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locking out the ghosts

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Something seems to have shifted between them since Scully spent the night on Mulder's couch.

Scully couldn't tell anyone why she decided to crawl on the couch beside Mulder that night. Inwardly, she knew it was her indescribable need for him in that moment—knowing he was alive and okay seemed like a necessity—but outwardly, she has no idea why she ever thought it was a good idea. Admittedly, she did wake up warm and comfortable, curled against Mulder, but she'd regretted it as soon as she'd realized. It was too soon. She's not ready. She doesn't know when she'll be ready.

Whatever the circumstances inside her own head, she can tell Mulder is a little annoyed with her. He doesn't joke as much, is quieter during the day. It's not an overt thing, but it's definitely there. She would ask him why, but she doesn't want to be the one to bring it up. They haven't talked about their relationship since the warehouse in Falls Church. They haven't really talked about their relationship since San Diego.

(Maybe the problem is that it’s impossible to revert completely to a place where there is no affection between them. Because there has always been affection between them. They’ve been leaning on each other since Day One. When Scully had broken things off, she wasn’t thinking about how close they’d been for years now; she’d assumed that would stay their thing, that the pressure of a relationship could go away but they could still be each other’s pillars, each other’s anchors. And maybe that was her mistake.)

(If she was kinder, maybe she’d have it in her to walk away completely. But she can’t do that. She can’t. She’s invested too much of her life in the X-Files to walk away now. She has to keep going, for Melissa and for Emily and for herself. And for Mulder.)

After a few days, the awkward silence gets infuriating. Slowly, it creeps up on her until it is an itch that never ceases itching.

One night, about a week after the case, Scully tries an experiment of sorts. They have several expense reports to go through and not enough hours in the day. (And in addition, the basement office is freezing.) She suggests, casually, that they get some takeout and go back to one of their places to work. It's something they've done multiple times before San Diego, before and during their relationship. But Mulder's face immediately gets a look of great uncertainty on it; he says, “I don't know if that's a good idea, Scully.”

She feels irritation sprout inside her as if spring has come out. “I thought we were still friends, at least,” she says in a muted fury to the top of the desk. She allows the tiniest amount of annoyance to thread through her words.

“We are,” Mulder says, somewhat helplessly. “I'm just… wondering what it is you want, Scully. After that night on my couch.”

I'm just wondering what it is you want, she thinks, crossing her ankles. Because it's not very fucking clear, Mulder. None of this is clear. “I just want things to go back to normal, Mulder,” she says out loud. She meets his eyes, face blank. “Let's just work on this tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Mulder says quietly. “I'll see you tomorrow, then.”

“See you tomorrow,” Scully says as she gets up to leave.

---

Fucking Texas.

Mulder gets a case the next day and they travel to Dallas—excuse her, Chaney—and only disaster results. Tension from what Scully has taken to referring as The Couch Incident only rises from the flight out, to the drive to Dallas, to the case itself (two autopsies, two fucking autopsies and no dinner in between), to having to call Skinner after Ronnie Strickland is dead. They bicker as they drive back to the airport, they bicker on the flight home, and they bicker the next day at work as they report in an hour before their meeting with Skinner to determine whether or not they will be going to prison. They debate the events of their day in Texas, and Scully's nerves rise higher and higher as Mulder tells his side of things. Oh, god, I'm going to prison, she thinks. She always thought it would happen one day, being partners with Mulder. She just didn't know it would be over an adolescent, acne-peppered not-vampire and a ridiculous fucking story.

But they don't go to prison—although it's almost as bad in Scully's eyes. Skinner sends them back to Chaney on the grounds of Ronnie Strickland being alive, despite the stake Mulder put through his heart. Or undead, or what the hell ever. Scully is mostly just tired, and eager to put all this behind them. But not very eager to see Sheriff Hartwell after the embarrassment of the night before. And not very eager to argue with Mulder. She's really sick and tired of arguing with Mulder. And she's really sick and tired of him giving her reasons to argue.

They bicker on the flight back out to Texas. (Scully is sick and tired of airplanes, as well; she's ready to insist that they only take cases they can drive to. But that would trap her in an even smaller space with Mulder, and take away the factor of sodas and peanuts and naps and the occasional in-flight movie.) They jab at each other for most of the trip, shooting snide comments between lengthy silences. Mulder pouts irritably and Scully scowls at the seat in front of her. At one point, she snaps, “And I was not flirting with Sheriff Hartwell.”

