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locking out the ghosts

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Mulder drives her to a hotel after the funeral. He even calls Bill’s house to let him know that they won’t be coming back there. She can’t face her family right now. She holds the cross in her closed fist, tight enough to leave an imprint on her sweaty palm, closes her eyes and rolls the window down to let the California breeze blow across her wet face.

Mulder reaches across the console to take her spare hand, but she moves it away, balling it up in her lap.

It’s happened a few times now--the first time in Florida, after he’d come back from the Asekoff’s house and found her asleep across his bed. He’d gone to cover her with a blanket and she’d woken up and, in a deadpan, offered him some cheese. He’d apologized for leaving, and then they’d ended up talking--about what, she can’t remember, it runs together as a wine-soaked montage in her head--and she’d kissed him on an impulse across the hotel comforter. Nothing had happened that night aside from both of them falling asleep on top of the comforter, their hands pointed towards each other like arrows. She’d held him in the forest, later, cradling him in her lap and counting his breaths. It had felt like the start of something. In Georgetown, Mulder kissed her against the doorjamb and she’d tugged him inside by his tie. Since then, they’ve been something of a couple, guest starring in each other’s bedrooms or living rooms or hotel rooms. In Indiana, he’d asked her to dance.

(She’d looked at him kneeling beside her daughter on the ground and pictured them raising her together. Now he leaves a sharp, painful tug in her chest when she looks at him, then looks away. Between the grief and guilt crowding her head, there seems to be no room for him.)

“Are you okay? Do you want anything to eat?” Mulder asks softly.

She opens her eyes. They’re passing a blur of brightly-colored fast food restaurants. She hadn’t eaten any breakfast, and the food at the memorial service hadn’t stayed down well. “No, I’m fine,” she says softly, watching the colorful blur of lights.

The gold chain trails from her fingers. She swallows hard, pulling her knees up to her chest.

When they get to the hotel, Mulder gets two adjoining rooms because she says, “Please, Mulder, I need to be alone,” in a wavering voice and he clenches his jaw and nods. He offers to carry her bags, but her things are still at Bill’s. She just wants to be alone, take a sleeping pill and fall asleep. If Mulder is with her, he’ll offer to hold her and comfort her, but she’s never been someone who likes to be around other people when she’s upset. She’s always been the type to shoulder her own sorrows.

Mulder walks her to her room, and reaches out to touch her shoulder gently. “Are you sure you’re okay, Scully?”

No, she thinks. I’m fine, she plans to say, but if she talks, she’ll sob. The weight of incoming tears has been steadily building the entire ride here. She opens her mouth to tell him she’s fine, but the tears start falling before she can help it.

“Scully,” he murmurs softly, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and drawing her into an embrace. She sniffles against his chest. He doesn’t tell her it’s okay, which is what she was expecting; instead, he just kisses the top of her head, rocking her back and forth slightly. She doesn’t move to hug him back. She doesn’t feel like she’s able to do much of anything at the moment. She stands still while he kisses her temple, her forehead, her nose. And then she steps away.

“Mulder, I can’t… I can’t do this anymore,” she says.

He looks at her, briefly confused. And then he nods like he understands. “It’s okay, it’s been a long day, I’ll just…”

“No,” she says, her voice drawn out and hollow. She can’t remember where she decided this - somewhere, maybe, between Emily’s hospital bed and Emily’s empty coffin. “I mean… I want to go back to just being partners.”

(She needs him but she can’t have him, it’s too hard right now. She needs him to take a step back, back to the way they were before she got sick, until things make sense again. She needs to work through this alone.)

He blinks with surprise, maybe even something like hurt, and then he nods, looking at the ground. Whatever he’s feeling, he’s trying to hide it; she knows the technique well. “Okay,” he mumbles.

“I… I just can’t deal with this,” Scully says. Goddammit, it is late and she is exhausted and she doesn’t want to have to explain herself.  Not tonight. She just wants to sleep. “Right now. With everything. And I…”

“I understand, Scully.” His words come out jagged and sharp, so he backtracks, softening the next thing he says. “I do.” He reaches out like he’s going to touch her cheek, but moves his hand away at the last minute, lowering it to his side. “I… whatever you need.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Scully says, and she is. Fuck, she’s crying again. “I don’t… I’ll see you in the morning, Mulder. Thank you for bringing me to the hotel.” She turns and unlocks her door, closing it softly behind her. Inside, she sags against the door, pressing both hands to her mouth and shutting her eyes.

There’s a soft thump on the other side--Mulder’s hand, she thinks, pressed up against the door. And then, so soft she barely hears it: “I love you.” He sounds defeated. Done. Scully presses her hands harder against her mouth to muffle the soft sounds she’s making. Mulder’s hand lingers for a second before moving away. She can hear his door open and shut next to her room.

She can’t remember how she got to bed, but she wakes up the next evening still feeling exhausted. She thinks she had nightmares. She knows, judging from the darkness in the room, that she’s slept all day. Flicking on the lamp by her bed, she finds a plastic container of soup waiting for her. Mulder, she thinks - he asked for a second key to both their rooms and had handed her his. He used to do things like this for her when she was sick - usually with some kind of note attached. There is no note today.

Scully climbs out of bed and goes to heat the soup in the microwave. The light is on in Mulder’s room - she can see the soft yellow peeking out from the crack under the door between their rooms.

She can’t leave things like this, not between them. She isn’t in a place where she’s ready to have a relationship, true, but the least she can do is try to mend the rip, fill in the cracks. He’s her best friend, and when she moves all of the fucked-up things out of her head, she might be a little in love with him. She grabs the hotel pad and tries to write a note to him.

Mulder,

I love you, too, but

I can’t do this right now

You’re always going to be my best friend

Chewing her lip hard, she throws the piece of paper away and takes her soup out of the microwave. She heated it up too much, she burns her mouth as soon as she takes a bite. She sits at the little table and stares at the hotel logo.

How can she tell him what she’s really feeling? That even though she doesn’t blame him for any of it (she went down the rabbit hole, she was warned), she can disassociate him with the pileup of tragedy in her life? That grief is crushing her and she has to be able to move past it before she can be in a relationship? That she loves him, but she needs time? That all she could think about when he carried Emily in his arms was them raising her together and she can’t handle it, now that she’s gone? The daughter who was never hers.

She takes another bite of soup and scribbles out a short message in a shaking hand.

Mulder,

I’m sorry for last night. I just need some time to deal with things, and I need to deal with them on my own. I hope you understand. I don’t want to stop working together. We’re friends, Mulder, and I hope we always will be. - S

She slides the tiny piece of paper under the door and waits, eating her too-hot soup until the roof of her mouth aches. He slides the note back with a messy reply: I understand, Scully. I’m here for you if you need me.

She thinks about replying, something like I want to try again when I’m in a better place, but it feels wrong to ask him to wait for her. And after all this time, she thinks that they are a given, the two of them. It’ll work out in the end.

She folds the small piece of paper and sets it next to her cross before crawling into bed and turning the light back off.

---

Mulder doesn't sleep. He lies on the hotel bed and flips through channels on the TV. He doesn't let himself think. (Doesn't let himself picture how small Emily was, her tiny weight in his arms. How the way her blue eyes glinted when she smiled looked just like Scully's eyes. Doesn't let himself picture Scully. Doesn't let himself picture Scully pushing him away. Doesn't picture Scully pressed against him in bed, arm slung over his chest. Doesn't think.)

Night fades into day. Mulder waits for Scully to wake up, but there is only silence on the other side of the connecting door. He gets breakfast and comes back to the room. Still nothing hours later. Upon opening the door, he finds her curled in on herself under piles of blankets, tossing and turning restlessly against the pillows. If things were different, he may have crawled under the covers and wrapped himself around her, tried to comfort him. But. He swallows the lump in his throat and closes the door, leaves the hotel and grabs some lunch. Picks Scully up a container of that soup she likes and leaves it in her room. Doesn't touch her, doesn't brush the hair off of her face or kiss her cheek.

(He should've known, she hasn't touched him since Emily went to the hospital. Hasn't really touched him since DC. He had sat out in the waiting room for hours, just waiting. She'd come out of the back of the hospital at three in the morning, stiff and nearly unresponsive. Not crying. Her eyes were half closed, and he'd honestly thought she hadn't seen him when she walked past him. He followed her, catching up to her and touching her gently on the shoulder. She flinched violently, recoiling away. He yanked his hand back, asked gently, “Is she…” Her jaw clenched, her eyes snapping shut, she nodded. Then ripped away, shoving into the bathroom. He could hear her getting violently sick on the other side. He waited, but she didn't come out for a long minute. When he'd wandered down the hall towards Emily’s room, he'd seen the sheet draped over the tiny form and he'd felt a little sick himself, had walked to an abandoned part of the hospital and punched a wall so hard that it left his knuckles bruised. It wasn't fair. She was a little girl.)

He goes back to flipping channels until it is dark outside and Scully is slipping a note under the door. Her words make his throat burn, his vision blur. He wipes his eyes and scribbles out the only reply he can come up with: that he will be there for her. He slides the note under the door and sprawls out on the bed covers, turns off the light and tries to sleep. The light on the other side of the door goes off, too.

Mulder stares into the darkness of the room. He doesn't think about Emily, how good Scully had been with her, the smile tugging at the edge of her lips as she sat on the floor with her daughter. How he'd never seen her as a mother before.

---

Scully is dressed in a suit the next morning, her face scrubbed clean. She isn't wearing her cross. She says, “Good morning,” briskly when she opens the door between the rooms.

So that's how they're going to play it. “Hey, Scully,” Mulder says, leaning against the bed.

Scully tries to smile, but it comes out wobbly, strained. “When's our flight?”

“Hour and a half,” he says. “Are you ready?”

“Yes. I've just got to call Bill and tell him we'll be by the house for my things. Will you call a cab?” Perfectly normal, her face almost stiff in its formalness.

