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locking out the ghosts

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Skinner keeps Mulder late after their meeting the next day. Scully waits for him outside the office, and he still won't look at her when he exits. He hasn't really looked at her since last night at the warehouse. He walks right past her. Scully sighs, goes to Skinner's door and taps on the door. “Sir? Could I have a quick word?”

Skinner adjusts his glasses and motions her in. “What is it?”

She folds her hands in front of her formally. “I'd like to request some vacation time, actually. A couple days off before the weekend after next. Thursday and Friday.”

Approval flickers over Skinner's face. “I think we could arrange that. You could use it after… after everything that's happened. You must have nearly a month of vacation time saved up.”

“Not based on recent circumstances,” she says quietly, thinking of her time off after her remission and the two days after Emily.

Skinner looks her in the eye. “Medical leave is different from vacation time. Take the extra days, Agent. You deserve it. Do you think you'll be able to stick out the next couple of weeks?”

She clenches and unclenches her jaw, tries not to growl her reply of, “I'll be fine.”

Skinner nods, picking up his pen. “You're dismissed, Agent. Keep an eye on Mulder. I'm worried about him.”

---

By all outside appearances, though, Skinner has no cause for worry. They are both pretending they're fine. Like Scully's daughter didn't just die. Like Mulder didn't watch his partner die and almost kill her. They work on paperwork. Mulder goes out to pick up lunch, Scully eats a salad and a little container of yogurt. They talk to each other only when they have to, and even then it's overly polite. They're hiding from each other, the psychologist in Mulder points out. He ignores it.

Days later, there is a case in Michigan with an apple orchard, with living trees. They go on pretending everything is fine. He flirts with her—just a little, no more than he usually would if it was before Florida—and she doesn't comment, doesn't protest, just rolls her eyes a little. It feels almost like before, like normal. If he ignores the nightmares, it almost is. (Her dead. The things he's said to her, the things she's said to him. Emily with blue, blank, unseeing eyes, the same as Scully's. The nightmares are the worst part.) It feels like if they don't confront the problem, it doesn't exist. But then again, that's the way it's always been with them.

The case closes, Scully digs him out of the mud he finds himself trapped in up to his chest. He can't stop looking at the dirt trapped beneath her fingernails as they drive back to the hotel. She'd brushed her hands over him when he'd crawled out, brushed his hair back and smudged mud across his face like war paint, asked if he was okay in a hushed voice. He shivers now, turning up the heat. He wants to say that he that is is not hers to comfort, but he will always be hers. If she wants him.

They pull into the motel parking lot and climb out of their car. Scully pulls at her jacket with frustration. “I can't wait to take a shower,” she groans. “Next time, Mulder, warn me so I can wear some old clothes.”

“You'd think you'd have learned that by now, Scully,” he says. She smiles, bending her head, hair hiding her face. He smiles a little, too. “Hey, thanks for… pulling me out of the mud earlier,” he adds, touching her gently on the shoulder.

Her shoulders scrunch up under his fingers. “Of course, Mulder,” she says. “We're partners.”

He swallows uncomfortably. “Right.” He brushes a hand down her elbow before turning away and inserting his room key. “G’night, Scully.”

“Good night, Mulder,” she replies quietly.

Later, he wakes up from a nightmare (Scully not breathing, bleeding, gun in his hand), shoving at blankets, reaching for someone who isn't there. Scully was crying out, in his dream, and that was what woke him up. Scully is crying out, he realizes, kicking the blankets away and rolling out of bed, and he's halfway across the room before he hears what she is saying. “No, please… please don't take her,” she is saying furiously, tearfully.

Tears spring to Mulder's eyes as he stands on the rug, sheets tangled around his leg. In other circumstances, he might go through the conjoining door and wake her up, but he's not sure if that's what Scully wants now. Instead, he stumbles across the room, yanks open the closet and slams it hard.

Scully yelps on the other side of the wall as she wakes up. Mulder runs his hand over his face, pulls the sheets away and walks back to bed. “Mulder, are you okay?” Scully calls back through the door, her voice thick with tears.

“Yeah,” he calls back, voice just as thick. “Tripped over something.”