“Sure, Dana,” he says in a simpering tone that makes her want to slug him. She realizes in that moment that it's been years since he's called her that. The cult case in Tennessee, she thinks. And since then, never with any affection. Only to rib her about a small-town sheriff that he had her practically drooling over. She shuts her mouth and is quiet for the rest of the ride.

In Texas, Mulder suggests that she stay back with Sheriff Hartwell while he goes and checks something out. (Right after she motions to her teeth, self-satisfied. He does not have buck teeth, thank you very much.) She looks over at him in surprise after he says it, and he puts a hand on her shoulder, says, “Don't say I never did nothing for ya,” in an exaggerated, sarcastic voice that she thinks might be a bad Sheriff Hartwell impression. Shock and irritation flickers through her as she asks where he's going; what is his game here? Why would he suggest she hang out with a guy he assumes she's attracted to? (Which: she isn't not attracted to him, but she assumed it would fizzle out to nothing, like with Esther or Jack Bonsaint. A brief crush that she’d forget about months later. She's not in a place for a relationship, especially considering it's been a little over a month since she broke things off with Mulder, and things are still… complicated. They both were extremely exaggerating when talking about her interactions with Hartwell, anyway. Probably to annoy each other. She thought Mulder was exaggerating to get on her nerves. But now…) Mulder walks off into the distance and leaves them alone, and she's left with something like whiplash, confusion pulsing through her.

And of course, the Sheriff is a vampire or something who drugs her coffee. Of course. Just her fucking luck.

When she wakes up in the morning, slumped against a gravestone, with the Sheriff's coat buttoned over her (for warmth, she supposes), she feels a little bit hungover and very exasperated. She wants to punch somebody in the face and ask why every person she ever has a crush on ends up dead or a creep or… well, like Mulder. She walks back to the trailer park in search of Mulder, grateful at least that the Sheriff didn't take her gun.

---

Mulder wakes up with a pounding headache draped over the front seats of his car, his feet sticking out of the window. He startles when he sees the Sheriff's badge in the window, but relaxes when he hears Scully's voice. “Mulder?” she asks.

“Scully, what happened?” he asks, sitting up in the car.

Scully looks exhausted and disheveled, her hair a frizzed mess. “I came to in the cemetery,” she says shortly. “That's all I know.”

Mulder checks his neck in the mirror and finds it smooth. Climbing out of the car, he moves towards Scully, and she tips her head from one side to another, clearly annoyed. No marks.

He scans the empty field and finds nothing, mud and empty patches where trailers once sat. “They pulled up stakes,” he notes.

Scully raises her eyebrows at him, like she's trying to say, You think? He looks down at himself and sees the mud from where the vampires attacked him, and his shoelaces dragging loosely along the ground. He crouches to tie them.

“Scully, are you okay?” he asks, forcing his cold-numbed fingers to try and form a knot of the threads. “Did he hurt you?”

“No, Mulder,” Scully sighs, rubbing her forehead. “He drugged me. I'm fine otherwise. I think he just drugged me so he could get away.”

He stares hard at the top of his shoes, guilt rising up in his throat for leaving her alone with him. Neither of them are hurt, but still… “They attacked me,” he says. “All of them. But they didn't kill us or turn us, either of us.”

“Sheriff Hartwell mentioned something about Ronnie not wanting to stay low profile. I suppose this means he was the only homicidal… vampire.” Scully sounds like every word physically pains her. She rubs at her forehead harder, like she can scrub away the past two days. “I'm going to go call Skinner.”

Scully calls Skinner on her cell phone, pacing the muddy field, while Mulder starts the car. He notices that she has shed the Sheriff's coat into the mud, possibly kicked it a few times. He doesn't comment.

She climbs back in the car, scraping mud off of her pants. “We have a meeting with Skinner tomorrow,” she says grumpily. “But the soonest flight he could get us was tomorrow morning. Because it's the night before Valentine’s Day, I suppose.” She's making a face of incredible distaste. “Everything's clogged up.”

Mulder had forgotten the holiday, and he would've liked to keep on forgetting. Fucking Hallmark scientifically-inaccurate-hearts holiday. (Scully had called it this once in 1995, and he'd thought it hilarious and has referred to it as such since then.) “Okay, well,” he says, sighing, “do you want to go get a hotel in Dallas? I don't know about you but I'm more than done with Chaney.”

“Ditto.” Scully crosses her arms, a scowl on her face.

She looks fierce, and also like she is shivering a little. Mulder untangles his coat from his torso and drapes it over her shoulders. She looks up at him with confusion. “You looked cold,” he says by way of explanation. “And your jacket, um.”

“Drive, Mulder,” she says sternly.

