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The Phoenix

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It wasn’t Mulder’s idea of a great night out, but they dragged him along anyway.

Ringo had been the one to suggest going, and for once Melvin had agreed. John seemed impartial and rolled with what they were saying. Fox, however, wasn’t too keen on it. No, not at all. They had pored over movies on TV and at the cinema - nothing. None of them felt like going out to eat, but if they didn’t go out it was collectively presumed they would all die of boredom. It didn’t seem to leave them many more options.

“I just don’t see why,” Mulder huffed. He looked from Ringo to Frohike to John. They stopped talking and turned to him, looking almost as though another head had sprouted from his shoulders. “Since when have you guys been into brawling and street fighting? In fact, when have any of you cared about any variety of sport?” Ringo Langly - who, like the other two, preferred to be addressed by his last name - grinned and tapped his nose.

“Ever since it was two hot girls battling it out instead of two sweaty, half-naked dudes?" Ringo said. He made it sound like he was stating the obvious. "It's so cool, Mulder. You'll like it when you get there, I promise."

Mulder glanced up at his friends, who were already rushing to throw their coats on, and dredged up a faint smile. Their enthusiasm was definitely… something. He looked back at the pamphlet, all torn and dog-eared from some sort of excessive reference which he preferred not to consider. “Got what it takes?” was slapped at the top of the paper in vibrant red writing. He continued down the page, skimming through the information. “The Combat Zone proudly presents...Fight-And-Fantasy REDUX!...Old and new acts every week...sign up if you think you’ve got what it takes...winner wins $500, losers win a broken nose...$10 a ticket. The more the merrier.” Mulder shook his head. At least Frohike had promised to pay for his ticket.

"You coming?" Byers was waiting by the door. His peach-fuzz whiskers and cold-pinkened nose almost gave him the appearance of a rodent. Even that couldn't bring a real smile to Mulder's face, but he tried nonetheless.

"It's not like I've got anything better to do," he shrugged. "I mean, how bad can it be?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Pretty bad.

He had rapid growth spurts to thank for his ability to avoid bullying (or anything beyond teasing and under-the-breath comments); since the age of fourteen Mulder’s height had almost protected him from harm. At six foot, he stood taller than his three friends – he took a moment to reflect on how sad those words sounded in his head – and in being tall he had always felt a sense of protection and security.

Not anymore.

Upon walking into the dingy bar, Mulder was overwhelmed with an immediate urge to leave. The dim lighting and mass of crowds made his chest tighten; it was no easy feat sidling through the thick hoards to find somewhere to sit. He was painfully aware of the way these crowds swamped him in size and age - they were the youngest around by far. The crowds must have been in their early thirties at the youngest, drifting into the forties, fifties at the latest. Most of them were large, angry-looking men with long, graying ponytails and intricate sleeves of tattoos snaking up their arms. Mulder’s friends smiled and excused their way past the bar, completely oblivious to the leers they were receiving as they shuffled into a tiny booth with a surprisingly fair view of what was supposedly the ‘ring’. The ‘ring’ itself was a rickety wire cage that snaked all the way up to the ceiling, the sides concealed by thick velvety curtains that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a theater. Maybe that’s what this place used to be, Mulder thought, staring around absently. Kind of small, but…

“One of my favorites is on tonight,” Langly said, leaning over the table with a shit-eating grin. Mulder barely nodded in response. His friends meant well, but he simply wasn't feeling it. In fact, he was still recovering from the miniature panic attack that had assaulted him upon entering the bar. “She’s called the Phoenix. Just wait ‘til you see her, Mulder. She’s amazing. Nobody knows who she is, or where she came from. That’s why they call her that - she just rose out of nowhere, like out of the ashes, or something. We’ve heard that even the managers and coaches have no idea who she really is.”

“She’s hot, too,” Frohike agrees, sipping on his drink. “Wait until she comes on, she’s got a body like you’ll never believe.” Mulder rolled his eyes, a gentle huff of laughter breaking between his lips. The mention of cute girls made this entire idea seem a little less ridiculous, though he wasn’t willing to admit that to anybody just yet. He wasn’t exactly pleased with the idea of them beating the crap out of each other. It seemed like a ridiculous concept. Seriously, what was the point? Was it worth the lewd, drunken stares of creepy old men and the cat-calling that belonged on a scale of ‘gross’ to ‘just plain repulsive’?

Ladies and gentlemen!” The widespread clamor of everybody yelling over each other dwindled into eager murmuring as a voice boomed out of the tinny speakers. Mulder opened his mouth but Langley elbowed him into silence, his eyes rooted to the spindly cage. He looked around; everybody was hypnotized, under some sort of spell. A moment passed where he entertained the idea of witchcraft and laughed to himself. “It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for, for tonight we have some wonderful people with us. We’ve got a vicious fight between the deadly Viper and her arch-rival Nemesis -” The audience cheered and clapped, drinking up the MC’s falsely-enthused voice. Mulder cringed. “Then we’ve got the Lion and the Wolf up against one another in the second round -” More whooping and hollering. Mulder couldn’t help but wonder if they all had the same sort of cheesy names. Talk about wannabe wrestlers. “And there’s plenty more where that came from folks, but I know what you’re all here for... The ultimate showdown between our much-loved killer queens - it’s the Phoenix and the Widow, fighting once again for the grand prize of $500!”

The room was filled with ear-splitting screams and shouts. Most people were desperately hollering in the Phoenix’s honor, although there was a scattered undertone of people screaming ‘Widow!’ hysterically. Mulder wondered if he’d even be able to make it to the final fight without taking a couple of painkillers in the bathroom, or just straight-up walking out. His head throbbed and a dull pain had started to bloom in his temples.

“Is it always this loud?” he yelled into Frohike’s ear, who also happened to be whistling and cheering on the Phoenix. He nodded, patting his friend’s shoulder and laughing. Mulder held his face in his hands, only capable of looking out at the stage through the cracks in his fingers. It was probably for the best if he stayed that way for the whole night.

“Our first fighters of the night are new to the ring, so be nice,” the MC teased through the speakers. Everyone roared with laughter. Mulder’s eye twitched. He introduced them slowly, bringing up fabricated backstories and leaving everyone hanging as he called out their names. “Iiiiiiiiit’s... Storm!” and “Heeeeeeeeeere she is: it’s Athena!

Mulder watched them both saunter into their corners, throwing furtive looks to the crowd and blowing kisses at nobody in particular. His three friends lapped this performance right up, their tongues practically hanging out of their mouths. He raised his eyebrows and sunk further back into the leather seating. Jeez, was all that seemed to run through his head. Jeez, jeez, jeez.

The fights came and went without provoking anything but boredom. It suited his friends, who designated him as the one to buy more cans of Coke and Sprite from the bar. This didn’t improve his mood in the slightest, for he needed to push past all the tough bikers to get to the bar, which was tended by a man with a permanent scowl fixed onto his face. He gave off a very strong ‘convict’ vibe.

As much as he wanted to leave, he lingered. Perhaps it was out of politeness. Nah, screw politeness, there was something else. Maybe he'd been a little too harsh on the guys, maybe he was making a big deal over nothing. Maybe something good would come up somewhere.

He really hoped so.

The evening dragged on and the acts were all the same; cute, flirty girls with feisty attitudes and beefy men with cocky smiles and bulging muscles. Blood was spilled on more than a few occasions and hastily wiped away in the intervals between brawls. Lion spat out a piece of broken tooth into the audience mid-fight and it landed at Langley’s feet. Mulder wasn’t a particularly sensitive person but he drew the line after watching Viper’s nose break and seeing her getting carried off the stage screaming and wailing for help. He picked up his jacket and nodded at his friends. They immediately looked disheartened.

“What’s the matter, Mulder?” Langly asked. “The Phoenix is about to come on! Don’t you want to see what all the fuss is about?”

“Not particularly,” he muttered, shrugging his coat on. “It was great guys, but I think I’ve had enough gore for one day. I’m actually surprised you three survive in a place like this.”

They had the dignity to look offended.

“Sit down,” Frohike insists. “Trust me. She’s way hotter than Lion and Viper - hotter than them combined.”

Well now I definitely want to stay. The voice of reason in his head was thick with cynicism, yet against his better judgment, he sat back down. It was difficult to ignore the stupid MC bigging the girls up and delving into their non-existent stories, but he did a pretty good job of blocking it all out. His focus slipped halfway through the introduction, however, and he found himself listening in on snippets from the Phoenix’s backstory. She swanned out of nowhere – out of the ashes, as Langly said. Young, fiery, not to be messed with. He rolled his eyes, muttered something like 'are you serious?'. No one heard. The roars of her fans were deafening as she was introduced into the cage.

Mulder squinted, waiting for her to appear so he could see what all the fuss was about. This had better be worth it, he complained internally. He leaned forward, his head resting on his knuckles.

An ear-spitting blare of music blasted from the cheap speakers, and a figure walked onstage.

There she was. The Phoenix.

The first thing he noticed about her was that she carried herself differently to the other fighters. She didn’t flaunt, she didn’t have any flair or glamor or anything that marked her as something of a show-off. She walked like she meant business - like she knew what she was doing. He found himself impressed, for some reason, and shifted in his seat so he was sitting up a little straighter. The second thing he noticed was that she didn’t need to prove her sexuality to the audience, not deliberately at least. Her legs were dressed in skin-tight leather, accentuating every curve of her lower half, yet watching her felt wrong, somehow. It felt almost obscene. He found his face flushing, though no one could see for the only lights were those illuminating her arena - and it definitely was hers. She had her audience hanging onto her every movement. She was wearing a tight black vest too, but he tried to skim past for the sake of keeping some illusion of being a gentleman. Then he remembered that they weren’t the only ones in the room and felt stupid. He didn’t look anyway; his shirt wasn't long enough to pull over his lap.

The only thing missing was a face, an identity. She was looking away from the audience; all he could see was a burst of flame which just so happened to be her cropped red hair. As though reading his mind she turned suddenly and abruptly. The only glitzy part about her was the glitter dashed against her cheeks and lips; it sparkled under the lighting like embers.

No wonder they called her the Phoenix. She didn’t just look like fire, she was fire; she was a burning flame, passion, desire, life itself. Mulder found himself captivated, suddenly enthralled by the idea of street-fighting so long as she was involved. She had pulled him into the most wonderful inferno imaginable and he never wanted to leave, only to be surrounded by everything she represented.

He was gaping. When he noticed he regained control of his slack jaw and closed his mouth in a futile attempt to maintain composure. Of course, the others had already noticed but they had also fallen into her trap. They were gazing at her like they couldn’t believe their own eyes. Mulder pinched himself. This is not a dream.

He may or may not have been in love, in a wonderfully starstruck kind of way, and decided that the combat zone wasn't so bad after all.

Chapter Text

Another fight won. Another five hundred bucks stashed away into her duffle bag. She crammed it into her locker and headed for the showers. Her skin was sticky with sweat and dried blood. Her muscles ached. A shower was exactly what she needed.

Natasha - the Widow, she corrected herself automatically - had been a great match. If they hadn’t been fighting for so long, there was a pretty fair chance that she could’ve won. She could see Widow's attacks coming from a mile off, just as the Widow could predict hers. Not that it mattered; she would share the winnings anyway. They often went halves unless money was really tight, in which case became a fair division of 25/75. The more fights they took part in, the richer they became. It made her feel powerful; they had cheated the system, taken advantage of the misogynistic operation of the fight club. If you could play fair and make it look like you were fighting dirty, the money was in the bag. Underground brawling wasn't so bad as long as you knew what you were doing.

"Good fight out there." Natasha was smiling as they passed each other between locker and shower. Her smile was more of a smirk; a sideways smile, that always looked like she knew more than she let on. Her red hair was wrapped up in a towel, a comma of shower water dribbling down her neck and staining the t-shirt she had carelessly thrown on. "D'you think you'll be able to patch me up later by any chance, Doc?"

She was laughing, but her partner grimaced. "Sorry about your lip.” She stared at the cut on Natasha's bottom lip, slightly swollen and still bubbling with crusted blood. Nat dabbed at it impatiently with a scrunched-up tissue, peppered with dots of red. "That'll raise some questions tomorrow." She had been aiming to grab Natasha's shoulder mid-fight, but her nails accidentally caught her lip as her hand clawed through the air. Nat managed to get her own back by planting a forceful kick in the stomach which sent her flying back and landing on her ass. Her fingers ghosted over the area where the kick had landed and hissed through gritted teeth. Its dull ache and familiar pang told her that a bruise was already beginning to form.

"Get in the shower, Phoe." Nat smirked again and rolled her eyes. It was the protocol for all fighters to call each other by their "chosen" names, although there was nothing chosen about them. It was supposedly a matter of security and identity protection - perhaps to stop the fighters from killing each other outside of the arena. Not that it really mattered to the "Phoenix" or the "Widow"; they were the only ones who knew each other's names. "I'll meet you at home."

She sauntered away, leaving the so-called "Phoenix" to get in the shower. Finally, she thought, feeling almost pathetic at the excitement she carried for shower time after the fights. It was the highlight of fight nights, by far.

The fighting clothes were peeled off with ease and kicked carelessly into a corner. They weren't chosen because she liked them; they were chosen because they were the most practical. Contrary to popular belief, she couldn't have given less of a shit about sex appeal or even about her audience if she tried. Most of them were old enough to be her father. Some were even older than that. She blocked out the drunken cheers and disgustingly suggestive leers she received when she walked onto that stage. Like she cared about the damn crowd. Money was money, and that's the only thing in that stupid, sleazy building that mattered.

The shower was hot enough to stain her white skin pink and render it completely numb, which was just how she liked it. She scrubbed the bloodstains and sweat away from her skin, feeling the sore sting of heat against wound. Her muscles finally shifted into relaxation and for the first time in hours she allowed herself to let herself go, to bathe in the warmth, letting the water nip at her skin in gentle hot taps. Everything felt so good post-fight - the money was in the bag, the tension was gone, the sweet sensation of victory and relief washing over her again and again, eternal until the money was out and she was throwing kicks and punches again.

She dried herself briefly and changed into a pair of black ripped jeans and a simple white t-shirt, which was quickly covered up with a ratty leather jacket. Nat walked in as she was pulling on a pair of black biker boots, wearing her usual coy smile.

"I thought you were heading home without me?" 

Nat walked over to her locker and shrugged on her jacket, winking at her friend.

"I was. Actually, I still am," she smirked again, raising an eyebrow. "I'm just passing on a message. One of your many fans is waiting around outside, and - would you believe it - he isn't a creepy old guy who wants to stare at your tits. Normally I'd tell him to piss off, but I've never seen him around these parts before. Seems pretty cute, if you ask me."

"Cute?"

"Very." Nat grabbed her bag and headed towards the exit. "I'll see you at home... Dana." She held her name in a dramatic whisper that lingered in the air. They both laughed until Nat was shooed out of the room, leaving Dana with her thoughts. She and Natasha often disagreed on what 'cute' meant. Nat was an 'anything goes' kind of girl. She dated everyone. Rich guys, poor guys, older guys, bad guys, sad guys... You name it. With the man outside in mind, Dana figured that if she really didn't want to talk to him, she simply wouldn't. It was rare for someone to harass her after watching her fight, and if he did... Well. It would be his funeral. 

She grabbed her bag and shut the locker again, making her way out of the building. When she left the changing rooms the sudden gust of wind which welcomed her outside made her shiver. Dana hugged her jacket closer, pressed her trembling lips together until they turned white. Though the parking lot was conveniently illuminated by flickering streetlamps, she couldn’t find any sign of the guy Natasha previously mentioned.

Damn it... Very funny, Nat. Another trick, another silly stunt. Dana found herself unsurprised – it happened all the time. Shaking her head, she hoisted the duffle bag up on her shoulder and clutched it close as she started to leave.

"Excuse me."

She flinched at the sound of a voice cutting through the silence of the empty space. A guy's voice – thick, low and monotonous. Okay then, Nat, you win. She followed the sound; it traced back to the mystery man, whose presence was obscured by shadows. Dana sized him up; he was tall, with a passive face that wasn’t unpleasant, and his hair was brown and fluffed at the back. Her eyes rolled over his features, his distinguished nose and his curious mouth. Fine, he's kind of cute, she thought, picturing Nat with her signature 'I told you so' grin plastered across her face.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to surprise you." His voice was calm, collected and surprisingly gentle. It was a voice that fitted his face.

"S'okay. I didn't see you, so I figured my friend was just joking around. I wasn't expecting anyone to actually be here." She narrowed her eyes at him, intrigued. "So, do you want an autograph or something?" He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. His movements were loose, almost languid; she watched his shoulders rise and fall with relaxed ease.

"Is that a regular request?" he asked, leaning against the stained brick wall. His head rolled to one side with ease. The corners of his mouth quirked up by a fraction. "I just came by to tell you that you were great out there – the best by far."

"Thank you," she replied shortly, yet her pursed lips loosened just a little. Compliments based on her skills were meaningful, they carried significance. She was so sick of hearing "you've got a nice pair of legs" or "great rack, sweetheart" – it was shallow, it was derogatory, it was trivial. Despite her previous apprehension, she found his words promising. At least he wasn’t one of those guys.

She walked at a slow pace with the presumption that he would follow. Sure enough, in a few short strides (short strides to him, at least – the distance she had covered in six steps, had been cleared in three by him), he ambled along beside her. Dana felt she could truly appreciate his height now the distance between them had been surmounted; he loomed over her like a giant. Despite this physical advantage, he didn't strike her as dangerous, or even remotely aggressive. If he were to attack her, it would be a fatal error on his part.

"In case you couldn’t tell by my lack of tattoos, piercings and leather, this kind of scene isn’t really my thing," he said. The dry humor in his voice made her snort under her breath. "My friends dragged me along, and I was going to leave but they made me stay for you. I mean, they said you were the best fighter going, and I guess they were right. I was mesmerized." He said it jokingly, widening his eyes and carrying the word in a dramatic stage whisper that lingered in the silence. Dana rolled her eyes, but she couldn't stop the smile forming on her face. He grinned and punched the air. The animated action, combined with his loose, easy-going movements, made the motion even more comedic. She couldn’t stop herself from grinning. "So she does smile! Who woulda thought?"

He was mocking her, she realized, but she didn't feel like she was being made fun of. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He was smiling in a goofy kind of way that made his eyes twinkle and his dimples flash briefly upon his cheeks. Dana decided that she'd tolerate him for a little while longer. He wasn't so bad, she supposed.

"So, what's your name?" he asked.

"The Phoenix, of course.” Her response was as dry and sarcastic as his previous quip. "What’s yours?"

"Fox," he answered. Dana side-eyed him again. She suppressed a scoff.

"Sure," she muttered, raising an eyebrow. "Why not."

Under the dim light of the streetlamps his face flushed. "I'm being serious," he mumbled. Then he broke into a quiet chuckle, staring at the ground. "My name is Fox Mulder. For real, that’s my name – laugh all you want, get it all out of your system. You can just call me Mulder – everyone else does."

"Oh." she replied. It was all she seemed capable of saying. A deep frown crossed her face before she looked up to him, her face scrunched up in a sheepish expression. "Sorry. Wow. Um… Yeah, I’m kind of an asshole.”

His laugh took her by surprise. It penetrated the thick silence; a low, steady rumble that came from the stomach. She watched him closely, the crease between her eyebrows slowly fading.

"I can't believe it either, don't worry," he said. "It's a terrible name. Even my own parents call me Mulder now, I don't know what they were thinking." The conversation faded. A thoughtful expression crossed his face. They walked on in silence for a while before he eventually said, "So if we're not on a first-name basis, can I at least get your last name?"

She paused.

"Scully."

A surname wasn’t incredibly personal without the contribution of the forename to create identity. 'Scully' wasn't a common name, sure, she could've been anybody. One tiny nugget of information wasn't about to reveal anything she didn't want him to find out. It wasn’t so bad, right?

"Now it's my turn to ask questions," she said. "Where exactly are you going?"

"I don't know," he admitted. "Walking you home? The streets are very dangerous at night, especially for a woman like yourself."

"You're joking." Another flash of his goofy smile indicated that she was correct. "These streets are more dangerous for you than they are for me, Mulder.” They both secretly revelled in the way his name rolled off her tongue. “The people around here know who I am. Even if I was attacked by someone and I couldn't fight them off, everyone around here has my back. I'm famous around these parts." She delivered her last words sarcastically; she was well-known, that was certain, but knowledge of the Phoenix's existence only resided on the rough outskirts of town. That was the extent of her celebrity status. "Hey, maybe I should be escorting you home."

"I'm flattered, but I'm tougher than I look." To prove it, he flexed. She got the impression he was being genuine, not just showing off, but she scoffed nonetheless. Yet she could see the slim pack of muscle shifting under his shirt when he tensed. "I could totally kick your ass in an arm-wrestling contest."

"Hmph. We’ll see about that.” Her eyebrows flickered upwards, one raising slightly higher than the other. Mulder's eyes twinkled brighter, full of stars.

"Does that mean I'll see you again?" he grinned. Mulder was looking at her with triumph, a smug, satisfied expression. He thought he had caught her out. Dana sighed, long, low and heavy. She knew he was waiting for a response, so she found pleasure in taking her sweet time pretending to think of one.

"I guess so." Dana rolled her eyes. "Not that I have much of a choice if you plan on lingering around outside my fight club every weekend."

"I would never," he replied. There was a smile plastered to his face as they walked on in silence. After a moment, Dana heard rustling and turned to find him rummaging in his pockets. She watched as he pulled out a packet of something and delved right in. He noticed her staring at him and held the small bag out for her. "Sunflower seeds. Want one?"

"What...?"

"Sunflower seeds. Good for the brain." He tapped his temple. 

"Mulder, are you calling me stupid?"

"What? No, of course not." He shrugged, stuffing the bag back into his jacket. "I'll be taking that as a no. Offer's always there if you're feeling hungry, though."

The streetlamps on the road had stopped working, but Dana found herself smiling in the dark.

"Thanks."

They walked on. It was mostly silent, save for Mulder reaching in his pocket and eating those damn seeds every now and then. When they were mere blocks away from her residence, Dana felt something like disappointment taking root in her stomach. Despite her initial resignation, she had enjoyed walking with him - this Mulder guy. What was supposed to be five minutes of small talk had turned into half an hour of joking, sarcasm, comfortable silence and, of course, sunflower seeds. She halted, and he copied, a confused smile blossoming on his kind face. They had stopped outside a vaguely familiar coffee shop.

"Don't tell me," he said, deadpan, gesturing to the building. "You sleep in the café."

"What else would you expect from me?" She concealed her smile. Dana shook her head and looked back up at him, and how he gazed back at her. "I'm kidding. My house is a few blocks away, but I can't go giving away my address to any random strangers, can I?"

"And I'm a stranger? Ouch," he replied, though his tone was cheerful. "I told you my first name and everything. It's a lot more than I got from you."

"I told you, my name's The Phoenix," she said, her face completely straight. He rolled his eyes.

"Sure. And I'm the Queen of England."

"Goodnight then, Your Majesty," Dana retorted, turning away. She was sure she heard him laughing under his breath. "Sure you can make your way back home alright? I can call you a cab if you want."

"I'll be alright." There was a smile in his voice. "Goodnight, Scully."

She held her hand up, wanting to keep her face hidden so he didn't get the satisfaction of seeing her smiling at what had been said. The clomp of her boots echoed on the hard pavement exactly six times before she heard his voice again.

"Scully - wait."

Dana turned her head slowly. "Yeah?"

Mulder was staring at her, his face unreadable. Then his curious mouth broke into that brilliantly goofy grin again.

"Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials?"

"Goodnight, Mulder."

He was definitely laughing as he walked away.

 

Chapter Text

Did she believe in aliens? 

An entire week of nothingness had passed between them and he caught his mind wandering back to her again. Scully. He whispered her name into his empty bedroom; it danced off his tongue like a spell.  After spending most of his summer with Frohike, Langly, and Byers their brief thirty-minute conversation had been rather refreshing; it had been a while since he had spoken to a girl, even in a platonic sort of way. When he couldn't pay for a ticket into the fight club he waited for her outside, leaning against that grimy brick wall with the blinding mural of graffiti. She never showed up.

Sure, he was bummed out, but it wasn't the end of the world. Though he caught himself thinking of her now and again, he wasn’t about to lose sleep over it – God knows he lost enough sleep as it was. It didn’t stop him from mulling over how stupid he’d been. She must have been a few years his senior; what her youthful face lacked in age was compensated by her hardy perspective and fierce image. Why would she want to waste her time with him? For all she knew, he was just a kid.

The more he thought of her, the more his imagination worked towards cracking the enigma and completing the puzzle. Soon he had presented himself a fictional image of who he believed her to be; he figured she had a motorbike and a tough, scary boyfriend who was totally punching above his weight and the pair of them listened to angry punk rock music in his shitty car. Perhaps he was being too stereotypical, but what else could he gather from a woman with a grudge against smiling and an air of unfiltered skepticism? It was a fitting image, yet he strived to continuously remind himself that this concept was nothing more than an idea designed to entertain a work of fiction in his mind’s eye.

Not that it really mattered. Scully's love life and music taste weren't the worst of his problems now. The first semester of the year was fast approaching and after scaring everyone away at orientation he was hoping for a good term. Apparently, nobody wanted to hear that aliens are probably not green and that they're actually more likely to be gray. Shocker. He'd walked away from the stupid affair with people staring at him like they couldn't believe the Dean was allowing crazies into his college. Mulder had decided, with passive defiance, that he simply did not care.

 

Do I believe in aliens? 

What sort of a question was that?

Dana hadn't returned to the arena since her conversation with Mulder. There was too much going on – things of greater importance than a bag of money. She spent her Saturday evening in her room, sprawled out on her bed thinking about a guy called Fox – Fox - who was probably way too old for her. What would her mother say? On second thoughts... Never mind what her mom would say. Hanging out with someone late at night was nothing compared to playing dirty and fighting for money, leaning out of the window by her bed to smoke at stupid hours of the morning, making out with strangers at parties and never speaking to them again. Besides, it wasn't as though there was anything going on between her and this random guy who showed up outside her work (if she could even call it that). He hadn't even walked her home. She didn't let him. Heck, her mom should be proud of her.

Dana’s mind wandered back to Mulder - not Fox, just Mulder. She thought about the life he had outside of lingering around fight clubs and walking strangers home and eating sunflower seeds. In her mind, she pictured him as an action-seeker, always on the look-out for something new to do, some new idea or prospect to discover and explore.  She thought he was in love with life and everything about it, from the infinite blue canvas of the sky above to the minuscule details on the most delicate flora. The corners of her lips had lifted slightly and she hadn't even realized she was smiling until the sharp slam of the door broke her from her thoughts. Suddenly she was back in her tiny dorm, back in reality. Nat was grinning at her, a towel wrapped around her head.

"Did I scare you?" she asked. Her lip was almost fully healed now, much to Dana's relief, though it was still a little puffy.

"You wish."

 

Did she believe in anything?

He found himself thinking about her again on his last night of summer – his last night of freedom, really. Tomorrow he would be walking around campus in the hopes of finding his classes on time, and probably trying to ignore everyone else around him. He wasn't completely alone; Langly was in his chem classes and Byers was meeting up with him for lunch somewhere off campus. That was something.

Mulder couldn’t stop thinking Scully, and the way her hair burned under those flickering streetlights. Maybe he was being just a little dramatic when he wondered if he would ever see her again. Part of him couldn't help but wonder what she was doing while he laid there, staring up at his glow-in-the-dark star-infested ceiling. She was probably listening to angry music and watching television through the gray haze of cigarette smoke, her biker boots kicked to one side, already forgotten. He wondered if she was smiling. The thought made him grin in the darkness of his empty bedroom. For whatever reason, he doubted it.

 

Did he believe in anything? 

Dana’s attempt to sleep was completely wasted on her mind, which was wide awake. Frustration surged through her as she tossed and turned, the sounds of Natasha’s slow, steady breaths almost driving her to a state of envy. There was so much to prepare for, so much to think about, and yet her mind continued to wander towards him without even trying; it was a natural occurrence now. Normally she would be fine with it, but sleep was crucial tonight. Sometimes she would be able to get away with staying awake – she had been known to pull all-nighters when captivated by a particularly good book, or after watching a terrifying horror film on television – but she needed to rest. How would she be able to keep up with her workload if she fell asleep mid-lecture?

Yet her mind continued to drift, and she found herself wondering if Mulder had once stayed awake in a dorm like her own, staring at the ceiling, fretting over the day ahead. It was hard to imagine. As much as she'd tried not to jump to conclusions about people, she had him marked down as the type of person who didn't care about anything. He was able to BS his way out of any bad situation you could possibly think of, the sort of guy who hadn't bothered studying for his finals because he knew he would pass anyway. That kind of sneaky bastard. 

Thank God Natasha was asleep. If she saw the way Dana was laughing she would have probably re-assigned. Again, she thought back to Mulder's last words spoken to her: Do you believe in the existence of extraterrestrials? Since their first, last and only conversation thus far Dana had come up with a million witty comebacks and sharp remarks that she wished she'd picked up on before they parted. Do you believe in science? was probably one of her biggest favorites. It had reached a point in the night where even the thought of throwing back a simple 'no' would have been funny enough. She chuckled as silently as possible, muffling her laughter by holding her duvet over her mouth. 

I think I'm going insane, she thought suddenly. Then she laughed some more.

Fox Mulder was, without a doubt, a believer of little green men. There was nothing about him that could've led her to presume something like that, aside from the unprompted question, but she just knew. Still, she supposed that while he was probably wrong and the prospect of the existence of extraterrestrials was against her own personal opinions, aliens weren't as ridiculous as some of the other claims she'd heard in the past. Thoughts of Bigfoot, vampires, and ghosts sprung to mind. Dana scoffed. There was once a news story on some stupid rumor about something called 'el chupacabra', would you believe? Crazy, the things people would invent in the absence of evidence or reason.

Fox Mulder didn't believe in that nonsense, surely? Aliens were sane in comparison to Mexican goat-suckers.

She couldn't even believe this was the direction in which her late-night thoughts had chosen to wander. Some guy with a dumb smile and a would-be irritating persistence was invading her mind, and his possible beliefs in flying saucers made it even harder for her to comprehend exactly what she was thinking about. Wonderful.

Dana closed her eyes in an attempt to put her thoughts to rest and faded into an extremely light and fairly troubled sleep.

Somewhere off-campus, in a cramped little attic bedroom, Mulder was tossing and turning, in the midst of a terrifying nightmare that doused him with fear and pure, undiluted panic. He couldn't wake up. He was trying. He was running, he was reaching out for her, almost close enough to grab her hand- 

"Samantha," he gasped, sitting bolt-upright. His eyes squinted in the dark, making out the familiar shapes of his new room. Shivering, he huddled the duvet over him and laid on his side, his eyes hot with tears and glimmering in the ghostly moonlight. His fingers grasped at the soft fabric of the covers as he pulled them up to his chin, tucking his knees up to his chest. The couch was warm beneath him, lulling him back into slumber, but he knew he was not going to sleep tonight. He accepted this simple fact by rolling onto his back for the second time and staring up at the stars on his ceiling once more.

He was alone again. 

Chapter Text

He was dragged out of his restless slumber by the sound of Frohike announcing breakfast downstairs.

"Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey!" 