Quiet on the other side of the wall—or maybe she's being too quiet for him to hear. He pulls the mounds of covers over himself and doesn't think.

---

The Michigan case happens over a weekend, and the next weekend is the weekend Scully asked for days off on. She warns Mulder that she is planning to be out of town that Thursday and Friday the Wednesday beforehand so that he has less time to try and talk her out of it. She doesn't tell him she asked for those days off weeks ago; she makes it sound like she just thought of it, like he should do it, too. “I think we could both use some time to ourselves,” she says. “Why not take the weekend for some recuperation?”

Mulder seems to be considering, tapping a pen against the table. “You're going out of town this weekend?”

“Yes, I'm flying up to Maine,” Scully says matter-of-factly. Melissa told her once that it's beautiful up there.

He considers further, staring at the table top, rolling the pen back and forth between his hands. “I think it's a good idea, Scully,” he says finally. “I think you could use a vacation.”

He calls her the very next day, when she's arriving in Maine. She should've known. She should've known it wouldn't last. He calls under the guise of wanting to talk about a “classic” X-File, but he's clearly bored, goading her into talking about the statistics of decapitation while talking on the phone while driving, and she politely hangs up on him. And runs straight into an X-File of her own. (Of course she does; she is turning into the woman from Murder, She Wrote. Her life is like a bad TV show.)

She calls Mulder the second time, to ask about the phenomenon she's seeing. He's startlingly unhelpful, outside of asking her to marry him in a breathy tone. She blinks, says, “I was hoping for something a little more helpful,” and pretends she didn’t consider saying yes for a millisecond. Half of a millisecond. She's used to the flirting, but it stings a little now. She regrets breaking up with him sometimes, misses him sometimes.

And definitely doesn't other times. She ends up deeper and deeper into the X-File, to her ultimate irritation aside. Mulder calls twice, and each time is vastly more unhelpful than the last. Between the doll case (an evil doll, really?) and Mulder's annoying phone calls punctuating the hours, she barely gets any actual time to relax. The one bright side (sort of) is Captain Jack Bonsaint, her temporary colleague, who is tripping over his own feet in attempts to be sweet, flirting just a little. It feels almost nice.

She sets a doll on fire on Friday. The mother goes to the hospital, the daughter refusing to leave her side, and Scully heads back to her hotel. She tries not to think about Melissa and Polly Turner and does anyway, thinks about how the little girl forgot her doll as soon as she saw her mother hurt, yelled, “I want to stay with Mommy!” at all the paramedics. Melissa. Mommy.

Scully downs two sleeping pills and goes to bed.

Saturday, Jack calls her up and asks her to dinner. She twirls the cord around her finger, considers it for a second. It might be nice. Jack is sweet. He's not Mulder, but they did manage to solve this case. She had a nice time with him. But that wasn't her intention in coming up here. She’s not looking for a relationship, especially not with random people she met in Maine. (Besides, she’ll never see him again after this weekend.) “I'm sorry, Jack, but I really need some time to myself,” she says. He's nice about it, telling her to let him know if she wanted someone to show her around. She thanks him and hangs up the phone, unplugs it so it is silent from there on out. She spends the rest of the weekend in the blissful silence she'd pictured, takes long baths and reads books and tries to forget.

---

After Maine, it's easier to pretend the things that haunt her dreams at night aren't real during the day. She keeps Emily’s picture in her wallet but almost never takes it out. She throws herself in work (distractions, anything for a distraction) and doesn't think of her sister or her daughter who looks like her sister. She doesn't think about it; she's getting good at that. And Mulder doesn't mention it, or their failed attempt at a relationship.

There's a shootout in a diner. Scully gets the call sometime after midnight, pulls on a wool coat and treks out into the chilled February air. It's just as well; she wasn't getting any sleep anyway.

Among the dead, Mulder identifies Donald Gelman, Silicon Valley folk hero. His theory is that the shootout was a staged hit, steals Gelman's laptop and finds a CD of Twilight Time inside. Scully follows him to the Gunmen, where they find the shipping container in Gelman's email, where they find Invisigoth. A supposed artificial intelligence blows the storage container. Invisigoth—or more accurately, Esther Nairn—claims that Twilight Time is the kill switch that will make sure the AI will deactivate. Scully thinks it's a load of horseshit. Mulder and the Gunmen latch onto the story eagerly, of course, and Mulder runs off to find the home base of the AI. Scully stays back with Esther and the Gunmen.

