CHAPTER SIXTEEN
Continued from
Chapter Fifteen

["The Mastodon Diaries" is rated NC-17 for Violence, Language, and Graphic Sexual Content.  Reader discretion is advised.] 

Mulder and Scully petroglyphStanding at the river’s edge, Scully wrung water from Mulder’s clean pants and then shook out the wrinkles. Moisture rained from the cuffs as she carried them to the nearby bushes, where she spread them over blossom-covered branches to dry in the sun alongside their other clothes. Blond, trumpet-shaped flowers spiked the shrubbery, poking up between the clean clothes like birthday candles, scenting them with the sweet aroma of honeysuckle. The tattered garments fluttered in the morning breeze, looking the worse for wear after so many weeks in the Pleistocene. Frayed holes gaped at the knees of Mulder’s jeans, and a slash on her right pants leg left the hem dangling. Her turtleneck was on the verge of losing a sleeve if she didn’t repair it soon. She decided to mend it after it dried, using the sewing kit she still had in her jacket pocket. She would stitch the holes in her socks and panties, too, while she was feeling domestic.

Done with the clothes washing, she returned naked to the shore to watch Mulder finish his bath. He sat in the shallows with knees splayed, water cresting his hipbones, his back to her. The river ran broad and calm around him. Pebbles the size of coins, polished smooth by centuries of tumbling in the current, lined the banks as colorful as confetti. Pillowy clouds and a periwinkle sky reflected in the river’s glassy surface, bright and tranquil, except where Mulder stirred the water to wash his hair.

Had Diana Fowley ever watched him shampoo this way?

It bothered her that he’d waited so long to tell her about his marriage. To be fair, he had no reason to bring up the subject before now. His ex-wife hadn’t been any of her business until recently. Maybe she still wasn’t. And God knew Scully hadn’t confessed anything about her own past romances.

Diana Fowley aside, it was nice getting to know the personal side of Fox Mulder. She never would have guessed his favorite color was yellow or his favorite holiday was Flag Day or that he loved dinosaurs as a kid.

She stood for a moment, watching him scrub his scalp. He had no shampoo, but worked hard to clean every trace of mud and debris from his hair, rubbing and rinsing until it shone as black and glossy as licorice. Next he scoured his neck and face with his palms, causing the muscles in his arms and shoulders to ripple and glisten. Although still mottled with bruises, he was a striking man and the sight of his dewy skin and sinewy vigor ignited a fire inside her.

She waded out to him and leaned down to kiss his cleaned cheek. His skin smelled fresh like the river. He lifted his gaze and reached up to cup her jaw with waterlogged fingers.

A startling current of lust surged beneath the surface of her skin where he touched her. She looked down at him, bewildered and delighted by the intensity of her attraction to him.

He stared back at her, his expression fierce, untamed and hungry. Sliding sodden fingers down her neck, he traced a path to her collarbone, making her shiver. It was difficult for her to reconcile this wild, naked man with his 20th Century twin, her clean-shaven, impeccable partner. Both versions set her pulse pounding, but only with this one had she felt free to open her heart. She regretted shutting the other out, letting modern-day paradigms govern her instinctual desires.

At least here her mistake was rectified. In this valley there were no rules to follow. No superiors to obey, no tribe to placate, no one to please or impress but each other. This was living honestly and she’d never felt more genuine.

She moved in front of him, straddled his legs and lowered herself into his lap.

“Good morning,” she said, looking into his eyes. Such beautiful eyes, moss-green and fringed with wet, spiky lashes. Water sparkled in the smooth, dark hair of his brows, glistened in his bristly beard.

“Hey,” he breathed, stroking her cheek with his thumb. His gaze dropped from her eyes to her mouth.

She felt him growing hard beneath her.

“Again?” She chuckled.

“Don’t look at me. Godzilla has a will of his own,” he said, before his tongue swept across her parted lips, and slipped inside her mouth.

She reveled in his kiss. He tasted of the river, silty and sweet and ripe with life. She breathed him in, filled her sinuses with his humid scent. Ripe with desire, she painted his back with loving caresses, longing to have him assail her womb the same way his aroma overran her lungs and his taste pervaded her mouth.

As if reading her thoughts, he pressed her backward until she lay supine in the shallows, her spine supported by polished pea stones and her hips still cradled in his lap. Her knees rose on either side of him. She dug her toes into the gravel, while her hair floated like a crown of sea kelp around her head.

“Beautiful,” he whispered, sounding awestruck. “My own mermaid.”

He scooped up a palm-full of water and trickled it onto her breasts.

“I want you,” she pleaded, responding to the pleasant pucker of her nipples.

Without hesitation he shifted forward, spreading her legs wider while pushing into her. He found her entrance on the first thrust, as if they had performed this intimate act innumerable times. He brought cool water with him, startling her with its chill before his heat warmed them both. More water dripped from his hair onto her chest, spattering her breastbone like the first fat raindrops of a thunderstorm. He grunted with apparent satisfaction as soon as they were joined, his eyes closing briefly, a smile playing along his lips.

The pressure between her legs set off a swell of passion that traveled like a breaker from her abdomen to her chest, where it whirlpooled around her heart.

“I...need more,” she begged, feeling feral and greedy.

His hands slipped beneath her back and he lifted her once again into his lap, embedding himself deeply inside her. Water streamed from her hair as she rose up from the river. She thrust her hips forward and shoved against him, crying out as he filled her.

Sunshine heated her upturned face. It reflected off the water, mottling his wet skin, making him shimmer, slick and urgent beneath her. She arched in his arms when he bowed his head and sucked her right nipple. Palming her left breast, he squeezed. She pressed into the cup of his hand, while he pumped between her splayed legs, jostling her with his thrusts. His teeth nipped at her breast. Strong fingers kneaded her flesh.

A raft of ducks, half-hidden in the reeds on the opposite shore, swam in wary circles, made nervous by the disturbance. They quacked in disapproval whenever she moaned or cried out. She ignored their complaints, preferring to focus instead on Mulder’s lovemaking, letting the act of coitus strip away her peripheral awareness. Everything outside her evaporated as his movements grew more demanding, until only he existed. His prodding. His lust. His unrelenting thrusts and insistent kisses. She steadied herself by gripping his shoulders, while her hips rose and fell over him.

Using her legs to push, she rode his turgid flesh. The friction against her inner walls was extraordinary. It excited her and drove her to quicken her pace. She found coupling this way, out of doors, washed by sun and water, caressed by a mild morning breeze, to be astonishingly sensuous and arousing.

In no time, it seemed, she felt poised at the crest of a colossal waterfall.

“I’m close,” she warned.

At her announcement, his knees fell apart as he dug his heels into the river bottom, searching for leverage, spreading her legs impossibly wide. His fingers clasped her hips and she relinquished all control, returning his earlier generosity by allowing him to steer them toward their climax.

With a bruising grip he lifted her, then brought her back down over him. Plunging, withdrawing, he continued to pound into her until her insides burned and a welcome contraction began behind her pubic bone.

She held her breath.

“Come for me,” he urged.

Giving in to desire, she released all residual restraint and allowed pleasure to shudder her womb. The hum of her panting breaths and the frantic splash of water faded into silence at the onset of her cascading orgasm. A blissful tremor ballooned in her belly. It radiated outward, rippling through her torso, numbing her limbs. She tried to shout her satisfaction, only to discover she hadn’t enough air in her lungs to whisper her lover’s name.

He ejaculated then, bathing her insides with his fiery essence. His bellow prompted the ducks to take wing. They rose from the reeds with a raucous flap of feathers, squawking skyward, where they eventually dispersed to the north like seed on the wind.

*     *     *

Chal tracked Gini’s footprints around scrub brush and stunted hardwoods, while only a spear’s throw away Wol-la-chee followed the trail of his Owl Clan kinsmen and the strangers from Eel Clan. The two separate paths had begun in the swamp, where Gini had doubled back to head after the others. From there she’d traveled to this stony valley, staying always within sight of the others’ trail, yet never walking in their footsteps.

It was very peculiar. Her tracks clearly indicated she often paused behind shrubs, boulders and trees, as if she were trying to remain hidden from the others. But why follow them if she was afraid of being discovered?

“Have you told Dzeh you are interested in his sister?” Wol-la-chee asked, raising his voice to be heard across the distance between them.

“I am not interested in her,” Chal lied. “She is too young.”