Mulder sighed and rubbed his eyes with the dull, slow movement of someone who didn't get much sleep, his eyelids aching beneath his fingertips. He stared up at the same glow-in-the-dark stars and blinked one, two, three times to rid himself of his blurry, sleep-induced vision. Looking down, he noticed his hands were still trembling faintly from the vague memories of his nightmares. He balled them into fists, pressed his knuckles against his mouth and closed his eyes again. When he closed his eyes he was captured by an overwhelming urge to escape, though he didn’t know what he wanted to escape from. Frohike’s house was a fine place of residence – certainly better than his dad’s, and even his mom’s at times. There was no need to want to leave… And even if he did, it wasn’t as though there was anywhere else he could go. Frohike, Langly and Byers were his only friends. There was no girlfriend in the scene – the thought was almost laughable. But he was happy where he was now – laid on a used, worn-out couch in his friend’s attic - so he tumbled out of bed and pulled on a t-shirt before stumbling downstairs, trying to shove the futile thought of escapism out of his mind.

"He rises," Frohike said dryly. "Just in time for some food. There might just be enough hot water for you to have a decent shower if you're lucky." Mulder nodded, smiled and took a seat at the tiny kitchen table. There was barely enough room for all four of them, but they made do. Langly had his feet kicked up against the spare seat and Byers was thumbing through the newspaper with a faint interest, barely eating anything at all. Frohike pushed a plate in front of Mulder and nodded. "Breakfast is served. Better chuck it down if you wanna make yourself look good for all the college girls." 

"Thanks." His forced chuckle was feeble. He meagrely speared a slice of bacon and chewed it slowly, his jaw aching with each minute movement. Compliments to the chef - Frohike had always been great at cooking - but his nerves reduced it to nothing but cardboard in his mouth. It lodged in his throat as he swallowed. He chugged a glass of bitter orange juice to push it down and picked at the rest of his breakfast. He was still shaking, although certainly not as bad as before. If any of the guys noticed, they chose to ignore it. He appreciated that.

"What's your first class of today then, fellas?" Langly asked. He reclined on the chair, teetering on its two back legs. 

"Biological principles," Byers murmured, not looking up from his paper.

"Psychology," Mulder added vaguely.

Langly nodded and tilted further back on the seat. Frohike swatted him around the head with a spare magazine lying around and muttered something about having all four chair legs on the floor, to which the boy grumbled and fell forwards again. When Mulder's plate was looking empty enough he placed it on the countertop and announced that he was going for a shower. The three of them nodded, not really paying much attention.  

It was quick, for he knew that at any moment the water would turn to ice – though maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, given how the water’s heat made his groggy, sleepy state ten times worse. He dried off and ran up to his room to get changed, not wanting to run the risk of being late for his first class. Alien t-shirt: check. Black jeans: check. Funky UFO socks: check. Mulder was, by physical means, very prepared. Tired, but prepared. Emotionally? Not so much. 

He had drilled nonchalance into his own head; he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what people thought of him. Yet Mulder still found himself disappointed (albeit unsurprised) to know that he was going to spend four years with the same bunch of assholes who had approached him with friendly smiles and bright eyes only to walk away, whispering about him at a volume that made him feel like he was supposed to hear what they were saying. Let them talk, he told himself. I've got friends. I don't need any of those jerks.

It was true. Besides, he'd tried to pretend to be something he wasn't in high school, and where did that get him? Into a one-sided relationship that quickly crumbled away and a friend group that dispersed as soon as he left town. They were jerks, too. Good thing he'd started speaking to the lone gunmen. Even if they thought he was weird, he was their kind of weird. The feeling was very much mutual.

They wrote to each other back when he was in high school. His mom never even raised an eyebrow at his sudden shift in social activity. She just handed him his letters, same as always, and he would take them up to his room. The lone gunmen communicated through newspaper clippings and stories they'd heard of through the grapevine, usually through the newspaper they ran together. After a while he did a little bit of freelancing for them; it took priority over the mundane bustle of his regular life – whatever ‘regular’ meant regarding Fox Mulder. They quickly became friends, and when he discovered that Frohike and Langly lived near the same college he and Byers were interested in... Well, it was too good an opportunity to miss out on. He moved in at the start of summer and hadn't regretted much of it since.

A deafening snap resounded through the house, followed by a booming crash that made even the attic floor shake.

" I TOLD YOU NOT TO SWING ON THE DAMN CHAIR!" 

Emphasis on 'much of it'.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Natasha had already gone before Dana had woken up. Though she regarded her dormmate’s empty bed with a frown, she didn’t feel particularly concerned. It wasn’t the most surprising thing Nat had done in the time they’d known each other, and it gave Dana the freedom to do what she wanted... Not that there was much to do. Nothing fun or exciting, anyway.

She turned off all three of her alarm clocks (yes, three – Natasha’s eyes almost popped out of her sockets when she watched Dana place them all neatly on her bedside table like it was the most normal thing in the world to have three alarm clocks) and trudged out of bed.

Looking over-dressed, or like you were trying too hard, was one of those miniature phobias that society so often collectively developed. Dana was not unfamiliar with this concept; after seven long minutes of rifling through her clothes, she stuck to what she knew. She pulled on a pair of tattered drainpipe jeans, a plaid shirt and, for comfort's sake, her worn buckled boots. After a once-over in the mirror, she smiled and nodded. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Her first class was Biology, specifically biological principles, and though she had shrugged off Natasha’s fond teasing she was most definitely a science nerd. Biology was a topic that had come easily to her in high school, and she had developed a strange sort of affection for it over the years. That was obvious, though, wasn't it? Very few people who disliked biology (and science in general) wanted to become a medical doctor.

The thought made Dana slump back onto her bed. Her eyebrows furrowed together, forming a deep frown. Did she even want to be a medical doctor?

Each Scully child had their own 'thing': Melissa was the 'creative one', Bill was the 'one that took after Dad'. Charlie was the 'one that could do no wrong' - the 'angel kid'. Dana had always been the 'smart one', and she wore that label with the greatest pride. At least, she used to. Perhaps it was something to do with growing up, but she didn't want to be the intelligent one anymore. She didn’t want to be any sort of ‘one’ – a stereotype, a two-dimensional character. Sure, her siblings had been told to aim high, work hard, do their best in everything, but she got it the most. As much as she knew her parents loved her, she was being crushed by their standards. If she'd decided she wanted to pursue a career in the arts, or journalism, or even in a place like the police force or FBI, they would've hit the roof. Yet Melissa could become a psychic, for crying out loud, and nobody batted an eyelid.

She wondered if Mulder's parents had forced him into taking law, or medicine, or anything of that sort. Something told her they hadn’t. He was the type of guy who lived by his own rules, the sort of guy who made his own path and didn't care what anyone said. It could be anything, from becoming a lawyer to working as a struggling artist, a freelancing journalist, a mysterious secret agent. He could do any of those, despite his parents' opinions. Or anyone else's, for that matter. He just seemed like the type of guy who was too happy for anyone to bring him down. For that, she envied him, although she had the distance between her and her parents to thank for the fact that she had a little more freedom in this new city.

It was sort of like the whole brawling thing; nobody knew who she was out in the arena, and she liked it that way. In the arena, she could be whoever she wanted to be, and not the person she'd been forced to be all her life. She wasn't too young, she wasn't too smart to know better. She was the sort-of-famous Phoenix. Out on that stage, she felt power and control like she had never before experienced. It was addictive.

Dana thought it prudent to keep her personal life and fighter life (her 'professional' life, she supposed) separate, which was a lot easier than it may have seemed. Her crowd was too old to attend college and they all lived far away in the dingy outskirts of town. Creepy fans, obsessed drunks, and jealous rivals were none of her concern on campus. It was something of a consolation. Her anonymity was everything.

For the fourth time that morning a loud gurgle rumbled from the pit of her stomach, incessant and more than a little irritating. Dana looked down, rolling her eyes. "Yeah, I know," she said. "I'll grab some breakfast. Give me a minute."

On her way to the restroom, she passed a bunch of people coming out of their dorms. All of them had the same fresh, excited faces and they all shot her smiles of equal timidity and hope. The corners of her mouth quirked upwards in response and she nodded. She didn't want to look like she was trying too hard, but she didn't want to seem like a bitch, either. Either way, her response seemed to please the girls she passed because they nodded back and walked away with a spring in their step. Whatever makes them happy, I guess... 

Over the summer, she figured she wasn't going to college to make friends. She didn’t need to talk to more people to be happy; Natasha had been her friend for years, making her the only exception to the rule. But that was different.

Dana had hung around a bunch of potheads and burnouts in high school, but they were  all gone now. She stopped speaking to them when she left for college. They pissed her off towards the end.

Maybe that was her problem. Maybe she had a low tolerance for everyone. Or perhaps she was just tired of the same old shit.

After being accepted into college, Dana entertained the idea of friends, and maybe even a relationship or two. The thought gradually became less and less appealing as she endured the process of attending orientation, moving in, freshers’ week, and so on. Other people often got in her way and she usually found that she didn't need anybody to be happy. Natasha was great to hang around with alone. So was Melissa, for that matter. Dana didn't feel like she had anything to worry about. I can make friends anytime, she reasoned. Just because I'm in college now doesn't mean I'm doomed to attending every single party on campus and making out with random guys on the stairs, or whatever else happens at those sorts of things. It’s time to leave all of that crap behind. I’m an aspiring med-student now.

She smiled to herself in the bathroom mirror and shut the door behind her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mulder was waiting, under strict instructions, by an odd little tree in the middle of campus which had the strange appearance of a gnarled face stretched across the trunk. This was the tree, he was certain. But after waiting around for Byers to arrive for twenty minutes, he figured that he'd either got it wrong, or Byers simply wasn't coming. He huffed, shrugged his backpack on... Then he hesitated, shrugged it off again, slid down the rough bark and sprawled on the grass. Another five minutes wouldn't hurt. He had nowhere else to be for the next two and a half hours.

The first psychology class - and his first class of semester - had gone relatively well. Those who knew him stayed away and those who didn't know him had flashed him a brief, nervous smile and sat down next to him. He decided he could tolerate that, especially since one of the people doing so had been a cute little blonde girl with a pointy nose and doe-like eyes. Her name was Brianna, and when she discovered his nickname was 'Spooky' he found that her laugh had a musical tinkle to it and that she liked it, she thought that 'Spooky Mulder' sounded cute. He decided that worse names could've been invented and that this one couldn't have been so bad if a cute girl liked it.

She seemed nice, but as the day progressed Mulder's mind found its way back to the topic of Scully, as it had done for the last damn week. He felt juvenile, stupid for thinking about her - it wasn't like he was in love with her, no way. Mulder was all too familiar with love and its many cruel veneers of falsity. He didn't love Scully, he was sure of it. But he did find himself snapping back into reality from his abyss of daydreams when he caught any glimpse of red hair he could find as he passed through the campus, even if it was the color of dull copper or false neon orange (which couldn't have possibly been Scully's hair, anyway). That was ridiculous, too. She didn't even go to college. He was just as certain of that as he was that he should be meeting Byers by that exact tree. 

Still. There was nothing wrong with thinking about her. It was harmless. He thought of a lot of things excessively without thinking about it. He liked her. That was okay.

He wished he could've met her again before the semester started. Now there was a lot less time for him to linger around fight clubs and walk strange, snarky women home - or close enough to home, he supposed. Who knows, maybe he wouldn't see her again. The thought surprised him with its accompanying feelings of disappointment. It really was a shame. His lips twitched upwards. Maybe I'll never find out if she believes in aliens. 

"Mulder! You're here!"

Byers sprinted over and dragged himself to a stop mere inches before Mulder’s feet. One more step and he would have toppled over, falling right onto his lap.

Mulder looked up at him, squinting in the face of the sun. His friend leaned forwards, resting his hands on his thighs to support himself. He couldn’t help grimacing at the sound of Byers’ breaths; they passed through his lungs in wheezes and rasps.

"Are you alright?" he asked. It was a stupid question, but Byers nodded yes. His face was cherry-red. "What took you so long?"

"She's here," he gasped. His voice rattled as the words left his mouth. Mulder frowned, a faint prickle of fear stabbing at his skin. Byers looked half-dead; his eyes rolled upward and his chest heaved with every deep, shuddering breath. 

"I think you need to see a medic," Mulder said, half-joking, looking Byers up and down warily. "How long has it been since you last went for a run? Here." He fished into his backpack and held a bottle of water out to him. Byers quickly took it, gulped desperately from the bottle and dropped it. He motioned a brief thumbs-up. "What were you talking about, anyway?" Mulder's voice was softer now. "What do you mean, 'she's here'? Who is she?"

Byers shook his head. "She-" he coughed weakly. "That's the... last time I run, I swear..." Mulder waited. "She's here. I know you're not... you won't believe it, but-" He stopped again. "She's here. Definitely here."

"Byers. Who? Who's here?"

"The Phoenix, Mulder! She's here! At this college!"

"What?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Sooo... how's it going so far?"

"Not bad, actually." Dana glanced down at her empty plate. "Y'know, I might go and get another slice of pizza."

"Go for it," Nat grinned. She leaned forward, wriggling her eyebrows. "Have you met any cute guys yet?"

"Stop it," Dana warned, swatting her with a napkin. "No. No, I haven't. Although it seems like one of the guys in my biology class has a thing for me. He was staring at me the entire time, but whenever I looked at him he'd immediately turn his head or look away. Weird, I know. He seemed like an okay guy, though. Very intelligent."

"Are you looking for intelligence?" 

"Stop." She rolled her eyes. A long pause ensued. Natasha picked at her chicken salad as Dana continued to think. "I don't know what I'm looking for here. Apart from my acceptance to med school. Smart guys are cute. Brawny guys are cute. Girls are still better. But who's to say that I'm interested? I just got here. I don't want anything serious just yet."

"Ahhhh. Yet." Nat's face lit up. "Well, I happen to know a billion guys if you're interested. I could even hook you up with a few girls if you're feeling experimental. Some of us are making an effort at being social with our peers." She was still smiling. Dana rolled her eyes again and gently kicked her under the table. "Hey, I'm just saying, s'all. Maybe it'd be good for you to get out and about. Get the social blood circulating in the body of life."

"I... What?" Dana started to laugh. "The social blood in the body of life?"

Natasha shrugged. "You know what I mean," she said. "You need to meet people, you need to get out there. Do you wanna be one of those people that hide away in their dorm all year round and miss out on everything? And before you say yes, keep in mind that this is the kind of lifestyle that turns into an endless cycle. You don't meet people this year, you hide away this year, you don't belong anywhere next year. So you avoid everyone the next year. And then the next. It's a huge mess. Is that what you want, Dana?"

"To be completely honest with you," Dana said, "I don't care, Natasha."

"You say that now." Nat raised an eyebrow. "Do you have any more classes today?"

"Yeah," Dana said. "General Chemistry."

"Shame," Natasha replied. "I'm inviting a couple of people back to our room later if that's alright. They're nice. You should interact with them. Hint. Hint."

"Whatever," Dana huffed, rolling her eyes a third time. She stood up. “I’ve decided I will get some more pizza. Your incessant prodding has driven me to binge-eating."

"You go, girl." 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Mulder almost didn't believe him.

Even when Byers told him that she was in his biology class and that she looked the exact same but different somehow, and described the way her piercing eyes swept over him and made him feel like he was about to faint.

She was older, though – he'd been so certain of that. Placing her in a college setting felt wrong in his mind. She was out of place because she didn’t go to college, surely. And yet, when he tried to find any evidence to suggest that he was right, he couldn't find any. He had based his presumptions on her appearance, her mannerisms, the cynical, worldly quality of her voice. None of it made any sense to him. And the empty feeling of deflation in his chest only added to his confusion; he was disappointed… But why? To have met someone so fierce, so tough, so seemingly free, who was really just another college girl... And she studied biology. Perhaps that was it. In a way, she was an escape – she had offered him a world rich with distractions and he had lapped it all up eagerly. Discovering her great personality was a façade to mask the mundane. Realistically, she was the same as everybody else.

It was unlike Mulder to ignore his gut instinct, yet he tried his best to persuade himself that Byers had been mistaken. When he met with Langly at the same gnarled tree he had been waiting around just hours before, he was still convincing himself that things weren’t what they seemed.

He explained everything to Langly, who shared his suspicions.

"No way, dude," he said, shaking his head from side to side. "There's no way. The Phoenix doesn't go to college! If she did, everyone would know who she was by now. There wouldn't be any mystery about her - her entire persona would be destroyed. She isn't Superman - she can't just put on a pair of glasses and boom, she's unrecognizable, right? Which means there are three explanations for this: the girl in Byers' biology class isn't actually the Phoenix and he muddled them up somehow, or she's crazy, or she's stupid. In the most brain-dead way possible." Mulder had to admit that he had a very good point. Building up a mysterious reputation meant nothing if you were going to break it all down by being a part of one of the largest communities the town had to offer.

"I thought she was too old to go to college," Mulder added, although he wasn't so sure anymore. Langly threw his arms up in agreement.

"Exactly!" he yelled. "Byers has no idea what he's talking about. I wouldn't think much of it, we can hang outside his class on Wednesday and see for ourselves."

It seemed reasonable enough. Mulder thought it a pretty good idea, and with Langly's views on the matter resounding stubbornly in his head, put the thoughts to one side. He was right; it made no sense at all. Scully wasn't at college - she couldn't have been. It was unclear what made Mulder believe this; it was impossible to tell if Langly's facts and stubborn words had truly caused him to refuse the idea, or if he simply wanted to believe it. He really couldn't see her in a lab coat and a pair of goggles, her hair tied up into a cute little ponytail. That wasn't who he knew her to be. That wasn't who he thought she was.

For once in his life, he turned his back on instinct.

He and Langly were the first into their class and after a brief argument on whether they should sit in the front or the back, they opted for seats in the middle. After five minutes of waiting, a few other people walked in too. Mulder recognized a few, and Langly fist-bumped a guy as he passed them. Most of them steered clear of Mulder, and the few that didn't had no idea who he was. He ducked down into his bag and gathered everything he needed, dumping it all on his desk as though it were a tip. The class was now almost full; he watched the door closely, awaiting his new professor. Her name was Dr. Samantha Hound, he'd discovered over the summer. She'd been a lecturer for five years.

In his sleep-deprived state and the comforting warmth of the room, Mulder propped his head up on one hand and gazed into space, staring at the open door without fully seeing it. The drone of student chatter was tuned out with ease – nothing important was being said. Nervous introductions, fervent whispers about the course, the smug mentions of goals and aspirations for the future… Nothing he needed to concern himself with.

Mulder’s eyes were still glued to the door when they found themselves staring at a pair of dusty black biker's boots. For a moment he didn’t register them, his brain a million light years away, cruising through a vast expanse of nothingness.

But his eyes tuned in and his entire body froze.

Slowly, almost as though time was being dragged to a stop before his very eyes, Mulder assessed the newcomer. He started at the bottom, with those worn out boots, and wandered his way up.

Black frayed jeans hugged a pair of short, shapely legs, torn at each knee, the rips cascading up the pale thighs. A worn plaid shirt concealed the tiny frame of the person's torso, but the rolled-up sleeves revealed a toned, lightly freckled pair of arms and two delicate hands. They were holding onto a stack of books, hugging them against the flat stomach. Their nails were painted black and red in blotchy patterns. And on this person's shoulders rested a familiar bob of fierce red hair.

God, help me.

She looked around the room, eyes darting from face to face. There was an element of apprehension in how she watched everyone, but she covered it up rather well. Her face was still, her mouth unsmiling. It revealed nothing; it wasn’t an expression of anger or sorrow, but perfectly schooled neutrality. Mulder thought she almost looked the same as she did last weekend. Younger though, somehow. Much younger.

Dana scanned the room and her eyes rested on Mulder. Fox Mulder, in the flesh, sitting right in front of her. His eyes had a glint to them; something of amusement, perhaps. But his mouth was still.

Her turned to ice under his watchful stare. He didn’t look away – just kept looking, looking, looking, his eyes passing the surface of hers and diving deep into her soul.

No.

No.

In her frozen astonishment, she dropped her books. They scattered across the floor and sprawled in different directions, escaping from her reach before she could even realize what was happening. Her face flushed crimson as she scrambled to grab everything at once. Mulder watched, amused and bewildered, at this girl who had once seemed so dangerous and fierce and powerful flushing and apologizing profusely to everyone in the vicinity. He watched until he felt something brush at his foot. He looked down.

Her bottle of water had rolled to a stop at his feet.

He picked it up.

Langly was nudging him now, staring at her like he couldn't believe his eyes. Mulder nodded, knowing the feeling all too well.

"It's her," he whispered urgently. His nudges drilled bruises into Mulder's bicep.

This isn't happening. It can't be happening. It doesn't make sense. 

He stood up, his chair scraping against the floor and emitting a rude, unpleasant sound. His legs wobbled just a little as he walked towards her, holding the bottle in one hand. All eyes were on him - no, both of them. 

Scully was kneeling on the floor, piling everything into her bag - stupid idea, she thought absently, carrying all of my shit like that - when a pair of scuffed Converse sneakers came into view. She looked up with the vague, unconscious suspicion that she knew who exactly was looming over her already.

She was correct.

He was holding her water bottle out, pointing it in her face. Giving it to her, she realized with a sudden jolt of embarrassment. Dana looked up at him - at his face. His large nose. His curious mouth. His strangely-colored eyes, a color she couldn't quite identify. The way he stared at her made her feel exposed, stripped clean of disguises and veneers of secrecy. He made her feel like he was reading her mind, discovering everything she had hidden from him in their first meeting. She looked away.

"You dropped this."

She took it from him swiftly, almost in a snatch.

"Thanks." Dana had replied with the same bluntness that she had used to grab her bottle back. Her body tensed at the snappy tone she’d adopted and she gulped, looking up at him again. When she next spoke it was an attempt to repair his already broken image of her; she spoke in soft syllables of a gentle quality. "Thank you... Mulder."

"No problem." He hadn't taken his eyes off her. His eyebrows quirked upwards; a random, fleeting thought led Dana to presume he hadn't been able to master the trick of raising one eyebrow by itself. She watched him smile at her from the left corner of his mouth. It lacked the smugness or malignity of a smirk. No, it was definitely a smile - sheepish and confused, but it was a genuine smile nonetheless. "...Scully."

They stood there for a moment, the curious boy and the unsmiling girl, finding more out about each other in that brief moment than they had ever imagined they would in their lifetimes.

And yet, there was much more to come.

Chapter Text

At the end of the class, Scully hurried out of the room with such speed that nobody seemed to notice her go apart from Mulder and Langly.

"Go after her, man," Langly insisted. Mulder didn't need to be told twice. He grabbed his bag and rushed out too, hoping he could catch her walking away. His shoes squeaked and scuffed on the floor as he left.

She was right in front of him, marching with her red hair flying out from behind her. There was an odd flouncing quality to her walk that made it look as though she was in a rush, or perhaps a bad mood. Neither assumption would have been entirely incorrect.

"Dana!" he called, breaking into a jog to catch up. She continued at the same pace, perhaps even faster after he shouted her name, but his long strides quickly caught up with her until they were side-by-side. Even when he had reached her, she refused to look at him. "Dana - Scully - come on, just talk to me-"

"There's nothing to talk about." Her words were curt; they barely seemed to be coming from her mouth. "Just leave me alone."

"You can't run from me forever," he replied. His voice had escalated into something that just stopped short of a shout. "We're both here, whether you like it or not. So stop running away and talk to me."

She halted, unsure of whether she had stopped because of the shocking tone of authority in his voice or because her mind was simply programmed to listen to others. For what felt like the millionth time, Dana thought of her parents again and resented herself for actually listening to this complete stranger! As much as she wanted to be strong and independent and fearless, she couldn't be. She was still the goody-two-shoes that did everything everyone wanted her to do. It was as though she was rooted to the spot. 

He watched as she froze in her place for a long moment, as though she was thinking of something to say. And then she turned to him sharply, her eyes blazing. A remarkable wave of recollection hit him as he remembered the way she looked in that arena: fearless, unstoppable, powerful. There was something in her eyes that made her look the same way, but different somehow. Maybe it was because she was scared, too. Maybe it was because he knew who she was. Dana Scully. Dana Scully.

"What do you want, Mulder?" she asked. Her voice was flat. It was empty. Like she'd given up on fighting against him. He watched her levelly, his impatience draining away, allowing him the capacity to think and concentrate just a little more. Part of him almost felt guilty for knowing her. This whole situation made him feel like an inconvenience. A nuisance, of sorts. He pushed the thought away and reached out. She flinched a little when his hand cupped her arm, but she didn't pull away. His hold wasn't vice-like and crushing; it was gentle - kind, in a way - and though she wasn't used to it, she didn't exactly want it to stop.

"I want to know who you are," he said simply, in his gravelly monotonous voice. She felt his thumb running up her arm and allowed herself to focus on it for a fraction of a second. It tickled her skin in a way that wasn't unpleasant. "I don't care about who you want to be. It doesn't matter if you're the Phoenix or Dana Scully or Abraham goddamn Lincoln to me, alright?" He smiled uncertainly from the corner of his mouth. His eyes twinkled when he smiled. "Scul- Dana, I wanted to know you. And now I guess I do. I get why you're worried, but you need to trust me. I'm not gonna tell anyone who you are. Neither will Byers, or Langly, or Frohike. They're cool. We're cool." He stepped a little closer. She glanced up at him, her eyes strikingly bright in the sun. Mulder realized that she was frowning.

"Scully," she said after a moment's silence.

"What?" To say this threw him off a little was an understatement. What came next was even more of a surprise - she smiled at him. Cute, he thought. Not cute in the same way as that girl in his Psychology class - he often found himself categorizing people into different groups and levels, and the cuteness scale was a prime example of this - but she was certainly cute. Especially when she smiled. The thought didn't displease him but all the same, it was somewhat startling.

"Scully, not Dana," she replied. "I like Scully. It's different."

"Oh," he muttered, chuckling sheepishly. "Right."

Scully placed her hands on her hips and stared right back up at him, into his gray (they're gray!! she thought inside her head) eyes, looking over his large nose, his goofy grin. "You promise you won't tell anybody?" He nodded his head. They stared at each other, and to an observer, it would have looked as though they were sizing each other up. Dana felt a sudden rush of awkward tension between them; she shrugged her shoulders uncertainly and mumbled: "Well... Where does that leave us?"

"Pizza?" Mulder suggested, smiling hopefully. "I'm starving."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

I can't believe I'm doing this, Dana thought as she watched her new companion gulf down a ginormous slab of pepperoni pizza with a large gulp of soda on the side. He seemed completely unaware that she was spectating, which made it funnier, perhaps even more endearing. She picked at her own food, tearing it into little pieces before allowing herself to eat - a nervous habit, really, one she thought she had lost when she was just a kid. Though in her defense, it wasn't exactly a normal day. Of all the people that could've been in her class...

"So, what're you here for?" she asked in an attempt to discover more about Fox. Fox, she repeated inside her head. Jeez... What a name. But when she looked over to her newfound friend she found herself understanding that a more fitting name for him couldn't have been found elsewhere. He had an animated face, soft and curved but lean and lined at the same time. His hair, though a dull, mousy brown, stuck up in fluffy tufts at the back, giving him the appearance of a young boy rather than a soon-to-be adult. The only name that happened to be just as appropriate for his appearance and overall behavior was 'Mulder'. Dana realized that she had started smiling and took a tentative bite of her pizza as she waited for his reply.

"For the same reason everyone else is," he shrugged. "I've got demanding parents and something to prove, I guess. But I'm majoring in psychology if that's what you mean. I'm thinking of joining the FBI, going to train at the academy when I get out of here. I don't really know what else I wanna do, so..." He shrugged yet again and squinted at her. She straightened up. His eyes had an indescribable quality of making her feel like he was reading every thought floating around inside her head. "What are you here for? Can you get a degree in cage-fighting nowadays?"

"Hilarious," she said dryly, rolling her eyes. "I'm a pre-med student. I guess I'm kind of here for the same reasons, too."

"Makes sense," he said. His eyes twinkled again. "You give off a pre-med vibe. No offense."

"None taken, I guess." She wasn't even sure what he meant by that, but she smiled. "I think it's a compliment. You said you wanted to join the FBI?" 

"Yeah."

"Any reason why?"

"To prove the existence of extraterrestrials."

Dana snorted so hard that she started to choke on her drink. Through her blurry eyes and rasping gasps for breath, she could vaguely see Mulder's outline reaching over to pat her back. After wiping her eyes with a napkin, she looked back up and found herself astonished to see that his face was completely serious.

"Wait, you actually mean that?" She couldn't hide her skepticism. "You're telling me that you want to spend years of training for such a demanding profession that requires physical and intellectual advantages, just so you can go UFO-hunting? Please. Please tell me that you're joking." His face was carefully stoic. It was the face of someone who had heard the same thing before - many times before.

"Some people just do it for the money, Scully," he said gently. "Don't you think that pursuing my interests is better than simply joining the FBI on the mindless account of wanting financial security?"

"But aliens?" she leaned back in her seat, unsure of how she was even supposed to react. "Do you honestly believe in that stuff?"

"Do you honestly not?" He appeared dismayed. "Really, Scully? You're a scientist, to a limited but still acceptable degree-" at this particular side comment Dana's mouth fell open, and she wasn't sure whether to laugh or slap him in the face, "-can you really say that out of all of the universes and galaxies and planets out there it isn't plausible that there could be life on any others besides our own? That's pretty self-absorbed, don't you think?"

"Self-absorbed?" She couldn't believe him. "Mulder, you have got to be kidding me! First of all, I never said that. I do think it's possible that there could be life forms on other planets, in other galaxies, universes, etcetera... But not the type that you seem to be so deeply fascinated with. Do you honestly think that little green men from Mars would want to waste their time abducting people from our planet if they have the technology and the transportation to frequently visit Earth? Don't you think that they might have actually told us something by now?" She started laughing. "Like, y'know... 'We come in peace', or something?"

"Gray." That was the only word that came out of his mouth.

"I... What?"

"Gray. They're little gray men, Scully. Like the Reticulans. Green extraterrestrials are a common concept in the media, especially from Mars, but most abductees report that their captors were, in fact, gray or flesh colored."

"Mulder?"

"Yes, Scully?"

"Shut up and eat your damn food."

He grinned at her from across the table and saluted. "Yes, ma'am."

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

September's evening air felt wonderful as he walked alongside Scully out of the pizza place and down the road, which was now dimly lit with glowing beacons of lamplight. They strolled together in comfortable silence, reflecting on the events of the day and asking themselves what they were even doing. Every now and then they would steal glances at each other, as though to confirm their companion was still there and took moments to consider that they could quite possibly be the most unlikely duo to have ever existed. Mulder found himself enthralled by Scully's stubborn attitude; it was refreshing to debate with somebody instead of simply being labeled a weirdo. Their evening had been fun, the most interesting night out he had experienced in a very long time.

"...So why do people call you Spooky?"

"Huh?"

"You were telling me that your nickname is Spooky Mulder." Dana tossed her hair back behind her and threw him a look which he now knew to be dripping with sarcasm. "Why do people call you that?"