She makes the mistake of falling asleep on the couch and wakes up to Esther gone, Esther right around the corner with a gun. Being essentially kidnapped by a snarky computer geek isn't the worst of her problems at the moment, but it's still pretty irritating. Esther handcuffs her to the steering wheel and directs her to David Markham’s residence. Esther doesn't particularly strike her as malicious, so she's more annoyed than worried. Esther clearly doesn't know anything about this; she leaves the handcuff key in her coat slung across the car seat while she goes to check out the rubble of David’s house. Amatuer. Scully manages to get the key and unlock the cuffs just before Esther gets back to the car, sobbing into her hands. Meticulously, Scully begins to reach for the gun.

Esther snatches it and turns to point it at her. “Go ahead! Put me out of my misery!” she sobs. Scully is briefly surprised, sympathy coming in underneath it. “Take it!” Esther insists.

Scully takes the gun before putting a hand on her shoulder. “It's okay,” she tries, a little stiffly.

Esther sniffles, wiping her eyes. “Not to point out the obvious, but I don't think any of this is very okay,” she says bitterly, waving her hand at the ruins.

Scully squeezes her shoulder, sliding the gun into her holster with her free hand. Esther sniffles again, takes a shaky breath before holding out her wrists. “I guess I'm under arrest again,” she mutters. “Doesn't matter now, if David’s…”

Scully considers this for half a minute. Reconsiders. “I think we can be done with the… handcuffing,” she replies. “I think we have a similar goal at this point. But I'm keeping the gun.”

Esther takes another deep breath, meets her eyes and gives her a grateful nod. Then she turns and gets out of the car. Scully opens the door and follows her to the edge of the rubble.

“I lied to you,” Esther says as they walk. “I wasn’t working with Donald. I mean, I was, and then he found out about us.”

“About you and who?” Scully asks.

“David,” Esther says, still sniffling a little. “About our plans.”

“What plans did he find out?”

“Uploading,” Esther says miserably. Her black eyeshadow is smeared around her eyes like a bruise, the sunlight casting her face in gold. “Transfer of memory, of consciousness to the distributed system maintained by the AI. Imagine being mingled so completely with another, you no longer need your physical self—you’re one.”

It sounds like something out of a bad romantic sci-fi novel. “So you were going to—”

“Enter the AI,” Esther clarifies sadly. “Give up our inefficient bodies so that our consciousness could live together forever.”

She watches Esther a little sadly herself. The idea of never losing your loved one… she can't say that's not appealing. She'd do anything to never lose anyone ever again. But still, the idea of losing all physical aspects of life to live on in a computer… “But Donald Gelman forbade it,” she says, assuming he must've had the same doubts she does.

Esther kneels by the remnants of the house. “He was afraid of his creation. He was afraid of what would happen if other people followed us,” she says confirming Scully's suspicions. She pulls a burned picture out of the rubble. Scully catches a flash of a man's face next to Esther’s through the ashes. “I loved him so much,” she sniffles.

Scully has heard the longing, the worry, in Esther’s voice all too many times. Echoing in her own head. She understands. “Well, maybe he wasn’t here when this happened. Maybe he’s somewhere else,” she offers, an attempt at comfort. At hope.

Esther looks wistfully back at the photo. “I just… can't bear the thought of never seeing him again,” she says, turning to Scully and motioning with her free hand. “You know?”

Her hand doesn't still, fluttering nervously through the air. Scully reaches out and stills it, clasping Esther’s fingers in hers. She thinks about all the times she'd thought Mulder dead. “I know,” she says.

---

After hours of searching and attempting to reach Mulder, Scully realizes that she and Esther might have more in common than she'd hoped. “I can't get through to Mulder,” she says to Esther, trying to ignore the churning in her belly, immediately dialing again.

