounded by machine- monitors, respirators, noisy, beeping machines.

"Oh, God, Fox, hold on," Doggett said. He felt afraid to even touch Fox for fear of dislodging something. But he sought and found Fox's hand and held that. He stroked it gently, his tears, the ones he'd been holding back all day, finally found their release.

He wept silently for a few, all too brief minutes until the nurse finally told him that he had to go, that he'd exceeded visitation time for the moment.

The machines beeped and pinged. It was a horrible thing, having to turn his back on Fox and walk away, when his every impulse was to stay, to hold on to Fox's life by stubbornly holding on to his hand. As if he could pull him back from the edge of death itself. Because he knew to the bottom of his soul, that if Fox were to die, this time, there would be no miracles, no digging him out of the grave, finding that he wasn't so dead afterall.

Doggett went back to the waiting room just as his sister Gin was walking in, Jen following shyly at her heels.

She didn't rush to embrace him, but Jen did. She squeezed him tightly and didn't let him go for long minutes.

"You didn't have to come up," Doggett said, truly surprised that she would have, seeing as she was nearly late for her own mother's funeral.

"Yes, I did. He's family now," Gin said, taking a seat in the waiting room. "I came up as soon as April called me. I know how it is. Waiting like this."

"Can I see him? How is he?" Jen asked finally. Since their conversation in the car, Jen had been close not just to Fox, but Doggett as well. You could count on a couple of calls a month from her, plus a couple extra just for Fox, usually about the ghosts she saw. Doggett was never privy to those conversations.

"He's holding on, Jen," Doggett said. "And I don't know. Let's go see if we can talk the nurses into that."

A short while later, by some miracle perhaps, or perhaps the nurses were kinder than he thought, they were admitted into the sterile white room again, let in amongst the machines and the tubes, to the place where Fox was fighting for his life.

The nurse left them alone for the moment. Jen looked at Fox for just a second, then flinched away, hiding her eyes behind a hand. Bad memories perhaps. When she looked again, it wasn't at Fox, but to a spot just on the other side of the bed.

"Grandma?" she said, softly. "You won't let him die, will you? Tell me you're not here because he's dying, please."

Doggett remembered earlier in the day- how he'd seen his parents warning him that Fox was in trouble. He looked to where Jen was looking and didn't see anything. Nothing but empty space. And yet, he couldn't, he found, dismiss it out of hand. Jen might well be talking to his mother. He couldn't disbelieve that.

"What's she saying?" he asked.

"She says that Fox has come so close to dying so many times. It gets harder and harder for him to back away from the light every time it happens. He's right on the edge," Jen said. "He doesn't want to walk into the light, but it draws him so strongly."

They watched Fox a few minutes longer, then Jen seemed to get uncomfortable and she sidled away, leaving him alone with Fox in the sterile room.

"Fox," Doggett said. "Stay with me here. You know, you've got people who love you. And not just me we're talking. Cousins. My sister. Jen. You're family to them now. Family means something here. It really does."

Doggett thought about all the family members that had drifted in and out of the waiting room all night. Some staying just a little. April hadn't left his side. Junie had had to go to work, but Abe had taken her place. Pretty much, only Daddy Ray and his sons were the only ones who lived in town who hadn't made an appearance, no matter how brief. Yes, maybe they might not love the idea of Fox, but all of them but most of them liked Fox, once they stopped bitching long enough to actually meet him.

He stayed, standing there, holding Fox's hand, until the nurse looked in again and he was forced to go back to the waiting room.

Junie was back from work. She sat in a chair she'd drawn up into a circle with April, Abe and Gin, as well as a couple others, not so close cousins. They all had their hands clasped loosely, their eyes lowered and they looked like they were listening to someone, only none of them spoke. He didn't have to ask to know what they were doing- praying. Something inside of Doggett grumbled, wanted to start making noises, large, disagreeable noises. If there was such a thing as God, well, He had a lot to answer for, as far as Doggett was concerned. He wanted to forbid them to do it, but knew that it would anger April and Junie. And it probably couldn't hurt. If nothing else, it made them feel better.

Before Doggett could make a decision about what to do next, Skinner and Frohike walked in. He met them in the middle of the room, then stood in front of them, trying to figure out what to say, what to do. If it were another man, Doggett might have reached out to embrace Skinner. But even after all this time, Skinner didn't seem to be the kind of friend you could do that to. Doggett was surprised, therefore, to find a set of arms wrapped around him- Frohike, whose arms came up to midway around Doggett's chest. Whose hands seemed inclined to drift southwards to Doggett's ass.