“Sure,” Mulder says awkwardly. She's already turning away. The words spill out of his mouth before he can stop them: “How are you feeling, Scully? Are you okay?”

Her shoulders stiffen. “I'm fine, Mulder,” she mutters. “I'll meet you out front.” The door slams shut behind her.

They don't talk in the cab, or at Bill's house, or at the airport. Scully won't look at him. Business as usual, she's pretending everything is fine. Like she wasn't lying next to her daughter in a hospital bed about five days ago. Like she didn't break things off with her partner the night before.

They're in a three seat row on the plane. Mulder takes the window seat, Scully sits next to him. No one takes the third seat. A little while after takeoff, Scully pulls up the divider between her seat and the empty third seat and stretches out between them. Mulder doesn't comment. An hour later, and she's curled completely in the third seat, putting space between them. Whether or not she's doing it on purpose, Mulder doesn't know.

Somewhere over Tennessee, the plane hits a bout of violent turbulence. The Seatbelt sign comes on, and the pilot's voice tells them not to panic. Scully, half-dozing under the makeshift blanket of her jacket, jolts awake. Face whitening, she fumbles for her seatbelt. Scully hates turbulence, hates any hint of a plane losing control. Seatbelt already on, Mulder watches her carefully for any signs of panic. On a normal flight (on the flight back from Florida, on the flight back from Indiana), she would hold his hand when they hit turbulence. As much as she's been avoiding touching him today, Mulder isn't expecting her to reach for it today, so he's surprised when she seizes his hand blindly.

“Scully,” he whispers, squeezing her fingers. “It's okay.”

She's not looking at him, but she nods. A toddler is crying a few rows ahead of them.

The plane shakes and shudders for a few good minutes before finally settling into a steady rhythm. The passengers relax, a few even applauding when the Seatbelt sign goes dark. Mulder unbuckles his seatbelt, breathing a sigh of relief, and turns to Scully, to check on her.

She still isn't looking at him. She's staring straight ahead, face still white, jaw still clenched. Her hand is stiff in his. Her chin is trembling a little, like she's about to cry. And then Mulder hears it: the toddler crying a few rows up, wailing, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!”

“Excuse me,” says Scully, voice wobbly, and she gets to her feet and goes down the aisle towards the bathroom. Mulder swallows against the feeling of nausea in his throat. Emily had been so tiny. He'd never once heard her refer to Scully as anything. Not Mommy, not Dana. If she'd lived. If she'd lived, maybe. He rests his head against the window and closes his eyes.

Scully comes back almost ten minutes later, her voice steady but her eyes red. She sits without saying anything to Mulder.

He leaves his hand on the empty seat between them, but she doesn't take it again.

---

Two days.

After arriving home from San Diego, Scully spends exactly two days home from work. Two days that have nothing to do with the picture of her daughter she had tucked in her wallet, behind her medical insurance card. She won't admit it to herself, but she's hiding from Mulder. Hiding from the way he will check on her and speak too softly to her. Hiding from the fact that she fucking broke up with him. Hiding from Mulder telling her Emily was never meant to be, from him telling her that her ova had all been extracted in front of a fucking stranger who was deciding whether or not she could have her daughter. Hiding from Emily’s head lolling on his shoulder, Mulder buckling into her car seat, and Are you two the parents.

(She's not just hiding from Mulder. Her mother calls five times, and she lets it go to voicemail every time. There is plenty she isn't facing.)

She cleans her entire kitchen from head to toe and scrubs the mildew stains in her bathtub so hard that the muscles in her arms ache. She watches bad daytime television that she avoids religiously under any other circumstances. She tries to read. She jams a chair under the doorknob of her spare bedroom; she doesn't want to go in there. (Locking out the ghosts, Mulder might say. But they are everywhere. Inescapable.) She sleeps a lot, takes two sleeping pills and pulls the covers over her head. She is fine as long as she doesn't dream, doesn't think too hard. She is fine. Fine. She will be fine.

On the third day, she gets ready and goes to work just like normal. Rides the elevator down and doesn't think about how she and Mulder had made out like a couple of teenagers on her second-to-last day of work before Christmas, Mulder shoved up against the elevator door. (She'd had something of a boundless sense of joy after her remission. A weightlessness. Anything could happen because she'd lived and she had so much time now. Seriousness had seemed futile; it was time for her to have fun. She thinks that's why she kissed him the first time. And maybe even all the times after that.)

Mulder is waiting for her inside. His face lights up, briefly, before his expression turns neutral. She ignores it. “Hey, Scully,” he says, waving a little at her with a pencil in his hand. “How you feeling? Get a lot of rest?”

She will not (will not) say she's fine again. “Yes, lots of rest.” She sits across from him, crosses her ankles and folds her hands. “Any new cases?”

“We'll see. We have a meeting with Skinner later.” Mulder waggles his eyebrows at her. (He is teasing. He wants things to go back to normal. She wants it, too, but normal for her is probably very very different. Things haven't been normal in her mind since before she got sick.)

“A meeting concerning what?”

“Don't know. He just said it was important.”

Later, after welcoming Scully back with a fatherly sympathy in his eyes, Skinner explains to them exactly what important means. “Do you recall your ordeal with Robert Patrick Modell?”

Scully's eyes widen, stunned. She wants to forget that day, forget the smell of gunpowder and the click of an empty chamber, the pleading in Mulder's eyes as he tried to move the gun away from her. The muzzle against his head. She had forgotten, until now. She had forgotten. So many things to forget.

Next to her, Mulder stiffens in shock, but he recovers quicker. “Yes, sir, of course,” he says too quickly.

Skinner folds his hands on the desk. “I'm sure you'd much rather forget, as would I, but unfortunately, we've been denied that luxury. Modell has escaped from prison.”

Bile rises in Scully's throat. He wasn't supposed to wake up, she wants to shout. Mulder doesn't say anything, so she speaks this time. “How did that happen, sir? Do they know where he is, what he wants?”

“From what I understand, Modell tricked a guard to get out. We don't know where he went, but I'm organizing a manhunt. As the only two agents who escaped your encounter with him unscathed, I'd say it's clear that you two are the best equipped to catch him.” Skinner swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing (the only signs of fear he'll show), and Scully remembers the thumps of Holly’s shoes against Skinner's body. “I'm putting you two as Special Agents in Charge.”

Mulder's hands ball into fists on his knees, unclench. He casts a brief, nervous look Scully's way. “Are you sure that's wise, sir? Considering what happened last time?”

“Agent Mulder, you're the only living person who knows Modell well enough to catch him,” Skinner says, exasperated. “You're not just the clear choice, you're the only choice. Despite what your reputation would suggest, you and Scully are some of my best agents and I have complete faith in your ability to catch this son of a bitch.”

Skinner never gets this personal, Scully thinks. She wants to deny, wants it badly, doesn't want to ever have to experience that again (doesn't want to fear for her life, Mulder's life, doesn't him to kill her, doesn't want to kill him, pull the trigger on him, it's unimaginable, she's hurt him enough already). But. Skinner won't let up, and if she argues, it'll only make things worse for Mulder. She can do this. It's not even the worst thing she's faced this week. She wants to laugh, bitterly, at that, but she purses her lips, touches Mulder's arm and says, “You're right, sir. We'll do whatever it takes. Whatever you need from us.”

Mulder is rigid, almost doll-like, under her hand. He says nothing.

“Report to Lorton Penitentiary in time for this briefing.” Skinner hands them a sticky note with the information written down. “And be ready. I expect only the best work from you, agents.”

As soon as they leave Skinner's office, Mulder stalks down the hall without a word to Scully, without looking back. Scully retreats to the ladies room to wash her face and wonders, staring at her drawn face in the mirror, if he's finally found it in himself to be angry at her. She wonders if she's relieved.

---

She spends most of the case worrying about Mulder. She was worried from the get-go, but it intensifies when she hears Mulder's briefing and remembers. (Handing her his gun. Modell’s hand shattering the camera. Gun to his head.) She tries to warn him after discussing Modell’s medical condition, asks if he should be heading this investigation. “As opposed to what? What's your point?” he says, and she wonders if he's upset because she agreed to head the investigation. He's thrown himself into it wholeheartedly, if that means anything. If his objections matter less. (If she knows Mulder, he's thinking about the people Modell will hurt. That's enough motivation for anyone, but especially Mulder.)

“That it's exactly what he wants. That once again you're playing his game,” she says instead of voicing her thoughts.

He doesn't say anything. He shoots her a look of irritation before walking off. So he is mad, she can assume. She certainly deserves his anger. It's just that she worries. No matter what happens, she wants him to be okay.

It intensifies more, her fear, when Mulder is talking to Modell on the phone. The longer he has the receiver cocked to his ear, the longer the fear closes in on her, her heart pounding in her ears, remembering how he killed a man with a phone call. She tells him to hang up and he listens, for once. But the fear remains, and it solidifies in her mind when they find Nathan Bowman with Fox Hunt painted across the wall. He is looking for Mulder, just like she feared.

Mulder finds Modell and loses him in Falls Church, becomes convinced that Modell isn't playing with him, that he didn't kill Nathan Bowman. They talk to Linda Bowman, Nathan's wife, and he becomes even more convinced. He thinks that Linda murdered her husband. He spells it out to Skinner, and Skinner doesn't believe him. “Scully, you heard her in there,” Mulder prods, and she can't, she's too afraid that if he plays into Modell’s bullshit that he will end up eating a bullet.

“Mulder, no,” she says, and he looks shocked and hurt, stunned. “I'm sorry. You said it yourself, you said "don't listen to Modell, don't trust him". But you've done both.”

“But what if she can do what Modell does?”

Skinner exchanges an uncomfortable look with Scully, says to Mulder, “I think you should go home.”

“You think I should go home?” he repeats incredulously, and Scully thinks of Skinner telling them that he had complete faith in them.

