SCHOOL VAN

BACK ROAD, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

1830

"And then Cole's like, 'Jack, that would be suicide,' and Jack's like, 'I have to do this!' and he runs out and takes out a bunch of terrorists—BAM, BAM, BAM—and then he gets shot right here in the chest—twice! And he's like, on the ground and he pulls out his 9 mil and he shoots one more terrorist, then one sprays a bunch into his chest—CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA—and then he's out! He's down! And then you can see his head in the terrorist's sights and then Rene comes up from behind and takes out that terrorist, and then she's running and she's like, 'Oh crap, Jack!'"

Three boys sat in rapt attention as twelve-year-old Jeff Seigel, who was allowed to watch 24, recounted a recent episode he saw.

Meanwhile, three other boys nearby were talking about something much less innocent. "No way, that's not even possible."

"I swear, I saw it. THIS big."

"That's stupid, Tim, there's no way that's even possible."

"If you were 7 feet tall, sure it would be!"

"What, can you prove it?"

"No—"

"Then there's no way!"

A few other boys were telling jokes, and just as they cried in unison, "THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!" Mulder popped another Eccedrin. Twelve seventh-grade boys in a van for two hours really did a number on one's head.

Matt Scully sat directly behind Mulder, talking quietly with two other boys. Suddenly, the twelve-year-old asked, "Uncle Mulder?"

"Yeah, what's up?" Mulder asked, turning around to face the boy.

"Scott and Trevor and I have a question for you."

"Don't ask him!" Scott ordered, and gave Matt a 'what the hell?' look.

"No, he might know," Trevor argued.

"What's up, guys?"

Matt turned to Mulder. "Okay, if you had, say, this friend, who wanted to know how to uh…obtain…a certain product—"

"How much does porn cost?" Scott blurted out.

A few heads nearby turned, waiting for Mulder to answer. Mulder looked like he had been caught in his underwear, and he looked between the boys before catching Scully's glance from the driver's seat diagonally in front of him. She was now all ears, her eyebrow raised in the rear view mirror in that scrutinizing manner that told Mulder he was about to be dissected like a bug.

"You don't need to watch that crap, guys," Mulder said non-chalantly. "The key to getting a girlfriend is to be understanding, and kind, and uh…" he glanced in Scully's direction, "Know when you're being watched," he added in a low voice.

The kids snickered, and Scully rolled her eyes. When she had turned back to the road, Mulder turned around again and spoke to the kids. "Seriously, guys, it's a fairly normal thing…you just don't want to get anything trashy. You want to get something classy. Do some research. Don't spend hours on it—real women are a lot more rewarding."

The boys' eyes widened, and Matt's intrigued expression wasn't lost on Mulder. This was one of those 'd'oh' moments when he was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. These kids were twelve, for God's sake… "Of course, you want to wait until you're both significantly older and more responsible…" he continued, realizing that he was digging himself further and further into a hole. Why did I volunteer for this?

"Look," he said, and the kids stared at him in rapt attention, hoping to get some more 'tips'. "You really should talk to your dads about this. But the biggest thing to remember is that everything you do, even things you do now, will have real-life consequences that follow. Does that make sense?"

Scott and Trevor nodded, but Matt looked slightly uncomfortable. Mulder realized what he had said. Matt didn't have a dad to ask. But he couldn't exactly take the kid aside in a van filled with hyperactive seventh-graders. He resolved to have a 'talk' with him later, when they were alone.

About fifteen minutes later, Mulder stood up and yelled, "Can I have everyone's attention, please!"

It took a moment, but the van fell silent.

"We're almost there, guys. Pack up all your electronics—everything, your cell phones, your PSP's, your iPods, your iPhones, your laptops, your DVD players, and make sure they're labeled. You should have already put your names on them. Then please pass them to the front. They'll be stored on the van until the camping trip is over. You'll get to use them on the ride back."

A series of groans erupted from the boys who were in the middle of a level on a game, but most of the boys complied readily, excited to go camping. Mulder walked from the back of the van to the front with a large WalMart bag, collecting every little electronic the boys had. "What about my testing meter, I can keep that, right?" Joel asked. Joel was diabetic.

"Of course you can keep that," Mulder answered the boy. "Still, make sure your name's on it."

"Can I keep my cell phone, then, 'cause I'm allergic to boredom," one obnoxious boy called out, and the boys around him started laughing, mimicking his question.

He gave the boy an annoyed look. "How 'bout you put up the tent for your group, Peter," he said, and held out the bag for him to drop his electronics into. "That oughta keep you occupied."