"The guys are still on their way. We were just about ready to put the paper to bed when we heard. They'll be down as soon as they drop it at the printers. So, how are we going to nail the bastard that did this?" Frohike asked.

Before Doggett could answer, the sheriff was back. "Mr. Doggett?" he asked.

Of course, three heads, besides Doggett's swiveled around, but his various cousins turned back to what they'd been doing, once it was clear who the sheriff was talking to.

"Sheriff Jefferson," Doggett said, nodding, and pushing Frohike off at the same time. Time for an introduction, he decided. Something that might get the fire under the sheriff's somewhat wieldy butt. "These are some friends of ours come down from DC. Melvin Frohike. And Walter Skinner. Walter's an assistant director with the Bureau."

"Sheriff Jefferson," Skinner said, holding out his hand for the sheriff to shake. "Let me offer all of the Bureau's resources to you. Anything we can do to help solve this crime. Fox Mulder is one of the finest agents I've ever worked with, and even though he's no longer employed with the Bureau, I still consider him one of ours."

"Pleased to meet you, sir," Jefferson said. "But that won't be necessary. That's what I come to tell you, Mr. Doggett. We have a weapon, and a confession of sorts."

"What do you mean, of sorts," Doggett said.

"It was your cousin March, we think," Jefferson said. "He claims he was out hunting the same time your man was shot. His Remington uses the same kind of slugs as the one the surgeon turned over to us. March says he took a shot at something in the woods close to where you found your man. He says he didn't think he hit anything, so he just moved on. He says he didn't realize he'd gotten so close to that side of the property."

And that was total bullshit, Doggett thought instantly. There was no way someone who'd been all over the terrain since he was knee high practically could not know where he was. Even someone with as limited intelligence as March had. And furthermore, where March was, Dec was sure not to be far behind.

"Did you arrest him?" Doggett asked.

"You can't ask me to haul him in, Mr. Doggett," Jefferson said. "I looked all over. Couldn't find a single stitch of that blaze hat your man was supposedly wearing. The most you'd talk a judge into is negligence maybe, involuntary manslaughter if Mr. Mulder dies. Do you really want to do that to your family. All the fuss and trouble of a trial to get two, three years of probation probably."

Did he want to do that to family? No, he didn't. But this wasn't about what he wanted. It was about justice.

And the answer was so pat, it didn't make sense. It didn't settle right with him. An easy answer, but certainly not the right one. March might not be a real bright bulb, but he was a decent hunter. Doggett had gone hunting with him before. He wouldn't have taken a wild shot in the woods, then not gone looking to see if he'd hit something. If anything, March was too parsimonious with his ammo to take a wild shot at anything that moved. That was more Dec's style.

Doggett was silent long enough that the sheriff took it as accusation. "Look, I'm not picking that boy up and booking him. He's simple."

"No," Doggett said. "Don't pick March up. I think you need to talk to Dec. Ask him what he was doing the same time as March was out in the woods. You know, Sheriff, it might not occur to you, but Fox and I have some enemies in town, some of them in my own family."

"We've got a statement," Jefferson said. "We can wrap this up just like that. Not everything is about your...uh...sexual preferences. Fact is, it's damn stupid to be out in the woods this time of the year without something blaze orange."

Yes, there was the matter of the missing hat. Where had it gone? As soon as he could, Doggett was going to go looking for that hat.

"Sheriff," Doggett said. He was prepared to beg and plead that this not be dropped, that it not be explained away. "Both my uncle and my cousin Dec hunt with Remingtons too. Now, don't you think maybe you might want to have another chat with both of them? Because this isn't about easy answers. You know I know the temptation to wrap things up tight as soon as you can. I was one of you, Sheriff. Walked around on the other side of that badge."

Skinner spoke up, "Have you had the weapon run through ballistics yet?"

"We're a small town, small department. No crime lab of our own to speak of. We need something like that done, we send it down to the state boys. But they're kind of backed up at the moment," Jefferson said, defensively.

"If you have the weapon still, we could courier it to DC. We could have results by late tomorrow morning," Skinner said. "The Bureau will pick up the tab for transport and lab work. You might want to see if you can get these other weapons while you're at it, to rule them out."

"We'll see if we can do that," Jefferson reluctantly grumbled. "But I think this is wishful thinking. Dec's story was already confirmed by your uncle. He was clearing some brush for your uncle at the time."