In truth, he didn’t think Gini was too young and she did interest him...a lot. He liked the way she’d faced him, chin held high as he teased her at the lake, calling her ugly, although she was not ugly at all. To the contrary, she was one of the prettiest girls he’d ever seen. Even so it was not the pleasantness of her face or the glossy shine to her hair that made her stand out in his mind. It was the way she’d dared to challenge his insulting behavior, telling him bluntly he was rude. Her outspokenness was uncommon for a female, and he found himself admiring her bravado.

“She is eight Feasts old,” Wol-la-chiee said. “It is a proper age to become Promised.”

“She does not appear that old. She behaves like a baby and...and she frowns too much.” Chal preferred not to discuss his true feelings with this cousin of Dzeh’s. Arranging for a mate was the responsibility of a girl’s father -- or her brother in this case -- not nosy relatives. Besides, it was bad luck to talk about a Joining before the Promise was made, and he did not want to ruin his chances by testing the Spirits.

“Dzeh is considering several boys as possible mates for her,” Wol-la-chee continued, unwilling to let the subject lie. “But maybe you already knew that.”

Indeed, Chal had hoped this was the reason Dzeh was arranging to share food at his mother’s hearth...before the trouble with the strangers sent them journeying here. His heart began to beat faster as he considered the likelihood of a Promise between Gini and himself. “Has he settled on someone?” he asked, feigning indifference.

Wol-la-chee laughed, recognizing his pretense. “So you *did* come along to impress Dzeh.”

“I did not. I am here because the stranger named Muhl-dar saved my life.”

Wol-la-chee’s good-natured expression suddenly turned stormy. “You want to *help* Muhl-dar? He is an enemy of Owl Clan!”

“But not of Badger Clan,” Chal reminded him.

“He is a chindi,” Wol-la-chee insisted. “He stole a sacred object.”

“He also killed the mastodon that nearly killed me.”

Wol-la-chee considered this. After a moment he grunted, reluctantly acknowledging Chal’s reasoning. Saving another man’s life was no small thing. It necessitated loyalty, even to a man of notorious character. Everyone understood this.

The two hunters didn’t speak for a while, focusing on their task instead of their difference of opinion. Following their individual trails, they continued south along A-Chi Stream into a sandstone canyon strewn with fallen trees and boulders. Steep, red cliffs loomed on either side of the rift, blocking the sun and cloaking the lowland in darkness.

In the distance, two figures appeared out of the shadows, hiking wearily upstream toward them.

“Is that Dzeh and Lin?” Chal asked.

Wol-la-chee recognized the approaching men and shouted to his kinsmen, “Dzeh! Shi-da Lin!”

The others heard his call and responded by waving their spears. Then all four men broke into a run, eager to exchange information.

Chal was breathing hard when they came together in a copse of quaking aspens.

“Where is Gini?” Dzeh asked, fear shining in his eyes. “Why is she not with you?”

Chal exchanged surprised glances with Wol-la-chee.

“We followed her tracks here,” Wol-la-chee said.

“Here?” Dzeh appeared thunderstruck.

“Let me show you.” Chal led them across the canyon to where Gini’s diminutive footprints marked the sandy soil. “See?” He pointed to her southerly trail.

Dzeh crouched to inspect the prints. He traced one small track with a shaky finger. Tears filled his eyes.

“I do not understand,” he mumbled.

Lin placed a broad hand on Dzeh’s shoulder. Sadness lined the older man’s brow. “She must have gone after the strangers.”

“Why would she do such a dangerous thing?” Dzeh asked, rising to his feet. He looked at each man in turn. “We must bring her back.”

“Nephew...we cannot,” Lin said. “Not if she has gone to Ye-tsan Basin. The serpents--”

“I do not care about serpents! Gini is my sister. I must go to her.”

“No,” Lin said, using the tone of an elder who will be obeyed without question. “It is foolhardy. You have many needy kin back at Turkey Lake. Our Clan depends on the meat and protection you help provide. You must think about what is best for them. It is too late for Gini. She is with the Spirits now. You cannot bring her back.”

“We do not know that...it may not be too late.”

Chal had heard the tales of Ye-tsan and knew its dangers. If the girl had gone into that horrible place, she would soon be dead, if she wasn’t already.

Aspen leaves rattled overhead, sounding like angry snakes. Dzeh peered along Gini’s thin trail. He took two faltering steps toward the south, then stopped, fists clenched in desperation.

“I will go with you, Dzeh,” Chal offered. “I-I am not afraid.”

Dzeh turned and regarded him with hopeful eyes.

After a moment, however, his expression turned forlorn and he shook his head. “You are a Badger Clansman, Chal. I cannot ask you to take such a risk on behalf of Owl Clan.” Then, scowling at Lin and Wol-la-chee, he snarled, “Such a sacrifice is for kin.”

Lin drew himself up to his full height. He was a robust, imposing man despite his years, lined by experience and muscled by years of difficult living. Placing gnarled hands on Dzeh’s shoulders, he met the younger man’s outrage with compassion.

“We cannot, my Nephew. We have greater responsibilities... mates, children and kin who rely on us to feed and clothe them. If we go to Ye-tsan, we sacrifice them along with ourselves. Ask yourself who will care for Klizzie if you perish? Who will teach Wol-la-chee’s three young sons how to hunt? Who will comfort them when we do not return home? We are more than four men; we must think beyond ourselves. You know this.”

“But...Gini...”

Tears overflowed Dzeh’s eyes and streamed into his beard. Grief distorted his face.

Lin spoke softly, but with conviction. “She is already lost, Nephew. Do not sacrifice the living to chase a ghost.”

A miserable moan bubbled from Dzeh’s throat, numbing Chal’s arms and legs with its intensity. The boy’s chest tightened at the thought of Gini alone against the monsters of Ye-tsan.

Dzeh spun to face the southern horizon and suddenly bellowed, “Gini! Giniiiii!”

When nothing but his wretched echo returned from the blood-colored cliffs, Dzeh’s shoulders slumped and he buried his face in his hands. The others waited quietly, grief-stricken, too, while he wept unashamedly for his dead sister.

*     *     *

“Get over here, Scully! I need your help.”

Mulder felt ridiculous. He was standing knee deep in the river, wielding a branch of driftwood like a baseball bat, dressed in nothing but his boxers as he tried to herd a snapping turtle the size of a hubcap toward shore.

His underwear offered no real protection against an attack, should the turtle decide to turn and bite him, but he hadn’t been comfortable with the idea of chasing after it with the family jewels dangling in front of its menacing jaws like bait on a hook.

He was standing knee deep in the river, wielding a branch of driftwood like a baseball bat, dressed in nothing but his boxer shorts as he tried to herd a snapping turtle the size of a hubcap toward shore.

“You’re on your own, Mulder. I only promised to gut and cook it, not catch and kill it.” Scully sat on shore, watching him with an amused look on her face. Her torn panties lay in her lap, waiting to be mended while she threaded her sewing needle.

“You could at least help me corner...whoa!”

The turtle suddenly spun and headed straight at him. He back-peddled into the shallows, splashing as he tried not to trip and fall. He swung his club, bringing it down hard, but the turtle zigzagged out of the way and he missed it by several inches. Water sprayed the air, momentarily blinding him.

When his view cleared, he saw the snapper lunging open-mouthed at his crotch. 

“Shit!”

He whacked at it again. This time, driftwood connected with shell, producing a lethal-sounding thud. The impact rattled Mulder’s teeth and he nearly lost his grip on the club, but blood began to ooze through the current around his ankles. The turtle was floundering. Its head lolled to one side as it tried to retreat.

Mulder struck once more, hitting it squarely between its beady eyes. This time it stopped moving altogether. Bobbling on the waves, it began to drift downstream, limbs and head hanging limply. Mulder followed it at a safe distance, wondering if it was just pretending to be dead or if in fact he had killed it. He nudged its bloodied nose with his stick to be sure.

Nothing. It didn’t move. Didn’t even blink.

“Yes!” He lifted his club overhead and performed a lively victory dance, kicking up water as he pranced around the dead turtle.

Scully smiled and clapped her hands in dignified approval, which only encouraged him to strut more. He hurled his branch away and beat his chest for effect.

“Okay, Tarzan, fish it out so we can eat,” she called.

Grasping the turtle by its stout tail, he dragged it to shore. It weighed fifty pounds or more, and left a trail of crushed grass nearly two feet wide from the riverbank to where Scully was sitting. It pleased him more than he expected to present it to her. He was providing for his mate and the idea puffed him with masculine pride.