He drives. He doesn’t comment when she threads her arms through his coat and settles into it; he has a feeling that Scully will make him fear for his life if he does.

In Dallas, they find a decent hotel, better than their usual haunts. At check-in, the receptionist purses her lips and says, “I'm so sorry, but I'm afraid we only have one room available.”

Scully sighs, muttering something that might be, “You've got to be fucking kidding me,” as she turns away.

Mulder sighs, too, rubbing his forehead. “Excuse us for a second.” He turns away, motioning Scully with him and says, “Do you want to go somewhere else? We can…”

Her eyes half-closed, she says, “Mulder, I am exhausted, I just spent the night drugged in a cemetery, in the cold, and I feel like shit. I just want a bed. I don't care if I have to share the room.”

Mulder rubs his forehead again, turns back to the front desk. “We'll take it,” he says. “Is it a single or a double?”

“A single, I'm afraid,” the receptionist says apologetically.

Scully sighs heavily again, exasperated. “Could we get a cot?” Mulder mutters, finally understanding Scully’s exhaustion.

---

Mulder spends the first half of the afternoon at a local café, ordering cup after cup of coffee and flipping through a book. He spends the second half of the afternoon at a bar closer to the hotel. Anything to get the latest case out of his head, because if he thinks about it too hard he's either going to start laughing hysterically or end up with a massive headache. Better to stay away.

When he gets back to the hotel room, with an apologetic hamburger for Scully in a paper bag, he finds her sprawled on the bedspread sipping from a glass of amber-colored liquid. “Hi, Scully,” he says awkwardly.

She sees him, and her eyebrows go up in amusement. “Salud, Mulder.” She raises her glass as if to toast him. She's clearly been drinking for a while, and she seems to be in that place between a good mood and completely furious. She always is like this when she's annoyed and drinks.

The bottle on the bedside table indicates she's only a couple glasses in. Scully gestures to it with a flick of her hand, snatching the hamburger. “Want a drink?”

He does, in fact.

They drink on the bed for a while, flipping TV channels. Scully's mood seems to lighten after a few more glasses. When they land on Dracula, she dissolves into giggles.

“What,” Mulder says irritably, changing the channel.

“Nothing, it's just…” She laughs harder, motioning with her glass and sloshing her drink across the covers. “You should've seen your face when his fake teeth popped out.”

“Oh, and you're one to talk,” Mulder replies poutily, cutting his eyes at her. “You should've seen your face when Skinner told us I was right.”

“Oh, you were not right.” She rolls on her stomach, poking him in the side and pouting right back. “I was the one who figured out that Ronnie Strickland was a vampire.”

“I figured it out!” he protests.

“After you were drugged.” Scully bursts into giggles again, burying her face in the pillow. “Hey, Mulder?”

“Yeah?”

“You have a terrible falsetto.” She flicks her hand in the air to demonstrate the gravity of it. “Really awful.”

He makes a face at her as she chortles into the pillow. “You are terrifying when you're tired,” he pronounces, poking her cheek.

“You're ridiculous when you're theorizing,” she says, patting his leg clumsily.

Thank you,” he says with what he considers great dignity. She giggles again, near hysterical.

They have another drink, and then another. Scully is leaning against the headboard between the pillows—not quite leaning against him, but close enough that he can feel her body heat. She gulps the last of her drink, cheeks pinking, and he thinks about kissing her. Just leaning over and kissing her. Kissing her. Her hands on his cheeks in Florida, the humidity palpable in the room. His hands curving around her hips, pulling her into him. Their noses brushing, her hands clenching in her hair. He wants to kiss her. Even if it is a very bad idea, he wants to kiss her.

“What are you staring at?” Scully asks, pouting. Her lower lip jutting out just a little. She's perfected the pout; she's a lot better at it than he is.

“You weren't really going to run off with Sheriff Charming, were you,” he says suddenly. Wistfully.

She looks irritated as she brushes hair out of her face. “No, Mulder,” she says heavily. Like she’s disappointed in him. “I was not.”

“Oh. Good. You didn't… he didn't deserve you.” He brushes a hand over the side of her face, pretends he is brushing away hairs. Her cheek is soft under her fingertips.

She is glaring at him, and it startles him. “What…” she tries, sternly. “Mulder, what… what did you expect? You were the one who… you asked him to…”

“Yeah, but I didn't know that he was a vampire,” Mulder protests. He brushes his hand over her cheek, leans down and presses his nose in the soft space below her jaw. “The buck teeth should've been a clue-in, though. Shoulda known. Shouldn't have left you...”