"Why d'you think?" he smiled, gesturing to his alien t-shirt and tapping his temple. "I guess I kind of live up to the name 'Spooky', don't I? Or everyone thinks I do. I'm not crazy though." Mulder looked at Scully again, wanting to tell her everything in a single look, wanting to explain the nightmares and the flashbacks and the lost memories, trying to explain Samantha with a mere glance. The corners of her mouth shifted upwards by a fraction but that was all he got.

"You are crazy," she said. "But it's not a bad crazy. You're alright, Mulder."

"Gee, thanks, Scully," he muttered. "You know how to make a guy feel wanted."

"I'm aware," she replied absently, looking around. "Mulder, where are going?"

He shrugged. They seemed to be ambling along aimlessly, something he hadn't paid much attention to before she brought it up. He knew they weren't far from campus. It seemed like it was probably time to call it a night, but he didn't really want to. First of all, he had the feeling that he wouldn't be getting any sleep at all. And he also enjoyed being around Scully. He wondered if she would be interested in meeting him tomorrow, too.

"Do you want me to walk you back?" Dana paused and glanced up at him as though searching for something in his face. He held up his hands. "Hey, I'm not looking for anything like that. The campus is full of creeps at night, it'll put me at rest knowing that you got home safe." She didn't speak. "I know you can look after yourself - I'm not saying that you can't. I just-"

"Yeah, you can walk me home," Scully nodded, shrugging like it wasn't a big deal. When he wasn't entirely reassured she flashed him a small smile. "Really. It's nice to know that someone's watching my back... Even if I can take care of myself." 

"Got it." He caught himself smiling at her and quickly looked away, fixing his attention on the rest of his surroundings. As creepy as it sounded (though God forbid he told anybody), she had the sort of face you could watch for hours if she would let you. Even her resting expression caught his eye; she always looked bored and defiant and effortlessly cool. It was an expression that most people envied out of their own inability to replicate. He then thought that he would probably rather die than share these thoughts with anyone - especially Scully, who also gazed around her setting with the same vague interest that she seemed to regard everything with.

"FBI, huh?" she said suddenly, poking him in the side with a sharp elbow. "That's a pretty big step up from wanting to be abducted, or... Wearing a tin foil hat. I don't know. Why don't you become an alien bounty hunter or something?" He knew she was making fun of him, but that seemed to be her way. It didn't hurt; he was used to it from everyone else and besides... It was her. She didn't really mean it. "Are you sure you're not just a huge Bond fan? C'mon, everybody dreams of being a secret agent at some point in their life, right?"

"I guess," he smiled, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I mean, it's not just that. Being an FBI agent sounds like a barrel of laughs when you compare it to movies and TV shows." He looked at her. She was staring right back. The air was still and silent and thick with tension. It seemed like it would be as good a time as any to tell her what he had been trying to say all evening. "I'm not just hunting aliens. I might be spooky, but I'm not stupid. I wanted to join the Bureau because I want to do right by others. I want to find the truth."

"The truth?" She was frowning now. She didn't understand. They had stopped walking and were standing in the middle of the path facing each other. Her head fell level with his chest and so he could look over her, his eyes snaking up the buildings above her spiky red hair as he collected his thoughts. He swallowed the air trapped in his throat and tried to think. To choose the right words. To make her understand.

"My truth." His voice was carefully even. Gently constructed to give an appearance of nonchalance. "Maybe I wasn't completely honest with you, Scully. Maybe I'm not just here for an alien hunt, or to chase UFOs back to where they came from, or whatever. There's something more than that, something bigger.

Mulder looked at the girl in front of him and realized that she looked afraid and uncertain, but there was more than that - wonder? Awe? Curiosity? She opened her mouth to say something and closed it again. He appreciated that, in a way. If she had spoken he wouldn't be able to bring himself to tell her the truth.

"Everyone thinks I'm crazy. Maybe I am, but it doesn't matter. It's unimportant. But it's not a question of my insanity, it's a question of what caused it." And suddenly the words had vanished, there was no right way of speaking, he was trapped in a motion of opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish and stuttering incoherent sounds in his attempt to communicate his past to her, which was desperately failing. "I... It... Th-there's no good way of talking about this. Excuse me. And if you don't believe me afterward, well... I guess that's your problem.

"I used to have a sister. Her name was Samantha." He winced. 'Used to'. 'Was'. Scully's face was one of quiet, contemplative understanding as he cleared his throat and continued. "She... She was taken, when I was twelve years old. I watched it all happen. She was abducted right in front of me. I... Our parents were out - we were home alone, playing Stratego, and we started arguing, and the lights went out." He looked at Scully evenly, waiting for a scoff or a roll of the eyes. Nothing. "I... I can't remember a lot from that night, but I know she was taken - I know she was abducted. You don't understand. I don't expect you to."

"I do," Dana said gently. Her hand reached out and brushed his arm; the feeling of her touching him felt surprisingly nice. He let her hand rest there, almost allowing himself to feel comforted by her presence. "I don't have to experience it to understand what you're going through." He closed his eyes and took a deep, trembling breath. "But I've got one question. Don't feel like you have to answer, and I don't want you to take it the wrong way, but... Why did you tell me this?"

This was not a question he was expecting.

"W-w-what?"

"I'm curious, Mulder," she said. Her eyes were softened with pity. He wasn't sure if he hated that or not - her eyes had always held a firm discipline and a hardy strength that he admired. Scully felt sorry for him, and he found himself realizing that nobody had ever really felt sorry for him before. "Why did you tell me all of this?"

"We're even now." Mulder didn't take his eyes from her face as he spoke. "I know that you have a secret life - this 'Phoenix' persona - and now you know something about me that most people don't. You can trust me to not tell anyone about your secret if you know mine." 

Scully nodded slowly. The corners of her mouth lifted into a soft smile. "Thank you, Mulder."

"And another thing," he murmured. His voice was barely audible, yet the only other sound surrounding them was thick. heavy silence. "I wanted to share this with you because... I want to be your friend." If Scully was startled she didn't show it. She watched him carefully, waiting for what he had to say next. "I want you to trust me, because- because I feel like I can trust you."

"You can," she whispered. The sudden intimacy of the conversation was somewhat startling, but she was sure she was speaking the truth. "And I would like to trust you in return. It isn't very often that I meet people who know me for cage-fighting before they know me for being a goody-goody pre-med student." Her smile widened a fraction, turning into a slight smirk. "And I guess you'd be a pretty cool friend to have around."

He seems to find this funny because he starts to chuckle and shake his head, and soon she finds herself giggling along too, though she can't find a single explanation as to why they're laughing. The intimate atmosphere had vanished and something gentle, something light-hearted and sweet takes reign of the conversation. The pair of them continued their brief journey to Scully's dorm, nudging each other and telling bad jokes and gently mocking one another along the pathway through the college campus. Time flew by without them even realizing, and though it had taken them a good fifteen minutes to get to her dormitory, it felt as though not even five had passed. 

They stood outside the building, still laughing about an awful joke Mulder had made about an old lady in a pet shop. Scully found herself wiping tears from my eyes, even though the joke was the most terrible thing she'd heard in years - possibly her entire life. She'd learned that Mulder's sense of humor was dry and snarky and she loved it, and he learned that the sound of her laugh was the greatest noise he'd ever heard. For a couple of seconds, they lingered in the same spot, knowing that they'd reached their destination but neither of them particularly wanting to say goodbye.

"This is it," Scully nodded, gesturing towards the unremarkable building behind them. Mulder nodded and shoved his hands into his pockets, his eyes twinkling away as he looks down at her. "I guess I should probably go inside. Nat might be worrying about me."

"Sure." He couldn't stop himself from smiling. "I'll see you around, Scully."

"Goodnight, Mulder." She threw him a final glance and twirled around, disappearing from his sight and vanishing into the shadows of the building. He waited there for a brief moment, his eyes lingering on the spot where she had only just been standing, half-wondering what else he could've done before they parted. The thought continued to occupy his mind as he traipsed home and ended up as more of a nuisance than a casual daydream.

He thought about ways that he could've said thank you. Ways to wish her a good night without sounding like he was flirting, or like he was interested in her in that way. He considered whether touching her arm or her shoulder or her cheek was too personal, or if squeezing her hand implied something more-than-just-friendly. And he knew that a peck on the cheek or the top of the head was way too far, and yet he couldn't stop himself from thinking about what would've happened if he'd done something like that. Something told him that it wouldn't be received well at all, and he respected that; he didn't love Scully, he didn't 'have a crush' on her, so to speak... He felt comfortable around her. He felt as though their friendship had grown rapidly in the few hours they had spent together and he trusted her with his deepest, most personal secret. Towards the end of his walk, he almost wished that he had kissed her, not out of love or lust or anything remotely romantic or sexual; he wanted to kiss her out of respect and gratitude. He couldn't say that he'd ever felt that way about anybody, but that was okay, he told himself. It didn't feel weird or wrong. That made things alright.

Mulder had barely recognized his own room when he returned to it. He was so lost in thought that he didn't even feel the aching relief of taking his shoes off and setting them in the corner or allowing his sore, weary body to rest on the soft mattress. It was not the first time that he had laid there, staring at those glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling, contemplating life and death and Dana Scully.

And while he didn't get much sleep that night either, the sleep he did get was empty of nightmares and blissfully peaceful. 

Chapter Text

"So, doing anything fun this weekend?" Mulder asked as he fell into step alongside her. His blond friend hung back a little, not wanting to intrude, but possibly wanting to eavesdrop instead. Dana rolled her eyes, looking anywhere but at Mulder's face. He was smiling, and when he smiled his entire face shone. It was a face that was very difficult to say no to... Most of the time.

"I'm not fighting, if that's what you're getting at." She was certain she heard his friend - Ringo, his name was, though Mulder called him Langly - curse under his breath. He continued to amble along behind them at the same slow, steady pace. "Why, what have you got planned? Seeking out common folk tales? Playing detective? Proving that the American government was responsible for the assassination of JFK?" Ringo snorted. Dana pretended not to hear, and Mulder did too.

"I wasn't going to, but now you mention it..." He was joking... Or so she thought. Sometimes it was hard to tell with Mulder... Full of surprises, she had learned. Not all of them were particularly brilliant, but they fascinated her nonetheless. As far fetched as his pursuit for 'the truth' was, she couldn't help but admire his passion for it. His determination. "No, I was actually going to Koman's Hill. One of the most popular UFO-spotting sights in the area." Dana made a face without even realizing. He ignored her and continued. "It's a little far out - two and a half hours away, to be precise - but I hear that it's worth it."

She stole a glance at him, only to find that he was staring at her with hopeful puppy eyes.

"Oh no," she said immediately, holding her hands up. "No. No way, Mulder. No. I'm not driving out to the middle of anywhere to go on this, this fanciful wild goose chase! And even if I wanted, I've got work to do. Like everyone else in this place - apart from you, it seems. Can't you go with your other friends?"

"Hey, nice shoes, Spooky!" A stocky blond guy taunted out of nowhere, nudging his friends and guffawing at Mulder's footwear. Dana looked down at her friend's feet with a smile half-fond, half-sad. They would have been a pair of regular black Converse... If the 'All Star' patches hadn't been replaced with luminous green alien heads. Oh, Mulder... 

"Thanks, Jerry," he shouted back, seemingly unperturbed. "Haven't you seen them before? I left them at your mom's house last time she sent me a booty call. Tell her I said that the little trick she does with her hands really hit the spot if you know what I mean." 

"Mulder!" She held back her urge to laugh and grasped his arm, simultaneously amused and astonished. Jerry's comeback of 'fucking asshole' was lost under the noise of his friends laughing and jeering at him, which gradually faded away as they collectively stalked off. "Mulder, you can't say stuff like that. You're gonna get the crap beaten out of you one day!" He only smiled that goofy, slightly satisfied smile and acted as though he hadn't heard her, staring down at his shoes with an air of pride. Typical Mulder. 

"As I was saying," he continued. "It would be my honor to take you to Koman's hill. Consider it research. I know how highly you value your studies."

"What, my alien studies?" she asked, incredulous. "You can't be serious." But he was, and she knew it. In the couple of weeks that she had known Fox Mulder, she had realized that even the most extreme boundaries were nothing to him. He simply did not care, and sometimes - oftentimes, in fact - she would wonder if he even wanted to make it out of college with anything to show for it. He showed little interest in his education in order to pursue his truth, and while she admired the freedom that seemed to come from this lifestyle she also worried for him. Dana couldn't help worrying about herself, either. Especially when she was usually the one to be dragged into these crazy escapades.

This is what friends do, she thought. They're just a distraction. I knew this would happen. 

"Please." It was the one word that changed everything. His voice was soft and gentle; it was the voice that managed to throw her off every time, the one that always made her cave in. No. I can't. I have work to do. She repeated this over and over again in her head like a strange little ritual, because she could not go out with Mulder tonight, and she vowed that she wouldn't. No negotiation. Mulder cupped her elbow, and though she didn't flinch away he felt her freeze under his touch. That hurt, but he tried not to think anything of it. I'm scaring her away, he thought, and for once he felt a vague sense of panic. It was only recently that he had started to discover that perhaps things aren't as fun when you do them alone, and this included UFO-spotting, of course. Scully made it interesting; she turned laying in a damp field into an intellectual debate about extraterrestrials and life and creation. She made it an experience. "Bring a book, pack a blanket, maybe a mixtape or two. You can even do your work, I won't bother you when we're there. And I'll bring a picnic. What do you say?" If that wasn't enough, he smiled at her with those twinkly puppy's eyes. "I'll make it worth your while. C'mon, it'll be fun."

No. Dana Katherine Scully, you will not-

"Sure, fine, whatever." She let out a low sigh and shrugged. Mulder punched the air and just stopped short of throwing his arm around her shoulders. She did everything she could to keep a stern face, but it wasn't easy. "One condition: no funny business. And this is not becoming a regular thing, Fox."

He cringed. Dana had to hold back a laugh. His forename was more of a punishment tactic than anything else at this point.

Ringo had sped up and fallen out of sight within minutes. No doubt he's gone to report to the others, Mulder thought. Oh well. Let them think it's a date until I get home. No sense in getting wound up over it. He glanced down at Scully's reluctantly smiling face and felt himself sinking into a brilliant vat of fizzling excitement and ecstasy.

Bring on tonight, he thought. This new surge of undiluted happiness - of companionship - made him want to jump, maybe even sing and dance a little. Not that he was going to do any of those things, not then, not in front of Scully. Once he returned back to Frohike's house and arrived at the safety of his bedroom he would punch the air for a while longer and privately celebrate. Dana Scully, what on earth are you doing to me? 

He didn't share any of these thoughts with her. Instead, he leaned forwards (more than she should have been comfortable with, but this was Mulder's way with everyone and she had grown to appreciate it) and smiled in a way that he hoped was warm, grateful, possibly a little debonair. Dana thought he was excited, which made his smile wider and goofier than ever. She found it endearing; it was a smile that invited more smiles, a smile that more people needed to see.

"So," he said eagerly. "Here's the plan, Scully."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dana fidgeted with the cuff of her sweater sleeve, picking at the deliberately frayed edges absently. Nat called it 'first date nerves', which was totally unnecessary and completely incorrect, in Dana's opinion. She preferred to think of it as 'fear of the unknown'. Hanging out with Mulder for the last couple of weeks had taught her that anything could happen. He always managed to take her by surprise somehow, even in the most mundane situations. He was her constant surprise. The gift that kept on giving. She smiled at that, but only when Nat's back was turned. Her friend had already given them the title of 'Mr. and Mrs. Spooky'... A name that Dana personally hoped wouldn't stick for long.

Her bag was packed, filled to the brim with things that Mulder would have categorized into two groups: 'So Scully' and 'Not So Scully'. The 'So' pile contained 'Moby Dick', a small mountain of work, some carrot sticks, apple slices, a pair of red velvet cupcakes, a couple of ciders that Natasha had obtained for her, and a mixtape of a couple of her favorites from Kiss, Queen, Guns N' Roses, Metallica, etcetera, etcetera. Her 'Not So' heap consisted of 'The Martian Chronicles' (a story Mulder had recommended to her; she reluctantly had to admit that it was an interesting read), an X-Men comic, a 'Where's Waldo' travel book and a ridiculously pink and fluffy blanket that her mom made her bring along. There was also a mixtape of her 'softer' songs, as her parents probably would have said. The Smiths, A-ha... Even a little Wham! and a couple of hits from The Bangles. This was something she never wanted Mulder to find out about; she knew that he would never let her live it down.

The car horn blared outside and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Natasha raised an eyebrow and smirked that familiar, enigmatic smile that Dana could love and hate simultaneously sometimes. "Have fun," she said. It was a harmless statement until she winked and added. "Don't get too carried away out there. And stay safe."

"Shut up already," Dana said. "I'll see you later. Have fun fighting Vixen tonight."

"I will - she still hasn't forgiven me for breaking her nose."

The sky was stormy and gray but the ground was bone-dry. All the same, she rushed from the building and into Mulder's car with the speed of someone who expected the heavens to open at any moment. When she clambered inside he looked at her with bemusement and ill-disguised excitement which shone through in his smile; he had the appearance of a little boy opening presents on Christmas Day.

"You ready for this?" He was positively beaming.

"As ready as I'll ever be," she replied, making a face that she pulled at least twice a day when she was around him, raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips. To anyone else, she would look unimpressed or disapproving, but Mulder could see that there was a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. She loved it really.

"Prepare to have your mind blown, Scullbag," he said, throwing her a wink. I'm regretting this already, Dana thought desperately, pulling out her 'So' mixtape. It was bad enough that she knew they were doomed to fail. What made it worse was that she had started to develop the suspicion that she was actually going to enjoy herself. Watching Mulder hum along to a song on the radio was enough to dispel any doubts or second thoughts; seeing him in a good mood made a nice change. A great change, really. Sometimes it was difficult to tell who smiled less out of the pair of them. 

They had a funny way of communicating when they were in the car. Dana glanced at Mulder for a couple of seconds, trying to get him to look at a page from her book or to offer him a carrot stick, but he wouldn't look. She would look away, which was when he decided to briefly glance back, not wanting to take his eyes off the road for too long. Then he would turn away and she would look back. It continued like that, with short intervals of them focusing their attention on other things. This strange back-and-forth motion between them taught Dana that the curve of Mulder's nose was both soft and steep and that the connection between nose and curious, curious mouth was something slightly brilliant. In turn, Mulder discovered in his own precious seconds that, where the sunlight failed the drizzly sky, the fascinating auburn of Scully's hair did not. 

Neither of these revelations were shared. The pair of them worked to suppress these thoughts as best they could.

"What's the deal with the picnic?" Scully asked fifteen minutes into the journey, gesturing towards the backseat. An old-fashioned hamper sat in the seat behind Mulder, safely buckled in. "What's inside it? Don't tell me - sunflower seeds?" She half expected a hamper filled to the brim with them; he craved them all the damn time. It briefly struck her that perhaps he was addicted; could someone be addicted to seeds? It wouldn't surprise her. You could become addicted to anything, really. He laughed and held up a small packet that he kept in the pocket of his jacket.

"That doesn't sound like much of a picnic, Scully," he smiled. "No, you're underestimating me. As a pre-med student, I know how highly you regard a healthy, balanced diet-" he cast a shrewd, mock-disapproving glance at the cupcakes in her bag, "-so I've brought along a little bit of everything. It might be a long night, even if we don't get stuck in traffic. I figured I'd bring a bit of everything, and then some. Just in case." He cast her a brief smile. "If I don't get one of those cupcakes, Scully, I might have to leave you on Koman's Hill."

"Figures," she replied sarcastically. "Would you like it now?"

He thought it over. "No, I think I'll wait."

Again, they sat in silence. Dana wanted to talk. It didn't take her long to find something to speak about.

"I'm starting my work experience next Sunday," she said. Mulder raised his eyebrows and looked over to her again, intrigued.

"At the hospital? Already?" he asked. She nodded. "Does that mean no more fighting?"

"Does it always have to come to that?" she huffed. Her eyes wandered to the window. It had just started to rain. "I'll go back to the arena eventually. I want to, Nat wants me to, Mr. Clarke wants me to - he's already on my case about not showing up last week - I just need some time to adjust to everything else. No sense in rushing into everything all at once."

"Good. That's good." He looked at her and smiled. She noted that his eyes weren't gray after all - they were brown, soft and warm and kind. "Let me know if you pick up anything interesting, Scully. Maybe I'll be able to be of some assistance."

"Yeah, I'm sure you'll be able to save the world with conspiracy theories and outrageous claims," she grinned. "If I bring you into the hospital scene, I'll be kicked out within weeks!" He chuckled and shook his head, but he couldn't bring himself to deny it. It's true, that's why, Dana thought, raking her hand through her hair. She nudged him. "Hey, maybe when you become a big-shot FBI agent you can give me a call. I might know a thing or two about the human body by then." 

He laughed and gave her a lopsided grin. "What, call you in for your medical opinion?"

"Yeah, what's so funny about that?"

"So you can prove all of my outlandish theories incorrect?"

"Don't see why not," she smirked. "Could drive you out of the job. Take your place. Build my way up. Boom. Director of the FBI at your service."

"Why not just join the academy? We could work together!" He threw his hands in the air like he'd hit a moment of absolute inspiration. "Can't you just see it? Agents Mulder and Scully... At your service." Dana scoffed loudly. "What? What's the matter with that? It's a great plan."

"Us? Working together?" She couldn't hide her skepticism. "We'd never get along - we'd probably kill each other, Mulder."

"We'd be fiiiiiiine," he said, swatting his hand through the air carelessly. "So long as we didn't have to share an office."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I like this. 

Dana wasn't sure if she was surprised that such a thought had entered her head. Kicking her tough boots off and wiggling her toes, reclining her legs out, rolling the window open in spite of the rain and feeling it splashing against her face gave her a sense of unrestricted freedom and meaning. Mulder amplified this; this journey couldn't have happened to anybody but the pair of them. She wouldn't have wanted it to. Nobody else would have dragged her away from the cozy confines of her dorm to go searching for little green - gray - men. She looked at him, and when she did she saw a friend. She saw Spooky Mulder, and she loved it.

There was certainly something beautiful about her, and perhaps it wasn't prudent to go around announcing it to the whole world, but he wasn't blind. In her bold, punky way, she was lovely. It was undeniable. And the way she grinned at him with her damp, rain-soaked hair barely concealing her flushed cheeks did something to his stomach. She's my friend, and she's great, and I trust her more than anyone. My Scully. He liked it, this new sensation of blossoming friendship and the liberation of flying down a country road in a shitty car.

After fiddling around with a couple of dials on the radio, Mulder finally came across a station that didn't crank out static sounds. A familiar song reached his ears; he sat up further in his seat and grinned at Scully. 

"Hey, 99 Red Balloons!" He nudged his passenger and cranked the volume up. "Come on Scully, don't tell me you don't like this song."

"I'm surprised that you like it," she said. Little did he know, this was one of the songs that had found its way onto her unlikely playlist. It was one of her favorites. 

"It's upbeat, it's catchy-"

"It's about death, war, paranoia, destruction... You name it, Mulder."

"Jeez," he laughed, holding his hands up. "You must be the life and soul of every party." Nonetheless, his hand reached for the dials. "Should I change it?"

"No," she said, a little too quickly. "It can stay. I like it."

"Right answer," he grinned, cranking it up further. "Floating in the summer sky, ninety-nine red balloons go by..."

Dana rested her feet up on the dashboard and tapped them along with the music, staring out the window absently. She couldn't stop turning to glance at Mulder every couple of seconds; he was nodding his head and loudly singing along in a way that wasn't perfect but it was far from unpleasant. He winked at her. She rolled her eyes but she was still laughing, shaking her head, trying to pretend she was so much cooler than him.

"C'mon, sing along," he shouted in between lines. "You know you want to."

"Shut up," she smiled. He nudged her again.

"Go on," he said. His voice was almost unheard, concealed by the sound of the radio. She threw her head back to stare at the ceiling of the car and closed her eyes, a wide, lazy grin spreading across her face. I have no idea why I'm here, or why I'm doing this, but that's okay. Dana thought of what her parents would think of her jumping in a car with a guy she'd only known for a few weeks to speed down a dusty lane and risk her successful medical career by searching for spacecraft instead of working. The laugh that escaped her mouth was pure ecstasy.

"The war machine springs to life, opens up one eager eye," she sang, her voice jittering with giggles. "See, how can people think this is a happy song?"

"Lighten up, Scully!"

"I am," she said. "I am!"

He grabbed her hand without a second thought, dancing in his seat, inviting her to join in with him. His hand was soft and firm and his touch sent a sudden shockwave jolting up her arm. It was a good thing that there were no other drivers around to witness the pair of them; they were maniacs, sing-shouting along to the radio and jumping around and laughing like there was no tomorrow. Scully fell against Mulder's arm, burying her face in his shoulder, while he smiled at her like she was the only person in the world that mattered. It felt like the beginning of something special, something pure and new and liberating. It felt infinite.

"Only two more hours to go, Scully," Mulder said after the song was over. His voice was hoarse, but he sounded pleased. "Two more hours if we don't... hit..." He trailed off as they pulled out onto the main road. Dana's eyes could only see red pinpricks of light ahead and turned to Mulder, exasperated. 

"...Traffic." His voice sounded deflated. "A game of I-Spy seems like a pretty good idea right about now, huh?"

"Nope," she replied shortly, popping the 'p'. He watched as she rummaged in her bag and pulled out a 'Where's Waldo' book. "I guess it's good I've got this old thing. I haven't touched it since Bill bought it for me last Christmas." She flicked to the first page and rested the book in her lap, her tiny legs stretched out on the dashboard. "Feel free to help at any time."

So he did. It very quickly became a competition to see who could find Waldo first. Mulder found him more often than not, but Dana didn't particularly mind. She found herself rather distracted by the warmth of his breath on her neck, and the tickling sensation that occurred when he moved closer as his hair brushed her face. The traffic urged forward sluggishly, but it didn't seem to matter. They were together, and that was fine. 

"There he is." Mulder pointed and tapped the page. 

"Huh?"

He smiled. "Are you even looking for him? I feel like you're letting me win now."

"Never."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

An hour to go. Scully had told him that she was going to take a nap for five or ten minutes a while ago now. He had chosen to let her rest; she deserved it, after all. And she looked so peaceful when she was sleeping. Mulder kept on glancing back and forth between the road and his friend on the passenger's side, checking that she was alright, that the pothole he'd just rolled over hadn't disturbed her. They were on a different road, the traffic had cleared, and the rain was slowing again.

She was covered in a large, bright pink blanket that she had pulled up to her shoulders. The passenger seat was reclined as far back as she could make it, and she had taken his jacket for a pillow. One of her hands was tucked inside the sleeves. He smiled and turned his attention back to the road. She's Always A Woman played on the radio, a soft tune that kept the smile on his face.

"She can kill with a smile, she can wound with her eyes," he sang under his breath, barely a mumble. It was starting to get dark. He switched the headlights on. "She can ruin your faith with her casual lies..." 

And she only reveals what she wants you to see,

Yes, she hides like a child, but she's always a woman to me. 

Scully's hair hung in front of her face, and whenever she breathed outwards it floated up, only to gently fall back over her nose and lips. With each breath, her nose twitched involuntarily. Once, she carelessly attempted to scratch her face with the back of her hand, but to no avail. Mulder watched her face crinkle over and over again until he decided it was starting to irritate him and gently tucked the rain-soaked curls behind her ear. Her face rested into an expression of serenity. He nodded and turned his head back to the road.

She can lead you to love,

She can take you or leave you,

She can ask for the truth,

But she'll never believe... 

Mulder turned to Scully again. She was making long snuffly noises under her breath, which made him chuckle. The 'Where's Waldo' book laid discarded by her side, completely forgotten about. Her lips were parted slightly, revealing the tips of her straight, white teeth. Mulder found himself wondering what her truth was. She was Catholic, yes, but sometimes he got the feeling that was expected of her. He had yet to find something that she believed in, aside from God of course. No aliens, no ghosts, nothing. She believed in science, strict rationalism, order and principle. Perhaps that was her truth. 

"Damn. Running low on gas." He said this aloud out of habit, expecting her to respond. She shifted slightly in her seat and that was all. He chewed his lip and nodded to himself. There's a gas station just down this road, it's alright. The silence in the car felt strange after all the conversation, the music, the laughter.

And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free,

Yes, she steals like a thief but she's always a woman to me.

"Oh, she takes care of herself, she can wait if she wants... She's ahead of her time," he sang, pushing his hair out of his face. His eyes briefly darted back to Scully. "Oh, and she never gives out, and she never gives in, she just changes her mind." He chuckled. Yup, that's Scully, he thought. "She'll promise you more than the Garden of Eden, and she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleeding, but she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be... Blame it all on yourself 'cause she's always a woman to me."  

Mulder parked against the fuel pump and turned off the ignition. The lights of the station were uncomfortably bright and luminous; they made him feel like his retinas were about to burn away at any moment. Scully was still sleeping in the seat next to him, completely unaware that they had even stopped. Mulder looked at her carefully, wanting to reach out and smooth down her spiky, tousled hair. She had turned to face him at some point, so he could see all of the tiny freckles scattered across her nose... They looked like constellations. Her lips were full and pink and lovely; they looked soft and sweet. Mulder leaned forwards slightly, his heart jumping a little faster than usual. He was wondering what it would be like to kiss that mouth, to reach in and discover how those lips would feel pressed against his own. 

Scully let out a giant snore and he jolted backward, falling against the door. He shook his head, expelling the thought from his mind. Like that would ever happen. Like you'd even want it to. What are you, insane? He was right. It was a stupid, meaningless thought that came from nowhere. Curiosity, pure curiosity which had stemmed from too much driving and not enough rest had taken control of his head. Mulder held his face in his hands and massaged his temples. When he looked back at Scully, he was content to feel nothing other than the same companionship that had motivated the journey in the beginning. I don't love her, he thought again, and it felt so right and honest that he started to laugh with relief. Thank God for that. 

"Hey, Scully," he said, shaking her gently. "Wake up."

"Has it been ten minutes yet?" she asked, confused. "Where are we? Why's it so dark now?"

"I figured I'd let you have a rest. You seemed tired." He smiled. "I'm just grabbing some gas, do you want anything?"

"A pack of gum," she muttered. "I've got sleep-breath."

"Gotcha."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Fifteen minutes left. The night lay ahead of them, the inky sky a map of clouds and stars. Dana was licking the frosting off one of the red velvet cupcakes while Mulder pretended not to be envious. A small blob had stuck to her nose and she attempted to lick it off while he wasn't looking.

"Nearly there," he said. She didn't even have to look at him to tell that he was smiling. "You excited, Scully?"

"Sure, why not," she replied dryly. "I guess this beats all the stuff I usually do on a Friday night."

"Ouch," Mulder said. "What do you usually do on a Friday night?"

"Watch paint dry."

"Someone got out of the wrong side of the car seat when they woke up," he teased, nudging her. "You can't tell me you're not even a little excited."

"I came along for the journey, not for the result," she said eventually. "You know this isn't my sort of thing, Mulder. I'm not expecting anything amazing, or... Out of this world."

"Was that a pun?"

"Yes. Yes, it was." She stared ahead, smirking. "I'm rather proud of that one, actually."

"You've got something on your nose, by the way." Mulder reached forwards and wiped the frosting away with his thumb. He licked it off. "Delicious."