“It's the AI,” Esther says, and somehow, considering the explosion in the storage facility and the ruins of David Markham’s house, this statement doesn't comfort her.

They decide to follow Mulder to the chicken farm he'd said he was at when he called earlier, trying to cut off the AI’s communication in the process. It tracks them to a bridge, and Esther flings her computer into a river. It explodes in the air. They duck, Scully's hand shooting out to Esther’s arm. When she looks up, she sees the churning water and smoke rising.

Esther is breathing hard, picking herself up from the gritty ground. “Hell of a night, baby,” she says, and Scully huffs out a laugh. “C’mon,” Esther says, tugging at her sleeve. “We have shit to do.”

In the car, on the way to Fairfax, Esther finally asks the question Scully has heard entirely too many times: “So what's the deal between you and Mulder?”

Scully gazes at Esther out of the corner of her eye. She's got her feet up on the dash (which drives Scully absolutely mad) and her hands tangled in her lap. There are still worried lines drawn on her face, tenseness in her shoulders. She's worried, expecting the worse—Scully suspects they both are. She also suspects Esther is looking for a distraction in this conversation. But she needs a distraction, too, and this is exactly how not to do it. “We're partners,” she says sternly.

Esther laughs. “Trust me, I know when two coworkers are engaged in a forbidden romance.” She waggles her fingers dramatically on the word forbidden. “And you seem real worried about this Mulder guy for him to just be a colleague.”

“He's my friend,” Scully says, smacking the wheel a little. “We're partners. We're supposed to protect each other.” She is not going to go through the entire complicated spectrum of her relationship with Mulder with a woman who handcuffed her to a steering wheel today.

Esther’s feet hit the floorboard with a thunk. “We have more in common than I thought, I guess,” she says quietly. “Except it's more likely that your boyfriend is still alive.”

Scully's fingers clench around the steering wheel. God, she can't think about the possibility of Mulder dying or she'll fall apart right here. “He's not my boyfriend,” she says firmly.

“Maybe not.” Esther crosses her arms, resting her head against the window. Black is still smeared around her eyes like a bruise; it's impossible to look away from. “But that doesn't mean you don't care.”

Scully swallows harshly and says nothing. The car rattles down the Virginia road. Esther whistles the theme of some TV show as she watches the landscape go by. Snow starts to fall.

---

They pull up to the farm under the cover of darkness, right behind Mulder’s car. Getting out, Scully moves her flashlight beam over the windows and sees that it is empty. Esther moves ahead of her, muttering something in a singsong voice. Scully follows, flashlight in hand.

They move through a wooded area to a rundown trailer in a clearing. As soon as they exit the copse of trees, a siren wails, a light coming on out of nowhere. They both cover their ears, Scully’s flashlight hitting the ground wetly. She locates the source of the shrill sound and fumbles for her gun, shoots out the light on the trailer. It explodes in a wave of sparks, the sound ceasing on her second shot. There, in the new silence, she can hear it: Mulder calling her name.

“Mulder?” she calls back. “Mulder, are you all right?”

Faintly, she hears him saying something back, but she can’t understand it. “Mulder?” she calls again, approaching the trailer, Esther at her side. “Mulder, can you hear me?” She starts for the door, but Esther shakes her head, face serious, motions underneath the trailer. Understanding, Scully crouches on the frost-crunchy grass and crawls underneath the trailer. There is an open hatch. “Mulder?” she calls again, positioning herself and moving up through it.

A little robot-like thing whirs towards her. She ducks, raising her gun through the hole and shooting four times. She hears the crackling of sparks and raises her head again warily. All clear, in a matter of speaking. She climbs through the hatch, getting to her feet and moving through the trailer. “Mulder?”

Empty but for wires and computers. “Help me out here, Esther,” she says, surveying the space. “What’s its next move? What is it thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Esther says, nervous.

“Who built this?”

It did.” She points ahead of them, to a large surface with what looks like a human sticking out from it. “There.”

The hand looks largely lifeless. Scully’s heart thumps loudly in her chest as she approaches. She can’t see who it is until Esther’s flashlight lands on the body. Not Mulder. A man, decomposing, covered in electrical burns. “David,” Esther says with defeat, astonishment. Grief. “Oh, god.”