She smiled with obvious appreciation when he deposited the turtle at her feet. “Nice,” she said.

Her eyes weren’t focused on the turtle, he realized. She was ogling his crotch, where an erection tented his boxers.

“Huh, whaddaya know?” He feigned surprise. “Is it too soon to...uh...you know?”

She set her sewing aside. “Not at all.”

“Then c’mere.” He dropped to his knees and opened his arms.

*     *     *

Gini walked through Ye-tsan Basin with her mouth gaping. She’d never seen anything like this place before. There was food everywhere!

Camels, horses, pronghorns, bison...they roamed the lowland in great herds, indifferent to her passing. Beavers, turtles, frogs and birds crowded the waterway. Heavenly Spirits, there was enough meat in this one valley to feed two hungry clans for an entire year!

Earlier in the morning she’d filled her stomach with six fat duck eggs and more mushrooms than she could count. Then she’d eaten fistfuls of sorrel and ramps, which grew in profusion along the riverbank. She considered gathering mussels for later in the day, but the shellfish were so plentiful she saw no reason to carry them.

No doubt about it, half a day’s hike south of those terrifying, giant footprints, Ye-tsan had turned into one of the most hospitable places she’d ever encountered, nothing at all like the grim stories had claimed. There were no rivers of human blood, no sandy dessert of powdered bones, no flying serpents or mastodon-sized monsters.

Only lots and lots of delicious things to eat.

She decided to stop worrying about oversized serpents. She hadn’t seen a single one since coming here. Dzeh and Lin had been silly to turn back. There was nothing fearsome in this valley and it would be a fine place to live for the summer...or even longer.

Comforted by a full belly, and eager to catch up with Muhl-dar and Day-nuh, Gini broke into a happy run.

*     *     *

Scully dozed next to Mulder on the riverbank. Fresh grass cradled her naked body and Mulder’s arm cushioned her head. The pleasant sweet-tart smell of chlorophyll prickled her nose, while honeybees droned in the flowering shrubs higher up the bank where their clothes were still drying. The river whispered like a sated lover beyond her feet as it flowed gently southward.

She covered her face with the crook of her arm, blocking out the brilliant morning sky. The sun’s rays warmed her skin and she drifted between sleep and arousal as Mulder drew feather-light circles on her abdomen with his finger. His touch was partly stimulating and partly hypnotic...an erotic combination.

“Scully...” His voice vibrated like the humming bees. “When was your last period?”

His question brought her fully awake. She unshielded her eyes and reached down to close her hand over his, stilling his eddying caress. 

“I...I’m not sure. Why?”

“You know why.” His tone sounded worried and a little accusatory. “We’ve been having unprotected sex for weeks.”

She counted silently backward to the day when Klizzie had given her cattail down to absorb her menstrual flow.

Five weeks had passed since then, she realized with some surprise.

“I’m a little late.”

“What’s ‘a little’?”

“Maybe a week.”

He sat up, jostling her as he slid his arm out from under her neck. Ordinarily he was quite adept at concealing his emotions beneath a mask of professional detachment, but this news clearly rocked him and he wasn’t able to hide his shock. Concern puckered his brow and tightened his lips, and he regarded her with nervous eyes.

Feeling exposed beneath the intensity of his stare, she sat up, too, and hugged her knees to her chest. What had happened to his recent resolve to become a father? she wondered.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, Mulder,” she tried to reassure him. “There are numerous explanations for oligomenorrhoea. Overexertion, poor diet, stress, even a change in routine. I’ve experienced all of those since coming here.”

He nodded slowly, lower lip caught between his teeth. Shifting his gaze from her to the river, he seemed to consider his next words with great care.

When he did speak, his voice was quiet, his tone indeterminate. “But it’s possible you’re pregnant.”

“No...I’m...I can’t get pregnant, Mulder. You know that.” Not wanting to rehash this familiar conversation, she plucked peevishly at the grass beside her. Did they have to go over it all again?

“But maybe you can...now,” he said in a voice so soft it was nearly lost beneath the rustle of the river.

She reached out and tagged his arm, drawing his attention back to her. “What makes you say that?”

“Something happened two nights ago.”

Two nights ago she’d woken to find him red-eyed from crying.

“What...what happened?”

“I went to the river to...cool off. While I was swimming I experienced a, uh, time anomaly.”

This surprised her. Why had he waited until now to mention it? “What kind of anomaly?”

He shrugged, causing sunlight to slide across his fine-grained shoulders, highlighting a fresh rash of gooseflesh and exposing his nervousness. “It felt like falling backward only I wound up where I’d started...but younger...sort of...I guess.”

“Mulder, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know.” A humorless smile nudged his furred cheek. “Sorry.”

“Tell me more,” she urged.

He released a slow breath. On the far shore a pair of egrets argued over a flopping fish. The sun shone so brightly off the water it was painful to the eyes.

“The sky seemed to buckle,” he said. “Everything became blurry. I’m pretty sure I was seeing events unfold backwards.”

“What events?”

“The Boggs case. Going to Lake Jordan in Raleigh. Getting shot in the leg, only everyone was moving and talking in reverse, including me. It was very disorienting.”

“I can imagine.” She reached for his hand and dovetailed her fingers with his because she didn’t want him to take her next question as an accusation. “Other than the backward direction of events, how was your experience so different from mine?”

“Your visions?” He hung his head. “Not so different, I guess.” Squeezing her fingers, he offered her a contrite smile. “I think I know what you’re going to say next.”

“What?”

“You’re going to ask why I didn’t believe you. Why I didn’t accept your visions when I’m willing to accept every other paranormal event we encounter.”

“And your answer?”

“I suppose I didn’t like what you were seeing.”

So they were making progress after all; he was being open, answering honestly.

“And now that you’ve experienced a time event of your own?”

“I feel like a jackass.”

He lifted her hand and placed it on his bare thigh.

“It’s gone,” she said. “Your scar is gone.” His skin was unblemished and smooth.

The realization that he was reverting to a younger version of himself made her stomach roll uneasily. In less than two months he had regressed five years. How long before he was a teenager...or a toddler?

“Whatever’s happening to us, Scully, it’s changing us physically. We have no idea to what extent, or how far it might go.”

They had to find a way out of this place. “You’re getting younger, while I’m...not. How fair is that?” she tried to joke.

He didn’t smile. “You’ve seen glimpses of the future. In them you’re pregnant, giving birth. How do you think that’s possible?”

“I don’t know.” She honestly had no explanation.

“Your vision suggests your fertility is going to be restored at some point. How that happens, I don’t even want to guess. But when it happens is what’s important right now.” He pointed to the new scar on her abdomen. “Before that? Or after?”

Her hand went automatically to the gunshot wound...undeniable evidence that she was already physically changed by an event which had yet to happen. Did it mean her fertility was restored, too? Could she become pregnant now?

“No, the child I saw in my vision was a product of IVF, not natural conception.”

“Are you sure about that?”

No, she wasn’t sure. Not one hundred percent. She’d seen only bits and pieces, like snapshots tossed randomly onto a tabletop, some half-hidden beneath others. The experience had been incomplete.

The only thing she knew with any certainty was how she’d felt when she held their son in her arms. She’d been happy and proud and calm. And Mulder had appeared to feel the same way.

“Last night you claimed to be ready for fatherhood,” she reminded him.

His expression turned forlorn. “I was. I am. But you have to admit,” -- he waved a hand at the foreign landscape -- “this isn’t an ideal place to have a child.”

He was right, of course. Bringing a child into the Ice Age was foolhardy. Assuming she could carry a baby to term and give birth without complications, there were other dangers to consider.

“Scully, I don’t know if you’ve thought of this, but...” He ran his fingers nervously through his hair. “If you have a baby here, we might not be able to bring it back with us.”

Her heart began to race. She wouldn’t leave a baby here, she couldn’t. She’d insist on staying with it.

But would Mulder stay, too? Was it even fair to ask him to make such a sacrifice? He’d agreed to parenthood, not a life sentence in the Pleistocene.

Another awful thought struck her. They might not be given the opportunity to choose between staying and going. They might simply fall forward through time the same way they’d fallen backward...without their child.

The baby would be left to die alone.

Anxiety glossed Mulder’s eyes, making him look as scared as she felt. In a croaking voice he said, “There’s another concern. I’m not the only man you’ve been with.”

So it wasn’t just the idea of pregnancy that had him spooked, but that Dzeh could be the father.