"Gross." Dana was shaking her head. "You're so gross."

"What? I'm hungry."

"Then eat your own damn cupcake."

He chuckled, but that was all. They fell into another comfortable silence and watched the road. The rain had continued in the form of a light drizzle that speckled the windshield, hindering their sight of the dimly lit road which faded into blackness. It's Raining Men softly crackled on the radio, but neither of them had the energy to sing along. Dana curled up in her seat again, flicking through her X-Men comic. She was too aware of Mulder's arm pressing against her leg, but she didn't care enough about it to move away. It wasn't a bad feeling.

Neither of them had looked at each other in the last five minutes. It felt strange after over two hours of glancing back and forth. Mulder could see Scully turning a page in the corner of his eye but he felt determined not to let his incessant curiosity get the better of him. One hand was controlling the steering wheel, the other fiddling about with a loose thread on his jeans. The one that played with the thread was pushed against Scully's leg - she had tucked her feet underneath her with her shoes on, but he hadn't called her out on it just yet. She looked comfortable, and he decided that meant he would forgive her.

They drove past an ancient wooden sign that barely showed the words 'Koman's Hill' in shallow print. Mulder clapped loudly, causing Dana to jump and toss the comic to the floor. She tutted and scooped it back up, muttering something about losing the page and hoping it hadn't ripped. He was barely listening. He was looking around, up at the black abyss of the sky, at the dusty path ahead of them, his ears tuned into another station entirely, as though he expected the sound of alien spaceships to come whirring into action at any moment. 

Dana looked up and saw a look of quiet awe on his face that made her heart sink. This is what the truth is, she thought to herself as they advanced up the hill. Oh, Mulder... But she didn't say anything as they drove up the slope. She flicked the comic and pretended she hadn't been staring, but even so, she peeked over the pages to watch his reaction. His eyes - gray again - were fixed upon the road, his lips set together in a firm line. They had faded from a smile into something much more serious.

"Mulder?" she called gently. No response. "Mulder."

It was only when she touched his arm that he turned around. "Hm?"

"Don't set your hopes too high, alright?" she said, her voice quiet. "If we don't see anything, it's not the end of the world. You know that, right? Mulder...?"

"Yeah, I know." He didn't make her feel entirely convinced. "Thanks, Dana."

She smiled wanly. "That's Scully to you, Fox." He made her forename feel alien in the same way he made his own. 'Scully' was a nickname in itself now, just like 'Day' or 'Starbuck'. Though she had to admit, she liked it a lot more than 'Scullbag'. That needed some time to adjust to.

"Yes, ma'am."

He parked at the top of the hill and switched the headlights off. When he turned to her it didn't matter what color his eyes were because she couldn't see them, but they glittered and twinkled brighter than she'd ever seen before. Even his smile shone in the darkness, and when he leaned in he was so close that their noses almost touched. Dana felt his breath against her lips when he spoke.

"You ready for that picnic?"

"Of course."

It was too cold and wet outside to lay down the blanket Mulder had prepared, so they pushed the car seats as far back as they could and brought the hamper in the front with them. Dana pulled out her chilled ciders and the infamous red velvet cupcake and handed them to Mulder. He raised an eyebrow but didn't complain - it was only one cider, after all. They clinked bottles and drank up. 

"So when do they arrive?" Scully asked him as she rummaged about in the hamper. "Hey, how'd you know I like lemonade?"

"I didn't," Mulder mumbled through a mouthful of cupcake. "And I've heard that they arrive at some time around midnight."

"Midnight? Mulder!" she groaned. "Seriously? Midnight? What am I supposed to tell Natasha? She'll be waiting up for me! And what about my sleeping pattern? I've been going to bed at nine o'clock every night, what-"

"Sleeping patterns are for nerds," he grinned. Dana really hoped he was being sarcastic; she wasn't about to take notes on how to stop being a nerd from a guy who insisted on wearing some kind of extraterrestrial merchandise wherever he went. "Relax, Scully, you'll figure it out. You're more than welcome to sleep in my car... Or you could stay the night at my place." He winked. She couldn't tell if he was joking.

"I'm gonna have to decline," she replied dryly. "I left my toothbrush at home. What a shame."

"Offer's always open," he said with a shrug. "You could sleep on my bed. I never use it."

"What do you sleep on, then?" 

"My couch, of course." His eyes sparkled. "I don't usually sleep on my bed... I use it for other purposes."

"Ugh," Scully scoffed. "Thanks for sharing, but I think I'll be taking the couch - if I ever stay over. That's gross, Mulder."

"Wait, no, not-" he sighed. "I meant working, not-"

"Oh, so not-?"

"No, never."

"Right, sorry-"

"No, don't worry about it, I-"

Dana laughed. "It's okay, Mulder." She looked at him, still smiling. "Maybe we wouldn't have to share the couch after all."

"Maybe not," he chuckled. "I mean, I wouldn't mind too much. It'd be a little cramped, but you know what they say..."

"I've got no idea what they say and I think I'd prefer it if it stayed that way," she said, her voice dry and sarcastic. After a brief pause, she turned to him again. "So, why do you sleep on the couch? And why do you even have a bed in your room if you don't use it?" Perhaps she was asking too many questions, but it didn't feel like she was being impertinent. Judging by the look on Mulder's face, he didn't particularly mind.

"I don't know," he said simply. "I don't know, Scully. The couch is comfy, I guess. It takes a while to fall asleep on a bed, too. And the one in my bedroom was there before I moved in. Frohike was gonna get a lodger if I hadn't shown up. It's not the most difficult bed to work with, I'll give it that. I've slept more in that one than I have any other bed in the past seven years."

Dana was nonplussed. "You slept on a couch back home? At your parents' house?"

"At their houses." He looked straight ahead, his eyes set on the sky. Before she could apologize for being tactless, he continued. "They divorced after Samantha was abducted. I don't stay at my dad's as much as I should, but when I do I just crash on the couch in the lounge. My mom bought me one for my room after my doctor told her that it might help with my insomnia." Mulder laughed, but it felt empty and humorless. Her heart sank. "It worked, but I haven't been able to sleep on a bed since. Probably didn't do much to reassure my poor mother that her only son was normal in the slightest."

"I'm sorry," she said, painfully aware of how stupid she sounded. "I know it's not much, but I'm sorry." She tentatively reached out and squeezed his wrist. He turned to her, his expression unreadable. Dana tried for an encouraging smile. "You don't need to be normal. Who wants normal? I'd take Spooky Mulder over some boring normal asshole any day."

"Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you." Mulder was grinning. He caught Scully's fingers in his own with swift precision, taking her by surprise. Her heart jumped but she herself smiling.

"Did you just quote Dr. Seuss on me?"

"I might have." His grin was wider now. He looked more like the roguish, easygoing guy he had been when they first met. Dana was all too aware that he hadn't let go of her hand, but she supposed that she didn't mind. It was a surprise, but nothing unpleasant. His hand was soft and warm, and shaped around hers perfectly. A good match, she thought, amused. "Tell me, Scully... What are your family like?"

She choked on her own breath. "My family?" she repeated. A moment of hesitation passed before she spoke again. "They're... I don't know Mulder. What do you want me to say?"

Her hostile tone took her by surprise. "Sorry. I didn't mean to sound so rude. I just... There's not much to say."

"Do you have any siblings?" he coaxed gently. She nodded, and he smiled. "What are they like?"

To his surprise, she laughed. "Nothing like me," she replied. There was an affectionate tone to her voice. "Melissa and I are complete opposites. You'll never meet a pair of sisters with more differences than us - she's into the arts, she loves dancing and acting and painting, and if that doesn't do it for you, she believes in... A modern sort of spirituality." Her raised eyebrows and pursed lips gave Mulder more than a faint idea of what she thought about that. He grinned. "Oh, and she's a total hippie. But she's my sister, and I love her." She stopped for a brief moment to breathe. "And then there's Charlie and Bill. Bill's my older brother. He's practically a replica of Ahab- my dad," she hastily explained. Her face flushed at the nickname, but Mulder simply waited for her to continue. "He's gone on to work in the Navy. Typical Bill. He's great, though... If a little over-protective, and perhaps more confrontational than most." She laughed. "Once I brought this boy home to dinner when I was in ninth grade, and Bill scared him so much that he up and left before my mom had even placed our food on the table. I was so embarrassed, and mega pissed... But I guess we laugh about it now." Her eyes were swimming with nostalgia and the uncovering of old memories. She glanced back at him and the look quickly faded away. "Sorry. I was rambling, wasn't I?" He watched Scully as she smiled apologetically. He squeezed her hand, the one twined with his own, reminding himself of how surprisingly soft and gentle it felt.

"You don't need to be sorry," he said. "I like hearing about your life. I like normality."

She scoffed. "I hope that's a joke," she said. "Nothing about my family is normal." More normal than mine, Mulder thought, but he bit his tongue. He didn't want to ruin the mood, which had taken a wonderfully light direction. He wanted to hear more about the Scullys, and more about the life of the girl who sat right in front of him. It felt like she was opening up to him, letting him into her personal life on another level... And he found himself enjoying it more with each second that passed.

Scully was the one to break their hands off by checking the time on her watch. "Five minutes to go," she said. "Then I can go home. Yaaay."

"Is my company really that boring?" he asked with a grin. 

"Of course not," she laughed. "No, this has been good. It's been nice - really. I'd even go as far as to say that... Maybe, I've enjoyed it, Mulder."

"Are you... Complimenting me?" He tried to look serious, but the corners of his mouth betrayed him. "Should I die of shock, or disbelief?"

"Shut up, Mulder," she said, shoving him a little. "Keep those pretty eyes of yours on the sky, we've got four and a half minutes left until we get abducted."

Pretty eyes, huh?  "Was that another compliment? I know I'm a charmer, but I never thought-"

"Again, Mulder. Shut up." She heard him chuckling under his breath, but he didn't say another word. Pretty eyes? Where the hell did that come from? She was grateful for the darkness - it hid her flaming cheeks, which were almost certainly bright red. I think he thinks I was being sarcastic. I hope he does. Because I was. Oh, jeez... She huffed in the silence and rested a cold hand against her face.

"Thanks."

His voice startled her. "I was joking," she said immediately, her words tumbling out in a flurry of panic. "I wasn't trying to- it wasn't-"

He laughed again. "What I meant was, thank you for coming along with me." In the thick silence and the darkness of the car, the hill, the whole world, the words held more meaning than perhaps they would have in any other condition. "You didn't have to, but you did. So thank you. I know this isn't your sort of thing, and I know I dragged you along without thinking much about it, but I've had a great time." There was more that he wanted to say but he held it back, afraid of pushing things too far. He wanted to tell her that the entire experience had rushed by, and that it only felt like it had been five minutes since he picked her up because around her, he felt timeless. "You're a wonderful friend."

"I... Thanks, Mulder." She was lost for words, so she lightly hit his arm in a friendly manner. "Hey, don't get too sappy on me. Don't want you tearing up when your alien buddies arrive."

"You're an asshole sometimes," he grinned. Scully nodded, smirking.

"I do try."

Together they sat in a soft silence that can only be heard in the dead of night, their hands finding union in the dark, feeling safe and warm and eternal in the presence of each other. The night was resplendent, the sky a wonderful dark canvas of indigo, sprinkled with stars that glittered infinitely, swept with silver clouds that danced in beautiful, endless swirls. It was a sight that captured their breath, a sight that restored some of Mulder's faith in the world, a sight that, just for the briefest of moments, made Scully wonder if there was anything out there, if life could possibly exist beyond those stars, if maybe Mulder was right.

They held onto each other wordlessly, marvelling in the beauty of the world they lived in and beyond.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"It was nothing, Mulder! If anything, it was an airplane. Stop making this crazy assumption that it was a-"

"An unidentified flying object, Scully," he protested on the drive home, grinning like a madman. "We don't know for certain what it was, so technically-"

"Nope," she said stubbornly, crossing her arms. "Nope, I'm not listening to-"

"It was a UFO," he yelled triumphantly. "You can't deny it. It was an object, it was flying, and it was unidentified."

"Allow me to identify it for you," Scully shouted over him, trying not to laugh. "It. Was. A. Plane."

"While I reluctantly respect your decision, we haven't both agreed that the flying object was a plane," he argued. "Therefore, it is unidentified, therefore it's a UFO."

Dana threw her hands up in the air. "I'm too tired to have this discussion with you," she sighed. He opened his mouth to speak, but she beat him to it. "And no, this does not mean that you've won this round. We can continue this argument tomorrow."

"A second date, so soon?" he joked in the same dry, monotonous voice. "Gee, Scully. Maybe you should buy me dinner this time."

"Stop it," she huffed, though she didn't decline. In the corner of his eye he saw her pull her fluffy pink blanket up to her chin. "I'm taking a nap. Wake me up when you've decided that I'm right in thinking that your 'UFO' was definitely an airplane." As irritated as she seemed, he caught a brief glimpse of the smile on her face before she turned her back on him. "Goodnight, Mulder."

"Does that mean you're staying the night?" he asked, hoping he delivered it as a lighthearted invitation.

"In the car? No way," she murmured. Her voice was thick with drowsiness. "Nat'll start worrying about me if I don't come back tonight. Otherwise I'd probably consider staying at yours. Maybe. No bed-sharing, though."

"I wouldn't dream of it," he smiled. "I don't use beds, remember?"

"Oh yeah." She yawned heavily. "Night, Mulder."

"Sweet dreams," he said, looking at her fondly. He ran a hand through his dishevelled hair and rubbed his tired eyes. Two hours to go, he thought blankly, barely even registering his thought process. It's gonna be a long trip back home. Mulder let out a low sigh and glanced back at Scully with a weary smile. 

It doesn't matter... It was worth every second.

 

Chapter Text

"No, Mulder." 

"What?" You know what, Dana thought, casting her eyes on the newspaper he had tossed upon the kitchen table. The word 'death' sprung out at her before she could look away. Mulder turned around from his place by the stove, a smile playing at his lips. "C'mon, Scully. This is where it starts getting serious. Just give it a chance. Give it a skim-read. For me."

The rest of the guys were out for the evening, leaving just the two of them home alone. They mutually agreed that this was a good thing, even if they were unaware such an agreement had taken place. Dana didn't mind them too much, but they often fawned over her more than she was comfortable with. It didn't help that they seemed to believe that she was dating Mulder too, as much as they both continued to deny it. It had reached the point where the pair of them had once retreated to his bedroom to work and Frohike had instructed them to keep the door open with a wink. It was impossible to tell if he was joking, but since that point, they decided that working in the kitchen was a much better idea.

Dana read through the article briefly, pausing every few seconds to sigh or roll her eyes. The sound of her huffing caught Mulder's attention; he chuckled to himself fondly, but she was too engrossed in the newspaper to pay him any attention. Karen Swenson was the latest victim of a series of curious deaths in Collum National Forest, the paper explained, and the fourth victim to have been taken by mysterious circumstances. The previous victims had attended the same high school as Karen. All of them had graduated together. Dana didn't understand what Mulder was trying to get at. The situation was very strange, she had to admit, but it didn't mean anything. His unspoken, yet inevitable theory of alien involvement felt like a far-fetched, disconnected idea that had little to do with what was going on.

"You don't seriously believe that this could be the work of extraterrestrials?" she asked flatly. As she had learned over the last couple of weeks, it was best to tackle Mulder's beliefs head on and attempt to bring them down to a much smaller scale. Emphasis on 'attempt'.

"Why not?" he argued. His lack of denial already confirmed her thoughts before he could even elaborate. She barely concealed a roll of her eyes and dropped the paper back on the table with the carelessness of someone who simply didn't have the time for such trivial matters. "All of the victims have died in or around the forest, with-" he reached over and pointed to a section in the paper, brushing the top of her head with his chin as he did so. "-two strange marks on their bodies. One of them did, at least, but I have reason to believe that the others did as well. And then there's the mysterious cause of death - nobody knows what did it. And all of them graduated in the same year, attended school together... They were all friends. Doesn't that strike you as a little strange?" 

"Yes. Yes, it does, Mulder," she said, feeling a little overwhelmed from his seemingly endless reel of information, "but I don't see why you have to immediately assume that we're talking about alien abductees here. For all we know, these kids could have been involved in a cult, or a- I don't know, perhaps there's a vengeful classmate on the loose!" He glanced at her over his shoulder and she scowled. "Don't give me that look, it could be true. And those weird little marks could be anything. They were in the forest, for crying out loud - they're probably insect bites."

It was hard to form a well-constructed argument when Mulder was standing next to her wearing a 'Kiss The Chef' apron and pointing to his lips, batting his eyelashes hopefully. She laughed and shoved him away gently, shaking her head. He resumed cooking and allowed her to think it through, though her mind was completely set. She was difficult to sway, but he thought that, with some luck, she would cave in. Things weren't much fun without Scully; she made his life a seemingly never-ending adventure, a tumultuous whirlwind. He liked to think that, in some obscure way, he was thanking her for everything by sharing these experiences with her. Perhaps it wouldn't make sense to her, but the thought and the intention were still there.  He simply wanted to show the way he saw the world and everything beyond it. 

"Is that your professional medical opinion?" he asked eventually. "Seriously, I think we should look into th-"

"No."

"Why not?" 

"Because we have our own worries, Mulder!" she retorted. "We've got student lives. That means late nights and parties and handing in papers last-minute, and... I can't even think of anything right now, but I didn't come here to join Mystery Inc. and go monster-hunting. I've got work to do - actual work that will impact whether I get into med-school. I can't do something like this, not now. Not ever."

"Does this taste alright?" Mulder offered her a wooden spoon heaped with bolognese sauce. Never listens to me, she thought grudgingly. "And besides, we never get invited to parties, so what does that matter?"

"Yeah, it's good," she said. "And that's not what I was trying to say."

"I know," he replied. "And I get it. I understand. I don't expect you to do anything that you don't want to do. But would it be possible for you to do one thing for me?"

Dana sighed. "That would depend on what the thing is."

"You're working at the hospital now, right?"

"Mulder..."

"No, no, hear me out," he said quickly. "I don't want you to break into the morgue or anything like that, don't worry. Just keep an eye out."

"For what?" 

"Anything." He winked. "Let me know if you see something weird going on."

"Great," she replied sardonically. "That really narrows it down."

"I knew you'd understand," he grinned, turning back to the spaghetti. "Food's nearly ready, by the way - could you set out the place mats?"

She didn't dare let him know she was smiling as she rifled through the cupboards for the mats and the cutlery. As crazy as it seemed, dinner at the Frohike/Langly/Byers/Mulder residence was the highlight of her week most of the time. I don't even want to think of what that says about my social life, she thought, shaking her head, but she did as instructed and flopped comfortably back into her seat when the job was done. Mulder served up two huge plates of spaghetti along with two cups of pink lemonade. He held his up in the air and smiled at her.

"Here's to us," he said. Sometimes it was impossible to tell when he was joking and when he was being serious. "Mulder and Scully, the world's greatest detectives."

Dana scoffed a little but lifted her cup nonetheless. "To Mulder, the spaghetti connoisseur and the reason I never manage to do half as much work as I ought to."

He laughed. "Hell, I'll drink to that."

"Good." She smiled gently. "Now let's eat already, I'm starving."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Nothing struck Dana as strange over the following week but she reluctantly kept an eye out around the hospital anyway, even opting to volunteer in her spare hours. It wasn't a part of her work experience, but it certainly helped to get along with the staff. Winnie was the nurse she usually worked with, and though she was over twenty years Dana's senior they regarded each other as friends after a matter of days. 

The work wasn't particularly exciting; it mostly involved delivering medication and food to patients, but that was okay. Helping others was one of the things that had inspired her to become a doctor in the first place. It made her feel good, doing the right thing for other people - it made her think of her father. She knew that she was making him proud just by being there, and she supposed that it made her proud, too.

Winnie greeted her after she'd changed into her 'uniform': a pale blue shirt and embarrassingly baggy blue trousers. "We just can't get rid of you, can we?" It was a joke that hadn't ceased since her second consecutive day doing extra work. She was in the process of pinning her curly blonde hair up in a neat updo - she even looks like a nurse, Dana had thought when they first met. An old-fashioned nurse, perhaps. It made her look kind and approachable but stern and professional at the same time.

"You're gonna be doing something different today," Winnie explained as they walked through a narrow corridor, Dana half a step behind her. "Not our usual meal delivery or bedpan cleaning job. We - well, I'm - going to be taking care of some stuff upstairs. You can sit and watch if you'd like, it might help a little, but there's something else I'd like you to do... If you want." She smiled; it was an opportunity for Dana to decline.

"Hit me," she replied. She hadn't bothered to take out her ear piercings today; it turned out that Winnie had a few of her own, much to her surprise, and most of their patients didn't really care too much about the number of rings in her ears. They cared more about being fed and given tablets on time, which was much less shocking. "Can't be as bad as trying to get Mr. Grudd to take his pills." Winnie laughed.

"I suppose not," she admitted. "Well, we've got a patient staying with us, a girl called Peggy O'Dell. Lovely little thing, as you'll soon find out. She's been here for quite some time." She gave Dana a sad smile. "Such a terrible shame. I used to know her - she was best friends with my daughter when they were kids until my little girl moved schools. It's a shame... She was such a bright kid. A good kid."

"What happened to her?" They had stopped in the middle of the corridor. Winnie looked about, as though to ensure nobody was around, and leaned in, her voice dropping to a soft whisper.

"She was in with a good crowd, would you believe," she said. "A great bunch of kids - never meet anyone so polite in your whole life. Anyways, a couple of years ago they all graduated, and they all went to the forest for a camping trip to celebrate. My daughter wasn't part of this group, what with moving away and all... She lost touch with Peggy and the others after she left. Anyway, everything seemed to go fine, bless their hearts, but a couple months later, weird things start happening. They start going missing and turning up dead later... In the same forest." 

No.

Her first thought was of Mulder; he was the first thing her mind could comprehend while she attempted to swallow the giant lump of air trapped in her throat. I have no business getting involved in this. I can't. This isn't me, I'm not supposed to be here, asking questions, I can't. She had only just realized how serious the situation was, like Winnie addressing the issue had given her an epiphany of sorts into the reality of what was happening. This comprehension came with a storm of conflicting feelings attached, like itching curiosity and paralyzing fear and pure, relentless panic. Karen had friends and family, and people knew her - she was real, and Peggy is real, and this entire case is real and unexplained and I don't know what I am doing here. I need to go. I need to get out of this.

Yet she waited for Winnie to continue, and stood as still as she possibly could with her heart going into chronic overdrive.

"Everybody thought it was Ray, but I said 'no, not Ray, he wouldn't hurt a fly'. And then he confessed to doing it." She watched Dana carefully. It felt like she was judging whether she should tell her the rest or not, and with each second that past Dana felt her passive face cracking open, revealing the turmoil within her brain. She tried to maintain an aura of vague interest until Winnie continued, too afraid that one word would ruin everything. "He confessed, but they didn't charge him. There wasn't any evidence. He had an alibi. Still, they locked him up in a mental hospital - schizophrenia, they said he had - but he ran away somehow. He got away, and he died in the forest as well. Everyone thought it would be over, but it's started again. Karen Swenson..." She shook her head. "And then there's Peggy and Billy, too... They're not dead, but some of the girls here say they're worse than dead. What an awful thing to say."

"Are they..." Dana trailed off uncertainly, all too aware that she was treading upon a delicate topic. It only made the situation worse, to be stomping through the lives of innocent people and treating everything like it was an illusion. Her cheeks burned with shame at the thought; she felt like a child playing dress-up, only the consequences may have been much direr in reality. There were very real possibilities of more deaths, more disappearances, but she had happily taken Mulder's hand and allowed herself to be pulled into this strange and terrible event with no second thought... Until now. "Are they comatose?"

"Billy... Sort of," Winnie replied, shaking her head. "A waking coma. He's in a vegetative state -. God, I hate that term. And Peggy... She just lives to serve him nowadays. She hasn't left his side since he was admitted here. The poor girl is besotted." She looked away wistfully. "You get some maniacs making up some stupid crap sometimes. People think that Billy and Peggy could somehow be related to the deaths of the other kids. Some people even think that something in the forest made them... turn this way. A load of bull, if you ask me."

"Why, what happened?" She swallowed a meager collection of spit that had collected in her mouth to keep her mouth from drying up. It was an effort to do so, with her throat tightening after every word Winnie had said so far. She licked her lips insistently and tried to distract herself, but it was difficult when Winnie's story had her complete, undivided attention. Any attempt to distance from the conversation was futile; the more she tried, the more she seemed to listen. It didn't seem as though she had any choice but to hear what had to be said.

"It was a car accident." She shook her head. "Now, you tell me how that could possibly be linked to anything that could have happened to a bunch of kids fooling around in a forest." Mulder would probably find something similar, Dana mused. She almost smiled a grim, unpleasant smile that would have reduced her conflicting emotions to some sick sort of amusement in the eyes of another. This was no joke. People were dying, and they were playing some strange, awful game with not only their own lives but the lives of innocent people too. 

Dana wasn't sure how she felt about any of this anymore.

"That wouldn't make any sense at all," she agreed blankly, her mind almost completely absent from the conversation. "There can't be any connection. That's... Insane."

"Exactly! That's exactly what I've been saying," Winnie said. "They're an unfortunate pair, but that's as far as the similarities go. If they were anything like the other kids, wouldn't they be dead?"

"Yeah," Dana replied absently. She smiled wanly. "I suppose we'd better get to work. Or you had. I'll have a chat with Peggy while you do your thing."

Winnie smiled again. Any hint of sadness on her face had vanished. "Thank you, Dana. You're a godsend."

"I don't know about that," she said, hoping her voice contained enough feigned cheeriness to avoid any questions. 

Her hands were shaking when they entered the room. For Dana, the worst part was that she couldn't tell if she was afraid or excited - she was torn between pushing herself off the gameboard her and Mulder seemed to be toying with and pushing onward, trying to gain the information that he so badly needed. Winnie's story covered more than a newspaper article but it also raised just as many questions as it answered. Four deaths, one coma, and the condition that Peggy seemed to be harboring - some form of psychosis, perhaps. What exactly did those kids go through in that forest? She couldn't even begin to guess, but she felt certain that any prospect of alien interference was still completely ridiculous. There was a creeping sensation crawling across her body which gave her the feeling that Mulder's involvement would not give him the victory he seemed to crave; their interference wouldn't prove extraterrestrial existence, it would not satisfy his need for danger and for shallow, improvised adventures that had no substance to him. It would come back to haunt them, she was certain of it.

"Peggy?" Winnie's voice was kind, but not patronizing. It was a quality that many people lacked in, especially in the nursing profession, which made Dana admire it in her even more. Peggy O'Dell glanced up from her chair beside who Dana presumed to be Billy. She was sure the girl would have been beautiful were it not for the dark shadows beneath her pale, watery eyes, and the way her hair hung about her face in lank strands. "I've gotta take care of Billy for a little while, so I brought Dana along to keep you company if that's okay with you."

Peggy nodded slowly, regarding Dana closely with wide, scrutinizing eyes. She felt exposed - the thoughts that occupied her mind felt visible and as though they were being thoroughly examined by the girl in front of her, like an X-ray for the consciousness, until Peggy turned her attention back to Billy and the feeling was gone. Dana pulled up a chair next to her while Winnie bustled around in the background. She tried for a warm smile, but she couldn't help feeling all too aware of her heart hammering in her chest. Her nausea settled in her throat, but it rolled upwards from the stomach, through the chest like a sick wave of panic and dread. Like the tide is coming in. She thought of a bleak gray ocean crashing inside her and she pressed her nails into her palms. She wouldn't give up now. Second thoughts weren't an option - she was already there, and that meant that turning away was out of the question. Pull yourself together, she thought. You're a Scully. You're stronger than this. Okay, granted, from a moral standpoint this is a terrible situation and under different circumstances, you'd never get yourself into anything like this, but... But what? It was true that she felt ashamed of herself for taking it as a joke, but she knew that she'd fall for it again. Mulder would find another story, it would be similar to this one, and history would continue to repeat itself. He wold continue to use her for cheap laughs, cheap tricks, superficial, meaningless 'fun'. The waves rolled in once more. Dana's nails were now deeply embedded in her palms. She pressed her lips together and smiled, taking a long, shaking breath.

"Hey." She hoped she was speaking gently. In her head, her voice wobbled uncertainly. Slow down, deep breath, start again. The girl looked up again, scrutinizing her. She said nothing, but the corners of her mouth twitched ever so slightly. "I'm Dana. I'm a pre-med student." She cocked her head to the side, watching Peggy closely. The girl did not seem interested in what she had to say, and was about to turn around when Dana added: "Do you want to do anything like that? Working in medicine or nursing?"

"I take care of Billy now," she replied firmly. They both turned to the bed-ridden patient. His eyes were closed, his face a blank slate. He looked asleep - or dead. Peggy reached out and stroked his hair, brushing it out of his pale, gaunt face. "He's sleeping now. But he needs me here. I look after him." She looked at Dana oddly, her eyes strangely bright. "Do you look after anybody?"

"I take care of my friends, and my family," Dana said slowly, wondering where this was going. "Are you and Billy friends, or are you... Y'know..." She smiled knowingly, but Peggy appeared unaware of what she was hinting at. "Do you two date?"

"We used to, I think," she said absently, looking off into the distance. A frown appeared on her face, the shallow creases evident across her brow. "We used to hang out a lot before we graduated. We all did." Her face was slack. She was completely lost in thought. Dana's heart stopped; it felt like things were moving too slow and too fast at the same time and she didn't like it. This was Mulder's area, not hers - she had no right to be hearing these things, yet there she was, witnessing this girl open up about events that should be confessed to the police, to a psychiatrist, to anybody but plain old Dana Scully, wannabe teen detective.

"It was in the summer. We finished the graduation ceremony and headed to the forest. I built a fire with Billy. We gathered firewood together." Her trembling fingers brushed over her parted lips. The more she touched her mouth, the more absent her expression became. Her face slowly darkened, turning into an empty space, transforming into an abyss before Dana's eyes. She watched, horrified, as Peggy's fingers jittered up and down, scratching her nose and chin with long, yellow nails before briefly brushing against her lips. She had started to falter, mouthing silently, seemingly babbling an empty language in her own head. "I think- I... It-It.... We-"

Her eyes flew open, white and terrified. She latched onto Dana's arm with a vice-like grip, nails sinking into flesh. "The lights! The lights in the forest- lights in the sky, the lights, the car, the lights- they-THE LIGHTS OH GOD OH PLEASE HELP ME HELP US HELP THEM HELP ME I NEED YOU TO HELP ME PLEASE OH GOD NO" 

She screamed until her face turned purple. She set Dana free of her clutches without even seeming to realize, her hands going slack and falling to her sides, her fingers locked into claws. She threw herself onto the floor and curled up into a tight ball, sobbing so violently that Dana feared she might be sick. As Winnie and another unknown nurse attempted to restrain her, Dana watched in horror as the girl began to scratch at her arms, leaving deep red indents trailing up to her shoulders. The women on the ward lifted her up with difficulty, her hospital gown shifting in their hands, revealing much of her pale, bony back. Dana couldn't avert her eyes. She watched, terrified, as Peggy was dragged away kicking and screaming.

It was only when the girl reached the door that Dana noticed two strange marks on her back.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The knocking at the door was ceaseless; it was the sound of somebody who seemed to have no idea of the time.