“You're suspended until such time I'm confident your judgement is sound,” says Skinner. “Give me your weapon.”

“Who are you afraid I'm gonna point it at?”

Yourself. “Mulder, I think you should do what he says,” Scully says.

He's staring at her, hurt, like he can't believe it. She immediately thinks of the expression on his face when she broke things off with him and she breaks eye contact, she has to. Mulder caves, pulls out his weapon and gives it to Skinner.

Clacking footsteps sound off behind them, and then Linda is there, asking for water. “I'll prove it,” Mulder says, determined, and then he's walking away.

“Agent Mulder?” Skinner calls.

“Go fetch her some water!” Mulder snaps. Scully's eyes burn. She blinks hard and hopes that he's not going to get himself in trouble.

He calls her from the prison, later, insisting that Linda Bowman called and convinced the physical therapist to electrocute herself. He convinces her that something is wrong at the safe house and he is right: Modell is there, Skinner has shot him because he saw a gun. A gun they cannot find.

Mulder shows up at the hospital. He's convinced that Modell drew Skinner's fire on purpose, to take the fall for Linda Bowman, as soon as he hears what happened. “For what possible reason?” Scully protests as Skinner walks away, clearly irritated and embarrassed, clearly fed up.

“To protect someone.”

“Linda Bowman?” she asks in an unbelieving deadpan.

“To take the fall for her,” says Mulder.

“That's one hell of a plan, Mulder,” she says. “A serial killer makes us believe that he's guilty, in turn diverting the suspicion away from the real estate lady? Well, he had me going.”

“Where is she?” he wants to know.

“They've taken her home,” she says carefully, firmly. “There is no reason to keep her in protective custody, Mulder. It is over.”

“No, it's not.” He's turned, walking away.

“Where are you going?” she calls after him. Home, she hopes, where he's going to stop acting like an idiot and listen, for once. Where he's not going to get himself killed.

He turns briefly, says, “If Modell makes it through surgery, I want to be the first person that he talks to,” before turning and going on.

“Mulder, talking to him has already done you enough harm.”

He turns again, annoyed, and says in a heavily mocking tone, “OK, look, you do me a favor, Scully. You give me a call when you think I've come to my senses, all right?”

Hurt, she starts to say something else, but there is nothing really to say. He keeps on walking, fists clenched by his side.

She turns away, rubbing at her forehead. Maybe she should've listened to him, at least given him the benefit of the doubt. But he sounds insane. There is no credibility to his statements, aside from the fact that Linda Bowman seems a little emotionless and that Modell didn't kill Mulder when he had the chance. But it makes no sense. It makes no sense. But he deserves the benefit of the doubt, after she… after she…

Scully sighs, rubbing at her face again. At least it's over now. Modell will likely survive surgery, and then he will go back to prison. He can't hurt Mulder anymore.

She leaves the hospital and is almost home before she receives a phone call. It's Skinner, his voice weary. “Modell’s dead,” he says gruffly.

“What? How did that happen?”

“We don't know. Mulder claims it was Linda Bowman.”

“He's still there?” She pulls into a parking lot to turn around.

“Um… no,” says Skinner. “He was here. He says a nurse told him to leave the room, and when he came back, Modell’s heart had stopped. He was headed out when he claimed that Linda Bowman was the reason Modell was dead.”

She smacks the steering wheel with the flat of her hand. “Where is he now? Where was he headed?”

“Well, he wouldn't tell me, but… we found an address on a paper with Nurse written on it. We found it in Modell’s room. I assume that's where Mulder's headed.”

“What's the address?”

“214 Channel Avenue. That property where we found Linda Bowman in Falls Church.”

Scully smacks the wheel with her hand again. “I'll go after him. I'm just as close to him as you are.”

“What do you think he's going to do? Is it really necessary to chase him down?”

Her mind is working, picking away at the information Skinner has given her. Who would've written that address for Mulder to find? It couldn't have been Modell… “Did you say the address was on a piece of paper that said Nurse, sir?”

“Yes, written on the back.”

Linda Bowman could've used that, she realizes. If Mulder's right and she has the same power that Modell does, she could've used the paper to imitate a nurse.

“Mulder's right,” she says, and hangs up, tosses the phone on the seat beside her.

---

The warehouse is cold in the January night. Mulder walks cautiously through the darkness, moving his flashlight around the room. He wishes Scully were here, if only for the backup. He wishes he had his gun.

He's nervous in the moment, if only for his complete lack of knowledge of Linda’s plan, but he's not really scared until he hears Scully's uncertain, “Mulder?” cutting through the silence of the warehouse.

Terror shoots through him, and he gasps unevenly as he runs towards the sound. He rounds a corner and sees her, standing alone at the end of a corridor, gun in hand. “Scully, what are you doing here?”

“You were right about her, Mulder,” she says, and it's the only time in his life where he's horrified to hear those words. (Linda got to her somehow, she knows, how does she know…)

Scully raises her gun slowly to point at Mulder. A shortened game of Russian Roulette.

“Scully…” he says desperately. (How does she know, did Modell tell her, oh god, I hope she doesn't know that I…)

“She's making me do this,” Scully says, cocking the hammer on the gun.

“Where is she?” he demands. He's not going to let her play with them like this.

“She's here,” says Scully. “Mulder, make her stop. I can't help myself.”

I know, Scully, I know. “Linda Bowman!” he bellows.

“Mulder, make her stop!”

“Show yourself!”

“Mulder!” Scully cries out, and this one is the most distressed. She's turning the gun, no, she's pointing it at herself, at her head, and Mulder realizes Linda’s game now…

“No!” he shouts, a plea, taking off in a run towards because this cannot happen, it cannot… “No--”

But it's too late. Scully pulls the trigger. It happens too fast and too slow and all at once and the room seems a million miles long. The gun explodes in her hand and she crumples to the ground.

Mulder skids across the floor, landing on his knees at her side. His hands go to her face, her neck, her shoulders, searching for a pulse, for any signs of life, and this cannot be happening. His stomach is knotting, he feels sick, his face crumpling briefly as he pushes back her hair, and she can't be, she can't be…

Footsteps behind him. He turns and sees Linda Bowman approaching, gun in hand.

Fury and grief coursing through him, he pulls the gun out of Scully's limp hand (god, Scully, god) and turns to Linda, growling, “I'm gonna kill you,” with all the bloodlust building inside him.

---

After it's over, Mulder won't let her touch him.

He was going to shoot her, when he thought she was Linda Bowman. When he thought she was dead. He'd been screaming at her to shut up, her words going right through him. She saw her opportunity, Linda Bowman coming into her line of fire, and she shot.

Mulder jolted in place, thinking it was him who was going to be shot, not really looking at her. He looked behind him tentatively, in the place where he'd thought she'd fallen. Where he was crouched when she came in. Where Linda Bowman lay sprawled now. He looked behind him, then back at her, seeing her now. “Mulder,” she said, hoping to anchor him to earth.

He looked horrified as he realized, the gun lowering to his side. She walked to him, squeezing his arm comfortingly, and then past him to Linda. She crouched beside her. “You think you can hold me,” Linda taunted in a scratchy voice.

She stood, pulling her phone out, and dialed 9-1-1. Mulder turned away, face warming, shoulders slumping in devastation. By the time she was finished with her call, he was halfway across the room.

“You have to help me,” Linda said, and her melodic voice washed over Scully. “You have to. It's your duty as a doctor, you know.”

Scully clenched her teeth. For a second, when she was coming into the warehouse, she'd thought Mulder was dead. She'd heard him crying out, and then the gunshot, and it had taken everything in her not to run, to remain calm and try and surprise them, in case Linda was tricking her. And then she'd rounded the corner and seen Mulder crouching on the ground, horror across his face, and Linda telling him she was dead. “You can wait for the fucking paramedics,” she said calmly, and walked over to Mulder.

He didn't look at her, pressed his forehead harder against the wood of the boxes. “I'm sorry, Mulder,” she said quietly. “I'm sorry I didn't believe you…” She put a hand on his back and he flinched, stepping away from her touch. “Mulder,” she said quietly. “I know she…”

“You don't have to do this.”

His voice echoed harshly across the empty warehouse. She recoiled a little. “What?”

“You broke things off. You said you needed time.” He was pressing his hand over his eyes, like he was trying to erase the image of her dead. She winced, biting her lip hard. “You don't have to do this,” he said, and the harshness of his voice broke her a little.

“Mulder…” she said, uncertainly, and suddenly all she wanted to do was put her arms around him, to feel that they were both okay. They could do that platonically, couldn't they? They'd done that as friends a thousand times before.

“I'm fine, Scully,” he hissed, and she winced again, tears stinging the back of her eyes. “It's fine. You didn't believe me. I don't expect much different from you. But I'm fine now, and you don't have to comfort me.”

Her throat was dry, her eyes wet. He was going to shoot her because she was dead. He loves her, he'd told in San Diego. She turned away, wiping her eyes, and walked over to stand by Linda’s side.

The ambulance arrives and leaves with Linda Bowman. Scully clears her throat until she can speak without her voice wobbling and calls Skinner to tell him what happened. He wants them to meet in his office the next day. Scully thanks him and hangs up. She turns and Mulder is gone. She gets outside just in time to see his car speeding away. Her stomach hurts. She climbs in her car and drives away.

She's home within a fifteen-minute timespan, kicking off her shoes and collapsing on the couch. She pulls the knit blanket over her, curling into the cushions, and buries her face in a throw pillow. It's too much, Mulder was right, they never should've taken this case. But Linda might’ve come for them anyway. There is no fucking telling. It's too much. She is applying for vacation time as soon as humanly possible.

She doesn't remember falling asleep, but the sharp ringing of her cell phone wakes her. It's still tucked in her suit jacket, she didn't bother changing before falling asleep. She dislodges the phone from the thick wool edges of her coat and turns on her back, answering it and tucking it between her ear and shoulder. “Scully,” she answers wearily, closing her eyes.