Nervousness building, Scully looks away, towards another harness across from them. Fear fills her as she sees who is in it. “Mulder?” she half-gasps, moving towards him.

His face is mostly covered with some kind of headpiece that looks like it belongs in a bad sci-fi movie. He’s strapped in with some kind of restraints, trapped in place. She can’t see his face. “Mulder?” she whispers again, lifting the headpiece. His eyes are held open, almost lifeless. “Mulder, can you hear me?” His mouth moves, phantom words. “Mulder, talk to me,” she says firmly, near pleading.

She jolts at a thrumming sound behind her, turns and points her gun at an ejecting CD ROM drive. “It wants the Kill Switch,” says Esther.

“Well, we don’t have it,” Scully says. “You threw it in the water with the computer.”

Esther shakes her head, takes the disc out of her pocket. She goes to the open drive, but stops, hesitating. “But that’s going to kill it, right?” Scully asks.

“Not if it can learn the program and vaccinate itself against it.”

The sound of electrical jolts behind them. Scully turns and sees Mulder’s body contorting, his fingers splayed in pain. She can’t breathe. “Give it what it wants, Esther.”

Mulder shakes as the electricity contorts through him again. God, they are going to do this until he is dead, like David. “Put it in, Esther!” she says.

The computer beeps, the familiar map coming up on its screen. “It’s targeting us,” Esther says.

Panic rising, she almost shouts, “Put it in!” Esther doesn’t move, eyes on the screen. Desperate, Scully snatches the disc herself and shoves it into place.

Twilight Time begins playing. Behind them, Mulder’s restraints come loose with a whoosh, and he slumps forward. Scully crosses to him, whispering, “You’re going to be okay.” She pulls the headgear off. “I’m going to get you out of here.” Mulder doesn’t say anything. She wants to burn this machine to the ground. “Okay,” she says, pulling at the eye restraints. She can hear Esther typing madly behind them. “It’s okay.”

He stumbles forward, nearly landing on top of her as he’s released, holding onto her like she is his life preserver. She leans into him, supports him with an arm hard around his waist and begins moving towards the hatch. He keeps his arms around her outside of using his hands to push off of the sides of the trailer as they stumble towards the exit. When they reach it, Scully realizes that Esther is not with them. She lets go of Mulder as he begins to lower himself out of the trailer and turns. “What are you doing, Esther?”

“Get out of here,” she says, not looking away from the computer.

“What are you doing?” Scully prods. She refuses to leave someone else behind. She won’t.

“Go!” Esther says firmly, sparing her a brief look.

They don’t have time to argue. Scully ducks out of the trailer and helps Mulder crawl out from under it, leans him against one of the wheels before going back under, up and through the hatch. Twilight Time is still echoing, incessantly. She might’ve liked that song a long time ago. When she gets back in the trailer, she can’t see Esther anymore. “Esther?” she calls out, panicked.

“You don’t listen, do you?” Esther calls back from some unknown place.

“Where are you?” Scully scans the trailer.

“Get out of here now!”

“Oh, God,” Scully whispers, realizing. Esther won’t leave David. She doesn’t have time to try and convince her; maybe if it was just her, but Mulder… She ducks out of the trailer and claws her way across the cold ground. Mulder is slumped where she left him, still conscious, thankfully; she wraps her arm around his waist, helping him to his feet, and moves them towards the woods. She pulls him through the trees in a clumsy near-run until she hears the explosion behind her. She turns in time to see the inferno, the fire.

She swallows dryly, pressing her hand into Mulder’s chest to steady him. There is no time to mourn or to be relieved they escaped; they have to get out of here before the woods catch on fire. They turn, walking towards where she parked the car.

Scully fumbles for the keys, unlocks the passenger side and lowers Mulder into the seat. “Mulder, can you hear me?” Her hand pushes the hair off his forehead as she checks for a fever, checks his pulse. Steady, thank god. Normal heart rate. “How do you feel?”

His eyes half-closed, he mutters, “Scully?”

“It’s me.” Her fingers move over the places where he was strapped to the machine, the electrical burns. “We need to get you to a hospital,” she whispers.