Langly answered the door in a pair of boxer shorts and an ancient t-shirt, only to find Scully standing at the door. In other circumstances, he might have had the grace to feel embarrassed, but now didn't seem like an appropriate time for worrying about such matters. He let her in without hearing the explanation brewing in her head; this is Scully, he thought. She wouldn't come here at this time without good reason. Like, super good reason. He looked down at her. She could barely breathe. Her shoulders were hunched over and she needed to lean against the wall for support. 

"Scully?" he said uncertainly, taking a step towards her. She shifted her position against the wall, which was when he noticed what appeared to be a claw mark on her upper arm. "Woah, what happened to you? That looks pretty nasty, you want me to patch it up for you?"

She shook her head wordlessly; it wasn't important. "I need..." she trailed off, taking a huge gasping breath. Her face was bright red and streaked with sweat. Langly fetched a glass of water for her, and while she wasn't in a state to speak she nodded and gave him a thumbs-up. It dribbled down her chin as she took a huge draught of the drink, dripping onto her shirt. She handed the glass back and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Mulder. Need... Mulder."

"Isn't it a little late for a rendezvous?" he joked, but she was in no mood for it - not after everything that had happened that evening, and not after the thoughts accumulating in her head since she had bolted from the hospital. Even when she was out of breath, Scully's death glare was still extremely murderous. "I'll go and fetch him."

She leaned against the doorframe, clutching a stitch in her side. The room was spinning. The only thing she could hear was the thump-thump-thump of her blood pumping through her veins. It was the fastest she had run in her entire life and by far the longest distance. She hoped it would be worth it. She needed it to be. All the playing around, treating everything like it was all a huge joke, it had to have a purpose. Mulder wouldn't throw himself into such situations if it didn't matter... Would he?

"Scully?"

Any other time she would have smiled at his disheveled appearance; his hair stuck out in all directions and there was the faintest trace of drool at the corner of his mouth. This wasn't the right moment. She stared up at him, panting, her breath trapped in her throat. On her way to the house she had thought of what she would say, but once she arrived all sense had lost her head. She felt as though there was a filter hiding somewhere behind her lips, stopping her from telling him about Peggy and Billy and the two marks. 

"Scully, what is it?" His hands cupped her shoulders and he leaned towards her so their faces almost touched. His fingers brushed her wound and his eyes widened as he looked at the thick blood slowly running down his hand. "Scully, your arm - what happened? Did somebody attack you?"

She tried, she really did, but the words fell out of her mouth in a jumble of incoherent sound. "Not... Important. Hospitalwi... PeggynBilly... The marks, Mul- the marks, they had the marks- thefor... forest... Something in the... forest..." Dana looked up at him almost hopefully, dimly wondering if he had any idea what she was saying. His face was a faint blur in front of her. She could barely see him - really see him - but she knew he was frowning. 

"The forest? Collum National?" he asked. She nodded wordlessly, doubled over. For a moment he remained quiet, lost in thought. Langly had returned to his room but was almost certainly eavesdropping. "Who did you say had the marks, Scully?"

"Peggy O'Dell," she rasped. Her breath was beginning to come back again, much to her relief. "She's a patient at the hospital. Stays with Billy Miles."

"Billy Miles?" Mulder prompted.

"Waking coma patient," she said slowly. "In car accident together. Peggy has the marks, I don't know if Billy does. But they were in the same year as Karen and the others."

He fell silent again. By the time he next started to speak, she had almost completely regained her breath. Her head still thumped dully and her face must have looked like a beetroot, but she decided it was hardly important. This was something big, something she still felt she had no right in pursuing, something that put her in a position of what felt like danger and adventure and a million other things that she couldn't describe. Dana was in over her head, but with every wave of realization came a feeling of something sickeningly liberating. It didn't take long to pinpoint it as excitement. She wondered what her father would say if he could see her now. He would be disappointed in her, she knew. Playing detective in college with real people, real deaths, real issues... It was too much. 

"We need to get to that forest," he said. She didn't have to look at him to tell that he was being completely serious. Before she could protest he spoke over her. "Don't you have a coat or anything?" She shook her head. He hesitated before grabbing his jacket from the coat rack and throwing it at her. She could barely carry its weight; her arms were so sore that she figured she would have struggled to hold a piece of paper if he asked her to. "Take that one, I've got another upstairs. I'll go get changed - feel free to have another drink. Take a seat. You look like you need it." 

Can't argue with that. She flopped onto the sofa and buried her face in its cushions, wishing he could have told her where the painkillers were so she could get rid of her damn headache. Maybe I should've just gone home. I could've dropped all of this. Stupid Dana, stupid. She only half-blamed herself; the rest was directed at Mulder, who had pulled her along for the ride because he felt like it. This was a joke to him, a laugh, a little harmless fun, and interfering with the lives and the deaths of others was just another past time. He threw her his coat carelessly, not thinking that maybe she would want to sleep, not wanting to know. The more she thought about it, the more she resented telling him, and agreeing to be a part of his crazy game in the first place.

He came downstairs, dressed in a creased gray sweater and his scruffiest jeans, not bothering to look or feel ashamed. She got to her feet, determined to convince him that the room was no longer dancing around her in slow, patronizing swirls. As she shrugged his jacket over her shoulders she looked up to find that he was staring at her. She crossed her arms. The scratches that Peggy inflicted on her stung at this interaction, but she gritted her teeth and attempted to ignore the pain as best she could.

"What?" she asked, a little too defensively.

"Are you feeling alright?" he asked, as she had known he would. "You're white as a sheet."

"I'm fine," she said. When he didn't look too convinced she raised an eyebrow. "Seriously. Stop worrying. We've gotta go."

They left without telling the guys, who were probably asleep anyway so it didn't really matter. The car journey was mostly silent for a change, save for the low hum of the radio playing. Scully caught Mulder throwing her worried glimpses every now and then, and while he seemed to think he was being so subtle, he couldn't have been more obvious if he tried. After the fourth time, she stared right back at him.

"I'm okay, Mulder," she insisted. It came out colder than she had expected it to. She forced a laugh to ease tension; it barely passed as something genuine, but Mulder's mind was elsewhere.  "Quit being so worried about me. You're acting like my mother."

"If you're sure," he said, smiling softly and turning his eyes back to the road. For a brief moment, he placed his hand on top of hers and squeezed it so softly that she wasn't even sure if it had happened. It then slipped away and returned to the steering wheel. Dana couldn't help but wonder what it was supposed to mean but didn't dare ask. It occupied her thoughts for the briefest of moments, before something... Well, something spooky happened.

The radio started to change channels, by itself.

"Mulder? What's going on?" Scully stared at the flashing light on the screen in disbelief as it tuned in and out, in and out, weaving into different channels only to lose them again. "What is it?"

"I don't know," he said, but from the look in his eyes, she got the feeling that he wasn't being completely honest with her. Her impatience grew just a little more and she found herself reminded that she was just his passenger, his assistant - he was keeping her in the dark because he didn't think she was capable of understanding. She watched on as he switched his attention to the radio, clenching her teeth and thinking of the million ways she could tell him to piss off when everything was over. "Give me a moment."

He flicked the switches and fiddled with the dials, but to no avail. It almost seemed as though the radio wasn't even responding to what he was doing to it, as though it had a mind of its own. That's crazy, Dana thought wildly, that can't be true, it's not, it can't be. And she was right, in a way. The car radio had not turned into a sentient being overnight, but it was not listening to Mulder's hands. It switched from static to 'Radio Ga Ga' to 'Billie Jean' and more static, then a classical song neither of them knew the name of, and a song from an old Western film. A news report, weather report, a celebrity being interviewed about their latest movie - it all flicked through their ears at lightening speed. 

"Scully, the clock!"

She looked over. The hands of the clock were swinging around as though they were attached to a compass instead. His eyes lit up and he beamed at her expectantly. She felt as though she was missing something that he had picked up on, and she didn't like it one bit. Dana decided that enough was enough. She smacked her hand on the dashboard to get his attention, her eyes blazing.

"Mulder, what the hell-"

She was cut off by the sound of the radio, which had reached a crescendo and gone beyond the point of switching stations. It emitted a loud, high-pitched screech that sent her migraine into overdrive. She covered her ears and let out a short cry of pain, shouting at Mulder to turn it down before her head started to bleed. The screaming continued, and even though the sound was mostly blocked out by her hands it was still uncomfortable knowing that it had not yet died. Mulder turned down the volume, but nothing happened.

"Hang on!" he yelled, and pulled the car over to the side of the road. He killed the engine, and the radio died with it. Scully slowly removed her hands from her ringing ears, massaging her temples gingerly. She wasn't even sure where to begin.

"What was that all about?" She would have shouted if she had the energy. Her voice sounded feeble compared to what he had expected her to sound like.

"Give me a second, Scully," he said slowly. She waited, watching him sit in thought for a moment. He suddenly banged on the wheel and bolted out of the car, running out to open the trunk.

"Mulder! What are you doing?"

As he passed her window, he grinned widely. She felt her blood bubble at the sight but, again, he gave her no opportunity to tell him that he was acting like an asshole because he disappeared around the back of the car before she could so much as open her mouth. Disgruntled, she slumped down in her seat and crossed her arms tightly over her chest, waiting for him to return.

He pulled a pink can of spray-paint from the trunk and walked back around to the front. Dana watched him shake it in front of the car and crouch down, as though he was spraying the ground or something. She couldn't see what he was actually doing, but even if she could she suspected she wouldn't understand it. This did nothing to resolve her growing resentment towards him and what she believed to be a stupid, awful idea of a joke.

"What was that?" Her voice was surprisingly smooth and calm. Mulder smiled enigmatically and shrugged.

"Oh, you know. Probably nothing." He went to reach for his seatbelt.

"Can you just cut the fucking crap already?" 

"What?" Okay, that came as a bit of a nasty surprise. He looked over, hoping to see that she was joking, or mildly annoyed at the very most, but neither of his wishful thoughts were even remotely accurate.

"You heard me, Mulder." Scully's throat was dry and her eyes were furious; he had never seen her so angry before. He opened his mouth to ask a brigade of questions but she cut him off - now, it was her turn to call the shots. "Y'know, when I said I'd go along with all of this, I didn't realize how big it was. That's my problem - I know, I have accepted that. But you- you love this! You don't care that four people are dead, that Billy Miles is in a coma, that Peggy O'Dell is probably wrapped up in a straightjacket from head to toe right now because of what I said to her! You just don't care! And I don't want to play this game anymore, this- this stupid idea of fooling around and getting involved in things which don't concern us, because you're bored and you've got nothing better to do! Hiding things from me for the fun of it, driving us out here to a place where people - kids, just like us - have died, and not bothering to think about the possible repercussions." She glared at him, but behind the anger and the impatience and the despair, he saw disappointment. "I thought you were better than this, Mulder. I thought you wanted the tr-"

"I do want the truth!" he yelled at her, shouting in her face just to stop her from accusing the unthinkable. The car fell completely silent. They glared at each other for a moment, too tangled up in their shock and resentment to speak. He was the first to look away, shifting his eyes to his lap while she continued to glower at him with confused, distressed, disappointed eyes. "You think I'm doing this because I find it fun?" 

Dana didn't answer. He tilted his head up to look at her, watching her closely. She nodded her head eventually, the anger draining slowly from her face as the quiet surrounded them. 

Mulder didn't shout. He didn't lash out. For a moment, it didn't even look like he would react. But he sighed, a low, heavy sigh, and when he spoke he sounded both sad and impatient. "Then I guess you don't know anything about me, Scully."

It hit her like a blow to the stomach. She couldn't speak, which was good in its own way because she didn't know what she would have said if she was able. Mulder shook his head and rested it on the steering wheel, covering his face. Dana watched him quietly, silently hurting, not wanting to cry because she was angry and didn't want to show him that she cared so much. She bit the insides of her cheeks and turned away, looking out the window at nothing at all.

"This isn't a game," he said slowly, his usually monotonous voice now thick and gravelly. "Not to me. Scully... These kids were abducted. I know they were. And Samantha was abducted. Don't you see?" He looked at her helplessly, trying to make her understand. She wasn't looking at him because she was afraid to, she was scared that her walls would crumble and crash at her feet, that she would let him in only to be hurt or betrayed. "This isn't a joke. This is me trying to find out what happened to her - what they did to my sister. Even if I never see her again, I- I want to know. I need to. And this is all I've got to go on. Wild goose chases and UFO sightings and God knows what else because it's all I can do." When he next spoke, his voice cracked. "It's all I have. And I want to do right by the people that are dying today - people that are dying in this forest. I want to stop it from happening because maybe I can save them - even if I couldn't save my own sister."

"Mulder, I..." Dana trailed off, feeling a tear rolling down her cheek and wiping it away swiftly. He was crying too, she could tell, but neither of them wanted the other to see. Sharing such vulnerabilities was dangerous, a risky descent into some unknown level of friendship that neither of them had experienced before. She suspected he knew that she was crying as well, but he didn't mention it. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. And... I'm sorry about what happened to Samantha."

"You didn't know," he said gruffly, and even though she couldn't see his face he smiled at her gently. "I'm sorry for being a massive ass about everything."

"You're a massive ass anyway," she mumbled, and they both laughed - a wet spluttering sound that stopped almost as soon as it had started. "No, you don't have to apologize... I got the wrong idea. I didn't realize how important this was to you." She wiped her eyes and looked away again, staring at the stars above. A thought had sprung into her head, an invasive, unwelcome thought that lingered no matter how much she tried to stop it, and she sighed. "I assumed the wrong thing, and I think that..." She took a deep breath in, trying to clear her head. "I think that it was something else." He threw her a questioning look but she ignored it. "I think I judged you before I could remember who you were, and I think that I associated what was going on with something completely different. Something that happened before we met."

"Scully...?" 

"Don't," she said quietly. "I want to tell you something and I'm scared that if I stop, I won't be able to say it again." He nodded, and she felt his hand fall into hers smoothly, seamlessly. She smiled in spite of everything but refused to look at him. "When I was at high school, I was with this guy. I know what you're probably thinking... Typical, right?" Mulder shook his head but didn't say anything. He squeezed her hand, his thumb tracing her own in slow, deliberate circles. "Well, this guy was called Ethan, and I guess I thought that I loved him. I thought that he loved me, too, but I was wrong on both counts. I thought he was my everything, but now I know that he was nothing more than a disaster just waiting to happen. And not even my disaster." She laughed humorlessly. "He got me to do all sorts of shit, Mulder. He made me drink, he made me smoke, he... He did a lot of stuff to me. And it all built up." She looked at Mulder carefully. He stared back in quiet understanding, giving her the time she needed to stop, take a deep breath and talk again. "You... You've gotta see my trust, and my faith, as a glass box, alright? And everything he said, everything he did, chipped away at this little glass box until it was nothing but splinters.

"He cheated me. He cheated on me. And he fucked me up so bad." She closed her eyes and smiled desperately. "So bad. And I just let it happen, again and again until I found out that I was coming here, and I told him to never speak to me again if he wanted to keep his pride and joy between his legs." She laughed, lightly this time, actually finding it funny. Mulder wanted to, but he couldn't. Scully had always been so strong and tough... Thinking of some shitty guy breaking her down and destroying her trust made him want to find this asshole and beat him up so she didn't have to. He looked at her as she smiled and shook her head and felt the need to hold her, to let her know that he was there for her even if she wouldn't let him in, that he wouldn't give up on her because she was... well, she was Scully. Did he need any other reason to stay, other than that?

"I think you know where I'm going with this," she said. "And I think you know that even though we're not dating and you're not Ethan, it takes time for me to build anything with anybody now. I can't make friends easily because I worry too much. You think I'm some great fighter girl who doesn't need anyone, but I get scared too, Mulder." She had started to cry again, tears spilling down her face before she could stop them. She went to reach up and wipe them away, but he stopped her.

"You don't have to hide it," he said, his voice barely a whisper. "You don't have to hide anything."

"I don't want to be alone anymore." The words tumbled out before she could stop herself. She waited for him to say something, do something, afraid that she had pushed too far, revealed too much, put all of her faith into one person and lost it in a matter of seconds. It was desperate, a foolish thing to say, and if there was any way of 'unsaying' or 'undoing', she would have done so without a trace of hesitation.

Mulder placed his hands on either side of her face and smiled softly. "You don't have to be." He carefully tucked her hair behind her ears and leaned forwards, hesitantly at first, to press a gentle kiss on her forehead. It was simple, but in its simplicity came the sweetness and perfection of the motion. "You've got me. It's not much, but it's a start." He held her close, her face pressed against his chest, his head resting on top of hers as he stroked her hair. 

"Thank you, Mulder," she murmured softly. "And, if it means anything... You don't have to be alone, either." He chuckled noiselessly, but she knew he was touched. Her words were so simple, yet they carried so much. If she was given all the time the world had to offer, it still wouldn't give her the opportunity to explain everything she felt in that moment. What seemed the most important was that she felt safe in his arms, she didn't feel like he was dragging her along because he was bored, she understood him now and she knew that he would never be like Ethan, ever. Their quest was a search for the truth, not an escapade to pass the time, and they were going to find out what was going on in that forest, even if their lives depended on it. It filled her with strength and determination, and when they parted the tears had mostly vanished from her eyes, replaced by a wan smile and the tough look she wore everywhere she went. "So, life-stories and deep confessions aside... Weren't we going to the forest?"

"We were," Mulder said, "But do you want to go?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that, if you want, I can take you back home," he explained. "I don't want you to be involved in this if you don't want to be. It's your choice."

"I want to stay." Scully squeezed his hand and allowed him a small, wry smile. "You don't think I'd trust you out here alone, do you? You can barely tie up your shoelaces without asking me for help." They both laughed in the silence. "No, I'm going to stay - of course I am. We're going to find an answer to this, and we're going to find the truth. Together."

"Together, huh?" he smiled that familiar little half-smile, and his eyes twinkled briefly. "Y'know, that doesn't sound too bad."

"I know," she said. "Now, come on. Let's find out what's going on in this forest."

Chapter Text

It was cold and dark, and they were sharing a flashlight between them, so when Mulder tripped over a tree root for the fifth time, neither of them laughed. Scully extended her good hand and helped him to his feet. "You alright, Mulder?" He nodded and stumbled on, cursing under his breath. Dana followed, pointing the flashlight at anything that moved in the corner of her eye. The shadows that surrounded them made her feel as though they were venturing into an abyss of blackness, a never ending darkness that consumed them a little more with every single step they took. I'm not scared, she assured herself. Just a little nervous, that's all. Who wouldn't be? It's dark, and we're in the middle of a forest. Anything could- 

A bird broke free from its nearby nest and swooped past them, squawking hysterically as it passed. They both screamed and clutched each other before they came to their senses. Scully broke away from Mulder first, red-faced, with a quiet titter. Mulder let an easy grin cross his paled face, but his eyes darted about in a similar fashion to her own.

"You can hold onto me if you want, Scully," he winked, a little breathless. "I don't mind."

"Sure," she scoffed. She didn't know why she was whispering. "You were so scared, you nearly peed yourself. If anyone's going to be holding onto anybody, it'll be you holding onto me."

"Is that a request?"

"What are we even looking for, Mulder?" she asked, a smirk playing at her lips. "A big, metal dome, preferably one that flies, full of little green men and probing instruments?"

"Probing instruments?" he laughed. "What are you trying to say, Scully?"

"I thought that's what they did," she insisted. "Isn't that what-? Hey, wait a sec." Scully had slowed to a stop. Mulder threw her a look but her back was turned. He watched her crouch down and run her finger along the dirt. When she next spoke, her voice was soft and inquisitive. A shiver ran down his spine at the sound. "Mulder, take a look at this stuff. It's... I don't know. It feels weird." She shone the flashlight down on the strange substance running through her fingers. Rather than the dark, muddy brown hue she would have expected from forest dirt, it was the color of rust. They shared a glance. "What do you think?"

"They went camping, didn't they?" he asked. His smile had vanished. A passive expression of thought had taken its place. "Perhaps they made a fire here."

Scully smiled again. "Y'know, that might be the first time you've suggested something sensible. But I don't think that's the case."

Mulder's jaw dropped. "Sorry, could you say that again?" She tactfully ignored his request. 

"Look." The flashlight was directed towards the ground; the strange dirt spread out for as far as the light would allow their vision to see. "It's everywhere, Mulder. Under any other circumstances I'd be inclined to agree with you, but... I don't know." Scully let her hands flop to her sides and shrugged. "I'm not sure what it could be if I'm honest." She hadn't expected Mulder to smile in response.

"Maybe it was a really, really big campfire," he said, nudging her in the side with his elbow. She did not laugh. "Oh come on, you know I'm funny."

"Let's just find what we're looking for and leave, Mulder," she sighed, pursing her lips. Her fingers gently trailed over the scratches on her upper arm. "I'm getting kinda cold, and... This place is really giving me the creeps." She shivered and hugged herself, shrinking further into Mulder's jacket. It completely swamped her but it was comfortable and, more importantly, it was a safe haven. His scent lingered on the fabric, strong but sweet. It was a smell she would forever associate with her college years; a smell of youth and limited infinity.  

"Alright, let's move," he said as he clambered to his feet. 

They hadn't taken more than three steps forward when a deafening roar smashed the silence of the forest into splinters.

"What the hell...?" Mulder shared a look with Scully, his frown prominent as he reached for her hand. She closed her fingers around his without a word.

The sound was rapidly growing closer, edging towards them through the darkness with ease. Dana's grip stopped the blood from running to Mulder's fingers. 

"Mulder, what do we do?" she shouted in his ear. The flashlight swung around in all directions, never resting on one spot for more than mere microseconds. It was starting to make Mulder feel light-headed. "Which way do we go? Do we follow it?"

I don't know, he thought. Perhaps she thought otherwise, but it was his first time experiencing anything like this. There was something encouraging resting on the tip of his tongue but Scully's mind was somewhere else. She shone the light wherever she believed to have missed a spot, firing endless questions at him that he couldn't answer. It was the first time he had seen Dana Scully afraid; in retrospect, it was a night of firsts - the conflict, the confrontation, the heart-to-heart... They had both cried and bared their souls to each other in the car, and now they were facing the unknown, both frightened beyond the other's belief, drowning in their uncertainty, oppressed by the sound of their very own heartbeats. 

He rested his hand on her good arm. "I'm going to find out what it is," he replied. She turned to him, the flashlight frozen in her hand. "But I want you to go back to the car."

"No," she answered at once. Mulder tried to take the light, but her grip was tight on the handle.

"This isn't safe," he shouted over the growing noise. His voice strained in his insistence. "I don't know what's out there, and I don't want to get you hurt. I told you I wouldn't, and I plan to stay true to that. So get back to the car." He tugged the flashlight away from her but she refused to let go. She pulled it back, her lips pressed together, a steady crease forming between her eyebrows. 

"This is different," she yelled. "I am staying with you."

"No, you're not." He attempted to wrench the light free of her hands but found himself unsuccessful again. "Dana, please. Go back, it's not safe!"

"It's Scully," she said. Her knuckles were white as she clenched the handle in her fist. "And I don't care. You're not running towards whatever that thing is alone. I'm coming with you, and there's nothing you can do about it, unless you want to run around in the dark. In case you haven't noticed, I'm not letting go of this damn thing until we're both in the car, safe and sound. Do you hear me?" She was shouting at the top of her lungs. Mulder thought she looked wild; her hair flew out in every direction as she yelled at him, sticking to her face in damp tendrils. Her eyes blazed with fire - he should have known she wouldn't give up so easily. Typical. Typical Scully. His grip slackened on the flashlight and he held his hands up.

"Fine," he said. "Fine. But if anything happens, turn and run. Don't even think about it. Don't think about me, don't think about anything, just run." She nodded briefly and they took off towards the strange heavy sound, which steadily grew louder and louder as they sprinted towards it. Scully kept her focus on the small beam of light ahead, pushing thoughts of her aching arm and heaving lungs out of her head. Mulder stumbled once, twice, three times, but kept up with her nonetheless. Long legs must be a blessing, she thought absently, and a laugh escaped her lips in spite of everything. He shot her a quizzical look fused with a surprised smile, but she shook her head. They both jumped over a ditch that stood roughly a foot wide, and Mulder raced ahead of Dana. He let out a nervous laugh, barely audible under the sound of the unbearably loud noise, and turned around to wink at Scully.

She wasn't there.

He skidded on his feet and teetered forwards a little, miraculously regaining his balance as he sprinted back to the ditch. The flashlight was on the ground, the glass split down the middle by a thin crack. He picked it up and turned it towards an arm poking out of the foliage. 

Scully. Oh my God, Scully. 

She was on her back, her face creased in pain, eyes squeezed shut. He fell down to his knees and dropped the flashlight. Mulder placed her head in his lap. A thin trickle of blood slid down from her temple and he wiped it away with his sleeve as gently as he could. She winced nonetheless and he apologized over and over, shaking his head. A concoction of horror and fear and the remnants of his excitement bubbled away inside his brain. He smoothed her hair down, pushing it back from her face. The cut was thin, but it trailed from her hairline down to where her eyebrow started. He dabbled the blood away again with his sleeve.

"What happened?" he asked. She didn't answer. "Scully, what happened? Did something hurt you?"

"No... I fell," she mumbled. It took him a moment to understand what she was saying; the noise was getting closer - moving towards them. "I landed and twisted my ankle and fell, and..." She tried to move her leg. A sharp hiss filled the air, followed by a brief string of curse words. "And now it hurts. A lot." She gritted her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut again. "I can walk, don't worry. It'll just... Take a little while." To his surprise, she smiled. "Thanks for coming back for me."

"You think I would've just left you here?" he asked. His hand cupped the side of her face and his thumb trailed up and down her cheek. Scully's smile widened by a fraction. "Never."

"Well, thanks," she replied, shutting her eyes again.

The noise had grown so loud that the ground around them had started to shake. Mulder turned to face it. His face fell.

"Could you get that flashlight out of my face?" Scully complained. "I'm trying to die in peace, here."

"That's not me." He shook her by the shoulder. "Scully, look."

And look she did. A blinding, searing light burst through the trees, spilling out from every crevice in the forest and sweeping towards them. Her body felt flushed - it felt drained, with nothing left but sheer panic in her veins. Mulder shifted in front of her of her and spread his arms out. It was a futile attempt to protect, but it was the best he could do. Somewhere, distantly, Scully was shouting something, perhaps asking what was going on, what was wrong, but he wasn't listening. All he could focus on was this light, this crazy white light that enthralled and terrified him at the same time. Something was approaching, he didn't know what, but something was coming. He grasped one of Scully's hands in both of his own, not wanting to leave her, and squeezed it between trembling fingers and palms. 

"Oh my God," he whispered. Desperation rose in his chest like bile, suffocating him, killing him from the inside out. He wanted to shake her, to get her to move, to run, to get away while she could. But he didn't even try. He ignored her shouted questions and simply held her, incapable of understanding anything but the light - the end of everything. Whatever had killed those kids, whatever had taken them had come for him now, and Scully too. 

She was going to die, and it would be his fault.

"I'm sorry, Scully..." He mumbled the same phrase over and over again, his lips pressed against her hand as he chanted these words until they became nothing more than an incoherent stream of babbled noises. "This is all my fault - all my fault. I couldn't save you, I can't save anybody and I-"

"Mulder!" she shouted. "What is happening?"

"It's the light!" He let out a desperate sob; he couldn't help himself, and he figured it didn't matter anyway. Not anymore. "It's coming for us. I'm sorry, Dana... I'm so sorry. It's gonna be alright, I promise. I won't let them hurt you." The words were empty and they both knew it; neither of them were in a position to fight against it. They weren't even in the right condition to run from whatever 'it' may be.

But he knew he would try. He would try for her, without a doubt, without question. That much was certain in his head if nothing else.

"My name is Scully, and goddamnit, we are not going to die in this forest!" she shouted. But her grip on his hands tightened and she breathed in the reassuring scent of her borrowed jacket. It smelled of aftershave and late car journeys and youth; it smelled like the freedom and new perspectives and a million other things that she had barely scraped the surface of in the time she had known Mulder. And while she was half-sure they weren't going to die, or disappear, or end up in a coma or deep psychosis, she felt like she was going to lose what she had only just begun: the start of a wonderful new life.

The rumbling died out, but the lights did not. Dana sat up slowly, grimacing from the pain of her twisted ankle. There was nothing, only light until a shadow emerged from the middle of the strange whiteness. Mulder whispered Scully's name in a harsh, fearful tone and moved in front of her, blocking the shadow from her vision. She sat up further so she could see nonetheless, her hand on his shoulder for support. Her ankle throbbed dully, demanding to be listened to.

They waited in the thick silence, waited for death, or abduction, or whatever rational explanation Scully was trying so hard to cling onto. Mulder held Scully's hand in a vice-like grip. She was trapped in a thick, impassable web of fear that gave her temporary immunity to such things. It almost felt like a comfort. He was there, and she supposed it was better than being alone. At least he stayed true to his word, she thought absently. Maybe I'll thank him if we ever get out of this.

The anonymous shadow had almost reached a distance where a face could be distinguished. It was no alien - it was a man, a very humanly man - and he was carrying a shotgun. 

We're going to die.

Oh my God, we're going to die.

He pointed the shotgun, aiming the barrel at Mulder's chest.

"NO!"

Scully used her good leg to kick forward and push him back so she was on the receiving end of the gun instead. Her ankle flared with a brand new stab of pain; she bit the insides of her cheeks to keep from screaming. She glared at the person in front of them - it must have been a man if the build was anything to go by - and tossed her hair out of her face. It had fallen over her eyes after she jumped in front of Mulder. "If you're gonna hurt him you'll have to get through me first, you son of a bitch!"

"How sweet." The voice of the shadow indicated that she was correct - it was, indeed, a man. Her expression froze, caught somewhere between anger, fear, and confusion. "Now, before you go about professing your undying love for your meddling boyfriend, would you mind telling me just what the hell you kids are doing out here? This is private property."

"She's hurt," Mulder said, avoiding the question entirely. Their fear still lingered thick and heavy around them, but there was something else: relief. It was the first time Mulder had been threatened with a gun, and the first time he truly believed he was going to die. Sitting there and listening to a lecture from a guy that could've killed them was something just short of a miracle. "And how come you're out here if this is private property? Why do you have a shotgun?"

"I'm with the County Sheriff's Department," the man explained. His voice was hard and tough. "Detective Miles, at your service. Do I have to remind you again that you are trespassing, or should I just cut the bullshit and arrest you already?" He lifted the shotgun and rested the barrel against his shoulder so it pointed in another direction. Dana's mind had wandered far from the gun, though. She had barely registered him moving it away.

Detective Miles.

Billy's father.

"We'll be on our way, sir," she muttered, bowing her head. "We're sorry for trespassing. We didn't realize it was private property." Mulder gave her a strange look, but she ignored him. There was plenty to discuss, but they had a long car ride ahead of them to cover most of it. He would simply have to wait until they had returned to safety.

"Hmph," the detective huffed, but his face softened. "This gun doesn't even have shells in it. Go on, run along. And make sure you get home alright - these parts aren't safe for you kids." A distant look replaced his stern, disapproving expression and they took the opportunity to get up. Scully needed to use Mulder as a support to stand up, and when she applied pressure to her bad foot she made a pained grunting sound that she tried (and failed) to hide from him. She limped her first few steps under the watch of the detective, but when he was gone she rested against a tree and rubbed her sore ankle.