Quickly, she calculated the timing of her cycle. Assuming she wasn’t barren and she’d ovulated on schedule, she should have been ten to twelve days beyond ovulation when she slept with Dzeh, which meant the odds were against a pregnancy by him. But the rhythm method was notoriously unpredictable; intercourse at any point during a woman’s cycle, even while menstruating, sometimes resulted in conception. And if her cycle had been delayed, for any of the reasons she’d just cited, her chances of conceiving a child by Dzeh were even greater.

Mulder turned to face her, rose onto his knees and took both of her hands in his. Looking sincere, he said, “Scully, marry me.”

Marry him?

“That’s not funny, Mulder.”

“I’m not trying to be funny.”

She scowled at him. “You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?”

“I’m not pregnant.”

“It doesn’t matter. That’s not why I’m asking.”

“Why are you asking?”

“Because I plan to spend the rest of my life with you...as more than your FBI partner, more than your friend, more than your lover. I want to be your husband, Scully. Say you’ll marry me.”

Doubt closed her throat. She felt confused by his motivations and timing. He wouldn’t be proposing if she’d started her period on schedule, would he? Or if she hadn’t slept with Dzeh? Or if they’d never come to the Pleistocene?

Or...did those things matter only to her, not to him?

She’d promised herself just yesterday to follow her heart. And yet here she was facing her first opportunity to be honest about her feelings and she was falling back on her habit of trying to second-guess them.

Let your heart lead you, she reminded herself. Don’t over-think it. Don’t question it. Just *feel* it.

When she didn’t answer immediately, his shoulders slumped.

“Unless...you don’t want...” His voice petered out. Swallowing hard, he released his grip on her hands.

What exactly did she want?

For five years she’d been trailing after him, searching for the truth in shadows, illusions and lies. But her experiences over the last few weeks had shown her that falsehood and dishonesty were not hiding places for the truth, whether the deception came from an enemy or from within oneself. The truth only presented itself to an unguarded and honest heart. Devotion, attachment, loyalty...love...these were where truth resided.

Mulder seemed ready to take a serious step forward in their relationship, a leap of faith, considering their dire circumstances.

She should accept his proposal. She certainly loved him enough and that was all that really mattered, wasn’t it? It was past time for her to admit her true feelings...to herself and to him.

“Mulder...”

It took more courage than she imagined to expose her heart. Reaching for his hand again, she drew strength from his solidity.

“I...I love you,” she said at last, deciding to trust her emotions.

His eyes pooled with tears and a smile formed on his softly curved lips. He whispered, “I guess I knew that.”

“You did?”

“Well...I’d been hoping it for a long time, longer than you can imagine, but I knew it for sure when--” His voice caught in his throat and he turned away.

“When...?”

“When you agreed to sleep with Dzeh...” -- his words were strained and quiet -- “to save my life.”

She tugged him toward her and slid her arms around his waist. It relieved her beyond measure to know he understood why she’d agreed to the mate exchange. She loved him...Jesus, she loved him...more than any silly sense of pride or dignity, more than her own personal safety. Submitting to Dzeh had meant nothing when compared to saving Mulder’s life. There had been no other choice for her and she would do it again in a heartbeat if it meant she was protecting him by doing so.

Smiling through tears, she said, “Go ahead, ask me again.”

“What?” He drew back, eyes brimming with raw emotion.

She wiped a falling tear from his cheek before it became lost in his beard.

“Ask me again.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Wait...” -- he held up a finger -- “I want to do this right.”

He rose on one knee and took her hand in his. All his nervousness and sorrow seemed to drain away when he looked into her eyes. He cleared his throat.

“Dana Katherine Scully, would you do me the honor of agreeing to become my wife?”

He looked so sincere and happy, posed on one knee, eagerly awaiting her answer. Behind him the Pleistocene landscape was picturesque, a Garden of Eden, colorful, pristine, untamed. The air smelled of flowers and fresh water. Stilt-legged birds, with feathers as white as a bride’s gown, tiptoed through the shallows. Smaller birds clung to the reeds, cheerfully warbling and bobbing in the mid-day breeze. A herd of striped antelope with corkscrewing horns grazed on a sea of grass beside the shimmering river not more than fifty yards away. And grand, ruby cliffs towered above the valley, cradling the lowland in their open arms while bestowing a sense of security and peace to everything within view. The scene was unspoiled, magnificent. The moment was perfect.

Scully wanted to remember it forever.

When she didnt immediately answer him, Mulder misinterpreted her silence and his face fell with disappointment.

Until she said yes. Then he rose to his feet, pulled her up after him, and wrapped his arms around her. Lifting her from the ground, he spun them in a circle and whooped for joy. His shout echoed off the stone cliffs, repeating his elation over and over again.

“Mulder!” She laughed at his obvious enthusiasm.

“You won’t regret it,” he promised, setting her back on her toes.

At that moment, she believed his words. She felt dizzy and happy and all her regrets seemed to be in the past.

*     *     *

Klizzie awoke to a caress, a teasing and gentle stroke along her jaw.

“Dzeh?” She turned on the furs to look over her shoulder, hoping to find he had come back, safe and willing to forgive her.

Instead, Klesh was grinning at her, deepening the scar in his left cheek. “You are sleeping late this morning, Cousin.”

“Do not touch me!” She ducked out from beneath his gnarled hand and sat up. “What are you doing in my bed?”

“I thought you might be lonely without your mate.” He leaned toward her and stroked her arm.

Recoiling, she narrowed her eyes and said through gritted teeth, “Dzeh will kill you for touching me.”

“Oh, really? He did not kill me the last time.” Klesh’s hand moved to her breast, where he cupped her and softly traced her nipple with a twisted thumb. “Maybe he is not so possessive as you think.”

She slapped his face hard. “Touch me again and I will kill you myself.”

He laughed at her threat, a mean, barking sound that made her stomach roil.

“You will not kill me, Kliz.”

“I will. You cannot force me to lay with you again.”

“Your memory is not so good, my Cousin. I did not force you the first time.”

Shame heated her face at the memory. In truth, he had not forced her. But she was no longer the foolish girl she’d been then. He could not bribe her into his bed the way he had four years ago.

Smiling, he rolled onto his back to fish into his totem pouch. From it he withdrew an astonishing ornament. A delicate necklace of shiny yellow, so finely worked only the Spirits could have made such a beautiful thing. He dangled it in front of her eyes.

“Like it?” he asked.

She had never seen anything so lovely. “Where did you get it?”

“I have gone many places in four years. I cannot remember them all.” His eyes gleamed as brightly as the necklace. “It can be yours.”

“Only if I submit to you, I suppose?”

He shrugged. “Is that such an unfair trade?”

How dare he ask such a question? She rose to her feet. “You are my *cousin*,” she accused. “I will *never* lay with you again.”

Giving another shrug, he tucked the ornament back in his totem pouch. “Then I will be wanting my breakfast instead. Bring it to me now.”

Anger flared inside her. She hated that he ordered her around as if she were his mate. Filled with rage, she began to gather her clothes and stuff them into a travel pack.

“What are you doing?” he snarled. “Where do you think you are going?”

“To my Aunt’s. I will not share a roof with a chindi like you.”

Heart beating wildly, stomach churning, she grabbed her pack and fled the shelter.

*     *     *

So this is domestic bliss, Mulder thought.

His future bride was tending their meal while he whittled a sturdy sapling into a six-foot-long spear with his knife.

They sat at the entrance of the cave, on opposite sides of the hearth, where a small fire burned inside a two-tiered ring of stones. She wore her clean jeans and camisole. He was dressed in his pants, having opted to go shirtless. The midday sun flooded the mouth of the cave and warmed his bare shoulders and chest.

He could scarcely believe it, but, sweet Jesus be praised, Scully had agreed to become his wife. He’d fully expected her to argue against marriage, citing all the logical reasons why it wouldn’t work out, and he was ready to counter with confessions of true love, when she surprised the hell out of him by saying yes.

A light breeze whispered through the valley, fluttering leaves and grass. Trees lined the river’s curving banks. Pale flowers blossomed thickly along both shores. Thirty feet below them, an enormous beaver nosed a freshly felled log downstream to its dam, cutting a V-shaped stripe through the glistening water. In the shallows, where Mulder had bathed earlier, a herd of dainty pronghorns drank their fill, oblivious to the two humans who watched them from the rocks above.

Mulder drew his knife along the shaft of his spear, shaving it smooth and straight. Curls of wood spiraled from the blade and piled in his lap. He didn’t think he could feel any happier than he did right now.