No, more like March was clearing the brush and Dec was out "hunting."

"Sheriff," Doggett said as he turned to go. "Have you ever known my cousin Dec to do a damn lick of manual labor before?"

Then he walked back to the chairs, leaving Skinner and the sheriff to work out details about transferring the rifle to DC.

Fox survived the night, just barely. Morning found Doggett curled up asleep on a chair in the waiting room, his neck seriously kinked from sleeping on it badly.

"I'm taking you home to shower and change, John Jay," Gin told him after she caught him stirring. She shoved a paper cup of coffee at him. He sipped at the bitter, lukewarm brew inside, not even sure if he was awake yet. He had to be awake, he decided after a moment. No dream could be as bad as this reality.

"Not until I find out if there's any progress with Fox," he said.

It took just a moment to inquire with the nurse and find out what he thought. That there was no progress. That Fox was holding on, but that the situation was far from certain.

Doggett looked over across the waiting room. Jen was nowhere to be seen. The prayer circle that had gathered last night was either still in session or it had reconvened, only the participants were not all the same. Doggett was most surprised to see Frohike sitting with his head bent and his eyes closed. He didn't disturb the little man though.

Instead, he just followed Gin through the hospital corridors and out into the day. He'd been in fluorescent lighting over twenty-four hours, he realized as he stepped out blinking into the daylight. The cold rain from yesterday had passed, leaving them with a cold, breezy day. The sky was brilliantly blue, not a smudge or spot of cloud to be found. With no coat, he shivered as they walked across the street to the parking lot. Unusually, it'd dropped to below freezing, his breaths coming out in big white puffs. It was a cold snap like they almost never got here.

Once they were in the car, Doggett still shivered for a while as it warmed up. But once they'd hit the road, he found he could talk again.

"Why, Gin?" he asked, a question he told himself he would never ask again once. Because truth be told there was no good answer to it. You couldn't explain why bad things happened to people who didn't deserve them. Why people got away all the time, scot free for the terrible crimes they committed. Why people did such horrible things to each other in the first place. It was useless to ask those kinds of questions, but the aching hollow at the back of his spine seemed to demand to be filled with something. Some kind of answer, some kind of reassurance.

"How can someone hate someone he hardly knew that much? You know as well as I it was Dec that took that shot, and that it was no accident," he said.

"We don't know that for sure, John Jay," she scolded him. "What is it that they're always saying on those lawyer shows. Innocent until proven guilty."

"I'm sure the proof is out there," Doggett said.

Once they were home, Doggett stopped just long enough to shower, dry off and change clothes. Then he walked downstairs again. Skinner was in their living room, talking on the phone. When he noticed Doggett, he cut the call short then hung up.

"Any news?" Doggett asked hopefully.

"We've confirmed that the bullet they dug out of Fox's skull was not shot out of March's Remington. The sheriff didn't try to take those other Remingtons you mentioned. Said he didn't have just cause, that what you were saying was mere conjecture."

Doggett felt his jaw tightening, almost automatically. He turned towards the hall, stopped just long enough to grab a jacket. As he was shoving his arms into the sleeves while he was walking out the front door, Skinner asked him, "Where are you going?"

"To look for a hat," Doggett said. He let the door close behind him. Skinner opened the door and was close on his heels in an instant.

Being out in boonies had brought out a little bit of Skinner's casual side, such as it existed. He'd put on khakhi pants and a blue henley. Doggett was reminded of some of his first impressions of Skinner. Of looking for Mulder in the desert and Skinner wearing a yellow shirt and khakis, about as dressed down as you ever saw the man.

"If you're coming, you'll probably want a jacket. One of the bright colored ones. Though I don't know at the moment if it's more dangerous in those woods to wear it or not wear it," Doggett said. He waited a moment for Skinner to retreat into the house and come back out again, wearing an orange fleece jacket.

"Have you been to the crime scene yet?" Doggett asked.

"Yes. Earlier this morning," Skinner said. "I've sent for a couple of the Bureau's best crime scene analysts. One of them specializes in blood splash patterns. It's been years since I've been in the field, but what I've seen doesn't match up with the scenario."

"Say what?" Doggett asked.

"I don't believe that the place you found Mulder is where he was shot," Skinner said.

As they trotted down the path together, Skinner let Doggett take the lead. He would have found the place easily enough, even if it hadn't been for the generous swaths of crime scene tape marking it off. A Bureau agent was guarding the site, dressed for the weather in a black tactical jacket with FBI across the back. The agent nodded at Skinner then faded into the wood.