Scully shoots him another exasperated look that he can barely see from the strange angle he's at. “You said you loved me,” she says, accusatory, voice blurring and slurring, words buzzing into him from where they are connected.

He's confused, pulling away to look her in the eye. “What?”

“You said you loved me.” She pushes her hands into his chest like she is trying to shove him away. “In San Diego. Through the door. You said you loved me. A-and then you try to set me up with a fucking small town sheriff?”

He's breathless, uncertain. He catches her hands against his chest, their fingers tangling. “Scully, I didn't wanna…” He squeezes her hands. “I thought you liked him,” he says. “I thought you wanted things to go back to normal… you said… and I thought…”

“Shut up,” Scully says fiercely, and the next thing he knows, she's kissing him so fiercely that he can't breathe, pushing him against the headboard. He wraps his arms around her, pulling her up against him. She burrows into him, her nose crushed against his cheek as she kisses him harder.

The cot sits across the room, abandoned.

---

They don't talk about it in the morning. They're becoming remarkably good at not talking about things.

It isn't until they’re landing in DC that Mulder mentions it. Scully's been irritably flipping through a newspaper and not mentioning any of the events of the past few days—no vampires, no light cream cheese, and no mentions of the hotel room the night before. Mulder pulls at a loose thread in the red pattern of the airplane seat, clears his throat. Says, “We can't keep doing this.”

Scully jolts, paper folding in her hand. “What? Solving X-Files?” she snaps. “Flying?”

He lowers his voice a little, trying not to draw attention. “We can't… spend the night together if it's not going to lead anywhere.”

She flinches, biting her lower lip. The paper crinkles between her fingers. Her eyes lower.

“You asked for time, Scully, and I want to give it to you,” he tries. “Time to figure things out…” She says nothing, her jaw clenched. “I just, I don't think I can… If we aren't going to…”

“Fine,” Scully blurts. “We'll forget it ever happened.”

She's still not looking at him, her hair hiding her face. Mulder can hear her alcohol-soaked voice saying, You said you loved me. He swallows, throat dry. He doesn't know if he's ever missed her more, and she's right beside him. Right there. “Scully…” he starts.

“What?” she snaps. She takes a shaky breath, gulping in air. “What, Mulder?” she asks again, her voice gentler but jagged. Uneven.

He swallows again. He wants to make a joke, make her laugh, bicker some more about vampires. They are not going to prison, and they are not going to be together. Fine. “Nothing,” he says softly. “It's nothing.”

They are quiet as the plane lands and as they pick their way through the airport. They don't speak again until they hit the parking lot. Mulder reaches out to touch Scully's elbow before thinking better of it. “Hey, Scully,” he says, pulling his hand back.

Scully lifts her chin to meet his eyes, says nothing.

“I'm sorry for everything that's happened this week.” He cracks a small smile. If things could just get back to normal… “Sunflower seeds and all.”

The edges of her mouth turn up, just slightly. “I seem to remember them saving your life.”

You saved my life. The seeds just bought me some time,” he points out.

“Yeah.” She's looking at the ground again, hand clenched around the handle of her suitcase. He swallows, shifting back and forth on his feet. “I'll see you tomorrow, Mulder,” she says finally, quietly.

"See you tomorrow, Scully,” he says back.

---

They forget it. Or at least they try. They don't talk about it at least. They work another case, in Maryland this time. Things are as normal as possible, but Mulder doesn’t flirt, doesn’t tease her. It’s worse than after the Couch Incident, but they do a lot better at pretending everything is fine. They cope.

(Scully ignores how cold the sheets feel at night. She lies half on her stomach, pressing her face into a pillow, and doesn’t think. Or tries not to.)

Her birthday comes a little over a week after the vampire case. She doesn’t mention it. She studiously avoids mentioning it. She doesn’t want any fanfare, any acknowledgement, any attempts of Mulder awkwardly wishing her any congratulations. It turns out that she doesn’t have to worry, because Mulder seems to forget it as well. No mention of the date when she comes into the office, just a head nod and a neutral, “Hi, Scully,” as she comes in, barely even looking up from his work. His usual greeting since Texas.

“Hi, Mulder,” she mutters, nodding back. She fingers her keys in her pocket, runs her thumb over the flat face of the Apollo 11 keychain from last year. Thinks of drinks and a Snowball and Mulder’s goofy grin across the table. Pushes it to the back of her mind and takes a seat. (She has successfully pushed him away now, and she can’t complain. This is what she wanted.)