Strips of turtle meat were roasting on long sticks propped against the hearth stones near his feet. Scully periodically rotated the skewers, adjusting their distance from the coals to ensure even cooking. The food smelled delicious.

As promised, she’d gutted and butchered the turtle. While she’d been preparing the meat, he’d built a proper hearth by wrestling stones up to the cave, and then positioning them around the existing fire. He was pleased with the outcome. The circular wall prevented the wind from spreading ash into the cave, and would keep the coals protected and burning throughout the night. It also provided a decent shelf for a spit or for propping skewers.

“Nice job on the fire pit,” Scully complimented him, checking one of the steaks to see if it was done.

“I’ve had some practice.” He held up his spear and squinted along its length, eyeballing its uniformity.

“You’ve built fireplaces before?”

“No, I worked for a mason one summer when I was in high school. We renovated chimneys, old fieldstone walls, did some foundation repair.”

It had been laborious work. Long hours in the hot sun, tormented by insects, earning slave-wages. The physical intensity was mind numbing, which suited him fine at the time. Hauling and stacking brick or stone seemed to settle his nerves more effectively than the expensive shrink his mom sent him to twice a week.

“Not the easiest way to earn money.” She gave him a sympathetic smile.

“I’ve had worse jobs.” Hell, there were days when he would gladly trade his FBI badge for a mason’s chisel and a wheelbarrow. “What’s the worst job you ever had?”

“Laundromat attendant.”

His brows lifted and he flashed her a curious grin. “You handled strangers’ unmentionables for money?”

“Skivvies, socks, uniforms. You name it, I washed, pressed and folded it, three afternoons a week throughout my entire junior year.”

Hearing this he felt a little guilty he hadn’t volunteered to help her wash their clothes earlier. “No wonder your suitcase always looks like it was packed by a professional.”

“How do you know what my packed suitcase looks like?”

“I’m a peeker, remember?”

“Ahh, right.” She nodded and offered him a piece of cooked meat on a blackened skewer.

It sizzled and steamed, putting off a mouth-watering aroma. He set down his knife and unfinished spear to take the stick from her.

She selected another for herself. “What else did you do before you decided to devote your life -- and mine -- to the pursuit of the truth?”

“I think I was always searching for the truth.” He bit into the meat. It seared his tongue, but he was too hungry to wait for it to cool. “Even when I was bagging groceries at Wakeby’s or lifeguarding at Sengekontacket, I was looking for Sam. Mmm, this is good.”

“You were a lifeguard?”

“Does that surprise you?”

“No, not really.” She ate carefully, nibbling at the edges of her steak as if she were eating corn on the cob. “Did you sit in one of those lifeguard towers?”

“I did.”

“Ogled by all the girls, I bet.”

“Hardly. But I tanned up nicely. How about you?”

“Did I tan nicely?” she teased. “Or were you wondering if I’ve been ogled by girls?”

“If you have any stories that involve either tanning or ogling I’d be happy to listen.” Juice from his steak drizzled into his beard and he swiped at it with the back of his hand. When the grease spread, he found himself wishing again for a razor. Growing a beard was like wearing a hairy bib.

“I waited tables,” she said. “Did a lot of babysitting. I liked watching people’s kids...although there was this one eight-year-old boy who--”

She abruptly stopped talking. Mulder glanced up from his food to find her staring into the valley, back stiff, muscles taut.

“What is it?” he asked, following her gaze to the river.

“Someone’s down there.”

“Where?”

“About fifty yards upstream.”

His focus moved to a grove of broad-leaved hardwoods that fringed the riverbank. Their pale, slanting trunks leaned out over the water, creating a dense bower that could easily hide an entire tribe. He searched for movement beneath the arching branches, but could see nothing.

“How many?” he asked, putting down his food and reaching for his unfinished spear. Could it be Dzeh and his fellow tribesmen? Some other hostile natives?

“I caught only a glimpse,” she said.

After a moment a small, solitary figure emerged from beneath the cover of trees. Mulder tightened his grip on his spear and rose to his feet.

Scully stood, too.

The interloper paused, lifted an arm and shaded sun-blinded eyes to stare back at them.

“Mulder, I think that’s...” She startled him when she suddenly broke into a wobbly jog, favoring her injured ankle as she headed down the rugged path that led from the cave to the river. “It’s Gini,” she shouted over her shoulder.

“Scully, wait!” He bolted after her. Dodging stones, he ignored the scour of loose gravel against his bare feet. He pictured Dzeh and a dozen of his beefy cousins hiding in the underbrush, waiting to ambush and kill them. “Scully, she might not be alone,” he warned.

“It doesn’t matter.” She hobbled downhill. “If anyone else is down there, they’ve already seen our fire.”

Smoke curled through the air, carrying the hazy smell of their roasting meat across the valley, pinpointing their location like a flag.

“Gini!” Scully waved to the girl.

The child waved back and ran toward them. “Day-nuh!” Her high-pitched shout ricocheted off the stone cliffs. Even at this distance, Mulder could see she was grinning from ear to ear. “Muhl-dar!”

A large pack hung from her narrow shoulders and pounded her back with every stride. Despite its size, it didn’t seem to slow her as she charged around shrubbery and raced with splashing steps through river water.

Scully slowed when she reached the bottom of the hill and let Gini come the last few yards to her. Still upslope, Mulder paused where the view of the valley was better. If Dzeh and his Cro-Magnon buddies were going to pop out of the bushes at any minute, he wanted to be where he could see them coming.

Panting and laughing Gini threw herself into Scully’s outstretched arms. She babbled excitedly, hugging Scully and repeating her name again and again. Her eyes were bright with tears; a flash of white teeth lit her small, brown face.

Mulder felt an unexpected lump rise in his throat at the sight of Scully embracing the happy little girl. For just an instant Gini reminded him of Samantha and this joyous reunion made him wish again for his sister’s long-awaited homecoming.

“Let me look at you,” Scully murmured, kneeling to inspect the girl. “Hold still, sweetie.”

Mulder’s stomach contracted when he saw the girl’s legs and arms were streaked with dried blood.

“Is she okay?” he asked, combing the valley again for any sign of Dzeh.

“I think so. Just insect bites and superficial scratches. There’s some minor infection. These cuts need a thorough cleaning.”

That was an understatement. Gini’s hands and feet were black with grime. What appeared to be berry juice stained her chin and lips, and her hair was matted with twigs and grass. Mud caked her torn clothing. 

She grinned up at Mulder, seemingly unconcerned by her filthy condition. Shrugging her pack from her shoulders, she set it on the ground at her feet. She crouched to rummage through its contents, chattering the entire time in a breathy, eager voice. At last she found what she was looking for and withdrew her hand, fingers curled around something of obvious significance.

Her expression grew solemn. She straightened and walked uphill to Mulder, and when she stood only an arm’s length away, she opened her fist. There, cradled in the well of her palm, was the little ivory carving, the idol he’d stolen from the tribe’s cave.

Jesus, she’d come all this way to bring him that damn thing.

Reluctantly he took it from her, causing her to smile shyly but proudly up at him. He didn’t share her enthusiasm and couldn’t return her smile. The carving had brought nothing but trouble. It wasn’t connected with Scully’s visions as he’d once thought -- his own experience with the time anomaly had proven that. It was only a worthless bit of bone and all he wanted to do was toss it into the river.

Instead, he tucked it into his pants pocket and crouched to embrace the beaming girl.

*     *     *

Why did I strike her? The question circled Dzeh’s mind like a windstorm in a canyon.

He walked without seeing; his focus was not on the trail, but on that awful moment when he’d last spoken to Gini. He’d hit her across the face. Yelled at her. Oh, Spirits, help him, he’d knocked her to the ground.

“I *hate* you!” she screamed up at him.

Had she died hating him?

Tears blurred the path. He stumbled, unable to feel his feet. If not for Lin’s grip on his arm, he would wander off course, fall to his hands and knees. Not that it would matter. He deserved this anguish. He had been a brute to her when he should have controlled his temper. In the end it was his stubbornness that killed her. She was dead because he’d placed tribal customs and his anger for Muhl-dar ahead of his love for her.

Dzeh felt his mother’s spirit surround him. In his grief he believed he could hear her weeping in the rustle of leaves overhead. The breeze whispered her dying words through the wind-tossed branches, begging him again to take care of his young sister, to watch over her with the heart of a doting parent because she would not otherwise know such love.