Nothing on the other end but soft breathing.

She opens her eyes, rubbing her forehead. “Mulder, is that you?”

No answer. She sighs. “Mulder, what do you want?”

Silence. He breathes. She says nothing. She blinks hard, wiping her eyes again, turns on her side and lies the phone parallel to her head. She doesn't hang up. He doesn't, either.

She closes her eyes and listens to his breathing, imagines for a second that he's lying beside her, her arm tucked around him. She breathes in and out slowly and loudly, so he can hear. Her fingers rest at the edge of her collarbone, where she took off her cross. She lets herself drift towards sleep.

An undetermined amount of time later, she hears his voice crackling over the line: “I'm sorry, Scully.” It sounds like shattering glass. She opens her eyes as the phone clicks and the dial tone sounds.

She touches the phone on its speaker, whispers, “I'm sorry, too.” Puts the phone on the coffee table, climbs off the couch, and goes into her bedroom alone.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

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.

 

Chapter Text

Mulder ends up dropping Scully off at home after they leave the hospital, under her request to let her drive herself to work. She must have stopped somewhere for lunch, because she doesn’t get back to the office until hours later. By then, Mulder has already gotten the results he called about on their way back from Skyland Mountain. “Are you ready for this?” he asks as she enters the room, getting up and rounding the desk. “I've been going over the initial forensics and pathology reports from the incident at Skyland Mountain and, while the event itself remains unexplained, I think it's less than a mystery who's involved—at least for me, and certainly for you.” He’s handed her a report, and now he crosses to the UV light. “Our pathologists here haven't finalized their reports, but I was able to have three victims selected at random for x-rays.” She joins him in front of where he has put the x-rays up, watching. “That's how I found these—small pieces of what looks like metal in the charred cervical tissue,” he says, “here... here... and here.” He points to each of them in turn. Back of the neck, same spot as Scully’s. He has the spot memorized, has felt it buzz with her pulse under his lips. Her life rooted in one tiny piece of metal. He looks at Scully, who is staring at the board in astonishment. She turns to face him, still looking incredulous. “Implants,” he clarifies softly.

She seems speechless, to a degree, still saying nothing, so he continues on, crossing over to the desk. “I followed up with the families of the three victims and I found that none had any cult associations but two out of the three belong to the local mutual UFO networks, and both of them claimed abduction experiences, and both of them were being treated by a medical health practitioner over the past few months,” he says, showing her the file.

“For what?” she wants to know.

“Take a look.” He motions at the paper.

She looks down and begins reading aloud in a hushed voice, "’Major depressive disorder characterized by periods of sustained anxiety and paranoia. Patient believes he will be contacted or called to an undisclosed place where he will be abducted by aliens.’" She almost seems unsurprised.

“The implants triggered those responses. Those people were led to Skyland Mountain.”

“By whom?”

“By the same government that put the implant in you, to function as a homing mechanism,” he says, possibly a little less gently than he should.

“Mulder, that doesn’t make sense,” she insists, but she almost sounds like she is trying to convince herself.

“Why not? A tracking system using military app satellite technology to monitor test subjects. Or to stage what people might otherwise believe are alien abductions.” Believe the lie, that’s their game—or so he’s told himself a million times.

“But they weren't abducted,” she argues. “They were led to their deaths. And for what purpose?”

He shakes his head a little, biting his lower lip. “I don’t know that yet.”

She sighs a little. “Yeah, Mulder…” She sounds terribly uncertain, maybe even scared. The phone begins ringing and Mulder walks towards it. “Maybe you shouldn't be so quick…” Scully says, voice wavering, sighing smally, “... to rule out what Cassandra Spender has to say.”

He looks up at her, in some surprise. Of all the things he expected Scully to say, it certainly wasn’t that. She holds his gaze, her only sign of nerves the way she licks her lower lip. He nods, an acknowledgement, before turning away to answer the phone. It’s Marita, claiming that a similar event to Skyland Mountain has just occurred in the Soviet Union. She insists there is a connection, gives her location and tells him to go there and wait for directions. Then he hears a scuffling sound on the other end, a gasp. “Marita?” he asks, concerned. “Mar…” He’s turning towards Scully, to tell her that they have to go, and he suddenly sees that she is not there. The office is empty. He hangs up the phone.

His mind working quickly, he deduces that she must’ve gone home, that she has to have gone home. It’s been a long day—he took her back to her abduction site, for fuck’s sake—and she could probably use the rest. She seems more than done with all of this. Looking at the black receiver, he decides that Marita needs a more immediate response and scribbles out a quick note to Scully on the way out the door in case she comes back. He doesn’t see her on the way out of the building, but her car is gone from the parking garage. On his way to the payphone, he calls her cell phone three times, to try and find out where she went. She doesn’t pick up.

Mulling over it, he decides that she must’ve gone to see Cassandra Spender. If Scully really did believe her, then she’d do everything in her power to get all the answers. Maybe she’s with Cassandra Spender and she doesn’t want to interrupt their time talking to take his phone calls, or maybe her phone is dead. When he finds the payphone Marita directed him to empty, with a white substance smeared up and down the open door, he decides to call Cassandra’s room and try to get in touch with Scully.

Jeffrey Spender answers. Clear he has no special love for Mulder, he demands to know why Mulder is calling his mother. “I'm actually looking for Agent Scully,” says Mulder. “I haven't been able to reach her, and she said that—”

“She’s not here,” Spender says, exasperated. “Nor is my mother.”

“What are you talking about?”

“She’s gone from her room.”

“Gone where?” Mulder prods, his mind working. Is it possible that Scully could’ve come and gotten Cassandra? No, no, not in the time since they’ve both left the Bureau… and she had no good reason to do so that he can think of…

“Look, she's just gone,” Jeffrey says, frustrated. “Don't you get it? She's got nowhere to go.”

Mulder leans against the side of the booth with one arm. “Do you have any theories? Any idea what might’ve happened?”

Jeffrey Spender hangs up, the dial tone harsh in his ear. Damn, Mulder thinks, he must really dislike me. Well, it's not the first time.

With no sign of Marita and no answers as to where Scully might be, he leaves. He tries Scully’s phone twice more on the way back; still no answer. He decides to go to Scully’s apartment to see if she is there, tell her Cassandra is missing. But no one answers when he knocks.

He uses his key and finds it empty, the rooms hollow. He spent the night here many times during their relationship, and several other evenings before that, working on casefiles at the table or on the couch. But it's not the same without Scully in it. He feels like an intruder here alone. When he goes back to check Scully’s bedroom, he finds a chair jammed under the doorknob of her spare bedroom.

“Scully?” he calls nervously, opening the door to her bedroom. It’s empty, blankets rumpled on one side. The other side is tucked in, neatly smoothed over half of the bed. His side. He swallows, turns and walks out.

He has no idea where or how to find Scully, so he does the only thing that feels right: he goes back to work and waits for her to show up. He flips through files of the Skyland Mountain incident, looking for any potential leads. He calls the coroner’s office where they are painstakingly identifying and autopsying the victims for any more intel. He tries Scully’s phone a few more times to no avail.

Sometime after eleven, Mulder leaves the Bureau and goes straight to Scully’s place. She’s still not there. She’s still not there, and he’s starting to get frightened. Chewing his lower lip and wondering if she’s avoiding talking to him in particular, he calls her from her home phone. No answer. Rubbing his forehead, he tries calling Skinner instead. (Home number, not office.) “Walter Skinner,” the older man says grouchily into the phone, sounded still half-asleep.

“Sir, it’s Agent Mulder,” he says, clutching the phone hard. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with Agent Scully.”

“Mulder, is it possible that she is asleep and not in the mood to answer the phone in the middle of the night?” Skinner growls, annoyed.

“I’m at her house right now, sir. She’s not here. I think she left the Bureau hours ago, and she hasn’t answered any of my phone calls.” Mulder’s fingers tap out a frantic rhythm on his knee. He can’t stop hearing her say, Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to rule out what Cassandra Spender has to say. “Sir, I found evidence… evidence of the burn victims in Virginia having similar implants in their neck. The kind Agent Scully has. I have reason to believe that it’s a homing device. I have reason to believe…”

“I’m going to stop you right there, Agent Mulder,” Skinner says wearily. “Scully is an intelligent woman, and I have no reason to believe she’s going to the site of another mass burning.”

“Then where is she?” he grinds out through his teeth.

“I don’t know, but it’s too early to start panicking, Mulder.” His voice is more soothing now. “If neither of us have heard from her by tomorrow, then we can start looking. But for now? For now, you’ve got to stay calm. I’m sure she’s fine.”

Mulder hangs up, buzzing with frustration. He considers calling Scully’s mom to see if she’s there, but he doesn’t want to wake her up in the middle of the night just to worry her. Especially if Scully is fine. (She has to be, she has to be fine.) He wants to go out and look for her, but he has absolutely no idea where to start. He presses his hands over his eyes, groaning. He tries Scully’s cell phone one more time. No answer.

He kicks off his shoes, unlatches his watch and puts it on the coffee table, and curls up on Scully’s couch in his suit and socked feet. The blanket draped over the back of the couch smells like her; he doesn’t move it, but he leans his face against it, breathing it in. He misses her. He misses her, and he’s an idiot for thinking he could push her away in Dallas, after the night on the couch. He’s been an idiot a lot lately.

Mulder doesn’t remember falling asleep, but he wakes up to the sound of his cell phone ringing, face pressed into the side of Scully’s couch. He fumbles frantically for the phone and answers with a short, “Mulder,” resisting the urge to ask for Scully.

It’s Skinner, and his voice was grim. “Mulder, there’s been another mass burning.”

“No,” he says immediately. Refusing to accept it. The phone feels like a heavy, useless thing in his hand.