"I figured that whoever wanted to tamper with the scene might have easy access," Skinner explained. "Jefferson hasn't been the most cooperative, but I assure you, John, I will see that this case is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. You don't need to worry about that. You need to keep your attention focused on Fox."

"Thank you, Walter. I mean that," Doggett said. Skinner just nodded. Their eyes met for a moment and Doggett was profoundly grateful to have a friend like this man. Skinner was like a rock, solid and unflinching. Doggett could rely on him to see that justice was carried out. He didn't have to do it himself. He thought about how Skinner had said that Fox was like family to him. And this was what family was all about. They were the supports that propped you up when you were sure that you would otherwise fall down. They were a hand that you didn't even know was there until you were starting to stumble and they reached for you. When things fell apart, they shored up the walls and held it together for you until you hold it together yourself.

"This is it," Doggett announced, looking right at the spot where he'd found Fox. "This is where I found him. Right there."

He pointed to the spot. His stomach turned as he realized that the dead, weedy undergrowth still had some blood all over it. Washed out to a kind of watered brown, but still very evidently a lot of blood. The ground had frozen, churned mud and footprints frozen into place.

"We were lucky," Skinner said. "It stopped raining not long after you reached your cousin's house and the temperature dropped significantly. It was bad enough, but some of the evidence was still preserved. Much more rain and it all would have washed away."

Doggett didn't venture past the tape. If the crime scene guys were coming down, he didn't want to possibly destroy any evidence, no matter how small. Droplets of blood could be critical pieces in the chain of events. Spray patterns had led to convictions before. Doggett tried to remember Fox's exact position when he'd found him, whether that would hold up to the idea that Fox hadn't been shot here. Fox had been on his back, face up. Not the likeliest position to fall in from the trail, but not impossible either. He could have twisted as he fell. Only he'd been angled at forty-five degrees off the trail.

"You know," Doggett said. "Something is funny. I found him face up at an angle off the trail. Like this."

Doggett demonstrated the angle using one hand for the trail, one for Fox, then added, "It seems like the only way he could have fallen like that was if he'd been running away from the house. Only, it takes Fox less than five minutes to get this far on the trail. And the last shot I heard was about half an hour after Fox had left. I think we need to look a little further afield. See if we see something else."

"I think you're right," Skinner said. "And seeing as March's weapon was cleared, I think we've got just cause to ask for those other rifles, don't you think?"

"Let's go," Doggett said, intending to take the trail down further, to where Fox must have traveled.

"John," Skinner said. "You should go back to the hospital. Or you should get some rest. I'll take care of this. Let's go back to the house. I've got search warrants to arrange and the criminologists should be here soon."

Skinner was asking with his stare that John leave it up to him. That he trust Skinner. And as much as John felt he should be out here, looking for proof, what he needed, more than anything, was to be back by Fox's side. "Okay," he said. "Back to the hospital."

The day passed with only slight improvement in Fox's condition. With every passing hour, it seemed more likely that Fox would survive, but he still didn't wake. Doggett spent every waking moment he was allowed, sitting by Fox's bed, listening to the regular progression of the respirators, the beeps and pings of the other telemetry equipment.

Skinner's report from the criminologist was, "They're sure he wasn't shot at that spot, but we've been all over the woods and haven't found the spot yet. The rain made things more difficult."

As for the gun, Dec's Remington was ruled out as the weapon as well. But that didn't set Doggett's mind any further at ease.

That afternoon, as Doggett sat next to Fox, the door to the room opened. Doggett looked up, surprised, because it had only been a few minutes since the nurse had been in to check on Fox. Surprise melted down to anger when he saw that it was Daddy Ray.

But looking into Daddy Ray's eyes, Doggett knew he had to hold his tongue. This was the face of a man humbled. A man who had faced truths that had broken down his world. He might not have cried, but Daddy Ray was the kind of man who might never do that. Still, the misery was written right onto his stolid face, his empty looking eyes.

"John Jay, I need to talk to you right now," he said.

Doggett stood up as if to follow Daddy Ray into the other room. Daddy Ray shook his head and said, "We need to talk in private."

"Come in then," Doggett said.

Daddy Ray walked in. He took a long, slow look at Fox, taking in how bandaged up and damaged Fox looked. At the respirators and all machines. At how still Fox was, other than the regular rise and fall of his chest, and that forced by the respirator. Daddy Ray shook his head.