“I am sorry,” he mumbled to his dead mother. “I am sorry.”

Soon his mother would greet Gini in the Spirit World; she would hold her little girl in her arms once more.

His arms would be empty. Klizzie’s, too. And there was no one to blame but himself.

*     *     *

“Mulder, bring your shirt from the cave.” Scully took Gini’s hand and began to lead her toward the river. 

“My shirt?”

“She’ll need something to wear after her bath,” she called over her shoulder.

“Why not your shirt?”

“It needs mending.”

“Won’t mine be kinda big for her?”

“We can roll up the sleeves. Just get it, please.”

Mulder jogged up the incline, hurried into the cave and back out again, taking the shirt with him. 

At the river, he handed it off, then took up a position several yards up-slope, where he would have a better view of the valley. He was still expecting Dzeh to show up any minute.

Scully helped Gini out of her muddy, torn tunic and inspected her chest and back. The girl talked non-stop while dutifully turning to be examined on all sides. Mulder clenched his fists at the sight of her ribbed torso and knobby knees. Her once neat braids were unraveled and fell in knotted mats down her back. Mud and blood caked her slender limbs.

“Did he do that to her?” Mulder nodded at the girl’s bloodied skin. “He” referred to “Dzeh,” of course.

“They’re just ordinary scratches and insect bites,” Scully said. “She hasn’t been abused.”

Skeptical, he grunted and glanced again to the north, where there was still no sign of Dzeh or the others.

Scully quickly stripped out of her camisole and jeans before herding Gini into the river. The girl jabbered a mile a minute as she pranced naked into the water.

“Can you understand anything she’s saying?” Mulder called down to them.

“I recognize the words ‘Turkey Lake.’”

“Turkey Lake?”

“The place we ran away from.”

“It was called Turkey Lake?”

“I think that’s what she was telling me the day we played word games on the hill.” She lowered herself into the shallows and motioned to Gini to sit, too.

Mulder’s focus swiveled between Gini and the landscape to the north. He wondered how it was possible such a young child could come all this way by herself. Surely someone must have accompanied her.

“Ask her about Dzeh,” he said.

At the mention of Dzeh’s name, Gini pointed a finger in the direction she’d come. Her words came out in clipped, angry tones as she jabbed the air. “Ye-tsan Dzeh. Ye-tsan Dzeh.”

“You understand that?” Mulder asked Scully.

She shook her head and scooped water over the girl’s shoulders, wetting her thoroughly before massaging the filth from her neck and back.

“She sounds pissed,” he said. She had good reason to be mad, he knew; Dzeh had walloped her pretty hard back at the wedding. “Ten to one she’s running away from home.” 

“She must have followed us.” Scully scrubbed the girl’s outstretched arms.

If she had, that meant she’d been within sight of them the entire way. Shit, he hoped she hadn’t seen them--

“Maybe she left later and tracked us.”

“Mulder, she can’t be more than seven or eight years old.”

As old as that? She looked like a kindergartner.

“Could be cave kids know these things,” he suggested.

“We walked in the stream, remember? We didn’t leave tracks.”

“Yeah, but she was the one who told us to do that.”

And if Gini knew that old trick, then Dzeh did, too. He would be coming for them as soon as he discovered she was missing, which must have been the morning after they’d left. Jesus, they’d had only a half a day head start at best.

Gini emerged from her bath clean and cheerful. Her tanned skin glistened and her wet hair hung in dripping ropes down her narrow back. She prattled in an exuberant tone, taking a breath only when Scully tugged Mulder’s turtleneck over her head.

“Oooh!” she said, eyes rounding as the fabric draped her shoulders. Scully guided her arms into the sleeves and then rolled up the cuffs. The shirt’s hem hung well below her knees. She seemed delighted by the feel of the material, squirming inside it, patting the sleeves, burying her face in the loose-fitting neck. “Ne-zhoni,” she said in an awed tone.

She ran to Mulder to show him, as if he’d never seen his shirt before. Grinning broadly, eyes bright, she twirled several times in front of him. When the fabric flared as she whirled, she squealed with delight, making Mulder smile in spite of his concerns about Dzeh.

He scooped her up in his arms. She giggled and hugged him, while calling out to “Day-nuh.”

Scully paused in her dressing to wave at her.

Mulder tugged playfully at the girl’s sleeve. “You like my shirt?”

“Lyke ma sssert?” she repeated, smiling. Not the least self-conscious, she reached up to stroke his short beard.

He gave her nose a light peck and then pretended to try to bite her fingers. The game made her laugh and she teased him by waggling her hand near his lips, pulling away just before he could nip it.

He gave her nose a light peck.

Scully climbed the hill to join them.

“We have to take her back, you know,” she said, as soon as she stood beside Mulder.

His smile quickly faded. “We can’t go back. They’ll kill us.”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“But she...she obviously ran away. Wouldn’t you say that means she doesn’t want to go back?”

“She’s a child, Mulder. She doesn’t know what she wants.” Scully reached out to give Gini’s cheek a gentle stroke. “She belongs with her family.”

So Dzeh can beat her again?”

Scully frowned. “You’re judging him by 20th Century standards.”

“I don’t care what century it is. It’s wrong to hit a child.”

“Mulder--”

“No, Scully. We saw him hit her -- *hard*. She’s just a little kid. I’m not taking her back to be beaten up again.”

Gini’s brows peaked with worry. “Muhl-dar a-nah-ne-dzin bilh Day-nuh?”

Mulder had no idea what she was asking, but clearly their argument was worrying her. He tried to corral his mounting irritation.

Scully appeared to do the same. She lowered her tone and said, “We don’t know if what we saw was an everyday occurrence or an isolated incident.”

“She’s gone to considerable trouble to get away. That should tell us something.”

“The fact that she’s alive, healthy and educated by Pleistocene standards tells me she hasn’t been neglected. She’s been well cared for.”

“We can care for her, too.” He wasn’t convinced it was in her best interest -- or theirs -- to return her. Not yet anyway.

“Mulder, she needs her real family. They love her. She loves them.”

"Mulder, she needs her real family. They love her. She loves them."

“Shall we test that theory?” If Scully needed proof, he would give it to her. He shifted Gini to his left hip. “What was the word for ‘Turkey Lake’?”

“‘Than-zie tkoh,’” Scully said, pronouncing each syllable carefully.

“‘Than-zie tkoh’? Fine. Come on, Gini, I’m taking you to Than-zie tkoh. I’m taking you back to Dzeh.”

Gini stiffened in his arms and her eyes rounded with obvious dread when he began hiking north.

“No, no,” Gini squawked, using English. She struggled to be put down. “No tehi. No ta-yi-the! Muhl-dar, no, no, no.”

“Yes,” he insisted, gripping her more tightly. He hardened his heart against her escalating panic and quickened his pace. “Yes, Than-zie tkoh. Yes Dzeh.”

“NO!” she shrieked. “No Than-zie tkoh, no Dzeh!”

He felt like a monster for doing this. She was clearly upset and desperate to be released. She began boxing his head and neck with her fists. He took the blows...apt punishment for his cruelty.

“Nooooo, Muhl-dar!” She was crying in earnest now, kicking and twisting in an effort to escape. She let out an ear-piercing screech.

He stopped walking and spun to face Scully.

“Can I stop now?” he shouted to be heard over Gini’s desperate wails.

Scully’s chin dropped to her chest. After an excruciating half-minute she nodded.

Thank God. Poor Gini was distraught. She must think his actions abominable after coming all this way to deliver the carving.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he soothed, stroking her damp hair. “Shhhh. Demonstration over. No Than-zie tkoh, no Dzeh. Shhhh.”

She collapsed against his shoulder, arms and legs dangling limply. Her cries slowly dwindled into watery hiccups as he carried her back to Scully.

Scully looked contrite. “Okay, we’ll give her a day or two to cool off.”

“Good. Maybe Dzeh will cool off a little by then, too.” 

Assuming he didn’t show up after dark tonight to kill them in their sleep.

*     *     *

Klizzie made it out of her aunt’s hut before her oversensitive stomach threw back her evening meal. She retched into the weeds, feeling sweaty, exhausted, and a little frightened. The Shaman’s tea had failed to put out the fire in her belly, or ease the thunderstorm in her head. In truth, its spicy smell made her feel even more queasy.

“Are you all right, Niece?” Ho-Ya approached her, her long horsy face puckered with concern. She crouched beside Klizzie and rubbed soothing circles between her shoulder blades while Klizzie finished emptying her stomach onto the ground.