“At the Ruskin Dam in Pennsylvania,” Skinner says. “Someone saw the fire and called the police…”

“Was she there?” Mulder blurts, swinging his feet off the couch. He can’t feel the phone anymore, can only register Skinner’s voice. God, how many times is he going to have to watch her die? “Is she…” He can't finish that sentence.

“We don’t know, Mulder. There’s no evidence as to whether she is or isn’t. I’m on my way up there now.” The sounds in the background of Skinner’s voice vaguely resemble a car.

“I’m going there, too.” Mulder shoves his feet in his shoes, stumbling into a standing position and reaching for his gun. “I’m coming right now.”

Skinner seems to hesitate before saying, “I think that’s a good idea.”

Mulder hangs up, unable to say anything else. Unable to move past this enormous lump in his throat. The burning in his eyes and nose. Fire has been one of his major fears since childhood; he’s had countless nightmares about burning to death. They say it’s one of the most painful ways to go. God, and Scully, and Scully could be…

No. He leaves the apartment, locking the door behind him, and walks outside to his car in a trance. It’s fine, he tells himself, starting the car. Everything is fine. She is not going to die. She can’t be dead. She can’t be…

Three hours to Pennsylvania, and his brain goes into overdrive for all of them. Picturing Scully hurt. Trying not to picture Scully hurt, trying not to picture Scully dead…  He wants to throw up or cry out or hurt someone. When he gets to the Ruskin Dam, sometime around ten in the morning, he notices that the smell is just the same as Skyland Mountain. Bile rises in his throat. He wants to cry out to the heavens.

He jogs past the helicopter to the bridge, where they are carrying away the bodies. The body bags are the same bright yellow as Skyland Mountain. He slowly picks his way through the corpses, looking over them, sucking in his lips so he doesn’t scream her name. Some of the bodies are slightly identifiable, but some of them are black crisps, curled in on themselves. Anonymous. He is wondering how he will ever find her (if he will ever find her), when he sees it and then he’s trying to run but he can’t move fast enough. A woman. A woman with red hair and a swelled face, red and black burns, being zipped up in a body bag. His stomach drops out from beneath him, he can feel every heartbeat. He goes to her side and kneels beside her. Trying to discern, to see if it’s… it’s not her. He can only barely see it, but it’s not her. Only someone who looks like her. The paramedic zips up the body bag sharply.

“Agent Mulder!” Skinner’s voice cuts through his stupor like a knife. He can suddenly hear the chopper blades.

“Was she here?” he asks, desperate. “Is she here?”

“Yes, and the medics are all over her,” Skinner says. An affirmation.

“She’s alive,” he says, relief washing over him.

“They’re working on her now. Come on.”

He follows Skinner into a medical tent. “An SAR chopper pilot found her huddled in the woods this morning with about fifty other survivors,” Skinner is explaining. “She has minor burns, but her fluids and electrolytes were abnormally depleted.”

Mulder is barely listening. Any settling of his stomach when he heard that she was alive has disappeared now, seeing her like this: strapped to a stretcher with a respirator over her mouth. Angry red marks on her hands. “Scully?” he asks, leaning over her.

She says nothing, her eyes closed. “She's in vasogenic shock,” one of the paramedics says. Mulder reaches down to touch her hair, try and rouse her. “Unless you gents are doctors, you're in the way,” the paramedic tells them. “This woman needs to get to a hospital. On three—one ... two ... three…”  

They lift Scully’s stretcher and carry her outside. Mulder follows a few feet behind, jogging to keep up, and stops when he sees her being loaded onto a chopper. Skinner catches up to him, yelling, “What happened here, Agent Mulder?” over the roar of the helicopter.

“The answer just got loaded onto that chopper,” Mulder shouts back. Scully is the answer to everything, he’s sure of it now. They’ve made her the answer.

Jeffrey Spender is there, looking for his mother. It is likely that she was here, if Scully was, but Mulder has no idea how she could have gotten here. He doesn’t tell Jeffrey what he thinks: that it is likely his mother is dead, if they haven’t found her already.

Instead, he just leaves. He wants to be at the hospital when Scully wakes up.

---

Scully wakes slowly. First noises, then the sensation of scratchy sheets. Then the feeling of someone’s fingers swiping across her face, pushing her hair back. She turns her head, opens her eyes and sees Mulder. “Mmm, what time is it?” she asks.

Mulder chuckles. “‘What time is it?’ It’s time to thank your lucky stars.”

Confused, she starts to sit up in bed. “Why are you laughing?”

“I’m not laughing at you.” He reaches past her and presses a button. The bed begins to move below her, elevating her. “I’m just very happy to be standing here talking to you, that’s all.”

Her surroundings start to sink in, and she realizes: she’s in a hospital. The last thing she remembers is getting a drink at the water fountain. “Mulder, what am I doing here?” she asks, uncertain. Did she fall down at work or something?

“You were airlifted here in vasogenic shock,” he says, sitting beside her on the bed.

“From what?”

“You have some first-degree scorching on your hands and face.” He motions to her hands for reference.

Astonished, mouth hanging slightly open, she reaches up to touch her face and feels the tender skin. The burns. Shocked, she repeats, “From what?”

“You don’t remember?” he asks.

Breathing unsteadily, she says, “Mulder…” And then she sees the TV over his shoulder. Police cars, firefighters, the subtitles announcing it as a second cult suicide. It looks just like Skyland Mountain. The yellow body bags.

Mulder, who was looking at the TV, too, turns back to her and prods gently, “Is any of this coming back to you?”

“I was there?” she says in disbelief. Mulder sighs in a way that all but confirms it. “Well, doing what?”

“I was hoping you were gonna answer that question for me,” he says in a way that hints he’s a little disappointed.

She can only stare at him, confused and incredulous, until the door opens and a nurse enters. “You shouldn't be elevated, Miss Scully, not until we get your blood pressure back.” The nurse presses the button to lower the bed and tells Mulder, “She really needs her rest.”

Mulder, who once fought off security in an ICU and came to sit by her hospital bed right before a hearing that would decide whether or not he’d go to prison, nods. He nods and says, “I’ll come back,” before getting up and leaving.

She needs answer. She protests, “Well, Mulder…” as the bed lowers, but he doesn’t hear her. He gives her a lame little thumb’s up as he leaves. Scully lies back in defeat.

“What happened to me?” she asks the nurse, who is now checking her out.

“I’m not entirely sure.” The woman’s mouth purses in disapproval when she sees that the news is on; she reaches to turn it off. “I do know that you’re making a quick recovery, and you’ll likely be able to go home by the end of the day.”

That doesn’t tell me anything about why I’m here, Scully wants to say, but she doesn’t. She pulls the blanket up over her shoulder and turns on her side. The last thing she remembers saying out loud before waking up here is, Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to rule out what Cassandra Spender has to say. But he did, and maybe if he hadn’t, she wouldn’t be here.

It’s a snap-reaction, and one that she immediately regrets. Mulder would never do anything to put her in danger. (He told her he loved her in San Diego.) But here she is, lying in a hospital bed, and the last thing she can remember is him rejecting any theories she threw his way. He doesn’t know what happened to her, which means whatever happened the night before was something she did alone. And he left her. He left her here. The nurse told him to, but he didn’t even argue. He left her here with no answers.

Scully presses her face into the side of the pillow and closes her eyes. She wants to go home. She wants to cut out her chip and seal the wound with a Band-Aid. She wants to burn Their facilities down to the ground.

Mulder comes back about an hour later with pictures of the site. Sitting up in her bed, Scully flips through them with no recognition. “I don't know what to say,” she says. “I mean, I—I don't have the first clue. There's nothing here.”

Mulder, standing by the window with his arms crossed, offers, “Well, at least you're not alone. None of the other survivors have been able to give a cogent account, either.”

“Mulder, I have never been here,” she insists. “I couldn't tell you how to get here, let alone drive it.”

“Do you remember when you last saw Cassandra Spender?” he asks.

“She was there, too?”

He nods slightly. She sighs, in defeat. Maybe her fellow abductees are doomed. Maybe she’d be considered the lucky one.

“I ran more x-rays,” says Mulder. “I haven't told anybody yet what I found, though.”

“You found more implants?”

He nods again. “That would explain how you were directed to the site, and why you can't remember,” he says, sitting on the bed beside her and leaning closer. She looks away. “It would explain the sensation Cassandra Spender was describing, her abduction fantasies. It would explain Skyland Mountain.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t explain why they would want to kill me,” Scully says. “And it doesn’t explain why I survived.”

He bites his lip and looks away. “It all comes down to a question, Scully. One that hasn't been answered or I don't even think honestly addressed: who made that chip in your neck?” He looks her in the eyes now, deadly serious and sincere. But maybe not in a way she’d hoped. “That chip was found in a military research facility. Our government made that chip, implanted it in your neck as part of a secret military project to develop a biochemical weapon, to monitor your immunity, or to destroy you like a lab rat, if the truth were to be exposed.” His voice is growing harsh, but his words are harsher. Scully has to look away. “And your cancer... your cure... everything that's happening to you now - it all points to that chip. The truth I've been searching for? That truth is in you.”

She's speechless, any response she might’ve been able to come up with caught in her throat. There are angrier ways she wants to react, things she wants to say, but she manages to keep all of it in, holds his gaze with a steely stare, an uncomfortable silence transpiring. He stares back at her, as if expectantly. She looks away, down to her lap. She speaks to her knees, slowly. “Mulder, when I met you five years ago, you told me that your sister had been abducted… by aliens.” He looks away, half smiling in a deprecating way that makes her want to shout at him. “That that event had marked you so deeply, that nothing else mattered,” she continues in a firm voice instead. This is her goddamn line in the sand. “I didn't believe you, but I followed you, on nothing more than your faith that the truth was out there, based not on facts, not on science, but on your memories that your sister had been taken from you. Your memories were all that you had.”

“I don't trust those memories now,” he says, as if that makes it okay.