"Damn it," she hissed. 

"You want me to look at it?" Mulder offered, knowing that she would refuse anyway.

"No, it's fine," she said. "It's really not that bad, it just- ouch."

"You can't walk, Scully," he said carefully. "You know that, and if you say you don't you're either a liar or you're a moron."

"Thanks," she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. "But what else am I supposed to do? My fairy godmother doesn't work on weekends, so my magic pumpkin carriage is a no-go."

"Oh ye of little faith," he sighed, and after a moment's hesitation, he bent down in front of her.

"Mulder, what are you doing?"

"Your carriage awaits, madame," he responded dryly, gesturing to his back. "C'mon. I'll give you a piggy back up to the car."

It didn't take long for her to agree to such madness - after the night they'd been through, all she wanted was some well-deserved sleep and perhaps a bar of chocolate just to settle her stress levels. Besides, being carried by Mulder wasn't such a bad thing. The only complaint she had involved his large, clumsy feet; whenever he stumbled she would cling to him as though her life depended on it, almost choking him to death. It wouldn't have been so terrible if it wasn't such a common occurrence.

Their journey took a little under an hour before they had reached the car. Scully carefully slid from Mulder's back and limped to the passenger's side. Her ankle still stung, but she would not let it show. She pressed her lips into a tight line as she hobbled over and sat down in her seat. Mulder got into the car and watched as she settled in. Dana carefully unzipped her boot to take a look at her foot; it was a little red, and swollen, but not as bad as either of them had expected. She let out a low sigh of and closed her eyes. The cut on her temple had stopped bleeding, but the thin line was still present, harsh and red against her white skin. Scully squinted at it in the mirror. It wouldn't need stitches, but it was pretty damn ugly. She shook her head and turned her attention back to her ankle. She rubbed it gently.

"Do you think it's sprained?" Mulder asked. She shook her head again, as he thought she might, with the vigor of someone with something to prove. 

"It'll be fine." Her voice was haggard, worn from the shouting and the crying and everything that had happened since she had woken up that very morning. She allowed him a weak smile. "I just want some sleep, Mulder. It's been a long day." 

He nodded, reaching out to gently rub her shoulder before he turned back to face the road. The engine came to life, and they drove away from the forest, away from everything that had happened, away from their first encounter with danger and darkness. They had gained nothing from it... Apart from the half-expected realization that they would do anything for each other.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"So you think the detective was Billy's dad?" Mulder asked. He rubbed his eyes. The road that stretched out ahead taunted him, reminding him of the seemingly endless minutes to come before he could return to the safety of his bedroom and sleep. If he could sleep, that was. There was a good chance he'd have to venture into the medicine cabinet that night to catch a couple more hours.

"Yeah," Scully murmured. Her eyelids drooped shut. She didn't re-open them. "'Miles'. It's got to be his dad. Besides, he definitely knew something, otherwise, he wouldn't have been there. And what did he say? 'This place isn't safe for kids'. Something like that." Her words slurred together and she yawned. Mulder yawned back. "We should come back, at some point. He was hiding something."

Mulder nodded inattentively, checking the watch strapped to his wrist. 11:03. It's not even that late, he thought, eyes trained on the road. Yet the forest had certainly taken its toll on the pair of them - especially Scully. She didn't want to leave. I couldn't have helped that. But she had come out of it much worse than him, covered in dirt and blood, unable to walk, and shaken from their encounter with the detective. I should have tried. I should have made her go back. I could have saved her from all of this. He looked over to her with an apology lingering between his lips. Her chin rested on her chest, her mouth gaped open, and her eyes were closed. Mulder smiled and shrugged to himself. I guess there's no sense in waking her, he thought. She deserves some rest. Instead, he focused on the radio, which was playing 'Smooth Criminal'. It was barely audible over the sound of the rain but he hummed along sluggishly anyway. 

They were passing a familiar patch on the road when the music fizzled away. The sound of static took its place, intrusive and harsh, blaring from the car speakers at a volume that made Mulder jump. His eyes shot open; they darted between the radio and Scully, who had jolted awake at the unexpected noise. She closed her eyes again, swatted the volume dial and let out a loud huff.

"Not again," she mumbled, her eyebrows knitted together. In her tired state, she raised a fist and weakly punched the air. "Leave me alone, you spooky bastards. Let me sleep."

"Scully, listen!" Mulder said insistently. "Listen to it - wake up!" 

"What is it?" she asked, half-annoyed, half-concerned. He didn't answer - in fact, there was no indication that he had even heard her. Typical. Dana rolled her eyes. Mulder seemed to be searching for something on the road, his own eyes - now brown, she noted - squinting, seeking something beyond the rain and mist. "Mulder, what are you looking for?"

"I'm-"

That was as far as his explanation could get. Before he could elaborate, they were captured by a deafening roar and another blinding light.

Scully would never forget the way her lungs felt in that brief period of forever. The air was being sucked from them entirely; she could not breathe, she could barely even open her mouth to try shouting for help. Every movement made her feel as though she was acting in two separate bodies - the first one would move, but her second one would remain behind, forever acting in a late response to her original entity. She looked down at her arm and moved it; she felt the movement but could not see it until several seconds later. She screamed, but no sound escaped her mouth. And when she looked at Mulder, his face was blurred, empty of expression and movement. Empty of everything. 

The whiteness captured them, and for a moment all was silent.

Dana opened her eyes and looked at her surroundings. Her fingers were hooked into her seat, aching from the pressure she had put on them and sore from rubbing against the rough fabric. She was in the car, with Mulder at her side, in almost the exact same place they had been only moments ago. The engine had switched off; they rolled slowly to a stop at the side of the road. Mulder turned to her, staring, his mouth hanging open. He was gasping for breath and attempted to restart the car. Nothing.

"Mulder, what happened?" Dana shifted so she was sitting upright in the seat, unable to take her eyes from his face. He tried to start the engine again. It didn't turn on.

"We lost power," he said simply. "Brakes, steering, everything." His eyes flicked down to his watch and back up to her. A half-smile played at the corner of his mouth and he let out a yell. She jumped. "Scully, we lost ten minutes!" With that, he pushed his door open and bolted out of the car, leaving her sitting there in his wake. She watched him run out into the road and shout at the sky. He's crazy, she thought, yet she opened her door and pulled on her shoe before she joined him in the pouring rain. The pain in her ankle had died down after a little rest, but she trod cautiously nonetheless. Any awkward position sent a sudden stabbing sensation up her leg, which made her flinch. 

"What are you doing?" she asked, crossing her arms. The rain was coming down thick now, completely drenching them. When she next spoke, she needed to shout to make herself heard. "What do you mean, 'we lost ten minutes'?"

He ran towards her and cupped her face in his hands, bringing it closer to his. He let out a loud, joyous laugh. "Ten minutes, Scully! Ten minutes! I checked the time before the flash and it was eleven-oh-three. It just turned eleven-thirteen." He showed her the watch and let out a huge whooping sound, tilting his head to face the sky, letting the rain splash down on his grinning face. She was still reeling from what he was saying when he took off down the road.

"Hey, wait up!" Scully yelled. Her body ached and her joints were stiff, but a smile managed to lift her face as she limped after him slowly. She caught up to watch as he danced and leaped around something on the ground - right in the middle of the road. "What is it?"

"Look!" He pointed at it, beaming at her. She had never known him to smile so much; it filled her with a warmth that she could not describe, a warmth that sent a shiver running down her back. "Can you remember? I sprayed this cross here before we went to the forest - it's the same place! We stopped here before, it's the exact same location where the radio went crazy!" He threw his arms around her and held on, refusing to let go, his hands weaving through her tangled red hair. "Do you know what this means, Scully? Alien abductees, people who have reported UFO sightings have often experienced unexplained time loss!"

"That can't happen, Mulder!" she shouted, her face pressed against his chest. "What you're saying... Time can't just disappear, it's... It's a universal invariant!" Her head was still reeling but she let out a giddy laugh and fell against him. Just this once she allowed herself to embrace the cold and the rain and the feeling of Mulder's arms wrapped safely around her.

The car's headlights switched on again. He smiled down at her and pushed the soaking hair away from her face. 

"Not in this zip code," he laughed. Scully moved closer and grinned into his coat when he rested his head on top of hers. "C'mon, let's go home."

Mulder put his arm around her shoulder and they walked back together towards the car. Neither of them took a backward glance towards the pink cross painted on the ground.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"You sure you don't wanna go back to your place?" Mulder asked. "I don't mind dropping you off."

"It's fine," Scully said. "I'll stay at yours. Nat will probably throw a fit if I trek mud all over the floor and get blood on my pillow." Truth be told, all she wanted was a nice, hot shower and a couple of hours sleep in her bed back home but seeing as the latter wasn't possible, she decided that perhaps crashing at Mulder's house for the night wasn't the worst idea. Her dorm bed was stiff, the mattress rigid, where Mulder's was not. And she wasn't lying when she said that Nat would probably kill her if she turned their room into a mud pit.

They tried their best to sneak in, even though it probably didn't matter. It had just passed midnight, and if the guys were awake at least one light would have been on in the house. Everything was pitch black when they entered, and Byers' snoring could be heard from upstairs as clearly as it would if he was in the same room as them. Mulder led Scully upstairs in the dark, telling her to be careful. She had told him that her foot didn't hurt anymore, a claim that Mulder found difficult to believe. Scully felt obliged to hide how she felt, not through her own fault, but because of the past. She felt like she had something to prove. He understood that now. He wanted to help.

They grabbed Scully some spare clothes from his room. He carried them down to the bathroom, insisting upon taking them despite her protests, and left them in there, leaving her to it. Dana shut the door and waited, listening to his footsteps ascending to the attic room before locking herself in. The removal of her dirty, sticky clothes felt like a chore; she sighed as she peeled them off and tossed them to the floor.  The only clean, dry garments she had were her underwear; they can stay on for now. Out of curiosity, she looked in the mirror... And immediately recoiled when she saw her reflection. Her face was covered in filth, her forehead smeared with red from the cut on her temple. There were dark shadows under her eyes, and her hair, still wet with rain, looked lank and straggly. She shook her head and went to turn the shower on, biting her nails.

Everything ached, especially her neck and back. While she waited for the water to heat up she rubbed small circles into her skin, trying to release some of the tension in her muscles. She worked her way down from the nape of her neck, sighing softly as her hands worked tiny miracles, and when they had finished she pulled the curtain back to check the water. Hot enough to sting her fingertips, but not enough to burn. Perfect. 

As her hands slipped down to take off her underwear, one ran over two strange bumps on her lower back.

She froze.

She ran her fingers over the same spot, hoping that there had been some mistake, that somehow she had been so tense or tired that she thought something was there. They grazed over two marks again, the same size, the same place.

Her first thought was of Peggy O'Dell. The second was of Karen Swenson. The third: 

I'm next. 

She unlocked the door with fumbling hands and ran upstairs as silently as she could, shaking from head to toe. Her hands barely scraped Mulder's door, but he opened up before she could try again. He was surprised to see her so soon, a little embarrassed, too. His t-shirt had been thrown carelessly into a mountain of washing in the corner and his jeans had been kicked onto the floor. All he was wearing were a pair of boxer shorts. He was so caught up in his own insecurities that he hadn't quite noticed the state of his friend.

"Scully," he mumbled, averting his eyes. He caught a glimpse of white fabric as his gaze shifted from her face down to his toes. Mulder opened the door to invite her in and turned his back. He tried not to look, but it felt inevitable; he noted her slight frame and gentle curves almost completely by accident. She wasn't busty, she wasn't like the girls in the magazines he looked at or the video tapes he watched. She looked beautiful, though. Perhaps it wasn't an entirely conventional kind of beauty, but it was the kind that you could look at all day and never get tired of. She was a masterpiece. Mulder stared determinedly at his feet, feeling exposed and confused and just about a billion other things that he couldn't bring himself to admit. "Is everything alright?"

"I need you to look at something." Mulder froze. Is she coming on to me? What do I do? He nodded in a jerky motion. Is that good enough? Does that work? She looked up at him, which was when he noticed something - fear - brewing a troubled storm in her eyes. Oh. Maybe not. She turned around and gestured towards the small of her back. "I felt marks on my back when I was getting in the shower. What are they? Do you think they're...?"

He didn't answer. Instead, he kneeled down, crudely aware of the fact that his face was inches away from her ass. There was no sense in trying to deny it - it was the truth, and any attempt to pretend otherwise was pointless. He gently touched the skin around the marks, his face burning from the heat that radiated from her body. Scully's skin was soft and smooth underneath his fingertips, save for the two little lumps that his hand carefully danced around.

"Mulder, what are they?" she asked, her voice sharp and insistent. "Are they the marks?"

"They're..." he trailed off, squinting for closer inspection. When he was sure, he stood up and smiled. "They're mosquito bites."

Scully spun around. Underneath all the grime, her face was completely white. "You're sure?"

"Yeah, of course," he said. "The place was swarming with bugs. I've got bites all over."

He expected her to smile, thank him and quickly leave before things got awkward. What he hadn't expected was for Dana Scully to throw her arms around him and bury her head in his shoulder. His stomach lurched - not because he didn't like it, but because of the feeling of their skin touching in places he'd never imagined they would. Her bare arms brushed his, her trembling hands stroked his exposed shoulders and neck, their legs knocked against each other shyly. The broad flatness of his chest interacted with the soft curve of her own, and their heartbeats drummed out a nervous rhythm in sync. These new sensations weren't unwelcome, but they felt... Unknown. He had never experienced anything like it with any of his previous friends - hell, he hadn't known anything like this from his previous girlfriends. Scully was warm and soft and perfect, she melted against him, her body fitting comfortably against his own. Slowly, hesitantly, he closed his arms around her, feeling her shoulder blades under her skin as he held her there in silence. A shaky hand trailed up to her hair and stroked it, his clumsy fingers scrabbling across the red tangles without really touching them. He shut his eyes and allowed himself to enjoy the feeling of her breath on his chest; it filled him with warmth and some strange sort of security. 

"You're shaking," he whispered in her ear. It was a stupid thing to say, but it was all he trusted himself to do. "Are you alright?"

She stared up at him, and for the first time, Mulder could see in a vulnerable light. He thought that she had always been brave and fearless, but it wasn't true. She was afraid. Afraid of everything. 

"Yeah," she muttered. Her breath felt brilliantly warm against his neck. She smiled, but it was nothing more than a ghost of her usual amused smirk. "Sorry. Guess I overreacted."

Neither of them had untangled themselves from the embrace. Mulder cleared his throat, feeling his mouth going dry. Her skin was hot beneath his fingertips. He wasn't sure how long he could hold onto her before he would start to burn. "It's alright. I would've done the same." It wasn't exactly a lie; he didn't really know what he would have done if he had discovered the marks on his body. But he wanted to make her feel safe, to let her know that she could come to him whenever she wanted and ask for help, and he wouldn't see her as less of a person for displaying some sign of vulnerability.

She took a step back, and the heat was lost. Mulder shivered from the sudden cold. They smiled shakily, and Scully cupped her wounded arm with her hand, tactfully covering her chest in the process. She averted her gaze to the floor. What must he think of me? He must think she was insane, to have thrown herself at him in such a manner. And now the excitement and relief had died down a feeling of exposure took hold of her - a sense of regret, of excruciating self-awareness as she covered herself up in front of him. Dana had never expected Mulder to see her in this way, and now the moment of fear had dissipated she decided that she hadn't wanted him to. She did not like her body; there was always something that could be improved about it, but none of these improvements could ever possibly satisfy her. Scully disliked her flabby stomach, which looked slim and toned from training. She hated her small breasts despite her average cup size, her strangely-shaped legs which looked completely normal to anybody else - she could accept the possibility of being found attractive, but that didn't mean she could understand where the belief came from. She was nothing special.

"I'm gonna get in the shower," she said. Her words were slow and deliberate. As she turned to the door, Mulder had to look away to refrain from watching her leave. Instead, he fumbled around in his wardrobe for a t-shirt, unaware that she had not left just yet. "Hey, Mulder?"

"Yeah?" He looked up and looked straight back down again. She was a gorgeous sight to behold, but he didn't dare let himself stare. He wanted to treat lightly after the intimacy of their embrace - he wanted to keep things going, to not fuck up too fantastically. 

"Thank you," she said quietly. Before he could say anything, she had left the room. 

Mulder took slow, sluggish steps towards his couch and fell backward onto it, staring up at his ceiling in awe and disbelief. A low, breathy chuckle escaped his lips as he looked upwards, his head resting on the arm of the chair, thinking of the curve of Scully's hips and silently blessing those two mosquito marks on her back.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The next morning, somebody knocked on the Frohike/Byers/Langly/Mulder residence door. Frohike answered, expecting to be greeted by Scully with a half-smile and witty comment. Mulder was ready to drag her out on another alien hunt that he and the fellas weren't interested in. Though he never said anything (mostly out of fear of Scully), he found it strange that she would happily go along with everything he did when her own views contrasted his on every level imaginable. 

As much as he disliked the prospect, he guessed that she was in love with him. TypicalMulder always gets the girls.

It wasn't Scully at the door, but there was another pretty girl standing there - a lovely young brunette. She had the widest eyes he had ever seen; they darted everywhere, in a constant restless motion. She wrung her hands together, at a loss for words. Frohike smiled amiably.

"Is there something I can do for you, sweetheart?" he asked. She looked beyond him and inside the house, her mouth opening and closing hesitantly before she gave him an answer.

"Umm... Yes," she said. "At least, I think so. I'm looking for a guy - tall, brown hair, kinda big nose, I think his girlfriend lives with him, too. I'm kind of looking for both of them. The girl's short, she's got red hair... Kind of punky?" Frohike chuckled. That quickly ceased when the girl's face fell.

"Sorry, sorry," he replied. "You're looking for Mulder and Scully. Fox and Dana, to those who don't know them. He's upstairs, but I'm afraid Scully doesn't stay nights. They're 'just friends'." He flashed a knowing look and shrugged in an exaggerated manner. The girl smiled timidly. It was more of a polite smile than a genuine one. "He'll know where she is - they're practically joined at the hip. I'll go and wake him up." He opened the door a little wider to let her in and they walked into the kitchen, where a stack of pancakes laid waiting for everyone on the table. The girl's mouth watered involuntarily. "Help yourself, there's too many anyways." She smiled and piled a few onto a plate while Frohike climbed up the stairs to Mulder's room, thinking about how he hadn't even had the decency to ask the girl for her name. Good going, Melvin. Nice one.

"Mulder, you've got a visitor!" he called up the stairs. No answer. "Mulder! Wake up!"

"Could you shut up?" Langly yelled irritably, his voice thick with sleep. "I'm trying to get some rest, you ass."

"You shut up!" Frohike shouted back, banging his fist against Langly's bedroom door. 

"No, you shut up!"

"No, you!"

"Fellas, I'm awake," Mulder mumbled groggily. "What was it you needed, Frohike?"

"There's a girl downstairs, asking for you," he said, advancing up the stairs. "She sounds like she's in trouble."

"Alright, just a minute," Mulder replied dismissively, but Frohike ignored him. He ascended towards the attic door and rapped his knuckles against it in two sharp taps. "Hold on a moment, I'll be out in a sec. Let me get dressed."

"It's nothing I haven't seen before," Frohike reasoned. "I'm coming in - this girl is a real hottie. Bout time you stopped mooning over girls in magazines and your little redhead and actually started getting some action." He carried the last words in a stage whisper, afraid of any possibility that the girl two floors down might hear him. 

"No, seriously, don't-" Mulder protested, but it was too late. The door had opened, and a strange, almost surreal scene had unfolded before Frohike's very eyes.

Mulder was halfway through pulling his shirt over his head, his bare torso exposed. On the bottom, he was only wearing a pair of underwear. That wasn't unusual at all. No, what he found almost unbelievably weird was that Scully was in Mulder's bed, and not only that - she was wrapped up in his sheets, hiding her bare chest with the covers. She hugged them protectively around her and stared at him, mouth gaping open, torn between yelling at him to get out and not wanting him to get the wrong idea. It was too late for that.

The three of them stared at each other for a couple of seconds, but everyone knows that even the teeniest of moments can drag on forever.

"Alrighty then," Frohike smirked, clearing his throat. "I'll, uhh... Leave you guys to it."

And with that, he left the room.

"Don't you have a lock on your door?" Scully hissed. She let out a quiet groan and hid her face in her hands. "Oh, jeez... Mulder, he thinks that you, me- we-"

"I know," he said shortly, letting out a low, frustrated sigh. His irritation dissipated at the look on Scully's face, and a laugh fell from his lips before he could stop it. She glared at him, outraged. He laughed even harder. "You've got to admit, it's kind of funny. I mean... C'mon."

"You're an asshole," she sighed, but she smiled eventually. "You're gonna have to explain what really happened to him later on." As cliche as it sounded, the entire visual hadn't been what it had looked like. With Byers in the shower, Scully couldn't exactly go downstairs and get changed, so they had both reasoned that they were mature enough to get dressed in the same room. They had turned away from each other to change, which was when Frohike had decided to burst in. Dana, almost entirely naked, pulled the sheets over her to protect herself from whatever strange fantasies he undoubtedly inhabited. It was understandable for him to get the wrong idea - what would she have thought if she walked in on such things with Nat, or anybody else?

Nevermind. She decided he didn't want to think about it.

"So, you've got a cute girl at your door, huh?" she mused, pulling one of Mulder's shirts over her head. It was far too big, but it was also warm and cozy. Much better than walking downstairs in her wet, muddy clothes from the night before. "Yeah, she's definitely not going to get the wrong idea about us. Maybe I should stay up here." 

"Why would you do that?" he asked, smiling a little. "You think that I'd neglect my little redhead because I'm suddenly in such high demand? I think not." His back was turned to her, but his voice sounded light and teasing. Scully narrowed her eyes at him uncertainly, trying to decipher what he had just said. Nonetheless, a smile lifted the corners of her mouth and she looked away, dismissing his words as a jokey compliment. She thought about what Frohike had said. Does Mulder...? No, no, of course, he doesn't. If he liked me, he'd tell me. He's that kind of guy.

...Isn't he?

"Frohike was right about the magazines, though," Scully said. In her mind, she expelled the endless questions popping up about Mulder and his feelings for her as best she could and tried to focus on the tactfully new topic at hand. She cast an unimpressed look at Mulder's excessive porn stash laid by the sofa, piled up on display without shame. He had the decency to look a little sheepish. "What are you gonna do when you get a girlfriend and she comes up to your room and sees that?" She emphasized her point by wildly gesturing towards it, a grin tugging at her lips. "How can you explain that?"

"I'll figure it out when I get a girlfriend," he shrugged, reaching forward to scruff up her hair. She ducked away from his hand, laughing. "But, to get a girlfriend, first I would have to actually 'get out there'. And I don't do 'getting out there'." Scully shot him an inquisitive look and sat down on the bed. "You know what I mean. I'm not what most would call 'the boyfriend experience'. I don't do dates. I don't care for it. And I'm too busy for a real relationship." He looked away distantly, up at the huge 'I Want To Believe' poster hanging on his wall. When he came back to reality he glanced back at Scully, a half-smile playing at the corner of his mouth. "Besides, who needs girlfriends? I'd take my number one any day."

With that, he ruffled her hair and left the room, keeping the door ajar so that she can accompany him downstairs.

She wasn't sure if he'd just answered her questions or given her more to think about.

Damn it, Mulder.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Sorry, what's your name?" Scully asked the crying girl as gently as she possibly could, placing a hand on her arm. Mulder bustled about in the background, making them all coffees. The other three guys were lingering around somewhere. At least one of them was listening in on the conversation taking place. 

"Theresa - Theresa Nemman," she sniffled, wiping her eyes with the tissue Mulder handed to her before Scully had come downstairs. "And you're Dana, right?" Scully nodded slowly, trying to encourage her to speak. "I went to school with Karen, and Ray, and Peggy and Billy - all of them. They were my friends. And my dad - my dad, he means the best for me, like any father would, but... I don't know, he thinks he can help me and he thinks he can stop what's happening but he can't. He means well, though... He'd do anything to protect me and my little sis, I know he would, but... Nothing can help me now." She let out a stifled sob and pressed the tissue to her eyes. "I came to you guys because I thought... Well, I hoped that maybe you'd let my dad see some sense. He and Mr. Miles are trying to save us, but they can't."

"What's been going on in the forest?" Scully asked. Mulder set down the mugs and sat next to her. It then occurred to her that she must have looked completely ridiculous - she was dressed in clothes at least three sizes larger than her own and her fluffy hair stuck out in every direction imaginable. The cut on her forehead probably didn't make her look much better. At least her ankle had stopped hurting as much - she could apply pressure to it and would only feel a slight twinge, which was promising. At least I haven't sprained it.

"I don't know," Theresa said. "I don't know... Sometimes, after I've settled down and gone to bed for the night, I'll wake up and find myself in the forest." Her lips trembled. Her eyes darted between the pair of them. "I don't know how it happens, it just does. I wake up and there I am, in the dark on my own. I-it happened last night, too." She shivered as she remembered the chill of the forest, the blinding fear of being completely alone in the oppressive darkness. Dana placed her hand over Theresa's trembling ones and smiled, hoping it would look comforting.

"We must've missed you," Mulder mused. Scully shot him a look and he shut up.

"It's okay," she soothed. "Take your time."

"My dad..." Theresa mumbled into the tissue. "He hid everything to try and help. On the medical reports-"

"He was the medical examiner?" Mulder interrupted. Scully hastily shushed him. 

"Yeah," she said uncomfortably. "He didn't mention the marks on any of the reports because he didn't want anything to happen. He just wanted to protect me."

"Do you have those marks, Theresa?" Scully asked. The girl nodded wordlessly. The question provoked another wave of tears. Mulder shared a brief glance with Scully as the girl sobbed into her hands, unable to speak. "Hey, it's alright... Theresa, listen to me. You are not going to die. You won't end up like Karen, or Ray, or any of the others. We won't let it happen." She glanced at Mulder. The look on her face made her intentions perfectly clear. "I promise."

Dana shuffled around the table so she was next to Theresa and put her arm around her, holding her close, murmuring soft reassurances in her ear. Mulder allowed Scully to do the comforting and continued to bustle through the kitchen, doing anything to distract himself from his own mind. How can I save her? he thought. His hand absently raked through his hair. There's nothing I can do but try. That's it. He couldn't be of any help to Theresa. If he couldn't even save his own damn sister, then how was he supposed to save a girl he had only just met?

The rising tide of hopelessness faltered in his chest as he glanced back to Scully. She was staring at him, her eyes stony with fierce determination. She had no intention of letting Theresa down; she would not sit by and watch her die. A true doctor, Mulder mused. He admired her admiration, her strength, her new-found courage that brought back memories of the girl he remembered from the first day they met. 

He nodded mutely, and the silent pact between them was complete.

There was a knock at the door, a fierce banging sound that shook the walls of the living room. The three of them directed their attention to the front of the house. Theresa covered her mouth with her shaking hands and squeezed her eyes shut. There was a scrabbling sound, and suddenly Byers, Langly, and Frohike were fighting over who should open the door. Mulder rolled his eyes.

"Fellas," he warned. "Break it up." They reluctantly let Frohike open the door - not that it would have mattered. Before he could even welcome the visitor to their humble abode he was pushed aside by two men, one who Mulder and Scully recognized as Detective Miles. "Hey, what's going on here? Do you guys mind?" The man he hadn't recognized stormed into the kitchen, eyes blazing. Theresa got to her feet, trying to restrain him as he moved his way over to Mulder. She was hastily shrugged off by who Dana presumed to be her father and watched uncertainly as he advanced on the bemused Mulder, who seemed lost for words until the man was only a step away from him. "Listen, guys-"

The man swung his fist back and punched Mulder straight in the nose.

"Hey, what the hell are you doing?!" Scully yelled, pushing her way through the small crowd gathering in the kitchen and squaring up to him. She shoved him and he fell back against the kitchen counter. While his mouth remained in a firm, straight line, his eyes widened ever so slightly, reeling from the small girl's unexpected strength. Somewhere, distantly, Theresa was screaming at her, telling her not to hurt him, but Scully was only half-listening. She pushed the man back once more and held her hand against his throat - not to choke him, but to remind him of what would happen if he tried anything again. His eyes widened a little more, just enough for her to see her reflection in them. The cold, black fear in his irises brought her back to reality; she looked towards Theresa, who was crying into the shoulder of a startled Byers, and looked back at the poor girl's dad. "You're lucky you've got such a nice daughter, or your ass would be on the ground right now." She took a slow, steady breath to calm her temper. "Now, tell me. Who the hell do you think you are, barging into my friend's house and throwing your weight around like you own the damn place?"

"I should've warned you about this one," Detective Miles drawled from the corner. "She's a real spitfire."

"You have no idea," she warned, turning her head to glare at him. "If either of you lay a finger on him, or any of my friends again, you're dead." She backed away from Mr. Nemman and directed her attention to Mulder. He was pinching a bleeding nose, tilting his head back to stop it. She shook her head. "Lean forward. Over the sink." Scully led him to the sink and made him bend over it. He shot her a grateful smile through all the blood. "You alright?"

"Couldn't be better," he said dryly. She smirked and shook her head. Her hand found his and briefly squeezed before she turned back to the two men. They both thought about the previous night as her fingertips grazed over his skin. Mulder gulped and turned away, his eyes fixed on the sink as blood dripped steadily from his nose and down the drain. 

"Why are you here?" Scully asked. She folded her arms across her chest and raised an eyebrow.

"We're here to pick up Theresa," Mr. Nemman explained. His temper had cooled a little after experiencing Scully's anger firsthand; he eyed her up and down but made no effort to escalate the situation. "She's not well at the moment, she doesn't know what she's doing. She's just confused." He turned to his daughter and held out his hand. "C'mon, sweetheart. Let's go."

She shook her head, clinging onto Byers even more. He patted her shoulder and smiled, stuttering kind and gentle words in her ear under his breath. That quickly came to an end when her father shot him a look that most certainly would have killed. Byers removed his arm from Theresa and fixed his gaze to the kitchen tiles. He pressed his lips shut and would not allow himself to speak again. "I'm sorry, Daddy, but I'm not coming with you. I don't want to."

"Come on, honey," he urged. "We've got to go. Let's get out of here - away from the freak show." He looked everyone up and down, his lip curling a little at the corner. Frohike and Langly huffed indignantly in unison and muttered under their breath. Neither of them made the effort to stand up to Mr. Nemman, which didn't surprise Mulder in the slightest. It made him smile a little, in spite of his stinging, burning nose. The blood still fell in a steady flow from his left nostril and splashed into the sink, but he doubted his nose was broken. Well, I guess that's something to be happy about.

Dana watched the scene in silence. The more she thought about everything, the more something nagged at her. There was one piece of this puzzle that didn't quite fit in the place it was supposed to. She planned to take it out and put it right where it belonged, for Theresa, for the others, and to put an end to this damned mystery once and for all.

"Mr. Miles," she said, just as Theresa was being pulled away by her father. The three of them froze and turned back to her - she may have been small, but boy was she a force to be reckoned with. Dana stood, arms crossed over her chest, one eyebrow quirked a little higher than the other, lips pursed suspiciously. "What is your position in all of this?" 