A few minutes later the van pulled off the road and entered a dirt path. They traveled about a mile until they reached the clearing to which they were assigned.

"How far away are we from the girls?" one boy asked as he stood up.

"Are there any sasquatches in these woods?"

"What about vampires?"

"Are there any caves we can go explore?"

"How far away are we from the girls?"

"Okay, everyone!" Mulder called, and the van fell silent again. "We're here. I want to get one thing out of the way before we get out of the van. Most of you know that Agent Scully and I are FBI agents. I want to make it clear that as far as I know, there are no vampires, sasquatches, ghosts, or serial killers in these woods. I'm making a group announcement because I don't want to get the same question twelve times. Okay?"

The boys nodded, seemingly disappointed.

"But if there were a serial killer or someone who wanted to harm you, we're fully capable of protecting you. What we ask is that you use the buddy system to make our jobs easier. If you plan to go anywhere, anywhere at all, even if it's still in our sights, take a buddy with you. That way if you happen to trip and hurt yourself, your buddy can run back and get help. Does that make sense?"

They nodded again, anxious to get off the van.

"Finally, we want to know about it if you go anywhere out of our sights, for any reason. Even to take a leak. And no one is to go out looking for the other campsite—the girls are doing just fine on their own without you guys bothering them. They're too far away, anyway, you'd probably just get lost. And that would really tick me off. Okay, grab your bags, find a buddy, and let's go camping. It's four to a tent, guys. And if I catch anyone with any electronics, I'll take it away and make you clean up the dishes after dinner tonight and tomorrow night."

The kids grabbed their bags from the overhead racks and followed Mulder out of the van. They streamed into the campsite and in a flurry of chatter, began choosing their buddies and putting their tents up.

Mulder stretched his bicep, doing the exercises the physical therapist had prescribed. "Doing okay?" Scully asked as she got off the van, carrying both her bag and Mulder's.

"Still a little sore," Mulder admitted. He massaged his muscle, which was prone to knotting after a large shard of glass from his Humvee windshield was embedded in it over the summer. "Long car rides don't help." But to prove to her that he was okay, he took his bag from her.

She changed the subject. "So really, Mulder, what kind of history do these woods have? Mothmen, mutant bugs, talking trees, what are we looking at, here?"

Mulder looked fairly disappointed as he said, "Actually, these are the most boring woods in America. Not a single soul has gone missing from the trails in fifty years, and the last person to get lost in this area was a ten-year-old girl who escaped from a mental institution in 1960. There have been no paranormal sightings in 150 years, and the last sighting was written in an eight-year-old's diary and was almost certainly falsified. And as far as crime goes, twenty years ago, one escaped convict stabbed another escaped convict about ten miles from here, but was caught just a day later."

Scully raised an eyebrow. "Are you telling me you couldn't find one ghost story?"

He shook his head. "If we had gone about twenty miles north, maybe."

"Well, that's just unacceptable," she said, and Mulder smirked. "You're going to have to make something up."

"Scully, I'm insulted! To suggest that I could falsify an encounter with an otherworldly being—"

"I'm not suggesting, Mulder, I'm ordering. We need something to keep these kids occupied tonight. And no one tells a ghost story better than Spooky." She grinned and began to walk away, but then turned and said quietly, "If you manage to get them to bed early, I might have to pay a visit to your tent."

CAMPSITE VAUGHAN

NEAR SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, VIRGINIA

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24th, 2010

2100

INSERT

"—And I as hold this kid's leg's down, the walls suddenly begin to bleed yellow. Yellow goo is running down the walls, and the kid starts to sweat yellow. His teeth look like they've rotted right there before my eyes, and as the sweat pours down his face, he screams an inhuman scream. He's squirming and writhing, and the priests are chanting in a language I don't know, and then one of them yells at me, "Don't let it look you in the eye! Don't let it look you in the eye!" So I look away, and the kid continues to kick, and it's all I can do to hold his legs down. He's got the strength of a full-grown man." Mulder paused, and looked at the kids in front of him. They were all staring in rapt attention. He continued, his voice quiet now, "And then the priests stopped chanting, and the boy stopped squirming. I looked at the walls—they were no longer yellow. The kid was still sweating, but he was calm, sleeping. It was done. As the priests left the room, one of them turned to me and said, "It saw you. It knows you now.""