“Well, whether you trust them or not, they've led you here. And me. But I have no memories to either trust nor distrust, and if you ask me now to follow you again, to stand behind you in what you now believe, without knowing what happened to me out there, without those memories, I can't. I won't.” This is her ultimatum. She can't keep doing this. She needs to understand why, to feel secure in her place in all this. But without her memories, she can't.

Mulder actually looks hurt—just around the edges, a stranger wouldn't be able to tell. But he does, he looks like he thinks she is abandoning him again. As if refusing to run blindly into a situation that has almost killed her and multiple loved ones is the same as breaking off a relationship because you need space. He stands and walks over to the window, looking out of it and away from her. Scully leans back into the pillows, exhausted. Angry, maybe. Tired.

“If I could give you those memories,” he says suddenly, turning back to face her, as if pleading, “if I could prove that I was right and that what I believed for so long was wrong…”

He always has to fucking be right. This has nothing to do with proving he is right. Scully swallows, says, “Is that what you really want?”

He looks uncertain, his jaw working back and forth. Scully balls up the hem of the blanket in her fists. “I honestly can't tell what you want, Mulder.”

He runs a hand over his face, snaps, “I want to find out what happened to my sister.” He collapses in the chair next to her bed. “I want to know what they did to you.”

“So you still want to know the truth, but you won't bother to follow the facts?” Scully snaps right back. “Aliens or not, Mulder, I don't care! You know I don't believe in aliens. But you ignored Cassandra Spender’s story, every single sign that the mass burning on Skyland Mountain might’ve been related to what happened to me. Maybe if you'd believed Cassandra Spender, I wouldn't have ended up at the Ruskin Dam last night.” She motions pointedly to the spots of red along her face.

“That's not fair,” Mulder says, sounding sick.

“Oh, it's not? What about what you've just said? The truth is in me? What the hell does that mean? Do you want to take out my chip and study it? Because you know very well what will happen if you do.”

“Stop,” Mulder says.

She doesn't listen. Her anger is spilling over, every hurt feeling she's had in the past few days. “You say that the government gave me that chip, but you know damn well they didn't. You did. You stole it to replace the first one so I wouldn't die. If you hadn't taken it, if I had died… then I guess the truth, as you call it, would still be in the Pentagon.”

Stop,” says Mulder, his voice full of pain. He looks like she has slapped him. Good, she thinks; that's how he has made her feel.

“I really don't know what you're going for, Mulder,” Scully hisses. “I can't tell what game you're playing."

“I'm just trying to find the truth,” he says, and his voice is grating. He's looking at the ground, chewing on his lower lip. “I'm just trying to find out who took my sister, the people or things who have done these terrible things to you. Who killed your daughter.” Scully intakes a sharp breath, and he immediately flinches. They haven't talked about Emily out loud since she died. He looks up at her gingerly, his eyes full of apology. “If I can give you these memories…” he says again.

Scully barks out a brief laugh sadly. She's not far off from full-on crying all over the place. She's not far off from screaming at him. “How are you going to do that?”

“Regression hypnosis.”

She's already shaking her head. “Mulder, no…”

“Scully, I know you don't believe in this stuff, but hear me out.” He grabs her hand earnestly. “He really has helped people. He's helped Cassandra Spender.”

Scully bites her lower lip. She doesn't know why she doesn't pull her hand away. “I don't know…”

“He's not a magician, Scully. He works in helping people retrieve their lost memories. And I do think that he can help you.”

She sighs, nods. She'd do anything to get rid of this knot in her stomach, this blank space in her mind. “I'll do it,” she says quietly.

The corner of the left side of his mouth turns up, and he squeezes her hand gently, avoiding the burns. “I can set it up for this afternoon, if you want,” he offers, rubbing his thumb across the top. “After you're discharged.”

“Sure.”

“Okay.” He stands, a little eagerly, lets go of her hand. “I'll go give him a call. I think they said you could leave soon.” He leaves her room, the door practically slamming behind him.

Scully eases back into the pillows, her mind racing. Her heart pounding from head to toe. She wants to hate him for bringing up Emily, for the way he's been treating her. But. He says he is doing these things for her. She is furious, but she can't hate him. He is Mulder and she can't hate him.

---

She sees fire and faceless men and lights in the sky. Cassandra being carried up into the sky by a white beam of light, like an angel. She sees the snow falling backwards. Cassandra is gone. She really couldn't save her.

It all faded away when she wakes up. The visions were like a hot knife behind her skull, and she can feel it receding as she opens her eyes. She can't remember.

She's surprised, and maybe even embarrassed, to see Mulder sitting beside her on the couch. She thinks he was holding her hand. He gets up and walks out.

She tries to get up and sways dangerously in place. Dr. Werber reaches out to steady her. “I'm fine,” she says, shaking him off and thundering after Mulder. He's halfway down the hall, pulling out his cell phone. “What are you doing?” she protests, reaching his side. “Mulder…”

“I'm going to call Skinner,” he says, dialing.

“Why?” She grabs his arm, pulling the phone away from his ear.

“He needs to hear this,” says Mulder gently. “It's the only account we have of what happened last night.”

She bites her lip and lowers her arm. She hadn't thought of that beforehand, and she's not entirely sure she wants him to hear this. “I listen to it first,” she says, like a compromise with herself. “Before we ever show it to Skinner.”

He nods, lowering the phone. She exhales heavily, brushing hair back from her face, and turns to retrieve her things from Werber’s office.

“Scully?” She turns back to see Mulder watching her, cautiously. “Was that what you wanted?”

She sighs again, putting a hand over her face. “I don't know, Mulder,” she says quietly. “I don't know.”

On the way back to the Bureau, Scully listens to the tape again. She can't remember any of the things she is saying; it's all vanished from her head since her session, dissipated like smoke. But fear bubbles up in her throat at some of the worse-sounding parts. Mulder doesn't say anything outside of flinching a few times when her voice grows more desperate.

Mulder offers to take Scully home to rest before he gives Skinner the tape. She shakes her head, jaw clenched. She goes down to the basement while Skinner takes it upstairs and naps in Mulder's chair (the comfortable one) until he shakes her awake hours later. “Skinner's finished reviewing the tape,” he says, almost shortly. She nods and stands up.

Skinner, too, seems to think Mulder has his head up his ass. He claims alien abduction is the more likely explanation compared to Mulder's claims of a military aircraft. “Then I suggest you put that in your report,” Mulder snaps, and storms out. He is gone by the time Scully exits Skinner's office. He is gone from the parking garage without explanation, and she is tired of doing this. She is so tired. She wants this to be over. She wants her memories and her sister and her daughter back.

Scully goes down to the X-Files office, to get her things and leave, and finds Jeffrey Spender waiting for her. He shows her a video of his hypnotic regression sessions from his childhood, tells her his mother fed him the stories until he believed them and Dr. Werber egged him on. His story feels familiar, but Scully pushes the feeling down, ignores it. “I appreciate your opinion, Agent Spender, but I don't have a mother feeding me abduction stories,” she tells him.

“You've got Agent Mulder, don't you? How many times have you heard the stories he's told? How about the one about his own sister?” Jeffrey Spender takes the tape out, tells her seriously, “Don't let yourself be used.”

---

When Scully leaves the Bureau, Jeffrey Spender’s words are turning over and over in her head. She doesn't want them to be, but they are. Don't let yourself be used, he said. She never would've thought that Mulder was using her, but now… after the scene in the hospital, the way he ran out on her multiple times…

Scully smacks the steering wheel with her hand, glaring ahead at the road. Mulder is not using her, he can't be. He said he's doing this for her. (He said he loved her in San Diego.) But the things he said in the hospital… he said the truth is in her. What can that mean outside of…

No. Mulder may be self-centered and hyperfocused and occasionally an asshole, but he is not using her. Or if he is, he cares about her an awful lot. More than anyone should care about a tool. He may have been distant and awkward in the hospital, and he may have pushed her away when he thought her dead at the warehouse in Falls Church, but before. Before that, he faked his death to go undercover and look for a cure for her. His entire face had lit up when she told him she was in remission, gathering her up in his arms and squeezing her so tightly that she couldn't catch her breath. He hadn't believed she was dead when they abducted her; he fought for her and fought hard. He held her after Pfaster and Schnauz and the Dudley cannibals; he comforted her after Emily. He can't not care.

He has a habit of this, she reminds herself. As her cancer drew to a close, he'd become selfish and self-destructive; he ran after his sister, almost shot her in his summer vacation home. He didn't come to his senses until it became clear she was dying, really dying, and quickly. He has a habit of acting out with grief. And this time the grief would be… their ruined relationship? Devastation at everything he's ever believed being alternately proved and disproved?

When Scully gets home, she doesn't go inside like she likely should. Instead, she takes a walk. A long walk that leaves her fingers numb with brisk March air. And by the end of it, she's come to two conclusions: that their shared quest cannot continue in this matter, and that maybe the things she thought were true are not—which will have to be proven, whether she's right or Mulder's right or neither of them are right. But either way, she needs to talk to Mulder. She climbs back into her car and drives to Alexandria.

She finds him sitting in the dark after he tells her to come in. “Mulder?” she calls out and he grunts out an answer. “What are you doing sitting here in the dark?” she asks.

“Thinking,” he says.

Thinking. How original. “Thinking about what?”

“Oh, the usual. Destiny, fate, how to throw a curve ball. The inextricable relationships in our lives that are neither accidental nor somehow in our control, either.”

She wonders if he means theirs. She wonders if he is talking about something else entirely. “Well,” she says, “I've just taken a long walk and I've reconsidered that I may have been wrong about what I believed happened to me.”

“I've been doing some reconsidering of my own,” he says, standing up and passing her a piece of paper that reads, Things are looking up. Upon flipping it over, she sees what is written on the back: Wiekamp Air Force Base.

“What is this?” she asks.