Her mother calls around lunch time to wish her a happy birthday. Scully walks outside in the hall to take it, pacing around the cramped avalanche of boxes. She hasn’t spoken to her mother much since San Diego; it’s been too hard. Her mother didn’t understand, doesn’t understand. (She’d given Scully a hug as soon as she had staggered in the door after Emily had died, when Mulder had brought her back to Bill’s house. Scully had sagged into her mother’s embrace, shoulders shaking, while her mother stroked her hair and whispered soothing things into her hair. Scully remembers thinking that she understood her mother better now—they had both lost a daughter. But as time went on, while her mother was supportive, it became clear that she didn’t understand, not really. She hadn’t known what to say at the funeral. Maybe she didn’t think it was the same, Scully thought as she’d stood by Emily’s coffin. She’d lost a daughter she barely knew, a granddaughter her mother barely knew. No one seemed to know what to say to her.) Still, she pretends. Her mother politely avoids the subjects of Melissa or Emily or Matthew as they chat. Scully even smiles a few times and agrees to have dinner with her that night.

“Who was that?” Mulder inquires as she reenters the office, tapping the pen against his teeth.

“My mother,” Scully says, forcing her voice to be casual as she sits back down. “Just making dinner plans.”

The rest of the day passes in a frenzied succession, a lot faster than she expected. All in all, an uneventful birthday like she wanted. She packs up her things at five and heads out to the parking lot to meet her mother. Mulder walks behind her, to their designated parking spots right next to each other. He says it when she’s unlocking the door, her fingers curled around the keychain: “Happy birthday, Scully.”

She turns to face him just as his car door closes. She watches the car pull away, a little wistfully. “Thank you, Mulder,” she says sadly to the empty parking space.

---

Mulder is invited to attend a panel at MIT discussing a supposed abductee. He would deny if he didn’t think it was important, to reveal the truth to these people who have been blinded by this alien conspiracy. The truth is out there, and he’s found it, and he’s always wanted to expose it, to make sure people know what’s happening. There’s no such thing as aliens, and it’s a conspiracy of men. It’s men who kidnapped Scully and stole her unborn children. It’s men who were responsible for Emily’s death, an innocent little girl. They’ve ruined countless families, the Scullys and the Sims and his. They took his sister. This is the best way to bring them to justice that he can find right now.

He goes to the conference in early March and is immediately humiliated when he calls to attention the holes in the abductee Cassandra Spender’s story. Even his hypnotherapist is in disappointed disbelief at his lack of belief. (Mulder is starting to think that he is destined to be the laughing stock of every community he ventures into.) Dr. Werber takes him to meet Cassandra Spender, and he doesn’t believe her. For the first time in years, he doesn’t believe in the story of an alien abductee. She says that the story of his experience with Duane Barry saved her life, and he wants to snap, Funny, because it ruined the lives of a few people. She tells her that she is going to be called to be abducted, just like Duane Barry. She asks for help he can’t give, and he tells her so. If he can’t even save Scully, if he can’t save her daughter or his sister or himself, then how can he save Cassandra Spender?

By the next morning, he’s back in the office and Scully is ribbing him for his new skeptical reputation, complete with a front-page headline. Things have cooled off enough between him and Scully by now; it almost feels normal. “Shouldn't that be my picture next to the headline?” she says as she throws the newspaper onto his desk, almost teasing. (Actually teasing. He can't even remember the last time that happened.) “Or is that just you having a little fun?”

She's surprised by his change of heart, that is clear—even after everything that happened last spring with Michael Kritschgau—and even more interested in Cassandra Spender’s abduction from Skyland Mountain, the site of her own abduction, and the implant in Cassandra’s neck. Mulder can see the similarities clearly, which is why he suspects that the same thing happened to both of them—they were abducted by the government, taken from the same place in an attempt to keep up the alien facade. He doesn't dare tell Scully that—he doubts she's in any mood to hear it. And besides that, he has no particular faith in Cassandra Spender’s story. If she was enamoured by the Duane Barry story, than she likely could've gotten the details of Scully's abduction somehow and fabricated her own testimony to sound similar.

Scully doesn't seem to think so. Her eyes are wide with worry as she flips through Cassandra’s file. Mulder doesn't bother trying to convince her; he just leaves her alone with it. Apparently Jeffrey Spender (son of purported abductee Cassandra) has told Scully that he wants Mulder to stay away from his mother. Apparently this Jeffrey Spender is an FBI agent. This is the last thing he needs, to be mixed up in the Spender family drama. He leaves in an attempt to remove himself from the situation. The pursuit of aliens is futile—exposing the government conspiracy who took Scully feels entirely more important.