"I want you to know, that I still think it's wrong. What you boys do to each other. It's not natural, not right, and not what God intended," Daddy Ray said. Doggett let him continue, because he sensed that there was a large 'but' coming up.

"But, I never wanted anything but what's best for you, John Jay. When he died, I made a promise to your daddy and to myself to raise you like you were one of my boys, and that's what I've tried to do. Just every bit as much as my own boys.

And that was about as close as Daddy Ray was ever going to get to saying that he loved Doggett. You could hear it in every word. As contorted and fucked up as his thinking was, he obviously cared. So much so that Doggett was surprised. He remembered long ago, at Luke's funeral, Daddy Ray, not saying much of anything, but walking up to him and putting one firm, heavy hand on his shoulder. Then Daddy Ray had looked him in the eyes. It had seemed at the time, the only thing real about the whole funeral. Then Daddy Ray had said, "You need anything, you call."

"I just want to see that you were raised right. That I done my job right. I....here," Daddy Ray continued. This man standing in front of Doggett was a shadow of the man that had stood in front of him at the funeral all those years ago. It was the inevitability of time, something that was humbling in and of itself. The giants of yesteryear shrink so quickly. Daddy Ray thrust a brown paper sack he'd been carrying into Doggett's hands.

Doggett opened it up with trembling hands, hardly able to force himself to look inside.

"I was worried about the trailer plumbing, it getting so cold like it is. I was afraid the pipes might freeze. So I went into the crawlspace, just to check it out. I found it there. John Jay, I may have raised my boys to know what you do is wrong, but I did not raise them to be murderers," Daddy Ray said, his voice starting to tremble and quaver.

Doggett forced himself to look in the bag. He crumpled the top of the bag shut again as soon as he saw the flash of bright orange inside. He didn't want to accidentally catch sight of bloodstains turned brown. Or a bullet hole. He put the bag back into Daddy Ray's hands.

"You want to do what's right, you'll call the sheriff yourself. Give him this and tell him where you found this," Doggett said.

"I just don't understand. It couldn't have been my March. The boy doesn't have that much mean in him. I know he couldn't do it," Daddy Ray said. "And Dec cleared brush all morning."

"Could he have slipped away for just a few minutes?" Doggett asked. If this were planned, that's all it would have taken.

"No, we worked side-by-side all morning," Daddy Ray said. "I was surprised. Dec ain't never any more hardworking than he has to be."

"Maybe March did do it," Doggett said, even as he doubted it.

"No," Daddy Ray said. "Not if I know my boys. March might lie, but he wouldn't do this."

A realization struck Doggett, creeping in from the bottom of his soles and rising until it caught his attention. "Has anyone asked Auggie what he was doing that morning?"

"He would have been at work," Daddy Ray said.

"Do we know that for sure?"

"You can't do this to my brothers," Junie said.

They were standing in a hospital corridor, staring at each other. Junie's eyes were red, so was her nose. She'd been crying a lot, just before she'd come seeking him out. She really wanted a smoke. You could tell by the way she kept reaching for the packet of them in her shirt pocket, but then remembering where she was and putting them away.

"I'm not doing anything to them," Doggett said. "If anything, they did it to themselves. I don't have a say, it's out of my hands now, Junie."

"They're my brothers," Junie said. Yes, she was miserable, and he hadn't expected she'd be happy to see her brothers arrested, hauled away to the county lock-up in cuffs. But while he felt sorry for her, he wasn't that sorry. People got like Auggie and Dec because people always covered for them, always made excuses for them, until they thought they could get away with just about anything.

"They tried to kill a man, Junie. They shot him in the head, and tried to cover it up, make it seem accidental. They planned it. They stalked him through the woods. They planned alibis. They hid evidence. They moved him from the crime scene. If they'd succeeded in killing Fox, that's murder one. Premeditated. Think real hard about that, Junie," Doggett said.

"I just can't talk to you anymore right now, John Jay," she said, then turned and fled down the corridor.

Abe had been watching down corridor. He approached as Junie fled. "She won't be like this forever," he said. "It's hard for her. You understand. Give her some time. She knows it's not your fault."

But maybe it was. Maybe he should have accepted the easy answer, not raised a fuss about it, for the sake of family harmony. Because it sure wasn't making him feel any better.

It was not a relief in the slightest to hear Skinner say, "We have a confession from your cousin Auggie. The DA has agreed to prosecute for attempted murder."