“Maybe an answer... to a question you and I seem to have been destined to ask,” says Mulder. He walks past her, on his way out of the apartment. He seems to be making a habit of that.

Irritation rising, Scully follows him. “Where are you going?” she calls, slamming his door behind her.

“Wiekamp Air Force Base,” he says over his shoulder, like it should be obvious.

She catches up to him, heels clacking on the tile, and grabs his sleeve. “No,” she says firmly.

Confusion flickers over his face as he looks back at her. “No?”

“You don't get to keep doing this, Mulder.” She motions wildly with her hand. “You don't get to keep running out on me, and keep treating me like a stepping stone on your way to the truth. Why are you going to Wiekamp Air Force Base, Mulder? Who did that piece of paper come from?”

He gulps, nervously, says, “Krycek.”

Krycek?” Her grip on his sleeve tightens. “What did he… why did he…”

“The purpose of his visit seemed to be shoving a gun in my face and warning me about the likelihood of alien colonization,” Mulder says tensely.

Scully lets go of his sleeve in a fluid motion; alien mumbo-jumbo is the last thing she thought she'd hear tonight. “What?”

“Apparently an alien rebellion was staging these burnings at abduction lighthouses to stop the plans for colonization,” says Mulder grimly. “And one of them is being held hostage at Wiekamp Air Force Base. A rebel that I need to go save, or colonization will continue and we will all die.”

Scully blinks, genuinely stunned. “Mulder, that's insane.”

“Exactly,” he says bitterly. “Want to come along?”

“You don't really believe that bullshit, do you?” she asks incredulously. “Mulder, this has all the warning signs of being a trap. Of being part of this insane game.”

“I thought you believed Cassandra Spender’s story,” Mulder says pointedly. “This isn't that far off.”

“I thought there were parts of Cassandra’s story that it was unwise to ignore.” Scully crosses her arms. “As I think the event at the Ruskin Dam proves. But I didn't believe all aspects of her story. And like I said, Mulder, I've reconsidered. I don't know how much substance my original theories had…”

“So as usual, we're on the opposite pages?” Mulder crosses his arms, too. “Whatever you think, Scully, I need to follow this lead. And I'll understand if you want to go home—God knows you could use your rest—but I'd like it if you were there with me. So whatever we find, we can find it together.”

She must be insane. She pinches the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes, and mutters, “Fine. Let's go.”

Mulder looks legitimately surprised but he nods, pulling out his keys as they walk towards the elevator.

He doesn't speak again until they get into the car, until they're barreling down the highway. “What you said, about… me treating you like a stepping stone…” he starts tentatively.

Scully sighs, pressing her fingers to her temple. “Don't tell me that you don't know what I'm talking about,” she mutters.

“This is about what I said I'm the hospital, isn't it,” he says in a hushed voice, staring hard out the front window. Scully fidgets in her seat, pulling at the seatbelt. “Scully, you know… you know when I said the truth was in you, that I didn't mean the truth was the only thing I need you for.” She says nothing. His voice faltering, he continues, “I need you for so much more than that… you know…”

“No, I don't know,” she says. She'd thought her words would be rough and harsh, in her head, but she has no strength to fight with Mulder anymore. She hates fighting with Mulder. Her words come out sounding like she's just been punched in the gut. “If I based it off of your recent behavior, I don't know that you don't want me for anything more than my status as an abductee.”

His voice extraordinarily soft, he asks, “Is this about what happened in Dallas? Me saying that…”  

No.” Face red, Scully yanks at her seatbelt angrily. “It has nothing to do with that, that is a completely different… I understand why you did what you did in Dallas. This is about you ignoring me on this case unless I was in some kind of danger.” She sneaks a look at him and finds that he is still staring out the windshield, face white and jaw clenched. But he lets her continue. She says, “This is about you just running out on me at the hospital and at Dr. Werber’s office and at Skyland Mountain and in Skinner's office… you know how I feel about the ditching, Mulder, but this was different. It feels like this quest of yours was more important than giving me an explanation, or listening to what I thought. You've ignored what Cassandra Spender has said to the point of ridiculousness, when her stories have substance you should recognize based on what's happened to me, but you want to chase after a half-assed lead that Krycek gave to you while holding you at gunpoint? It doesn't make any sense, Mulder. I'm your partner, and I have been left in the dust on this case. You have contributed everything.”

“I should've believed Cassandra,” Mulder says, his voice as rough as gravel. “You're right. I should've. Scully, when I realized you were gone, when I heard about the Ruskin Dam… I thought you were dead…”

“I know that must've been hard for you,” Scully says softly. “And I know you tried to find me. Skinner told me. I'm grateful for that.”

“But you really… you really think I'm using you? That I don't care about you?” He sounds horrified. Legitimately horrified, as if her thinking he doesn't care is the worst thing he can imagine. “Scully…”

“I don't think that,” she says, looking down at her knees. “Not really. I just… I want you to realize how you're treating me. And I guess I want to understand. Mulder, everything you've done on this case is so unlike you… not believing Cassandra Spender… not making the connection at Skyland Mountain… not seeing the facts in the testimony I gave Werber…”

“I did all those things because…” He intakes a sharp breath. “I want justice for you and for Emily and for our sisters and everyone else who have suffered because of them,” he says softly. “I want to bring those bastards down. I want them to pay for everything they've done.And I thought… I thought whatever means I could use to get there the fastest was worth it. I didn't want to get distracted by… by things that didn't matter, I wanted to do whatever it took…  I thought if I could ignore the clear facades, if I could break down these barriers and find a clear path to them…”

Scully takes a shaky breath. “I understand your dedication to your goal, Mulder, and I appreciate it,” she says. “You know I share the same goal.” Her throat is stinging with unshed tears. “But you can't… you can't ignore facts right in front of your face to the point of close mindedness. You can't ignore me. You can't… you can't treat me like some tool on this massive quest of yours. Because if you do… than I can't do this with you.”

There's a tickling sensation along her hand as Mulder's fingers brush across the top. He reaches across the console and takes it, and she lets him. “Scully?”

“Yes?” she says softly, turning to look at him.

“I'm sorry.” And he does look sorry. Sincerely sorry. "I'm sorry about… a lot of things.”

She won't tell him okay. But she holds his eye contact, says, “I know.”

He smiles, just a little. A tiny bit. “I won't leave you out,” he says, still looking at the windshield. But she can read the sincerity on his face. “Or put you in danger… I never meant to… I got distracted. But I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.”

“I know,” she says again, and squeezes his hand before letting it go. She's not sure where she stands on all of this. On her relationship with Mulder—in terms of partnership or romantically—or in the goddamn conspiracy. But at least they've cleared some air between them. At least they've reached a stalemate of sorts. At least she knows he still cares.

---

They don't talk much on the way to the base. Mulder is forming a plan in his head. When they get there, it is the same song and dance he's used to: he bluffs to the guarding officer to the point at which the kid goes to check on some made-up problem. “Buckle up, Scully,” he says.

“Mulder, he's armed and well within his jurisdiction,” Scully says.

They're watching a truck exit the gate. As it draws closer, Scully says, “I know this man.”

“Who?”

“That driver. I know his face.”

Mulder watches the truck as the officer looks over at them. “Scully,” he says quietly. “I'm going to go after the truck. You stay here.”

“What?”

The officer looks away. “I swear this isn't a ditch,” Mulder says, before making a break for it.

He makes it into the truck, and then everything else grows fuzzy. He thinks there is a light. He wakes up in the truck, being arrested, with no memory of what just happened. His throat is raw from screaming.

They take him back to the car and shove him inside. He steadies himself in the seat, eyes and nose burning. He was so close, so fucking close, and now they're back to square one. Both left with nothing.

“What happened?” Scully asks gently. More gently than he deserves, probably.

“I don't know,” he says, covering his face. He understands why Scully insisted on retrieving her memories after Ruskin; this blank space in his mind is the most frustrating thing in the world. His eyes burn, and Scully is pulling his hand away from his face, squeezing it in hers. He looks at her and she looks at him in the dim light of the car, and god, he can't believe he ever made her think he didn't need her. He needs her like air. He wouldn't make it anywhere, through anything, without her.

“It's okay,” Scully whispers, squeezing his hand in both of hers. “It's okay.” He nods, leaning his head against the cool window pane. Scully rubs her fingers over his knuckles, her hands warm around his, and they just sit there for a minute. Up until a military officer shows up and taps on the window, glaring at the both of them.

Scully squeezes his hand again before leaning back in her seat. “Let's get out of here,” she says softly, and how is he only just now noticing the circles under her eyes? She looks exhausted. “Before they change their mind about arresting us.”

“Fine by me,” he mumbles, putting the car into reverse and backing out.

They drive home in silence, but not a tension-filled one, for the first time in ages. It's a companionable one.

---

Mulder drops her off at home close to midnight, and Scully is genuinely close to falling asleep in the elevator. She craves her bed, her sheets and soft mattress, like a smoker craves a cigarette. She wants to sleep for a year.

When she exhaustedly stumbles into her apartment, she misjudges her amount of space and bangs her knee into the coffee table. Swearing, she collapses on her couch, rubbing her eyes. And that's when she sees it: a watch on her coffee table. Mulder's watch, she immediately recognizes. But she has no idea what it's doing here. She can't even remember the last time he came to her apartment.

She calls him out of a sense of curiosity. “Mulder, is that your watch on my coffee table?” she asks when he answers.

“Oh, yeah,” he says, bemused. “I forgot about that.”

“You forgot about your watch?” She raises her eyebrows even though he can't see her. “When were you here to take it off?”

“I, uh… I came over there looking for you last night.” He sounds amazed, like he can't believe what's happened in under 24 hours. “I couldn't find you, so I decided to, um, wait… I might have fallen asleep on your couch. When Skinner called to tell me about the Ruskin Dam, I guess I just forgot to grab it.”