---

Scully is intrigued by what she finds in Cassandra Spender’s file, even if Mulder isn't. Her testimony feels too familiar, her story nearly the same—except she wasn't brought to Skyland Mountain bound and gagged in the trunk of her own car. Scully swallows as she taps the sheath of paper against the tabletop to straighten them. She is thinking less of the abduction itself and more of the side effects. The cancer. Emily.

She decides, definitively, to go and warn Cassandra Spender. If only because their abduction stories are so similar. If only because she wants to tell her, You might want to be careful. Don't provoke the government, or they'll kill your family and try to kill your partner. Don't take out the fucking piece of shrapnel your abductors put in your neck, or your entire family might have to watch you slowly, painfully die. And don't go looking for any children you may or may not have, the ones that they stole from you. You may have to watch them die, helpless to save them. You won't be able to save them.

She doesn't tell Cassandra about Emily. She tells her about the chip. She'd intended to ask Cassandra questions about her experience, to look for the kind of ally in the older woman that Mulder can never provide. But Cassandra, while understanding and having a strange memory of her (almost the way that Penny Northern did), is utterly the opposite. She won't take the chip out, she tells Scully, because she wants to be taken. She wants to go. She claims the aliens are healers, and they chose Scully because she is a healer herself. Funny, Scully thinks, smiling through clenched teeth, they don't seem very much like healers to me, seeing as how they left me half-dead in a hospital bed. But she doesn't say any of this. She leaves with a polite, “Thank you for your time,” though Cassandra seems like she wants Scully to stay longer. Scully had planned to ask Cassandra if she'd ever found any hybrid children (if they'd lived), but she finds she can't. The words are trapped low in her chest, and she can't bring herself to talk about her experience. She can't even say Emily’s name out loud.

Scully drives home with the radio blasting to try and clear her head. But her mind keeps reverting back to Cassandra’s hospital room. You're feeling it, too, aren't you? she'd said, touching the back of Scully's neck, right over her chip. (Mulder had the spot memorized—he'd cover it with his hand, kiss her neck right in that exact spot, stroke it with the pads of his fingers like it was holier than thou—so she had memorized it, too.) Here, Cassandra had said with wonder, touching the spot. You wake up at night knowing you need to be somewhere, but you don't know where it is. Like you forgot an appointment you didn't know you had.

Scully shivers, turning up the volume on the radio. She feels something like a phantom tingling in the back of her neck. Is it just in her head, courtesy of Cassandra’s words? Or is it, is it really…

No. Scully pulls off on the side of the road and breathes until the rhythm is steady, rubs at her face and pulls back onto the road. She'd call Mulder if he hadn't made things clear—he's done with alien abductions, Cassandra Spender, and maybe even with her, in any sense outside of partnership.

(She doesn't know, doesn't know what she was thinking in Dallas, doesn't know what she wants. But she misses him. And it's hard to navigate this without him, looking for answers.)

Scully climbs home and takes a scorching shower before going to bed. She casts a wary eye at the chair shoved under the door of the spare (Emily’s) room. It hasn't moved since January.

---

Mulder calls her early in the morning. “Hey, Scully, it's me,” he says into the phone. “There's something Skinner needs us to check out.”

Scully sits up in bed, rubbing her eyes, suddenly desperately hoping that it's anything but government conspiracies and Cassandra Spender. “What is it?” she asks groggily.

There's a long pause before Mulder says, “Burn victims on Skyland Mountain. A lot of them.” He sounds sorry.

Scully's eyes widen, kicking the blankets away. “What?”

“Yeah,” Mulder says grimly. “Skinner seemed to think this was in our usual criteria, although I have my suspicions. But he wants us up there as soon as possible. Will you be okay? I can cover for you.”

Scully takes in a deep breath, balling her fists under the blankets. She can do this. There is no reason she shouldn't be able to do this. It's been nearly four years, Duane Barry is dead, there is nothing to be afraid of. She is fine. “I'll be fine,” she says shortly. “Want me to meet you?”

“No, I'll pick you up in about an hour. Easier to carpool. Saves the planet,” Mulder says before hanging up. She can interpret his tone, even if she can't figure out his shortness: he is scared, too.

She dresses quickly and eats a bowl of cereal at the kitchen table, telling herself that she will be fine. (She will, even if she's drawing a map in her head and half of the recent tragedies can be traced directly back to that night on Skyland Mountain.) She waits for Mulder at the front of the building and pushes back images of a shattered window and Duane Barry’s wild eyes. She climbs in the front seat and greets Mulder in a soft voice. He offers her a tense smile in return.