He sat back, and caught Scully's eye. She was surprised he had told that story. Although considered declassified after all these years, he had never actually talked about it. They had discussed the fact that demons seemed to follow them around after that case. But after their discovery in the Kingsbury Academy case of the very simple solution to demon presences—faith of any sort—they hadn't had a problem with them since. Mulder hadn't even brought up demons for months. His capture and torture in the Middle East had weighed much heavier on his mind. Now to share his first 'demon' experience with a bunch of twelve-year-olds over a campfire…it was surprising to her, to say the least.

The boys were silent for a few moments, before Peter, the annoying kid, asked, "Is that a true story?"

"You guys asked for a ghost story, and I figured a demon story was close enough. It's up to you to believe what you want to believe," he told them cryptically, and some of the boys looked genuinely afraid, while others looked at each other skeptically. "Now we have time for one more story before it's time to go to bed. What do you want to hear next?"

There was a pause, and then Joel asked, "Can you tell us about what it was like to be a POW?"

The question caught Mulder off guard. Matt stiffened slightly, and Mulder saw Scully's expression. She was silently asking him, 'do you want me to intervene?' He shifted his position uncomfortably on the log he was sitting on, and looked at the boys waiting for his reply. Only Peter and the boy sitting next to him failed to display a sort of reverence and respect. Trevor, Matt's closest friend, even glanced at Matt to see if he was okay. The national news coverage of Mulder's capture and extensive torture, as well as his rescue, had made his name known to every household in America for most of July and August. Although the latest political news had taken over in early September, Matt's peers hadn't forgotten so easily. It was hard not to pay attention when your friend's uncle was captured by terrorists, as the cover story remained.

"It's no picnic," Mulder finally said, his voice quiet. The boys were silent and still. Scully watched him carefully. "It's not a TV show…not a movie." He looked at the twelve-year-olds in front of him, their faces so innocent and young. He didn't want to scar the poor kids. "I mostly just thought about staying alive for my family," he told them. "Makes you realize how much you should appreciate countries like this one," he concluded. "Makes you realize that the bad guys are out there, and that we have something worth protecting."

None of the boys, not even Peter, made any comments about that statement.

It was Scully who finally spoke. "I think it's about time for bed. You're welcome to stay up and talk, but I want it quiet by 11, okay? Agent Mulder and I will be getting you guys up at 6 am, sharp. We've got a big day tomorrow—we'll make breakfast as soon as you're up and we'll set out for the hike at 8 am. If we want to hike the whole trail and get back before dinner time, we'll have to leave then and no later. I suggest you get your science notebooks ready tonight, and pack any medication you might need to take during the day so you don't have to bother with that tomorrow morning. Alright?" The boys nodded. "Okay, move out."

Mulder couldn't help but notice that she sounded very much like Ahab's daughter when she addressed these kids. The typical chatter didn't start until the kids had walked back to their tents. Only Matt stayed behind. He had stood up from his log, but then he joined Mulder at about the same time Scully did. "I'm sorry Joel brought that up," he said to Mulder.

Mulder wrapped his arm around the boy and have him a friendly squeeze. "It's alright, Matty," he said quietly. "I know he didn't mean anything by it." He patted the boy, and said, "Go 'head and get into your tent."

Matt nodded. "Good night," he said.

"Night," Mulder and Scully said in unison. When the kids were in their tents and they could hear the chatter that indicated they weren't listening, Scully turned to her partner and rubbed his back lovingly. He could feel her hands move over and around the burn scars that were still raised and red, but no longer painful.

"They're really gonna make us sleep in separate tents, huh?" Mulder changed the subject.

"Unfortunately," Scully responded, and looked at the fire.

"We could push them together like they did in the '50s."

Scully laughed at the joke. "So what do you want to do tonight?"

"I already told you what I want to do tonight," Mulder said with a mischievous grin.

She rolled her eyes. "We're here with twelve seventh-graders, Mulder."

"Bigger the risk, bigger the reward," he said jokingly, and she shook her head. "Okay, fine, how about we finish off the marshmallows in the opened bag?"

"Sounds like a good start," she accepted, still smiling. He got up and brought the bag over to them, along with two of the sticks in the pile they had collected before dinner. They both stuck the marshmallows on the end of their sticks and began roasting.

Mulder glanced over at his partner and noticed that she was still smiling. "You look pretty happy for someone who declared they'd never enjoy the woods again."

"I didn't—"

"Multiple times, I might add," he interrupted her.

"I'm just happy to be here with you," she said, and he slipped his arm around her.

"I think we oughta come to the 'most boring woods in America' more often," he stated, and she leaned her head against his shoulder.

"You got it, G-man."