Not when Fox failed to wake from his coma. Not for days, a full week, after the doctors said he should be approaching consciousness again. They moved him to a step down unit, then just a regular room as his condition stabilized, but he just didn't wake. He was breathing on his own, but other than that, he remained still, unmoving. The size of the bandage itself shrank, so that more and more of Fox's face became visible, his beautiful, vacant face.

About the third day into Fox's coma, Langly had thrust a paperback novel into Doggett's hands and said, "You should read this to him."

Byers had piped up immediately with, "There is clear scientific research that indicates that those in comatose states can hear, if not respond, to the voices in the room around them. And that speaking to them might even play a role in waking them sooner."

"It's worth a try, buddy," Frohike said "We'll do it if you don't want to."

Doggett had taken the book. It was some crap science-fiction thing. It had a woman in a skin tight space suit on the cover, one that followed her every curve and she had curves in places where most women didn't even have places.

"Good idea," he said. "Only I think we'll be reading something else."

So he read mystery novels to Fox, from his mother's old stash of them, each day, until his voice gave out, and then he just sat there, holding Fox's hand, until someone came and forced him to go to the house that had once been a home he was starting to build with Fox. At the moment he was reading to Fox from John MacDonald's "The Long Blue Goodbye." The melancholy trials of Travis McGee suited his mood perfectly.

Once the case had been resolved, Skinner had had to go back to work in DC, but he called every day to check on Fox's condition. The Gunmen remained, cluttering up the house. Cobbled together technology seemed to follow them like fleas followed a junkyard dog. Fox and he had shared one computer that hid in an upstairs room. He'd come back from hospital one day to discover that a small, improvised network had sprouted in his living room and dining room. Byers had been online, searching through medical research on comas, head wounds, and neurosurgery. Langly had the old console television from the den apart on the living room floor, and from the sounds of it, Frohike was in the kitchen again. At least there'd be a good meal prepared.

"What are you doing, Langly?" Doggett snapped, annoyed at the mess. The set was dead, had been for months. It was just too big to get rid of conveniently. The repair guy had refused to even look at it.

"I figured once Mulder gets home, he'll want to be doing some TV watching," Langly said. "I should be done here in a few minutes."

And he was. Surprisingly, even though every part of the set, it seemed, was out on the floor, Langly had it all reassembled, every last bit, in a few short minutes. He then plugged it in and turned it on. Nothing but electronic snow appeared on the screen. Langly calmly turned the UHF knob until a clear picture appeared on the screen.

"Not exactly cable ready, but it'll do," Langly said.

"Food's on the table," Frohike said as he came into the room.

Having the gunmen around was surprisingly nice. And oddly, things got done. He would have thought, having seen the inside of their warehouse, that they were big slobs, incapable of the slightest bit of housework. But on reflection, their place wasn't dirty or trashed. It was just cluttered with the tools of their trade, their computers, their gadgets. No, around here, in their presence housework just got done. Clean laundry appeared. Dirty dishes disappeared, clean one rematerializing on the drainboard. Food appeared in the fridge.

They were taking care of him, Doggett thought as he sat down at the kitchen table, in their own way. Like family did. A plate of meatloaf was put in front of him. And he wasn't going to say that Frohike's meatloaf was better than his Mama's, but he sure did think it.

"You want to spend Christmas Day with us at my house?" April asked. She stood at the door to Fox's hospital room. She was dropping off another bouquet of flowers for Fox. This one was red and white carnations with sprigs of evergreen stuff. Pine branches, the like. Another reminder of the season. "Your crazy friends are welcome too."

It was getting close. There were only a few weeks until the date. Fox still hadn't woken, the Gunmen were still around. He couldn't seem to shift them. He'd tried, everything, including asking them pointedly when they were planning to go. They just didn't go. They were going to be a fixture until Fox woke and kicked them out himself apparently.

He'd not been planning on doing anything for Christmas at all, but he'd woken up yesterday morning to discover a Christmas tree in the living room. It wasn't decorated yet, except for an odd array of red LEDs, that must have been wired to some computer, because they twinkled independantly or in starburst patterns. There didn't seem to be anything else to do about it, so he'd hauled out the boxes of his Mama's Christmas ornaments and left them out around the tree. He'd come home from the hospital last night to find the tree almost completely decorated. They'd saved the star on top for him apparently. Either that, or it had all been done by Frohike and the man couldn't find a ladder.

"I wouldn't have thought you'd want me around," Doggett said. That side of the family hadn't been real communicative since Auggie and Dec and been arrested. "Especially not Junie."

"She asked me to ask you special," April said. "She's sorry, John Jay. So am I."