She watches out the window on the way up. She has never seen this road before, even if she's driven it. All she remembers of the trip is the winding road, the nausea building in her stomach as she lay in the dark, stale cloth choking her as she wriggled her wrists in the knots. She’d felt like she was suffocating.

She hadn't screamed after he'd gotten her in the trunk, outside of the encounter with the state trooper. She hadn't seen the point; no one would hear her, and she needed to focus. She spent the entire trip trying to untie her hands until her fingers were ragged and numb. To no avail; the knots had stayed tight. As soon as they'd reached the top of the mountain, Duane had untied her feet before hauling her out of the trunk, shoving her over the hill in a stumbling walk as she fought for balance with pins and needles coursing through her pinned hands. She hadn't screamed in the trunk, but she screamed when she saw the lights, the dish towel he'd retrieved from her kitchen muffling the noise, struggling against the hands that held her in place. Sometimes, when she'd had nightmares about it afterwards, she imagined she'd heard Mulder's voice calling for her right before it all went black. Like he almost managed to save her.

There was nothing between the light, blinding her, and waking up in the hospital room. Maybe the faint memory of the voices of Melissa and Mulder and her mother and father and the whispers of a nurse that didn't exist. But nothing substantial. It all faded away in that light.

Emily was in that light. She's wondered, before, if she ever knew her daughter. If they had a sped-up way of developing the babies. She wonders if she ever held her, if they had to physically rip her baby away. If she screamed and cried and fought. If she named her Emily. If she was a mother, even for a few minutes. If Emily was the only one. She'll never know, but she wonders. God, she wonders.

Scully relives that moment again and again on the drive, head resting against the window. It's not vivid enough that she's screaming out, panicking, but it's vivid enough that tears start sliding down her face. She wipes them away quickly and hopes Mulder doesn't notice. He does, she realizes, when he reaches over and takes her hand. She doesn't protest. She thinks about her abduction down to the last detail, because it's impossible not to think about something you tell yourself not to think about, right up until they reach the top. When she sees the corpses, smells them, Duane Barry is gone from her head, replaced with this fresh new horror. She suddenly remembers what Cassandra said the night before. The way she touched her chip. Oh, god, Scully thinks in horror as she sees the carnage. Oh my god.

She is a medical doctor who autopsies victims for a living, but that doesn't make the situation any easier to take on. All these people, unidentifiable. All these people who suffered. Their families will think they are coming home, until they get that dreaded phone call. (She pushes back the thought that it might’ve been her, that it might be Cassandra out there somewhere. Because it can't be, it can't. She refuses to believe. This can’t be her future.) She and Mulder pace through the charred corpses; Mulder disappears into the smoky field (thick over the land like a strange fog) while she walks over to the shelter to talk to the investigators. They confirm what she instinctively knew: everyone who came here last night is dead.

Mulder appears again, coming under the shelter and calling to her, “Are there any survivors?”

“No. Not as of this moment.” She steps over a row and lands on his other side.

They walk together through the yellow-bagged bodies. “From the smell…” says Mulder gravely.

“They've all been burned, and there are plenty more who are still being bagged as we speak,” Scully says, just as gravely. She wonders. She wonders if they are indeed abductees. She wonders if she is next.

“Any preliminary theories?”

“Well, it appears they all came by car.” They stop together, turning to face each other. “Most of the dead are congregated in a wooded area a short distance off the road.” More of the dead on Skyland Mountain. Skinner told her once that Mulder spent night after night on Skyland Mountain, looking for her. The word body was implied—Skinner looking at her apologetically over the top of his glasses—but she knew better. Mulder had never thought her dead. It's not the way he thinks about the people he loves and loses. He still believes his sister is alive after over twenty years.

“Self-immolation?” he's asking now, looking off into the distance.

“There's no evidence of that right now. There's no accelerants, no incindiary device.”

“And what was their relationship to each other? Were they families?”

Abductees, she thinks. “There's no way to ID their bodies right now. It's going to be a painstaking dental process.” She doesn't know what game he's playing; he would've made the connection a long time ago if he was looking for goddamn aliens. “Mulder, why are you tiptoeing around the obvious fact here? I mean, this is Skyland Mountain. We're right back here on Skyland Mountain.” See the connections, Mulder, please.

“And you think it's related to your abduction from the same place?” he asks. He's looking at her now, asking her in a way that makes her sound idiotic. Like the connection isn't obvious, like being here isn't enough.