“No!” The force of his words surprise her, and she lifts her head to meet his eyes. He looks uncertain, frightened. “Can’t go back…”

“Mulder, you’re burned,” she says, pressing her cold hand flat against his cheek. “You need medical attention.”

“You’re my doctor.” He catches her free wrist, fluttering over his burns up and down his arms, and holds her hand against his chest. “You… you fix me. Not them. You.”

“Okay, okay. No hospital.”

She's stroking the side of his jaw a little with her thumb and he turns into her hand, kisses the center of her palm and presses her other hand harder against his chest. “I'm glad it's really you,” he mumbles, eyelids drooping low. “Not it. Just you. The real you.”

She has no idea what he means but the fear from when he was trapped there, being electrocuted, is still hot under her skin. She can still feel it. And Esther is dead and they almost, they almost, he almost…

She wraps her arms around his shoulders and hugs him. He presses his face into her stomach. She smooths his hair, overwhelmed, before pulling away. “I have to call the local police,” she says. “Hang on, Mulder. You're okay. I’m here. I’m right here.”

He mumbles something indecipherable. She ducks out of the car, leans against the side and calls 9-1-1. Some of the trees have caught on fire. She watches and thinks of Esther. She hopes she isn't really gone, that she was telling the truth. About being uploaded. About never dying, immortality. Her fingers are cold.

The police come, and the fire department, and she tells them that she is taking Mulder home to rest. After she agrees to come back in the morning and give a statement, they let her. Mulder has dozed off by the time she gets in the car; she suspects the AI gave him something to make him docile. She drives back to Alexandria and tries not to think.

In Mulder's apartment, she rinses the burns and bandages them at his kitchen table. “Tomorrow, we need to stop by the doctor's,” she says.

He closes his eyes and leans his head forward, resting his chin on the top of hers. “Okay.”

Her hand is on his knee. She squeezes it, leaning into him. Unthinking. Her eyes close as her nose brushes against his collarbone. He's holding her loosely, clumsily. She breathes in, out, her head tucked into the hollow of his neck. Pulls back, squeezing his knee again, and says, “You should get some rest, Mulder.”

His eyes still closed, he nods. She helps him up and goes to support him, but he steps away, walking towards the couch. Scully's stomach knots as she hears the jolts of electricity, again. She swallows hard and follows him.

He's curled into the back of the couch, a tiny bit of space left on the cushions. She crawls in beside him, slinging an arm over his side and leaning into his warmth. They fit, barely; he has to hold her against him to keep her from falling off. “Scully?” he whispers, uncertain, eyes huge and dark. A question.

They'd slept here only once in their brief relationship; he'd fallen off the couch with a hard thump and she couldn't stop laughing. They'd ended up sitting side by side on the floor, backs against the couch, watching TV. He held her hand, fingers tracing the softest spots of her wrist and arm. She fell asleep bonelessly against his shoulder. They'd both ached like crazy in the morning.

Scully crawls closer, wrapping herself around him and pulling the Navajo blanket slung over the back of his couch over them. “It's okay,” she says. “I'm here. It's okay.”

He's looking at her warily but says nothing more; he buries his head into the cool skin of her shoulder, where her shirt slips to the side. She can feel his hot breaths on her skin.

They've shared beds before, before they ever became a couple, and this isn't the most abnormal thing in the world, and oh fuck, he almost died. Another one lost on Dana Scully's watch, and fuck, he loves her. And she… maybe she's destined to lose everyone she loves, through death or emotional distance. She holds Mulder closer, fingers against his wrist to check his pulse. She falls asleep with her chin on his shoulder, still counting.

---

It had snowed in Virginia two nights before Scully went to San Diego. It was freezing. Mulder had used the cold as an excuse to hold Scully's hand, even though she had a rule about affection at work. “Frostbite kills, Scully,” he said seriously, locating her hand in the pockets of her trench coat. She rolled her eyes but didn't pull away, let him sleep his cold fingers through hers.

They'd gone to Scully's house because it was closer and cranked up the heat. Mulder opened the blinds in her bedroom so they could watch the snow fall. “It's pretty, huh?” he offered, crawling in beside her.