Klizzie gulped for air. Her skin prickled with fever. The world seemed to spin around her. “Oh, Auntie...I do not know what is wrong with me. Nothing will stay put in my stomach. Whenever I rise to my feet, I am sick. It feels like a fire is burning inside my chest.”

“Did you visit the Shaman?”

Klizzie bowed her head in shame. The Shaman had said the Spirits were punishing her for bringing the strangers to Owl Clan. “He told me to drink more bergamot tea. But the smell just makes me sicker.”

Ho-Ya studied her for a moment. Suddenly a kindly smile split her long face. “When was your last Moon Time, my Niece?”

Klizzie thought back. She was always regular, flowing with the return of each new moon. But the moon was presently halfway to full and she had not bled during its dark phase. “I-I have missed a cycle,” she said.

Thoughts of the strangers had been filling her head for weeks. And now, with Gini missing and Klesh returned, she had new troubles to keep her preoccupied. It was no wonder her moon time had passed without notice.

“Come with me,” Ho-Ya said as she helped Klizzie to her feet. “Rise slowly. I think I know what is wrong with you.”

“You do?” She felt confused. Her head ached and her stomach churned.

“Of course.” Ho-Ya steered her toward the shelter. “The stranger from Eel Clan has left a gift inside you.”

What was she talking about? Muhl-dar had given her no gift. “I do not understand.”

“A baby, Klizzie! You are pregnant.”

Pregnant? With Muhl-dar’s baby? That was impossible. He had not performed the ritual exchange. They had not joined as mates. There was no opportunity for a baby to pass from him into her.

“Auntie, I do not think...I cannot...the Spirits...” What should she say?

She couldn’t admit the truth. Dzeh was already angry with her for lying about Klesh. What would he think if he discovered she had not fulfilled her duty with his Trading Partner? He might accuse her of cursing the partnership. He could say his falling out with Muhl-dar was her fault.

“It is possible I ate spoiled meat,” she said by way of explanation.

Ho-Ya chuckled. “No, Niece. I know the symptoms. I have had six children and I was as sick as you are with each of them. Before Chal was born, I was certain I would waste away to my bones, he caused such pains in my belly.”

Klizzie put her hand over her own aching stomach. If there was a baby in there, it had not come from Muhl-dar. It must have been given to her by Dzeh. The fertility idol he carved for Hare Spirit must have convinced the god to finally answer his prayers.

But how could she tell him this good news without divulging the truth about Muhl-dar?

“Auntie, I do not know what to do--”

“Do not worry.” Ho-Ya patted her arm, misunderstanding her concern. “I have learned some ways to make the sickness tolerable.” She guided Klizzie into the hut and back into bed. “You must eat small meals. No eggs, no meat, no fat! And do not lie down after you eat. Drink lots of water. I will make you some mint tea with honey right now. It will help ease your stomach. And tomorrow morning, I will bring you your breakfast in bed so you can eat it before you rise. Berries, greens and lily buds. These will sit well with the baby inside you.”

Klizzie snuggled beneath her blankets, stunned by this unexpected turn of events. Long after Ho-Ya brought her a bowl of steaming mint tea, she lay awake, trying to guess what Dzeh would say when he learned she was finally carrying a child.

*     *     *

Although Scully had eaten her fill of turtle meat she took one last bite, hoping to coax Gini to try some, too. The girl was staring glassy-eyed at the fire, uninterested in food. Still in a funk hours after Mulder’s threat to take her home, she leaned sullenly against him, tucked beneath his arm, her knees drawn up inside his long turtleneck. Only her bare toes peeked out beneath the hem, making her appear even smaller than she was.

In one fist, she clutched his FBI badge, which he had given her earlier. With the other she stubbornly held onto his pants leg, unwilling to let him beyond her reach.

Throughout the afternoon and evening he had tried various things to calm her fraught nerves. He helped her empty her travel pack and rolled out her sleeping skin near theirs, hoping this gesture would show her the cave was her home, too, at least for the time being. He set the fertility idol on a narrow shelf of rock, a place of honor above his and Scully’s bed, right beside the petroglyph he’d carved the previous day. He praised her for the many useful items she’d brought and they went together to fetch fresh water from the river in the hollow gourd. They picked berries, which they brought back to the cave, but she wasn’t interested in actually eating any of them. She obliged Mulder by popping two or three into her mouth, but she chewed without apparent pleasure. All her former exuberance had completely vanished.

Remembering how much she’d enjoyed Mulder’s binoculars, Scully suggested he let her explore the contents of his jacket pockets. This activity was moderately successful. Gini spent the better part of an hour crouched on the cave floor, solemnly examining everything she pulled out of his coat. His cell phone piqued her interest, particularly after he turned it on to demonstrate its different musical tones, but even when he let her try it, her mood was restrained. She was not the Chatty Cathy she’d been when she first arrived.

In the end it was his FBI badge that intrigued her the most. She scrutinized the photo ID for quite some time. She was still clinging to it almost two hours later, while he held her and recited Dr. Seuss rhymes.

“So Horton stopped splashing. He looked toward the sound. ‘That’s funny,’ thought Horton. ‘There’s no one around.’”

Muted by the sputter of burning wood, his voice was pleasantly hypnotic, a steady monotone, as velvety smooth as the fire’s golden glow. Scully found it peaceful and hoped Gini did, too.

“Then he heard it again!” he said, putting almost no emphasis on Seuss’ exclamation. He gently tugged one of Gini’s shiny pigtails and smiled when she looked up at him.

After her bath, she had allowed Scully to comb and braid her long, tangled hair. One snarl had been so knotted Scully decided to cut it out with the knife rather than yank painfully at it. The result was a cowlick that sprouted like a whiskbroom from the mid-point of her left pigtail.

“Just a very faint yelp, as if some tiny person were calling for help,” he continued.

A tentative smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. His storytelling was apparently easing her fears.

It didn’t seem to matter that she couldn’t understand his words. She listened intently, and now tried repeating his last phrase.

“Kawl-ing for hel-lep?”

“Like this...” Mulder took a deep breath and cupped his hands around his mouth, megaphone style, as if he intended to shout at the top of his lungs. Scully braced herself for a loud bellow, but he surprised her when he whispered “hellllllp” in the faintest voice possible.

Gini giggled.

“You try it,” he said, encouraging her to parrot him by demonstrating his quiet cry once again.

She set down his badge to pose with her hands on either side of her mouth the way he had done. “Hellll-lep,” she whispered.

He nodded his approval. “‘I’ll *hellll-lep* you,’” he mimicked her Clan accent, “said Horton. ‘But where are you? Where?’ He looked and he looked. He could see nothing there but a small speck of dust blowing just through the air.”

Gini leaned again into his loose embrace. She no longer gripped his ID or his pants leg. Her eyes began to droop and her body relaxed as his honeyed cadence lulled her toward sleep.

Scully was impressed by his patience with the girl. He would make a good father, despite his fears to the contrary.

She expected he would make a good husband, too. She just needed to give him a fair chance by being more forthright with her feelings. No more “I’m fines,” whenever he asked about her well-being. She needed to be honest, so that he could respond with equal honesty.

“What made you pick that particular story?” she asked when he finished his recitation. Gini was fast asleep against him.

“I dunno. I guess I’ve always seen a parallel between ‘Horton Hears a Who’ and the search for extraterrestrials.”

I should have known, she thought. “How is that?”

“For one thing, Horton hears the Who because he has this pair of reeeeally big ears,” he teased, “not unlike the satellites used to listen for signals from outer space.”

“That’s a stretch, don’t you think?”

“Maybe.” He shifted Gini into his arms and rose to his feet, taking care not to wake her.

Scully stood, too, and crossed the cave to straighten the girl’s sleeping skins.

“Thanks,” Mulder said, before laying Gini on the furs. He retrieved his jacket to cover her. After tucking the coat around her shoulders, he snagged Scully’s hand and led her to the front of the cave, where they sat facing the stars, their backs to the fire, far enough from Gini so as not to disturb her while they talked. “Could be I like the story because Jane Kangaroo reminds me of you,” he said, picking up their conversation where they’d left off.

“How am I like Jane Kangaroo?”

“She denounced the possibility of people living on a dust speck because she didn’t believe people that size could exist. In other words, she was unwilling to believe what she couldn’t see with her own eyes.” He leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose.

God, she loved this new, easy intimacy with him. She returned his kiss. “I guess that makes you Horton,” she said against his lips.