"We'll see," Doggett said. "Thank her for asking, but maybe Fox will be awake by then. If he is, I'll be spending it with him."

He wasn't going to give up hope that Fox might wake up someday soon. He couldn't do that.

Somewhere in the middle of "The Lonely Silver Rain", Doggett had fallen asleep in his usual chair, one of the more comfortable of the hospital chairs. He'd been only half joking when he'd been talking about bringing in a recliner.

The hospital staff, the doctors, had been starting to talk about transferring Fox to a long term care facility. Doggett hadn't been ready to admit that kind of defeat yet and had pretended to ignore they'd been saying. Even if it would have been cheaper. Much. With no insurance on Fox, they were paying pretty much out of pocket in cash. Luckily, Fox had deep, deep pockets.

Still, over three weeks in the hospital tended to add up real quick, especially those first days in the ICU had been expensive. Earlier in the day, Doggett had been looking over the hospital statements. The bill would have broken him except for Fox's money.

Doggett didn't wake when the book dropped from his hands to the floor. He didn't wake when a nurse gently tucked a blanket around him and turned the room lights off. In fact, at the time he woke, he couldn't have said what woke him.

Only that when he broke through his confusion on waking, Fox was moving. Fox's eyes were open.

Doggett shook off the blanket and stood over Fox's bed. His heart was racing, with fear, with excitement. With possible anticipation that he might be disappointed, that this was not a real waking. Doggett reached for Fox's hand and found it. "Fox?" he asked. "Fox?"

His answer was a tightening of Fox's hand on his. A real grip. Then another answer. A voice. Weak, to be sure. Hardly more than a scratchy whisper. "Yeah?" was Fox's clear answer.

Sometimes, when things fall apart, they come back together again.

Mulder ignored the brightly wrapped packages under the tree and looked at all of the people around him. It seemed nothing short of a miracle to be in the midst of a family like this, celebrating Christmas. Even more miraculously, Scully, Monica and William would be arriving tomorrow, having finally been reached in their hiding place in Mexico. He hadn't seen his son or Scully in over two years.

John was in the kitchen, with Frohike, making a lot of noise. But the fragrant odors drifting in seemed to indicate that progress was being made, despite the noises of discord between the two men.

Byers was talking with John's sister Gin and brother in law Roger. It was funny to hear Byers call her by her full name of Virginia. No one called her that. Except apparently Byers. Langly had hit it off, oddly, with Brittany, John's middle niece. They were in the den, the door open, playing a video game, bursts of electronic explosions drifting in every now and then, punctuating the conversations. April and Junie seemed nervous about leaving the holiday meal preparations to the men, and every now and then, they'd wander into the kitchen, only to hurry back out again, looking chastened.

Even Daddy Ray had dropped by earlier in the day. He didn't stay long, but he'd dropped off a wrapped gift for them. He hadn't really talked to Mulder, but as he'd left, he'd looked Mulder in the eye and said, "Merry Christmas, son."

Perhaps that was a step of about a million miles for Daddy Ray.

Mulder tried to stay in the background. He was still tired most of the time, the only lingering effect from his injuries. He'd only gotten home from the hospital the day before yesterday. No discernable impairment, the neurologist had pronounced. A miracle, all things considered.

Jen sidled up to him. She perched on the arm of the couch he'd claimed. Even though it was Christmas, she hadn't taken off her black. Still, she had made concession to the season and taken off most of her black leather studded bracelets and added a burgundy velvet ribbon choker to the ensemble. With her newly short, spiky black hair, she looked a little like a crow, Mulder thought.

"You know, Grandma and Grandpa aren't around the house anymore," Jen said. She sounded almost sad.

"No, they're not," Mulder said. "They must have gone on, maybe to their next life."

"I think they knew you were going to be hurt, and they wanted to make sure you were going to be okay," she said. "Now that you're okay, they don't have to stay."

"Maybe," Mulder said. He put a hand to his head and felt the still tender spot there where he'd been shot. There was a slight divot under the newly healing skin and the incision site on the back of his skull from the surgery, the only obviously apparent signs that he'd been shot. It was hard to believe he had been. He hadn't seen anything really. He'd strangely felt like he'd been followed when he'd been running, but he ignored that, discounting it to leftover paranoia. There'd been a movement in the trees. And then something that felt he was being kicked in the head by a horse. After that, he hadn't remembered anything until waking in the hospital room with John by his side.

"Who can really say why things happen," Mulder said.