“Mm-hmm.” Scully leaned into him and he was suddenly warm all over. “Too bad I won't get a white Christmas.”

“If it snows here, I'll take pictures for you,” said Mulder.

“That's sweet.” Her cold feet brushed against his legs; she hid her smile against his shoulder. “What do you have planned for Christmas? Are you going to go up and visit your mother?”

“Actually, I thought I'd go find the Abominable Snowman,” he joked. She lifted her head to fix him with a look and he shrugged. “Haven't decided yet.”

“You could always come with me,” she said in a slow molasses voice, and even though he was sure she'd agree if he said he wanted to, they both knew she was kidding.

“I think I'll pass,” he said just as slowly. His hand traveled up and down Scully's arm and she shuddered with chilled pleasure, burrowing against him. “I'll miss you, though.”

“Mmm.” She was smiling against his shoulder again, wider; she kissed the curve of it through the cotton of his shirt. “I'll miss you, too.” He smiled, too, at the ceiling, his fingers traveling down her arm again to take her hand. “I think I'll be back for New Year's actually,” she added.

“Really.” He squeezed her hand. “I think I can cancel my standing appointment with the Gunmen to spend it with you.”

“How generous.” She rested her chin on his shoulder, kissing his cheek. “Sounds nice. I can't wait.” Her voice was thick with genuine affection, and he turned to face her, their noses nearly brushing. She was grinning softly.

“Hey, Scully,” he whispered confidentially. “Did you hear that?”

“What?” she whispered back.

“It's midnight,” he whispered. He leaned forward, his mouth colliding with hers.

They'd never made it to New Year's; Scully spent the holiday by her dying daughter's hospital bed. That was the last time they shared a bed as well. (In San Diego, he'd accepted Bill's head-jerk motion towards the couch without question; better not to arouse the wrath of Scully's brother.) The last time until that night. That morning.

Mulder wakes up warm all over, with Scully lying half on top of him, her bare feet sticking off the couch. His nose is pressed against the side of her neck, breathing in her scent. Her hair is brushing over his face. Confused, he wraps his arms around her waist. She murmurs something, nuzzling her face against his shoulder.

The events of the night unevenly rattle through his head. Hallucinations. Computer nurses and amputated arms. Scully comforting him. Scully crawling in beside him on the couch. The inferno in the forest. “Scully,” he whispers. “Scully?”

“Mmm.” She shifts against him. “Mulder?”

“Yeah.” He loosens his hold on her and waits for her to wake up. “What happened?”

Scully's eyes flutter open. Brief confusion, then panic, then something that might fall somewhere between embarrassment and a resigned acceptance. She rolls off of him and sits on the edge of the couch, rubbing her eyes. “How do you feel, Mulder?”

“Fine,” he says. “A little sore, maybe, but… why were you…”

A faint blush spreads over Scully's cheekbones. She shrugs. “I was worried about you. I didn't want to leave you alone.”

Mulder drags his teeth over his lower lips, considering. He doesn't mind sharing his makeshift bed with her—quite the opposite, actually—but somehow, he doesn't think this is a segue into getting back together. If Scully's face provides any clue, it definitely isn't. She looks guilty and embarrassed. “Scully…” he starts, uncertain.

“I need to check on your burns,” she says determinedly, turning to face him. Their eyes meet, and she looks completely professional now. As if crawling in and sleeping beside your patient/partner is totally normal behavior. “And then, if you're feeling up to it, we need to go back to Fairfax. The local police and firemen handled the explosion sight, but they'd like our side of things.”

“Sure,” Mulder says with a sigh, shifting into a sitting position on the couch.

There's blisters up and down his arms, but no signs of infection. Scully washes and rebandages the wounds before heading into the bathroom to freshen up. Mulder downs two painkillers and changes into a clean suit in his room. They leave about a half hour later, Scully driving, Mulder rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to pick absently at his bandages.

He knows little to nothing about medical jargon, but he knows you're not supposed to break open blisters, or else you risk infection. He feels like Scully staying with him the night before was the equivalent of breaking open a blister. Now they're risking infection.