For the briefest moment, a spark of fear flashed through the detective's eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Mr. Nemman is here to protect Theresa." She hopped up onto the kitchen counter, swinging her legs back and forth. "He came here to take her away, to keep her from harm... So why are you here?" The two men glanced at each other as she turned to Mulder. His eyes were twinkling at her. She enjoyed the idea that she could see both admiration and pride in his eyes, which were a deep green. "Who are you protecting, Mr. Miles? Is it your son, Billy?" One eyebrow raised just a little higher; the corner of her mouth twitched upwards when she heard Mulder's muffled gasp from behind her. 

"It was Billy," he said. Scully's smile faded. Her cheeks flooded with heat; she resisted the urge to hide her face in her hands.

"That's not what I was saying," she mumbled to him, her voice low. "It's not possible, Mulder. He's in a coma, remember?"

"But it is possible," he insisted. His eyes focused on Billy's father. "It's true, isn't it? Something happened in that forest, and you're not sure what it was but whatever happened just keeps coming back. The kids keep on getting summoned into the forest, don't they? Billy's just one of them." Scully was shooting him a death glare, silently begging him to stop, but he continued. "But... Billy's different. Whatever powers may be, they're making him take kids into the forest. The coma could be their way of communicating with-"

"Just stop, alright?" Miles snapped irritably, but his eyes were darting from person to person, wide and full of understanding. He knows, Mulder thought. He knows exactly what I'm talking about. "I don't have to listen to any of this bullshit. I'm here because I don't want any more kids to die, alright? I'm just doing my job. I suggest you stick to what you know - college, conspiracies, and getting your girlfriend to fight your battles for you." Dana forced herself to bite back an endless stream of profanity. "C'mon, Theresa. We're leaving."

They slammed the door shut behind them. An unsteady moment passed between everybody before Mulder smiled faintly.

"Well. That went well."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"I still don't understand why we can't just let sleeping dogs lie and go back to our normal lives," Scully protested half-heartedly. She had the option to stay in her dorm and do a little studying, but how could she do that when she knew Mulder would only be running around on his own and getting himself into trouble? Besides, she couldn't stand Nat teasing her about staying the night at Mulder's. The nickname 'Mrs. Spooky' was even more fitting now, apparently; Natasha had spent so much time laughing and jesting that she hadn't pointed out the cut on Dana's head. She presumed that was because Nat was used to her getting into scrapes, which was good - it prevented questions from being asked. That was always good. Scully got changed quickly and rushed back out to the car, hoping to get things over and done with. Tomorrow would be Monday, which meant that both she and Mulder would reluctantly return to classes and assignments and work at the kitchen table until their next escapade, which seemed to occur only at weekends. She supposed she didn't mind too much. Sometimes she would even go as far as to say she preferred being with Mulder to anything else that she might have done in her spare time... But of course, it always depended on what they were doing.

Scully got changed quickly and rushed back out to the car, hoping to get things over and done with. Tomorrow would be Monday, which meant that both she and Mulder would reluctantly return to classes and assignments and work at the kitchen table until their next escapade, which would probably be in the next weekend. She supposed she didn't mind too much. Sometimes she would even go as far as to say she preferred being with Mulder to anything else that she might have done in her spare time... But of course, it always depended on what they were doing. She missed the arena, she missed fighting, she missed feeling free on her stage and winning five hundred bucks at the end of every week. The Phoenix would return, she vowed, and she would return soon. But right now, she had more pressing matters on her mind.

"We're so close now," Mulder insisted, his eyes twinkling as they pulled out of the car park. "I can feel it, Scully. This shouldn't take too long. We just need to visit Billy and head back to the forest. No biggie." His over-casual tone immediately raised suspicion from his companion.

"You don't seriously think that Billy could have killed these kids, do you?" she asked. He didn't respond. "Mulder, come on! He's in a coma, he can't have possibly carried those people out into the forest. It makes no sense, there are probably a million other explanations for this." She stared out the window for a moment before adding: "Where are we going, anyway?"

"To the hospital," he said. They shared a look. "We're about to find out which one of us is right - d'you wanna place a bet?" She didn't give him the satisfaction of a verbal response and instead rolled her eyes, slouching down further in her seat. He chuckled and shook his head. "Five bucks says I'm right."

Dana let out a low, unhappy sigh. "Deal."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Look who it is," Winnie called cheerfully as she watched Dana approach down the corridor. She was followed by a boy of a similar age and a not-so-similar height; he stood awkwardly, standing over a foot taller than the tiny pre-med student, but he smiled kindly and looked at Dana like she was the only thing that mattered in the world. Winnie smiled, fond and nostalgic.

"Hey," Dana said briefly. "Sorry for leaving so abruptly yesterday. I was just wondering if we could go and see Billy and Peggy - Fox knew Billy from when they were kids, and I wanted to chat with Peggy about stuff." The lie was vague and just a little bit risky so she quickly added, "She really is great at conversation once you get her talking."

Winnie's face brightened. "Certainly. I'll lead the way." She smiled at Mulder, who seemed to be in a world of his own, and winked at Dana. "So, who's the cute boy?"

"Mul- Fox?" Scully laughed, lowering her voice a little. In the car, she had reasoned that it would sound a lot less weird if she just used his first name. After five long minutes of endless bickering, he finally caved in. Watching his eye twitch as she said it out loud made her smile every time. "Oh, you know, just a friend." Winnie raised her eyebrows, as most people did when they discovered that he wasn't her boyfriend. "What? Can't I be friends with guys now? Come on, Winnie, it's not like that." 

"Right," she nodded, unconvinced. "Well. All I see are two kids mooning over each other and your Fox following you along like a puppy." Dana had to laugh at that one. I'm the one who does most of the following, she thought. Mulder had caught up with the pair of them after spending his time reading flyers on the hospital walls and nosing around for anything interesting. They both smiled at him like their previous conversation hadn't taken place and dropped the subject completely. "Peggy's not in with him today, I'm afraid. Since her episode last night, she's been sectioned in a different area. I could call her if you'd like."

"It's okay," Dana said quickly, trying for a smile. "I'll come visit another time."

"Nurse, is it alright if I have some time alone with Billy?" Mulder asked. This time he really put on the puppy eyes. "I just want to talk to him. It's been so long since I've seen him, and... Well, I just want to tell him that I'm here. It won't change anything, but..." He looked away, staring down at his shoes uncomfortably. Scully hadn't realized he was such a good liar. 

"Sure," she smiled. "I'll give you five minutes. The other girls working 'round here get a little antsy when visitors stay too long."

They thanked her and entered the room, which was completely empty save for Billy's bed. Peggy's wheelchair laid discarded by the side, unoccupied. Billy himself was laid on his back, face pointed towards the ceiling, still as gaunt and pale as it was the evening before. Dana's heart started to thump a rhythm with a steady increase as they approached him, the irrational side of her brain delving into all sorts of impossible situations that could play only play out in nightmares. Mulder's hand pressing against the small of her back only calmed these thoughts a little; it did nothing to diminish the fears completely but calmed her enough to carry on. A blanket covered his body from neck to toe, surprisingly thin considering the late September air had begun its dive into the cold and unforgiving winter.

When they reached the foot of the bed, Mulder slowly, apprehensively peeled back the covers.

"Oh my god," Scully gasped. The blanket had been pulled back to reveal a pair of legs, a pair of feet. "Mulder, it's..."

"It's the dirt you found in the forest," he said slowly, looking at Billy's feet with that same set expression. He cracked a half-smile. "So how about that bet?"

"Mulder, this doesn't..." Dana trailed off. As much as she hated to admit it, he was right - the dirt was the exact color and texture of the stuff she had picked up when they went into the woods the previous night. "But that means that Billy walked into the forest - it makes no sense! He's been in a coma for four years, how could he possibly-"

"It all makes sense, don't you see it Scully?" he asked fervently, his eyes ablaze. "These kids are being summoned into the woods by some alien impulse, like what happened with Theresa last night. But, the same impulse made Billy take them all into the forest - he's being summoned too! And..." He slowed down, his eyebrows knitting together, his lips parted. "And those marks must be some kind of side-effect of the tests that were performed on the kids when they went on the graduation camping trip!" He was grinning at her by the time he finished. "It makes perfect sense!"

"No... No, it really doesn't," she said slowly. "Alright, Mulder, maybe something has happened to Billy that we don't understand, but it doesn't have to involve alien interference. For all we know, this could be the result of a cult, or... You're not listening."

"We need to get to the forest tonight," he insisted. Scully opened her mouth to protest, but he stopped her with a single look. "Theresa will die if we don't. If we don't go back tonight, I don't know when or even if we'll get another opportunity like this." 

"Does being an insomniac prepare you for venturing into the middle of the woods on a school night, or are you just crazy?" Dana asked, unimpressed. Mulder shrugged.

"It's fifty-fifty," he said, a smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth. "C'mon, let's go."

They went to leave the room, but Scully stopped at the door.

"I'm not giving you that five dollars until I know that Billy killed the others."

"Great. With an open-mind like yours, I'll have that money in no time," Mulder muttered. He rolled his eyes and shut the door behind him.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Here we are again. 

It's still dark. Still... Spooky. When Dana smiled it was only a mere shadow of her regular one. This one had been shaded with doubt and fear of what was to happen. Mulder's hand curled around hers, the other clutching the flashlight. She reasoned that it was okay for friends to hold hands, especially when they were scared. Friends held hands sometimes. That was okay. 

She would not let herself think about the previous night, and the gentle way Mulder held her when she was afraid. She refused to think of Ethan, who had pushed her away when she needed him most, who shoved her when she wanted to cry in his arms. She did not compare. She would not let herself dwell on her past when the present was much more promising. Dana was not in love with Fox Mulder. Bad experiences with exes usually left a scar on the mind, leaving the brain susceptible to a comparison between Ethan and just about anybody. It would take time for her to move on. That was okay as well.

She watched Mulder's breath leave his mouth in soft silver clouds, half-mesmerized. At least if I die tonight, I'll die with a friend. The thought was supposed to be funny but it flopped, a poor attempt at a dark joke. Her own breath was deliberately controlled and steady to prevent the black void of thanatophobia from consuming her. Counselling prepared me for acceptance, and it taught me that the end was necessary for the beginning. I doubt that Dr. Hashimoto would be happy if he could see that I was carrying out a practical assessment. 

More dark, unfunny jokes. Stop it, Dana. 

"You alright?" Mulder's voice drifted through the blackness like a beam of light. She nodded. Her grip tightened on his hand. He squeezed back. For a moment he got the fleeting idea to hold her as he had done the night before, to stroke her hair, to feel her breath against his chest again. It might be the last time I get a chance to. He hesitated. Friends can do that. It's alright. Mulder looked at her, willing himself to embrace her again, but his arms and legs refused to cooperate. They would not move from their walking routine, and so the opportunity was lost. He cursed himself for being a coward.

"Mulder, look." Scully pointed at a shape with the flashlight, revealing it to be a car. They shared a glance between them.

"The detective's car," he muttered. "Seems like this is a private party, and we didn't get an invite." Mulder looked to Scully, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards. "Good thing we're gate-crashing, huh?" Dana nodded mutely. The back of her throat was blocked with nerves and nausea and sick, cold fear, but she couldn't leave. Not now. She didn't want to. 

Mulder reached out and touched her shoulder. "Scully, are you-"

A high-pitched scream echoed through the entire forest. A gust of wind ripped the leaves from the trees. There was an air of something apocalyptic on the rise as the flashlight flickered and left the two kids shrouded in pure darkness. Scully froze, her blood turning to ice, her fingers fumbling over the switch, again and again, clicking it until the light finally returned. Her face went slack with sheer relief; it took all she could muster to stay up on her feet.

Mulder's voice rang out beside her, a harsh, urgent shout. "That was Theresa, we've got to find her before they take her! C'mon!"

He broke into a sprint and faded into the darkness, out of the light's reach. Dana stumbled after him, trying to pick up her shaking feet. The flashlight swung uselessly in her hand as she ran in the same direction as Mulder, providing her with little light to find his whereabouts. She pushed on, ignoring the hated black cloud floating ominously behind her, needing to run, needing to find and rescue Theresa. Dana jumped over gaps in the ground and clambered over fallen trees, she ducked under branches and narrowly missed pieces of jagged wood that jutted out of almost invisible places. She pursued the scream, scrambling in the direction of Theresa's voice, hoping that if she couldn't get there in time, perhaps Mulder would. Dana had faith in him, in his truth, in-

A sharp, scorching pain exploded in her skull and she tumbled forwards, down into a ditch filled with thick foliage. She gritted her teeth and held the back of her head, letting out the sound of a wounded animal. When she opened her eyes, she found Detective Miles standing in front of her. His eyes were glazed over, his mouth firm and hard. Dana opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

"I told you. I told you to stay out of this." Spit flew from his mouth as he hissed at her, pelting her face in wet droplets. "You stupid, stupid girl."

That was when she saw the shotgun in his arms. 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"SCULLAAY!" Mulder yelled as another scream filled the air. He followed it, knowing that it was Theresa and hoping that both girls would be safe by the end of the night. It couldn't possibly be Scully, he knew - she would be far behind him, but he couldn't go back until Billy had been caught. She wouldn't have wanted him to rescue her if it cost the lives of others. All he could do was pray that she was alright, and hate himself for leaving her behind in the first place. 

His foot snagged on a tree root and he stumbled forward, almost falling at the feet of somebody else - not Scully, no, he thought with increasing dread - somebody with large black boots and an authoritative stance and a stony expression. Somebody with a shotgun in their arms and a mad, wild gleam in their eye.

"Mr. Miles-"

"Stop, stop right now!" the man shouted, pointing the gun at him. Mulder held his hands over his head like his father always taught him to if he ever managed to get in a situation like this. Doubt you would, his old man used to say, looking him up and down with something like disappointment or disapproval. He'd be so proud if he could see this, Mulder thought stupidly, his head racing. "Get down on the ground. Now."

"But there were scr-"

"NOW!" 

Mulder fell to his knees, his breath short and ragged. His legs trembled, barely capable of carrying his weight. The barrel of the gun was mere inches from his eyes, pointed viciously between them.

"You know," he panted, glaring at the detective. "You know it's Billy. So why are you hiding it? Why are you protecting him?"

Miles lowered the shotgun by a fraction. What would have been a long, painful silence was fractured by Theresa's screams. 

"He's my son." The detective's voice cracked, just a little. "What would you do, huh?"

"I wouldn't let innocent people die, sir," Mulder replied. "This can't go on. Mr. Miles, please, he's going to kill her!"

Miles turned. A bright, unbearable light had appeared in the same direction of the screams. It gave the entire forest an eerie glow, highlighting everything with licks of silver and gray. It's them, Mulder thought vaguely, they're here. He watched the detective run towards it, away from him, to try one last time. To make things work for the family he had. That isn't so unreasonable. Mulder's mind drifted to Samantha and her kind, smiling face. It isn't unreasonable at all. 

He ran after the detective with haste. It was time to put an end to all of this.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Dana didn't know where the detective had gone, but she sure as hell knew she wasn't going to sit around waiting for him to come back. The screams were getting louder and the forest was illuminated by a white light similar to what she and Mulder had witnessed the previous night, which probably meant that the time they had to find Theresa was quickly running out. She clambered to her feet, massaging the back of her head. Blood trickled through her fingers, but she paid it no attention. Now was not the time.

The sound of Miles' shotgun ricocheted through the air.

Her heart stopped.

"Mulder," she whispered. His name became a chant, a prayer as she sprinted through the woodlands trying to find him. Each time her foot hit the ground a strangled grunt escaped her lips. She said the same word over and over again in the same hushed tone, her desperation growing in her failure to find him. Mulder, please, please be okay, please be safe, Mulder, please... 

The light was growing, rapidly taking control of the forest and everything within, but Dana refused to run or hide. She would not give that disgusting black cloud the satisfaction of winning. She wouldn't. The light was white and that was okay - doesn't everyone talk about walking into a white light when they go to Heaven? She hoped that even though she hadn't attended church in years God would forgive her for everything because that tiny grain of hope was all she had to keep her going.

She ran into the light and shouted Mulder's name at the top of her lungs as the thick black thunderclouds in the sky opened up. A terrible crash of thunder filled the air, working in awful harmony with Dana's screams. She stopped running and climbed up two thin trees with a narrow gap between them, looking down into the whiteness, finding nothing. Dana half expected to 'lose time' again, but it did not happen.

The light was fading. The sound had died out. 

But Mulder was nowhere to be found.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"BILLY!" the detective yelled, his hands together as though in prayer. "Billy, please, you don't have to do this!"

Billy, who was holding a now unconscious Theresa in his arms, looked at his father blankly. For the briefest moment, Mulder thought he could see some recognition in his eyes before it vanished and he resumed with lifting the girl up to the sky. She's a sacrifice. An offer to the aliens, Mulder realized, feeling weak at the knees. He looked to Detective Miles, half-hoping he would have some idea of what to do.

His eyes were misted, thick with tears as he held up the gun. He pointed the barrel at Billy, at his own son, and clenched his teeth.

"STOP!" 

Mulder stumbled forward and knocked the gun off-target as Miles pulled the trigger.

The force of the shot sent Mulder flying back onto the dry ground. The detective's shotgun laid discarded among the leaves, completely forgotten as Billy's father glanced between Mulder and his son, horrified. He took to shouting Billy's name one more time, as though that could save all of the people he failed to protect. 

His shouts were oddly comforting to Mulder, who watched the stars in a dream-like haze. Dying was nowhere near as painful as he thought it would be.

Somewhere, faintly, he wished that he had the chance to say goodbye to everyone. It was the shock, he thought, that was stopping him from crying. Stopping him from expressing anything. There were a lot of vague wishes drifting through his mind, floating about aimlessly, pushing in against each other in their attempt to be heard. Thoughts of Samantha, thoughts of his parents, thoughts of Scully and the lone gunmen. Little bubbles of nostalgia and sadness and little odd twinges of fear that never lasted very long in his mind, all wandering through slowly. He closed his eyes, and there was Scully, his light, his savior, her mouth quirked up in her usual reluctant smile, her eyes sparkling just for him. 

He would miss her. More than she would ever know.

The beautiful whiteness washed over him, and everything fell silent.

Until...

"Dad?" 

"Billy?"

There was a rustling of leaves beside his head and a quiet whimpering sound. Mulder opened his eyes, ran his hand over his torso. There was no pain, no wetness, nothing. There was no wound. He wasn't dying after all.

He sprung to his feet, feeling more than a little foolish. It didn't matter; Billy and his father were not paying attention to him, in any case. Mulder watched as they reunited, touched until the quiet settled in again and he remembered that he had a reunion to attend of his own - a long overdue one, at that.

"Scully?" he shouted into the void as he ran with no direction, trying to seek out her flaming hair or piercing eyes in the dark. His footsteps were heavy in his ears, his breath hard and labored, but he ran with anxious exultation, with the need to find her again. He attempted to retrace his steps with the faint hope of finding her, vaguely remembering that they promised to meet back at the car if anything should happen. That was somewhat reassuring.

Meanwhile, Dana tumbled down a steep muddy slope, her hair sticking to her damp face as she called his name for what seemed like the millionth time. It was no longer red, it was mostly brown with mud and rain, which trickled down the back of her coat and caused her to shiver. She called for the boy whose name still felt like a magic trick on her tongue, whose smile was an invitation to some incredible ecstasy that nobody but the pair of them would ever discover. The boy she searched for was a safe haven, a gift of life and adventure. She needed to know if he was alright.

Mulder almost ran past a flashlight beam in his pursuit. He ground to a halt and turned back to face the dim source of light, seeking the person who held it.

For a moment, Scully could only make out the faint shape of a person. A tall, gangly person with scruffy hair and a familiar profile. 

Then she broke out into a run, grinning like a madwoman.

Mulder understood. A quiet laugh escaped his smiling lips as he sprinted towards her, his body flooded with immediate relief.

They were so close now. The flashlight slipped from Dana's fingers in her anticipation but she did not stop to pick it up. Her only thoughts were that he was safe, that they were both safe, and that if he didn't stop off at a Waffle House on the way back she may have to kill him. Her growling stomach eagerly complied with this.

"Mulder-"

"Scully-"

He grinned as she hurled herself at him like a human hurricane and murmured something unintelligible into his coat. Her grip on him was so tight that he dared not try to move back to hear what she had said; instead, he held onto her like he promised himself he would earlier. They clung to each other in the rain and the cold, simply relieved to know they were both alive and well. Mulder's hands rested behind Scully's head and on the small of her back; he nudged his cheek against her mud-coated hair, just happy for her to be there. Dana laughed, a rare, musical tinkle, and closed her eyes. She was freezing cold and so was he, but she couldn't think of any other place she would have rather been.

Actually, somewhere inside would have been nice. Preferably somewhere with a shower. The more Dana thought of it, the longer the list grew. She shook her head a little and small globs of mud fell onto her shoulders. Mulder's cheek was smudged with dirt. She wiped it away with a sleeve and smiled, raking back his hair only for it to flop back in place. She shook her head again.

"What happened out there?" she asked, her voice hoarse. He smiled, and she thought she had never seen his eyes twinkle so much before.

"I'll explain in the car," he said. His hand clumsily fumbled for hers and a strange flare of warmth shot through her fingertips. He reached forwards and cupped her cheek with a fond smile. "But it was incredible, Scully."

"I suppose I can trust your judgment until we reach the car," she sighed. Her unimpressed act was ruined by a reluctant smile. "So, do you know if Billy killed those kids?"

"It's... Complicated."

Scully let out a huff. "Thought it might be."

Mulder laughed and threw his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close as they walked away together.

Chapter Text

There was a cassette tape tucked safely away in his Walkman missing a label. No name, only a small, scratchy doodle of a stick figure girl with orange hair. It was Mulder's favorite. When he listened to it, the world around him appeared to glow with a familiar sunset-red - the color of autumn, of unspoken promises, of hidden desires slowly climbing to their peak. He enjoyed listening to it in the earlier hours of the morning when the sun rose from its slumber and the world was at peace. 

She was his friend. Only a friend. It was all she could ever be. That didn't stop him from thinking of her when How Soon Is Now? played for days. The taste of a shyness that was criminally vulgar played on his lips when he thought of mosquito bites - when he dreamed of the heat of her skin. Yet every time he saw her he made dumb jokes and pulled goofy faces. He would edge towards the cusp of something suggestive with a risqué joke which could only be met with an eye-roll.

It was stupid, really. That was the only word he could find for the situation: stupid, stupid, stupid. The rising mound of just-a-little-more-than platonic tension forming between him and Scully had collapsed. It started off with the same image burning into his mind, branding him. White lace. A cluster of bumps on the small of her back. An earthy scent, accompanied by the obscure smell of her perfume. Then came the dry mouth, the racing heart, the somersaulting stomach when he saw her. An incessant need to reach out and touch her or make her laugh. The final stage, of course, is acceptance. He was still struggling with that a little.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was happening. 

Mulder was afraid.

Two weeks had passed since that night. Two weeks since he had held her in his arms, shaking, mumbling reassurances into her ear and touching her cold, wet hair. Two weeks since he started to crave more of her - to reach out, to touch her again. 

She became the Phoenix again, the weekend after the forest incident. In a Scully-esque manner, she shook off any concerns for her physical wellbeing and insisted that he and the Lone Gunmen watched. Of course he went to see her - they all did, stalking out the best spot in the room and cheering her on wholeheartedly. He watched her punch, kick, twist her way through her opponents, a roaring gem among a litter of rocks. She searched for them, for her little crowd in the sea of drunks bellowing inappropriate comments. Their eyes met. His stomach lurched. Scully beamed at him. She waved, and he whistled when she sauntered off backstage.

"How was I?" she asked afterward, short of breath. He could have kissed her.

"Not bad," he shrugged instead. "I could've done better though."

He would've taken the light, harmless tap she administered to his shoulder over nothing at all.

And though he didn't want to admit it, he suspected that he might be in love with her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Mom. Please." Her voice was tired - weary of the same conversation playing over like a broken record. On the other end, Maggie Scully tsked. Dana could practically hear her bustling around on the other end, cleaning up or finding something to fiddle around with. She would forever associate the sound of clanking dishes with the smell of home, and the sight of the Scully family crowding around the dinner table awaiting dessert. A vague churn of homesickness turned her stomach over with almost lazy ease. She knew how to control it now.

"Well, you never give me an answer," her mother replied. "It makes me suspicious, like it would any parent. Is there a boy on the scene?"

Yes, Dana thought. There is certainly a boy on the scene, but not in the way you think, Mom. A boy who takes me out to the middle of nowhere to marvel at the sky and hold my hand. Someone I trust, someone I believe in. A boy with a dumb name and a cute smile, a boy who makes me feel something new, something fresh and frightening and beautiful. 

"Of course not," she said. A laugh got stuck in her windpipe; when she next spoke she sounded strangled. "I respect myself a little more than that. I've got to work my butt off to get to where I want to be. Boys would only distract me, to tell the truth."

Her mother laughed - a light, easy chortle. Dana's stomach twisted again. "You and Missy aren't at all alike, you know." She sighed. There was a long pause over the phone. "I just want you to be happy, that's all."

"I am, Mom," Dana insisted. She was smiling at her wall. "I promise."

And she was. She would even go as far as to say that she was content with the way things were at the moment. That was mostly true. She could live with an unrequited crush on her best friend; there were much more pressing issues in her life, and she always knew how to control her feelings. Melissa always used to tell her it was the Scully way - the 'keep calm and carry on' response to everything. It always made Dana smile, though Missy's words mingled with sour memories. It was what her sister had told her when she confided everything about Ethan.

"You're the strongest Scully. The tiniest, but the most resilient." Missy's cigarette was perched lazily between two fingers; it seemed to stay upright of its own accord. Blue-gray plumes of smoke rose from her lips when she exhaled. Her eyes wandered up to the sky, and Dana's quickly followed. Black, just black. No stars. "You've been through plenty already and you'll go through more... But that's how life goes." She wrapped her arm around her sister and drew her into a clumsy hug. "I love you. Remember that. No matter what, you'll have me, okay?"

"Okay," Dana whispered later that night, when the memory repeated itself in her mind's eye. She missed those evenings spent up on the shed roof with Melissa. Sometimes Bill would join, usually when he needed to let off some steam. Once, Charlie joined the three of them. She smiled to herself in the dark, remembering how he scrambled up the side with no difficulty, as though he had done it a thousand times before. Nobody questioned it. No one told him to go to bed. For one simple night, the Scully siblings sat upon that roof - no arguments, nosiree - and everything felt good in the world. 

Melissa thought she was the strongest Scully, and that was what counted. Dana would continue to love Mulder privately, in solitude. She would hold back. She would wait for him until the feelings subsided, or until he felt the same way. She decided she would not lose sleep wishing and dreaming of the latter when the odds were very much against her. Because falling for your best friend was one of life's little tragedies and she had taken the bait. 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Seeing her caused his heart to leap into overdrive, a sad, sorry cliche that he'd read about in books and heard of in love songs. It wasn't just seeing her - it was watching her face brighten a little when she saw something she liked or noticing the creases in the space between her eyebrows when he suggested something ridiculous. It was hearing her laugh, the real one that sounded like a witch's cackle when she found something particularly hilarious. It was the soft feel of her skin brushing against his, even when separated by two thin layers of cloth. It was even the smell of her perfume, something delightfully spicy and aromatic. He found that it smelled of home.

But this wasn't him at all. He even told her so; relationships weren't his thing. It wasn't the sort of distraction he needed at such a crucial point in his life. His search for Samantha - the real search - was only just beginning. Every day that dragged by in college was the tiniest shuffling step to discovering what had happened to his sister, and perhaps even finding her. Reuniting his family. Knowing that the damn 'Spooky Mulder' label was worth it in the end. That the truth was out there, and he had uncovered it after all. Could anybody understand such a pursuit? 

Scully did, though. She did. And while she never believed any of his claims or theories, she supported him. He could tell her about his night terrors, his reluctance to sleep, the way his own mind played tricks on him and preyed on him when he closed his eyes. He would ramble about anything: extraterrestrial life forms, folk tales, conspiracy theories, and when he wasn't fooling around she would listen, wide-eyed, her lips parted in wonder. She wasn't humoring him. Mulder thought she was understanding him. She would listen and listen and never argue, and when he was finished he could fall against her and she would hold him up and lightly suggest that he get some rest.

Dana Scully was his support. More than a shoulder to cry on, more than even the most trusted partner in crime. She felt like more than a best friend. Most days, she was a damned blessing.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sometimes she spoke about Ethan. 

It usually occurred in those quiet night-time drives, where the air was still and the silence demanded to be filled. It was uncommon for Dana to look at Mulder when she talked about it. More often than not she would face away as though staring out of her window. She was sure he could hear the tears in her voice but he never commented on it. She appreciated that.

Instead, he put his hand on her arm. Sometimes their hands fumbled together and their fingers clasped clumsily. On the rarest occasions, when things got really bad and the conversation took a darker turn, he leaned over and kissed the top of her head. His lips were always soft and gentle. Oh yeah, Mom. I forgot to mention this guy I drive around with who makes me feel like maybe life isn't so shitty after all. And your good, outstanding med student of a daughter hangs out with a guy whose kisses make her feel like she's balancing on the edge of existence. He's tall and he's got a cute kind of funny face and fluffy hair and he listens to shit like The Smiths and wears tattered Converse sneakers with alien patches over the stars, and I'm a complete sucker for him. 

This is not Dana's exact description of Mulder when the phone is passed to Missy during her next call, but as always her sister manages to read between the lines.

"So is he cute?" Was her first question.

"That's rather objectifying," Dana replied. Her smirk was wide but her cheeks were almost as red as her hair. "I thought you were better than that."

"I know when you're avoiding the question, Dana," she warned. "Just tell me. I'm not gonna tell Mom about him."

Yeah, right. "I don't know."

"He is!" Melissa practically squealed.

"Now hang on, I never-"

"What color eyes does he have?"

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know his eye color?!" 

"They change color!"

Missy laughed at that. "Are they the kind of eyes you can just get lost in forever?"

Dana scoffed. "Give me a break."

"I'm taking that as a yes." On the other end of the phone, her sister's voice was triumphant. "What was his name again?"

"Mulder."

"That's a cool name."

"It's his surname. His first name is Fox." Dana had grown tired of this conversation, yet she was also secretly loving it. Melissa could only hear her voice; what she could not see was the huge smile on her sister's face.

"Even cooler. You'll have to invite him over some time," she said. "I mean, if you're not interested I might just snap him up myself."

"Oh, for sure," Scully sighed. "You might end up scaring him away." But the thought of Mulder meeting Missy left a sour taste on Dana's tongue. Melissa Scully was the best Scully daughter, hands down. Prettier, more confident, more easygoing, more sociable. She could quite easily snap anybody up. Anyone she wanted. "That's if Bill doesn't scare him away first." 

"As if! Bill's a big old softie," Missy laughed. "And I was only joking about stealing your new guy. If he's cute, funny and he makes you happy, I'm gonna step back and let the course of true love run smoothly."

"I'm not sure if I should be thanking you for that, but thanks, I guess." Dana's lips lifted; she huffed a little laugh. "Now put me back on the phone to Mom. You've taken up enough of my time."