He chuckled and drew her into a one-armed embrace. “None of his fellow animals were willing to accept his beliefs. Story of my life, wouldn’t you say?”

She nodded. “Too bad aliens don’t communicate with Who-Scopes. Maybe they could convince us non-believers, too.”

“Mm...that’s interesting.” He turned to gaze to the night sky.

“It was a joke.”

“I know, but think about it. If intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy wanted us to hear them, they would need to send a signal using a medium we could hear, at a frequency that we’re listening to. It would have to be unique compared to any natural background signals, like static or naturally occurring radio waves. And the signal would have to be powerful enough for us to detect it.”

“And your point is?”

He shrugged. “Just talkin’ out loud, wondering what it might take to contact someone far, far away.”

“Like 10,000 years in the future?”

“Yeah, kinda like that.”

“More than a Who-Scope and a pair of reeeeally big ears, I’m afraid.”

When he turned to smile at her, she leaned in and kissed him again.

*     *     *

Hill Air Force Base
Computer Lab, Hangar 19
May 14, 1998
7:29 a.m.

“What are you doing?” Lisa asked. She rolled her chair next to Jason’s and sat down.

With the stroke of a key, he initiated a diagnostic, setting his time model into motion. Then he lowered his voice so the guards outside the lab door wouldn’t overhear his next words. “I’m trying to find those missing agents.”

“You think they’re the cause of this?” She pointed at the disturbance on the computer screen.

“Who else? Agent Mulder came here because he knew about the old man’s attempt to destroy my work.”

Jason still couldn’t bring himself to refer to the old man as “me.”

It was Mulder who had first figured out the truth about the old man’s identity. Apparently the agent and his partner were still working on the case.

And now they were somewhere in the past, causing a progressive disintegration to the continuum.

“We have to find them,” he said.

“How?”

I havent figured that out yet.

“Can we bring them back?”

“In theory. We have to open another hole.”

“The field can’t be manipulated easily. How are you going to control it? We could end up making things worse.”

She didn’t realize things couldn’t get worse.

“I’ll find a way.”

She watched him intently. “Maybe we should just leave them where they are.”

“We can’t. Their presence in the past is causing increasing instability in the continuum. The longer they’re there, the more volatile the time field becomes.” He pointed to the growing perforations in the model. “If we don’t get them out, the continuum will eventually disintegrate.” He turned to stare at her. “And time as we know it will end.”

This news clearly shocked her. “How long before that happens?”

“I don’t know. It’s possible we might start feeling the effects soon.”

She blinked in surprise. “In what way?”

“Flashbacks in reverse, glimpses of the future. It’ll be like stirring a pot of soup, mixing past, present and future into a jumble of confusing moments. Our lifetimes will cease to progress linearly.”

She stood and began to pace. He hoped she wasn’t about to panic and go running to Beck.

Turning his chair to face her, he reached out and grabbed her hand as she walked past. “It’ll be okay,” he said, squeezing her fingers. “We need to stay calm. Focus on solving the problem. You’re good at that. Help me.”

When she nodded he breathed a silent sigh of relief.

He released her hand and turned his attention back to the monitor.

“Jason, why do you think Agent Mulder came here?”

“I don’t know.” He watched the model writhe. “But I’m betting he wishes he’d never left Washington.”

*     *     *

Late Pleistocene
June 29, 10:19 p.m.

Mulder stoked the fire with two knotty pieces of sun-bleached tree roots, driftwood smoothed by the river and thick enough to burn throughout the night. Sparks floated from the mouth of the cave like fireflies when he disturbed the coals. They spiraled toward the moon and he watched them until they became lost against the backdrop of stars.

In the southern sky Ophiuchus, the celestial Serpent Holder, stood upright on the horizon; the snake in his fists appeared to be climbing out of the trees. Above him, Hercules faced his old enemy, blocked as always from Virgo and crowded by the Dragon to the north. The hero’s struggle was eternal. God had placed him in an untenable situation, one he could neither win nor lose. He could only stand bravely, prepared to fight.

Behind Mulder, the cave glowed with the flicker of fire. Gini slept in its warm circle of light, cushioned by furs and curled on her side beneath his jacket. A few feet away Scully waited for him on the larger sleeping skin. Even without looking at her, he knew she watched him. It was a familiar feeling, her eyes on his back. Tonight her guardianship comforted him more than ever. Her recent confession of love let him know her true feelings. Amazingly, she’d agreed to marry him. And this was his advantage over Hercules. Unlike the solitary hero, he would not be facing his fears alone. Scully’s declaration had filled him with unprecedented hope and knowing she wanted to become his wife gave him newfound courage, bravado enough to battle a lifetime of ferocious serpents.

He felt a sudden urge to hold her, but before retiring to their bed, he went to check on Gini.

The girl appeared lost on her island of fur, cloaked by his jacket. Her small fingers, loosely curved and motionless beneath her chin, peeked out from the rolled sleeves of his turtleneck. He adjusted the coat over her shoulders, then palmed the crown of her head, giving her hair a gentle stroke goodnight.

She stirred but didn’t open her eyes.

Satisfied that she was fine, he crossed the cave to Scully, lowered himself onto the furs and gathered her lovingly into his arms.

“Is she asleep?” Scully whispered, snuggling closer.

“Mm hm.” He kissed the curve of her brow.

Domestic bliss, indeed. This simple cave felt like a haven, and the valley an oasis. The most luxurious lodgings in the modern world couldn’t hold a candle to this place. Contentment rolled over him like the fire’s welcome heat, despite his worries about Dzeh. He held the woman he loved in his arms, while their unexpected foster child slept soundly nearby. For the time being, they were well fed and secure, and an unfamiliar sense of peace settled into his heart as he began to experience the pleasure of family life for the first time in years.

Gini was not his child, of course, nor a substitute for his lost sister, but her arrival seemed to answer a need in him. Although she carried the genes of strangers, he felt enormously protective of her, much as he did of Scully, and was willing to take on the task of caring for her.

It was possible he would fail. Gini might become injured or ill or die, despite his best efforts, but clearly he had no choice but to try his best. To be honest, he didn’t really want another choice. Right now, this was what he wanted: Scully and Gini, under the same stone roof, within arm’s reach, and for the time being, safe from harm.

He was beginning to understand what Scully meant by the “wrong” reasons for fatherhood. Yesterday, he’d agreed to father her children because he’d wanted to tie himself to her. But today he grasped that a child was more than a tether between two people; she could be desirable for herself, not for what she brought to her parents.

Was this the true meaning of commitment that Diana had spoken about?

Damn, if she hadn’t turned out to be right.

Scully nestled against his chest. He buried his nose in her hair. God, she smelled good. If Gini wasn’t just a few feet away, he would take her again. He would--

“Muhl-dar?” A soft voice behind him.

He rolled over to find Gini standing beside the bed looking frightened.

Had she heard something? Was Dzeh outside?

“What is it? Bad dream?” he asked.

He doubted she could translate his questions literally, but she did seem to grasp his sympathetic tone because two fat tears began to roll down her cheeks.

“No Than-zie tkoh,” she said, sniffling. “No Dzeh.”

So that was it. She was still worried about him taking her home.

“No Than-zie tkoh. No Dzeh,” he assured her.

She didn’t look convinced.

“You wanna sleep with us?” He pointed to the bed, indicating she could join them if she wanted to.

Wiping her nose on her sleeve, she nodded and crawled between them. Scully immediately offered her the harbor of her arms and the girl quickly nestled into her embrace.

Scully peered over the top of her head and pinned Mulder with a stern look.

You shouldn’t give her the impression we won’t be taking her back. We could vanish from here without warning, the same way we arrived. We need to return her to her tribe as soon as possible.”

He reached for Scully’s hand and their fingers intertwined in the dark. The danger was real, he knew. And even if they didn’t suddenly disappear into another time, they were still subject to the strange effects of accelerated aging and regression. In another month or two he might actually be younger than Gini, while Scully would become an old woman. They’d be defenseless. It was wrong to encourage the girl’s dependency on them.

With regret he felt his short-lived fantasy of family life slipping away. “We will,” he promised.

“When?”

“A day or two.”

“Mulder--”

“Give her some time, Scully.” Give *me* some time, he thought.

She searched his face. “I’m afraid time is the one thing we don’t have.”

 


Continued in Chapter Seventeen...

Special thanks to mimic117 and jeri for beta of Chapter 16.

This chapter received

Inya's Official Stamp of Approval

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