Then John walked into the room with Frohike at his heels and said, "Food's finally on the table. No thanks to my friend Mel here."

"No thanks to you, you mean," Frohike said, elbowing John lightly in the ribs. Somehow during the weeks Mulder had spent in a coma, John had formed fast friendships with the Gunmen. This bantering tease between them was something Mulder had never hoped to see between his lover and his best friends.

John walked over to Mulder and bent down as if he wanted a kiss.

"Nope," Mulder said. "No mistletoe."

"I'll show you mistletoe," John said. Then he attacked, swooping down to steal a sudden, brief kiss that left Mulder almost breathless. Ever since Mulder had woken, he'd been showered, almost drowned in John's affection. And John looked at him like he was watching a miracle walking around. It was as if John was determined that Fox would never again not know he was loved. After the kiss, he asked, "You need help to the table?"

"I'm fine, John," Mulder said, as he got to his feet. "There's no need to coddle me."

"Indulge me a little," John said, putting an arm around Mulder's shoulder to lead him to the dining room. "I nearly lost you."

"Okay," Mulder said, liking the feel of John's strong arm around his shoulder and John's warm body next to his. Liking the spicy, savory smells of cooking that clung to John. Liking being in the midst of his family when only last year he'd been completely on his own on this night. "Just a little."

It was a warm spring night, the middle of April and if they'd had an unseasonably cool winter, then they had a warm and early spring to make up for it. The peach blossoms were long gone.

Fox and he were in the middle of tearing out the old metal kitchen cabinets that day. It was going to be a long haul, redoing the kitchen. But they'd picked out cabinets and it was time to do it. It was the end of a long day and though they could have kept working into the night, Doggett put down the last cabinet they'd hauled out and said, "I think that's enough for today."

He looked around at the sky, at the deep blue velvet of it. Stars were just beginning to twinkle in it, the last of the sunset faded to deep purple. He breathed in a lungful of sweet, verdant air. Spring was well settled in. Better than that, though. There were hints of the summer that would be coming soon. The rustle and chirps of bugs had just started.

"Let's go for a drive," Doggett decided.

"Where to?" Fox asked.

"Maybe get some dinner, something like that," Doggett said.

"Let's shower and change first," Fox said. He wiped his face off on a corner of his t-shirt. Smudges of dirt had rubbed of on the gray knit fabric here and there. God, but he was a handsome man, even sweaty from hard work. No, thought Doggett. Especially sweaty from hard work. He thought about Fox would smell, as he was, that sweet yet sour odor of sweat. It was just enticing, making him just want to burrow his nose against Fox's body, sniffing in deeply, taking it all in.

"No," Doggett said. "No need."

Fox shrugged and headed for the Camry.

"Uh, uh," Doggett said. "Let's take the truck."

Instead of heading into town, Doggett gave in to an impulse and headed for a spot he knew. Down county roads and north of town. A few minutes later, he was pulling through a gate that hung open, its lock busted long ago. The fence itself was so rusted it was about it fall apart. The old abandoned drive through had been on its last legs, its last decrepit years when he'd been in high school. It'd shown third run movies, four dollars for a whole car full.

Doggett pulled the truck into a spot not far from the big, ghostly white screen. Amazing that that still stood so unblemished.

"What are we doing here?" Fox asked.

"It's an old make-out spot of mine," Doggett said, a big grin coming to his face. He turned to look at Fox. At the man's gorgeous face frosted silvery with the moonlight.

"Oh, yeah?" Fox asked.

"Yeah," Doggett said. "This very truck too."

"Yeah?" Fox suddenly had a grin. "With that Beecher boy? Is this where you got your leg over him?"

"Him and a couple of other boys," Doggett affirmed. He reached out and put a hand on Fox's thigh, upper thigh, close to the groin. Fox's old jeans were velvety soft, almost at the point where they would start shredding in a couple of washes, but for a brief moment, they were perfect. So was the firm muscled thigh under his hand. "But not one of 'em could compare to you."

"Oh, you think so?" Fox teased.

"I know so," Doggett said, then pressed his whole body against Fox, who mock struggled for a moment, then relaxed.

"I don't know," Fox teased. "My mom said I should never pet with boys, especially not boys like you. That they'll just take what they want and not respect me in the morning."

"Oh, I'll respect you in the morning all right," Doggett said. "And the next morning, and the next and the next. 'Til death do us part."

Then he claimed Fox with his mouth. With his body. With everything that he could give. Later, when they both could speak again, Fox said, "Love you too, John Jay."


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