"Ouch." She wasn't offended. She rarely ever was. "Okay, I'll hand it over to Mom. Love you loads, miss you loads, stay safe and all that jazz."

"Love you too, miss you too, don't do anything I wouldn't do and all that jazz."

"Bye!"

It was those conversations that reminded Dana of home. Boy-talk with her sister. Interrogation time about the guys they were talking to. It left such a nauseating tide of homesickness roiling around in her stomach that she had to cut her chat with her mother short for the night. Sometimes she wanted home. Other times she wanted Mulder. Most times it felt as though the two were one and the same.

She grabbed a hoodie and told Nat she was going out. 

"Don't panic if I don't come back tonight. I'll be at Mulder's."

"Sure," Nat said. "Stay safe."

Dana ignored the suggestive tone in her voice and waved goodbye. The sound of the door shutting was pleonastic in the empty halls. 

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Of course he was thinking of her. He didn't do much else with his time anymore.

Once more his mind rolled over the mosquito bites. The tiniest marks on her back, only centimeters above the waistband of her white panties. He never had Scully down for a 'white-underwear' sort of girl - not that he'd really thought about it much. But after mulling it over for the past couple of weeks he thought she would have worn black. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.

He had been thinking about forever, and the way she held it in her hands.

There was a knock at the door. He heard Byers open it up, and then the low, familiar hum of her voice.

Mulder's first instinct was to get up, but he resisted. He remained sprawled out on his bed, his head softly tucked against the pillow, waiting for her to come in. This was him 'playing it cool', a technique he hoped he had mastered. While he waited he gazed at the wall with movie posters tacked up all over the place. Trashy sci-fi films that Scully claimed to have no taste for, but ones she quickly immersed herself in when they watched them together. He suspected Alien was one of her favorites really. They had already planned to see the next movie when it came out and it had only taken five minutes to convince her it would be worth it.

Tap tap tap. Her knuckles, rapping against his door.

"Come in," he said, already smiling. Scully slipped into the room and closed the door behind her. "I should've known. You're nowhere near as invasive as the three dopes I live with. To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you tonight?"

She sat at the end of his bed and looked at him. Her face, he noticed, was pale, almost white, but her cheeks were flushed pink. He couldn't look for long; she had a habit of making him feel as though he was being scrutinized, like every single move he made was being watched and assessed. It wasn't an unwelcome exposure; he didn't have much to hide. He watched her hands fumble with the sheets. She picked and twisted and turned. Nerves? No. No, that was dumb.

"I was just feeling out of sorts." She shrugged like it was no big deal. "Kind of homesick, I guess. Mom and Missy called me and now I wish..." Dana stopped. She let out a long, quiet sigh. "Look, can we just put on some shitty movies and order takeout and pretend everything's okay for a while?"

"We could do that," Mulder agreed. An idea was beginning to form in his head - something a little bigger than a couple bad movies and junk food. Something he was preparing for her birthday, but that wasn't for months and he had plenty of time to think of something else. "Or..."

"Or...?" Her eyebrow quirked up immediately.

"It's a surprise." Mulder rolled out of his bed and strolled over to his mirror, combing through his stubborn hair with his fingers. "Grab your coat, Scully. We're going for a drive."

"Wha- Mulder, it's nine o'clock at night!" she protested. Her mouth opened and closed, searching for the right words. "And I'm not... I'm in my pajamas!"

He looked down. Sure enough, she was wearing red plaid PJs on the bottom, with the matching shirt acting as an overlayer for her plain white top. "So you are." A thought struck him and he grinned. "Did you really walk all the way here in your pajamas?"

"I'm not going out looking like this," she protested, crossing her arms over her chest. 

"Relax, Sleeping Beauty," he said. "You won't even have to leave the car. I'll grab food on the way there."

He went to put on his shoes but she grabbed his arm. Her touch was light but the tips of her fingers scorched away at his skin.

"Where are we going?"

"I've already told you, it's a surprise." Mulder shot her a wink. "Now get moving, Scully. If we don't hurry now, we might miss it."

"But- Mulder!" she yelled, but he had already left and shut the door. The faintest smile touched her lips as she heard him thudding down the stairs; it spread to a full, orange-slice style grin when he shouted 'come on, Scully!' from downstairs.

Something was telling her that whatever Mulder had in mind would be at least a little better than shitty movies and takeout.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"Where are we going?"

"It's a secret." Mulder's eyes were fixed on the road, but a smile played at the edges of his pouted lips. "Do you really want me to spoil the suspense?"

"Yes."

"Too bad."

"Can you give me a hint?"

"Nope."

"Can you tell me the first letter of the place we're going?"

"Nope." He popped the 'p' this time.

"Mulder!" she shouted again, but there was a laugh stuck in her throat. "Please?"

They slowed to a stop at some lights. He turned and looked at her, his smile spreading to an eager beam. "Come on. I promise you'll love it. If you don't, you're completely entitled to take the wheel and drive back home, or to wherever your heart desires. We've got all night to figure it out, but I'm not telling you yet. We might be late, and if we're late we might miss it, and if we miss it you'll be twice as let down if you know what it is." He took a chance and grazed her arm with clumsy fingers. Her head darted upward as she looked at him. It was one of those odd, intimate moments where it felt as though time had stopped and everything in the vicinity had disappeared. "Have a little faith in me, Scully. If all goes to plan, you won't regret it."

If the traffic lights had been delayed for just a moment longer she was certain she would have kissed him. Yet they bloomed into a burst of yellow before flourishing into bright, luminescent green. Half-disappointed, half-relieved, Scully turned on the radio. Twist and Shout by The Beatles had just started. She watched Mulder's face light up from the corner of her eye and so she cranked up the volume, just to see his smile for a few more sacred seconds. Mostly in love, and a little inebriated by Scully's presence alone, he started to sing. His voice, rough and low and the slightest bit husky, sent a shiver down her spine. The excitement was evident in his voice; she found herself giggling at him, and the way his hair flopped over his face, and his goofy facial expressions while he danced along in the driver's seat.

"Mulder, you're..." 

"Crazy?" he laughed. "Go ahead, Scully. Tell me I'm crazy."

"You're crazy!" she laughed, wanting nothing more than to bury her head in his shoulder. "You're completely insane." But I love it.

She lived for the moments in his car where he could smile and sing and dance around her, when the wistful, wondering look in his eye faded a little and it almost seemed like the skeletons in his closet had vanished. When such a rare thing as a smile came out of hiding and caused her heart to tumble down to her feet. The times where he pushed the peddle a little harder and the car went faster and the music got louder because it was the closest they could both come to running away from their issues for a while.

He lived for her. The smiles he caused and the scrunch of her nose when she laughed, and those rare moments where he could look into her eyes and see her soul and waste his time hoping that he could see a reflection of his own feelings in there. In their precious moments together he felt as though he wasn't just spending time with any girl - how could it be just any girl? It was always Dana Scully. No other girl had the same sunset hair or glacier eyes - no other girl would be able to call him insane and make him feel as blessed as he did in that moment.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

They stopped off at a Wendy's on the way, with Mulder running in to grab food as promised. If Dana had looked just to the right she might have noticed a cassette tucked safely away in the driver's side pocket. A plain tape, nothing special - apart from the hand-drawn scribble of a stick figure girl with spiky orange hair.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

"You feeling excited, Scully?"

"That's one word for it," she retorted. Once again, her feet were kicked up on the dashboard. She was flicking aimlessly through a sleazy magazine she found in the glovebox ("seriously, Mulder? Can't you even keep it in your pants while driving?"... "I like to read the horror stories in there! Get your head out of the gutter - like I could ever whack one out while driving. I'd crash, silly.". She hoped he had been joking). Truth be told, she had found the true crime section strangely fascinating - who would have thought of pairing the two most obscene social taboos into one thin wedge of paper? "Excited, apprehensive, scared... You name it."

"C'mon, we're almost there." He wanted to reach out to her but stopped himself. "Seriously, if you hate it at any point, let me know. Right now, your happiness is my topmost priority and we are not going back until you feel better, okay?" Mulder could feel her looking at him but he kept his eyes trained carefully on the road. When he next spoke his voice was so soft she almost couldn't hear him. "You've done a lot for me, Scully, and I... I'm not gonna forget that. Not any time soon. I guess, what I'm trying to say is, you mean a lot more to me than I let on sometimes. Uh, a lot of the time, actually. Thank you."

She was silent for a moment. So silent that he feared his pounding heart had screwed him over, that she could hear it, that she knew how he felt about her. Game over.

But then her feather-light fingers brushed his shoulder and fluttered up and down his back. "You don't need to thank me," Dana whispered. She gulped, holding back the lump in her throat. When she next spoke, her voice was just a little stronger. "If anything, I should be thanking you. Not many people would... Would do something like this for me. Outside of my family, nobody has ever treated me the way you have, Mulder. You're my closest friend, my best friend, you're..." She trailed off, all of her words crumbling to dust at the tip of her tongue. Her hand slipped from his back and she, too, nonchalantly faced the road ahead. "I want you to know that I trust you more than anybody else in the world. And it's terrifying. The thought of somebody having so much power in my life after everything that's happened is beyond petrifying, but... I think I'm learning to understand that you're not going to hurt me." A pause. Her heart throbbed painfully in her chest. "I guess I don't tell you how much you mean to me either." She risked a glance at him at the same time he chanced one straight back. They smiled at each other, oblivious to the riot raging in the other's mind and heart. "We're a pretty stupid pair, huh?"

"I'm guessing I must be the stupid part of the bargain," Mulder chuckled. "Because you kept all the 'pretty' to yourself."

A slip of the tongue. A stupid mistake. The word shit raced through his mind at a million miles an hour. ShitshitshitshitshitSHIT.

"Shut up, Mulder." She nudged him with her elbow and snorted through her nose. He was too preoccupied with breathing a silent sigh of relief that he didn't notice the way her cheeks flushed - slowly, then spreading across the rest of her face. She suspected her ears were as red as her hair and internally thanked the road down which they drove for being devoid of street lights.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Finally, after what felt like an eternity had passed in the car, they reached it.

"Here we are, Scully," Mulder grinned. "And just in time, too, by the looks of things."

She poked her head out of the window eagerly, awaiting a little more than what appeared to be a vast expanse of nothing. The build-up to disappointment had almost reached its peak when Dana eventually clocked the sign they were slowly trundling towards.

Her jaw dropped faster than even she thought possible. A million thoughts and questions raced through her head but all she could do was open and close her mouth like a stunned fish. The only word she had managed to articulate was his name, which he took shameful pleasure in mulling over afterward, especially reiterating the breathless quality of her voice. "Mulder..." 

"Do you like it?" He dug some money out of his wallet and handed it over to the attendant, who smiled and wished them a good night. They drove along, down through a muddy track into an open field. Dana watched as the sign 'Winnersh Drive-In Theatre' flashed past them, followed by an all-too-familiar image of Tim Curry sporting fishnets and a corset. "Scully? You do like it, right?" He parked up and gunned the engine. Scully hadn't said another word. "Scully...?"

"You did this for me?" Her throat sounded hoarse. She turned to him, the whites of her eyes clear as day in the dead of night. Her mouth still hung open, those beautiful parted lips giving way to the tips of her straight, pearly teeth. Mulder was sweating now, hot prickles biting at his scalp and back like tiny shards of broken glass. Now it was his turn to falter.

"I mean, I, uh, I thought you liked Rocky Horror Picture Show - remember when we watched it at my place? - and I knew it was showing around these parts, and I guess I just thought that... I don't know, that you'd enjoy it. I know it's dumb- it was a stupid idea. We can go elsewhere, or I can just take you home if-"

Dana threw herself at him with such force that he half-feared they would tumble out of the car. One of her arms was hooked around the back of his neck while the other clumsily wrapped itself under his arm. Her face was pressed against his chest; he could feel her breath on his stomach. He held her back slightly, watching her face carefully for any sign of distress.

On the contrary, he had never seen her look so alive.

"We can't go anywhere else. I don't want to go," she breathed. "Thank you so much." She was all too familiar of the night she had first seen Rocky Horror, the night in with Mulder where she had sat, secretly enthralled by the film's sheer strangeness. Mulder had known all the lyrics to the songs, of course, and in a half-inebriated state sang most of the songs to her in a mumbled sort of serenade. At the time she scoffed at him singing 'Dammit Janet', and full on laughed when he attempted to mimic Susan Sarandon's high-pitched voice, but now the memory made her heart skip. "Thanks, Mulder." She sounded like a broken record and she damn well knew it, but she didn't care. With her head resting on his chest, staring up at him with her lips only inches away from his, she felt as though she was in heaven.

"It's nothing," he shrugged. "How you feeling now?"

"Better," she grinned. "I just wish I could've brought my stockings along with me."

He laughed and held her close, his head resting atop hers. "You could always save them for when we watch it together..."

"Shut up," she replied in as light a tone as possible. "I think it's about to start."

Chapter Text

Hi, everyone.

I'm writing this because I wasn't sure what else to do. As you can probably tell, I'm on hiatus right now. I haven't had the time to write, or when I do it all sounds ridiculous being read back. And I've done a lot of reading back.

I've lost touch with this fic. I'm fumbling around and dipping into plots that feel artificial and meaningless. My writing style feels wrong, the interaction between characters seems false. And though I still love the concept of a college AU with Mulder and Scully, I don't know if I've done the trope justice at all. My initial plan was to re-write the entire thing, without Scully fighting and replicating events from the show. Just two nerds running around and being spooky.

Now, I'm considering giving the fic up. Because I feel like no matter what I'll return to this point. I think it's better for me to do one-shots of college AU Mulder and Scully, but then I don't feel like anyone would even want to read that. So I'm a little stuck right now. If anybody wants this fic to continue I'll try my best - it's a real shame because I haven't really started delving into it yet, but I don't want to bore everyone with more chapters like the Pilot-recreation if it's not what people want. And if people would prefer it if I wrote minifics, I'll get cracking on that.

It would be great to hear feedback from people on this because I genuinely have no idea what I'm going to do. Thank you for everyone's support throughout this fic, though. I've appreciated every comment, kudos and bookmark I've received since publishing the first chapter. You have no idea what it means to me.

Thanks,

T

Chapter Text

Mulder held her hand on the way home, so giddy from the drive in that he didn’t care as much as he usually would. Scully smiled, her head tilted all the way back so her eyes were looking up at the roof of the car. His hand was warm and completely engulfed her own, and for the first time in her life she didn’t worry about what it meant when he briefly rested his head on her shoulder.

They chose to drive the long way back, through the winding country lanes. Few words were spoken, save for Mulder’s poor jokes and Scully’s sarcastic responses. He focused on the road, trying to stop himself from staring at her for too long. But the night sky was pink and lilac, and he just couldn’t help it. She was looking ahead too, her lips full and parted, revealing the tips of her teeth. Occasionally she would scrape her bottom lip with them and it drove him wild.

He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to kiss her so bad. But it could always wait, as it had during the film and while they were driving there and even way before that, like when he spoke to her for the first time outside her arena.

After he yawned for the fourth time in five minutes, Dana turned to face him. “Maybe we should have taken the shortcut,” she said, frowning. “You’re clearly tired. Look, there’s a side-road there. We can park up and you can take a break.” He shrugged her off and shook his head, but Scully wasn’t having it. “Do you want us to crash, or do you want us to get home safely?”

Reluctantly, he turned down the small road on the side and parked up. He didn’t waste any time in locking the car doors – “just in case”, he told her – and turning the heater up. The car was strangely silent, apart from the sound of the hot air blasting into their faces. For a long moment they sat in the dark, looking ahead at the darkness.

“Did you enjoy the movies?” he asked eventually, just to fill the silence. She nodded and turned to him again, smiling.

“I loved them,” she said. “Though I enjoyed Rocky Horror more than Shock Treatment. I still don’t know what to make of that film.” She paused, watching him lick his lips and thinking about how much it was killing her. “Did you enjoy yourself?”

“Of course I did,” he grinned. “Seeing those rare Scully smiles makes my day, are you kidding me?” She laughed, her gaze pointed towards her lap, and shook her head. “No, but seriously. I wouldn’t have had tonight go any other way, and that’s a promise.”

“Oh really?” She raised a single eyebrow. He nodded. “Well, that makes two of us.” There was a moment of hesitation between them before she reached over and lightly punched his shoulder. “I mean it. Thank you so much for tonight.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” he said. “Honest. You deserve it, for putting up with me all this time.”

Scully scoffed and gently shoved him. “Shut up, Mulder.”

All went quiet again. It was the time of night where everything was still, everyone asleep. Mulder drank in the thick silence and stretched out on the driver’s seat with a noiseless yawn. It was the most beautiful time of the day – no people, no negativity. Just the quiet and the sight of the moon and stars in the sky above.

He started to think of Samantha again as he stared up into the vast expanse of space. “Hey, Scully. Did your parents ever tell you that people become stars when they die? You know, when you were little?” He looked over at her. Faint lines appeared between her eyebrows, and she pursed her lips. He occupied himself while he waited for her to reply by chewing on his bottom lip.

“I don’t think they did, you know,” she mumbled, but now the thought had entered her head she mulled over it a little more. After a pause, she turned on her side so she was facing him. “Heaven’s already a pretty nice reassurance for kids when people die. I guess they never felt the need to explain things any other way.” Her eyes wandered to the sky again. The corners of her lips quirked upwards. “It just kinda sucks growing up and realizing that Heaven’s got its own set of terms and conditions.” She wasn’t exactly smiling but her face was soft, and the corners of her mouth more relaxed. An expression of thought passed over her face. “I think I’d like to have been told that, though. It’s a nice thought.” She watched him in the dark, her heart thumping in her chest when his eyes latched onto hers. “What do you think happens after we die, Mulder? Do you think we become stars?”

For a long time, he was silent.

“I think we become happy, Scully,” he whispered. “I think we become free. That’s what happens when we die.”

In the dark, his hand fumbled for hers. They found each other and held on tight. Dana’s toes curled in her boots as their fingers laced together and she smiled.

“Amen to that.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

When Mulder opened his eyes, the sky was gray. He blinked once, twice, three times, and he found that he could rub the sleep out of his eyes with his left hand but not his right. His limbs groaned with movement and his neck ached, but it didn’t matter much.  When he saw Scully propped up on the passenger seat, red hair mussed and beautiful, her lips parted, a smile spread across his face. It was a smile that hurt his cheeks and made his eyes light up. Their fingers were still woven together, hers warm, his cold.

The urge to kiss her was making him itch.

When he felt her stir he nearly jumped out of his skin. She mumbled under her breath as she stretched out in the seat, yawning loudly. Her fingers slipped away from his as she rubbed her eyes.

Scully looked up and smiled at him. “We overslept,” she murmured.

“We did,” he said. His eyes flickered down to her mouth and back up again. Damn it. Mulder started to lean in but stopped himself. He straightened up and gripped the steering wheel without looking back at her. Fuck. “We should probably get going. I’ll drive you home.”

“Oh. Okay.” He didn’t notice her slump a little in her seat. “Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

Scully looked out of the window for the entire journey home and didn’t speak once. When Mulder pulled up outside her dorm she muttered a single ‘thanks’ and got out. Before he could say anything, she had slammed the door and walked off, still wearing her red plaid pajamas. She disappeared into the building and left him sitting there, nonplussed.

He ran a hand through his hair and let out a low, heavy sigh. Nice one, idiot, he thought to himself, hitting his hand against the wheel. It didn’t take a genius to figure out she was upset, but when he thought of what he could have possibly done wrong, his mind ran short. A tiny part of his brain told him that it was because he hadn’t made a move, but it had been quickly dismissed. That made no sense. Perhaps he had come across as rude or standoffish, or maybe she could tell that he was thinking of kissing her. The thought made his stomach turn. It was unlikely, but she was good at picking up on things like that.

She’s just not interested.

It hit him in the chest like a ton of bricks. Mulder’s mouth dried up – his tongue was sandpaper as he grazed it across his parched lips. Of course she didn’t. It made sense. She was a genius, a beautiful, funny, kind girl who was on her way to becoming a medical doctor. He was… Well. He was himself. What more was there to say?

The lump in his throat was thick and painful as he turned the key in the ignition and drove off.

Chapter Text

Mulder could have kicked himself. He really could.

He passed the three guys without as much as a second glance when he arrived back at the house. They shared a look as he trundled through the room, head hung low, shoulders slumped, before he carelessly threw his car keys in the pot. His arm fell limply to his side and he disappeared upstairs.

The three men waited until his heavy footsteps had faded to silence and the sound of his bedroom door slammed shut. Frohike huffed out a half-hearted chuckle. His eyes flitted between Langly and Byers.

"Must be trouble in paradise, huh?" The feeble joke fell flat. There was a short period of silence between them before he continued. "Jeez, uhh... Y'know, I'm sure they'll be fine. They'll be alright, right?"

"I hope so," Byers said quietly. "I haven't seen him this miserable since, well," he grimaced a little. "Since before he met Dana."

 

Mulder kicked his door shut, immediately regretting the decision when the sound of it banging against the frame pounded in his ears. He felt the floor tremble, and watched with bitter apathy as the photograph of his family on the dresser fell flat from the impact. Whatever. He staggered back onto his couch without checking if the glass had broken; it probably hadn't, and if it had, what did it matter? Broken frames were hardly his greatest problem in that moment.

No, the real issue wasn't even one thing - it was a combination of small things, things that just piled up until they had formed a mountain of unsolvable shit. Mulder had practically lived his whole life refusing to tackle these 'things', only throwing them onto the ever-growing heap of crap that he would eventually need to come to terms with. Only now there was so much that he couldn't avoid. Whenever he squeezed his eyes shut, all he could see was Scully's face back in his car. She smiled at him, so soft and gentle, so sweet. He wanted to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something in her eyes when she looked at him - something hopeful, something expectant. It was hopeful thinking, he knew that, but there was still this cruel part of his mind entertaining the idea that Dana Scully had fallen for him too.

One of the issues was that he was a coward. He loved his best friend and he had done nothing about it. There was no attempt to deal with his feelings, no resolution. He couldn't even bring himself to talk to her about it, to open up. The opportunity to tell her exactly how he felt was right there in the car, straight after one of the best nights of his life. His hands clenched as he recalled how easy it would have been to kiss her, just like he'd imagined. To cup her face in his hands and draw her closer... He twisted around on the couch restlessly, pressing his fists against his eyes.

What he would have given to just forget everything, even if only for one night.

**********************************************************************************

"How was date night? Or should I say, date morning?" Natasha called, her tone light and teasing. Her smile faded as she watched Dana slump down on the bed and turn to face the wall. "Hey, Dana?" Her voice was much softer now, almost inaudible. "What's wrong?"

"He's not into me." It took Nat a while to process what she was saying; half of Scully's face was pressed against her pillow, so her voice came out muffled. It also didn't help that it felt as though there was a lump the size of a tennis ball lodged in Dana's throat. "Nat, he's not interested at all."

That didn't seem right. Between the starry-eyed gazes and the unnecessary touching, Natasha didn't need a PhD in rocket science to tell what was going on. She hesitated before walking over to Dana's bedside and sitting at her desk. She placed a gentle hand on her roommate's shoulder. "What makes you think he isn't interested?"

"We were in the car, and we'd just woken up - we took a nap, because Mulder was tired, y'know." There was no anger, no sadness in her words - just the same flat emptiness with which she'd spoken before. It was the voice of someone who was 'used to it'. "We woke up and it was morning. No doy. And I thought he was about to make a move, so I started to lean in and he moved away. Dropped me off back here. Didn't speak a word on the way." Dana scoffed. "You know. Standard."

"Do you think that, maybe... Oh jeez, I don't know, Dana," Natasha sighed. "Are you sure you guys didn't give off some mixed signals? Because that boy follows you around like a lovesick puppy, it doesn't make sense."

"Whatever. I don't care."

Nat sensed that now wasn't the right time to challenge her. She'd wait a while, let her rest. "Hey, I'm gonna go grab breakfast with some of the guys. D'you want me to bring you anything back?"

"No, I'm not hungry." Dana's growling stomach betrayed her.

"I'm bringing back pancakes," Nat smiled. "D, it's gonna be alright. Trust me."

She gave Dana's shoulder a final squeeze before shrugging on a jacket and leaving the room. 

Scully's chest ached, but her body flooded with silent relief. She was alone, and now the tears could finally fall. Everything from their night together came collapsing around her at once, burying her, suffocating her. All she could think of was Mulder's face, his soft features, the way his mussed hair flopped over his eyes... and how, just before he shifted away from her, she could've sworn he was leaning towards her too. Perhaps he'd had second thoughts, or maybe it was just wishful thinking. Either way, the kiss hadn't happened. He'd seen right through her and hadn't even looked her way as she said goodbye.

She tried her best to reason that it was better this way. Relationships equal disaster, she'd learned that years ago. And there's nothing worse than falling for someone so close, someone who knows you just as much as you know yourself. It's dangerous.

That didn't change the fact that there were still tears pooling down her cheeks, leaving a damp puddle on her pillow. She stared blankly at the gray wall in front of her and tried to conjure an image of the magical dusky skies she'd seen in their impromptu car rides, thinking of the miniature spectrum of color that seemed to change every evening. But it was just a dreary gray wall, and she couldn't even conjure the slightest flash of blue, pink or yellow.

***********************************************************************************

The car was too quiet now, even with the radio on. He took to walking instead.

Sometimes, particularly when he was walking around on campus, Brianna would join him. 

"Hey, Fox!" she enthused the first time. She fell into step alongside him, her blonde hair flying out behind her. "Why the long face?"

He rubbed a hand over the shadow around his jaw. "Nothing. It's nothing. Sorry, I'm just a little tired I guess." Mulder tried for a smile. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, the same as usual," she beamed. "You know how it is."

Somehow, they ended up in some kind of routine. She'd meet him at some point or another in his walk, and accompany him to their class. Occasionally, when he really needed cheering up, or just wanted to get out of his own head, he'd walk her to her other classes. Brianna was nice - she was bubbly and smiley and when she laughed at something he said she would hold onto his arm like it was really funny. He'd be lying if he said he didn't like the feeling of somebody wanting his company. It took his mind away from Scully for a while.

He wasn't entirely sure if he was avoiding her, or if she was avoiding him. Perhaps it was a mutual thing. She knew where he lived; his door was always open if she wanted to talk. But then again, the same could be said for him. There was nothing stopping him from going to her dorm and talking it out, apart from his own fear. Fear of what, he wasn't sure - fear of rejection, fear of opening up to someone... Hell, it could even be the fear of Natasha and Scully beating the shit out of him. It wasn't exactly an unreasonable concern.

But he missed her. Every time she walked into the lab, her eyes fixed on the ground, his chest ached. He kind of hated how she still looked good in a lab coat and oversized safety goggles; it made it a lot harder to get her off his mind. He really hated how she never met his eye, like she was embarrassed to even look at him. 

"Why don't you just talk to her, man?" Langly hissed as another class came and went without any change. Mulder shrugged. He'd already had this talk with Frohike and Byers and frankly, it exhausted him. "You can't just sit here every lesson staring at her with those sad puppy eyes. Just do something about it already! It's driving us wild!"

"There's nothing I can do," Mulder said shortly. He hunched his bag over one shoulder and took off before the conversation could continue.

***************************************************************************************

"You're still not talking to him?!"

Dana pursed her lips. "And you're still talking about this?"

"D..." Nat sighed. "C'mon. It's been weeks. And I know you're still upset, but it's so clear to see that you're missing him like crazy. You haven't smiled in weeks." 

Scully stared down at the textbook splayed out across her desk. The pen in her hand twiddled absently, doing anything but the work she'd promised herself she would complete. When she spoke, her voice quavered. "There's nothing to say anymore. I don't even know where I would begin with him." She shook her head, holding it in her hands. "I mean... How do you approach someone about this stuff? 'Hey, sorry I got the wrong idea and made a fool of myself, hope we're all good'? Ugh, jeez." She cringed at the thought. "No, it's ridiculous. It's hopeless, Nat."

"It is not hopeless," Natasha argued. "Have you thought about speaking to him about something other than that night?"

"Like what, the weather?" They both laughed at her dry response.

"Man, you're bad at this stuff," Nat teased. "No, I was thinking more of a, 'hey, there's a Halloween party happening this Saturday, wanna come with?'. Y'know, it's light, it's breezy, it's perfect."

"Is it?" Scully raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure it would be real great if I was actually going to a Halloween party, but... Wait. Why are you smiling like that?"

"Because you're so lucky to have friends with some very beneficial contacts," Nat grinned. 

Oh, brother. 

******************************************************************************************

Mulder flicked through one of the magazines by the side of his couch absently, not even registering the women on the glossy pages. His mind was still elsewhere, thinking of another girl entirely. It had been weeks, and neither of them had so much as looked at each other. Or rather, she didn't seem to be looking at him. He gazed after her in just about every damn class they had, and he hated himself for it.

He was forced out of his thoughts when Byers yelled from downstairs. "Mulder, you've got a visitor!"

"Send 'em up," he called back, quickly discarding the magazine by throwing it back on the pile. Though he knew it was insane, given the time passed and Scully's unrelenting indifference at his presence, there was still a faint spark of hope in him that wished for her to walk through his door. Realistically, it was probably someone from The Gunmen's paper, trying to catch a new angle on some conspiracy theory or other, but it didn't stop him from wishing to see a glimpse of red hair as his visitor entered.

When he saw her, his first thought was that he was hallucinating.

She edged around the door almost shyly, her back pressed against the wall. She closed it quietly and turned to face him. 

"Hi," she said.

"Scully." Mulder stumbled up from his position on the couch and got to his feet. One hand flew to the back of his neck automatically and rubbed circles against the skin as he tried his best not to stare. "Hey. Uh, what are you doing here?"

Come on, Dana, she thought. Just as we rehearsed.

"Well, uh..." she shifted from one foot to the other. "Nat's friend's throwing this huge costume party on Saturday, and it's gonna be crazy." She sighed. "I know we never do parties, but she's pretty insistent that this is gonna be, I quote, 'the Halloween party of the century', so I figured... I don't know. Maybe you'd like to come with me. Or, y'know, whatever."

To her surprise, he cracked a grin. "I'd like that."

A slow smile spread across her face. "Really?"

"Yeah, of course," he said. "I haven't been to a costume party in years."

Scully finally let out the breath she hadn't realised she had been holding since she entered the room. "Okay. Cool. Good. That's, um..." She stopped. Paused. "Uh, look. I'm sorry for making things weird these past couple of weeks. I guess I've just been really tired, and my workload has stepped up a lot, so... I haven't been avoiding you. And, if it's all the same to you, I kind of missed hanging out." Her excuse was pretty weak, but it didn't seem to matter. Mulder's eyes lit up anyway.

"Well," he began slowly, "I kind of missed hanging out too. And I'm sorry, for being weird about everything."

She smiled. "You didn't do anything wrong."

Mulder half-outstretched his arms, and she walked right into them. He chuckled as she circled his waist and rested her head on his chest. "It's good to have you back, Scully."

"Oh yeah?" She felt him nodding against the top of her head and closed her eyes. "It's good to be back."

Neither of them dared to touch upon what had almost been. Both were self-confessed cowards, after all, and there was nothing more frightening than revealing your feelings to a person you were convinced couldn't possibly feel the same way.