She tries to push back the irritation building up in her throat. She remembers walking this way, Duane Barry’s bloody fingers clenched in her hair. How helpless she felt, how frightened. Nausea in her stomach. She swallows and says, “Well, you can't deny the connection.”

“You think this is some kind of abduction scenario?”

She says, frustrated, “No... I'm not saying that.”

“Do you have any evidence of that?”

He is absolutely infuriating. “What do you mean by evidence?”

“That's what I'm asking you.”

She sighs wearily. She does not have time for this. She wants to leave here, especially if he thinks there's no substance to any of this. “Well, are you going to give me your theory, then?”

“No,” he says determinedly. She blinks in confusion. “I'm going to give you an explanation,” he declares. And with that, he walks off.

Scully watches him walk away for a minute before she looks away. She doesn't understand why he is being this way. Why he can't understand. Why doesn't he understand? He was here, he knows what happened. He should understand. But as usual, he's hyperfocused on the so-called truth that he's ignoring all the evidence. Except now the evidence is right up his alley, and he's still ignoring it. And she doesn't see how. Pursuing this lead may be it, their chance to bring down the people who killed her daughter. And he's ignoring it.

She walks after him through the remainder of the smoke, pushing down the hurt lump in her throat.“Mulder?” she calls, catching up to him at the car. “What do you mean, you're going to give an explanation? What, exactly, are you going to explain?”

“I'm going to find out why this happened,” says Mulder, headed for the car. “I'm going to prove that it has nothing to do with alien abduction.”

“So what is your explanation?” She steps in front of him, blocking the car and tipping her chin up to give him a meaningful, nudging look. “How are you going to explain that a popular abduction site—a site where I was abducted, by men or extraterrestrial entities—was also the site of a mass burning? How does that work?”

He looks a little hurt, too. “I'm just trying to find the truth, Scully,” he says quietly. “And I want to focus on the facts so I'm not ignoring them. That I'm not so sidetracked that I never get to the people who did this to you.”

Scully's shoulders sag a little in defeat. She thinks of her dream where Mulder is calling out for her as the light rises up and swallows her whole. He is doing this for her, just not… not the way she'd expect. Maybe not the way she needs. “I understand that, Mulder,” she says, just as quietly. “But you are ignoring facts. Facts right in front of your nose. I just don't know how you can't see it.”

He doesn't say anything, and neither does she. They don't break eye contact. They just stare at each other for a minute until Scully's phone rings. She turns away and answers. “Hello?”

“Agent Scully, it's Cassandra Spender,” Cassandra says on the other side. She sounds extremely distraught.

“Cassandra?” Scully digs her fingers in the hem of her pocket. “What is it?”

“I need to see you right away. You and Agent Mulder.” She sounds on the verge of tears. “I need to talk to you about the events at Skyland Mountain. I can't discuss it over the phone. Please come, Agent Scully, please.”

Scully sucks a breath through her teeth. “We'll be there,” she says shortly. A lead, any lead, is worth it.

Hurry,” Cassandra says desperately before hanging up.

Scully turns back to Mulder, tucking her phone into her coat. “You're going to get an explanation, Mulder, although you might not like the source. We're going to meet Cassandra Spender. She wants to talk about what happened here.”

Mulder raises his eyebrows, chewing on his lower lip. “I'm still not entirely sure she's the most reliable source.”

“Reliable or not, she's the only one we have. If she has any insight, we should hear her out.” Scully climbs into the car.

“Didn't Jeffrey Spender ask you to keep me away from his mother?” Mulder asks.

“If we're good at anything, Mulder, it’s breaking the rules,” she says, crossing her ankles. He huffs out a surprised laugh and smiles tentatively at her. She doesn't smile back. She stares out the windshield and doesn't picture the light blinding her. Doesn't think.

---

Cassandra claims she knew the dead on Skyland Mountain, that it isn't supposed to be happening this way. She tells them that they have to stop it, but she says she doesn't know who they have to stop. Jeffrey Spender shows up right after they do, motioning them out into the hall to tell them he doesn't appreciate them being here. He claims Cassandra was part of a cult, that the mass burning victims were part of the same cult. Mulder agrees with Jeffrey that Cassandra’s claims amount to nothing before the two men walk off in opposite directions, leaving her alone in the car. Scully isn't so sure. She feels a strange connection to Cassandra, an understanding. The way she connected to Penny Northern. She wants to save Cassandra the way she couldn't save Penny. But she doesn't know if she can, not alone. She doesn't even know if she can save herself.

Defeated, she trails after Mulder, a few feet behind him. She ignores the feeling in the back of her neck, almost like a buzzing. Like a pull.