A lump rises in her throat, and she couldn't tell a single person why. “You stayed here all night waiting for me?” she says, like she can't believe it.

“Well, not really all night, just a few hours… Scully? Are you okay?”

She smiles a little, running a finger over the face of the watch. “I'm fine,” she says, wiping her eyes. “Just tired. Thank you, Mulder. I'll bring the watch to work tomorrow.”

She goes to bed with some unexplainable happiness building in her chest. Some sentimental feeling that makes her want to wrap her arms around him and never let go.

Chapter Text

Things are fine afterwards. Fine. They work the Marty Glenn case in Delaware, and things are fine—at least between them. They don't agree on Marty Glenn’s innocence, not at first, but the truth comes to light easily. Marty goes to prison and Mulder seems disappointed. He goes to visit Marty in prison, offers to talk to the judge, but Marty refuses. Waiting outside for him, Scully wonders if he has a crush on Marty, the same way she did on Esther or Jack. If he does, she suspects it will fizzle out to nothing the same way her crushes did. If he does, she can't be jealous, because she's the one who broke up with him.

Time moves forward with ease, cases coming and going, little to no tension arising between them. Nearly before Scully realizes what is happening, it is Easter and her mother is flying down to see Bill and Tara and Matthew again. (She is absolutely delighted with this first grandchild of hers. Somehow, Scully has thought more than once, Emily doesn't exactly count.) She invites Scully, who vehemently denies and tries not to feel hurt. Her mother prods gently, suggesting that they visit Emily’s grave with flowers. Scully knows she means well, but her daughter's name in her mother's mouth after months of silence on the subject stings like a slap across the face. “Thank you, Mom, but it's too soon,” she says instead. “I'd rather stay here. I'll go to Mass.” She's been going to Mass every Sunday lately—she'd started going every now and then after her cancer went into remission, but since Emily, she's gone every Sunday that she's not been out of town on a case. She'd hoped that God could help her find peace.

(She thinks she is starting to find that peace. She'd moved the picture of Emily from her wallet to her desk drawer back in March, where she won't keep accidentally stumbling across it. She hasn't moved the chair in front of the spare room, though. Something inside of her won't let her. Like whatever is inside might get out. Like if she moves the chair, she'll be letting Emily go.)

She goes to the Easter service, and Father McCue asks for her help afterwards. He tells her about the Kernofs, and she feels that familiar pang in her chest when he tells her of their lost daughter Dara. She thinks that he wants her to investigate, until he says, “The Kernofs are devout, but their faith is giving them little comfort. I thought with your background your words might carry a certain weight.” Scully realizes then, the pain in her chest sharpening, that Father McCue wants her to comfort them. Because he knows about what happened to Emily. Her mother must've told him, she hasn't confided in Father McCue about this. He could mean her background in criminal investigations, of course, he could want her to tell them that everything is fine and the girl's death wasn't painful or was inevitable or something to that degree. Or he could want her to relate to them in their shared losses. Either way, he seems to want her to solidify their faith in God.

She doesn't tell him that she doesn't feel like her own faith in God is very strong at the moment, after the things she's seen and experienced. That her recent regular attendance of Mass is an attempt to restore that faith in herself.She tells Father McCue that she's available to meet with the Kernofs on Tuesday. The next day, at work, she considers telling Mulder, but ultimately decides not to. This could be a case, or it could be a simple hour or two spent attempting to comfort the Kernofs. If it turns out to be nothing, there's no need to pull Mulder into all of this.

 When Scully goes to see the Kernofs the next day, the husband barely speaks to her. The wife is kinder—an understandably muted kindness. She offers Scully a drink before heading off to find a picture of Dara to show her. She tells her that Dara was found dead in the streets, eyes burned out. She shows her a picture of Dara on her birthday and tells her that their theory is that she was struck by lightning, that they have no idea how she even got out of the house. That she was praying when her father found her. The way Mrs. Kernof describes her husband is painfully similar to everything Scully has been feeling. The lack of understanding as to why God would let an innocent girl die. She agrees to help them.

The coroner clears things up and makes things muddier all at the same time. She tells Scully that the cause of death is unclear, due to the lack of burns anywhere but her eye sockets. The religious overtones are obvious, between the rigored kneeling position Dara is still in and the coroner commenting that it's as if God struck her down. Scully has no idea why God would do something like that.

The coroner hasn't looked into Dara’s birth parents. Scully decides on a whim to involve Mulder, at least to find some information for her. She calls him, but he doesn't answer; he must be busy or something. She leaves him a message urging him to call her back as soon as possible and heads home. It starts to rain, hard. She steadies her breathing, staring straight ahead out of the windshield. She keeps her mind firmly on Dara Kernof and doesn't let her mind wander from the case. It doesn't matter. She is going to help this family find peace. Dara Kernof is not Emily, and she is going to find her killer. Or at least find out what happened to her.

At home, she flips through the crime scene photos, looking for any clues as to what could've happened. She finds nothing, Dara's charred eye sockets staring out at her. They start to look as if they are pleading, crying out for her help. She falters. She gives into this pull in her stomach, her heart, pulls open her desk drawer and digs out Emily’s picture underneath all the stuff she slid it under. Her daughter's bright face grins out at her from underneath banners and a party hat. A birthday party she never saw, that she should've been the one throwing. A week is not enough time with your baby. She wonders if the Kernofs are thinking about all the birthdays they will never celebrate with their daughter, all the years they've lost.

Overwhelmed, she sighs, letting her eyes slip closed. The rain pours. It had rained the night she'd arranged Emily’s funeral, Mulder's hand squeezing her knee for comfort as she called the funeral parlor where the Sims had been buried. She thought it was fitting, like the sky was broken open and sobbing. She hoped it never stopped. But the sun had shone the day of the funeral. It felt wrong.

The phone rings and she scoops it up, answering with a simple, “Hello.”

“Hey, Scully,” Mulder says on the other end, voice rushed. “I’m returning your call.”

“Hi,” she says. “Uh, something’s come up. I was, uh, hoping that you could do me a favor.”

“Why? What's going on?”

“This isn’t official FBI business so I was hoping that we could keep it outside of work,” she explains.

“Hey, look,” he blurts, “I’m, uh…  I’m kind of tailing a possible suspect right now, so I’m kind of rushed, so, uh…”

“I need some birth and adoptive records on a Dara Kernof.”

“Who?”

“Dara Kernof. I can’t tell you much more than that, Mulder. I’m sorry,” she says, somewhat apologetically.

“You want to give me a hint? Anything?” he prods.

“Not until you get me those records,” says Scully.

She expects more prodding on his part, but instead he says, “All right, I'll talk to you later,” before hanging up. He must've really been busy.

Scully sets the phone down, rubbing her temples wearily. Resisting the urge to look at the photo again, she slides it back in her desk, shuffling the crime scene photos and sliding them back into the folder. She can't work anymore tonight. She takes a scalding shower and goes to bed. She tries not to think.

The next morning, the police department that investigated Dara's death calls her early in the morning. A girl, Paula Koklos, has died in an identical way to Dara Kernof. A girl who is physically identical to Dara Kernof. Another young girl dead. Scully goes immediately.

Mulder finds her there, somehow. He's eager, immediately intrigued by the entire case. Scully tells him that she didn't want to involve him, although she's not entirely sure why. Maybe because this feels too personal. Or maybe because of the way he's treating it like some big, magical X-File. He's found Dara's birth records, he tells her. He's found that she was a quadruplet. That there are two other girls out there, Dara and Paula’s sisters, who may still be alive.

Mulder's theory is that some religious wacko is the murderer, based off of the position the girls died in and the upside-down cross found in Paula’s room. The social worker—one Aaron Starkey—directs them to Paula’s intended adopted father, one Father Gregory. They leave immediately, some unspoken agreement that Mulder would be consulting.

In the car, Mulder asks the inevitable question. “So, not to prod, Scully, but why didn't you want to involve me? Want this one all to yourself?”

Scully swallows, cheek pressed against the window. “No, I… thought you wouldn't be interested. Religious imagery and all,” she says lightly.

“I'm always up for a case,” Mulder teases. “Even with religious imagery.”

He's never seemed very interested in those in the past, but Scully doesn't say this. They're mostly quiet until they reach The Church of St. Peter the Sinner. “Unusual name,” Mulder cracks.

The church is just as unusual as its name, and Father Gregory is a fitting pastor. He claims to have wanted to protect Paula, to have known her birth mother. He seems to think that Paula and Dara's death was the will of God. Mulder thinks he's full of crap. Surprisingly—or maybe unsurprisingly, considering Mulder's beliefs that have been made clear in the past—he seems to think that there is no supernatural element to this case. He acts like he doesn't know what she's talking about when she brings it up.

“Well,” Scully says in response to this, “Dara Kernof was baptized on the day of her death. She was sanctified by the ritual sacrament… submerged in the spirit.”

“And why would God allow this to happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Religion has masqueraded as the paranormal since the dawn of time to justify some of the most horrible acts in history.”

“I was raised to believe that God has his reasons, however mysterious.”

“He may well have his reasons but he seems to use a lot of psychotics to carry out his job orders,” Mulder says, like he's trying to be funny, like he's trying to be cocky. “You want to find out who did this? I suggest you autopsy the body of Paula Koklos before it’s interred, before the man who killed her has a chance to find her sisters.”

He heads for the car, climbing into the driver's side. Scully follows wearily. This is why she didn't want to bring him on; because he always freezes up on religious cases, becomes rigid in his disbelief in those things. It's infuriating, because if this were any other case, she knows he would believe every word out of Father Gregory’s mouth. But once again, they've found themselves at odds. Where they usually are.

She goes to begin the autopsy on Paula Koklos and hallucinates her baby on the metal slab. Emily’s pleading eyes, blue as her mother's and her sister's. She looks so small under the blanket. She calls her Mommy. “Mommy, please,” she says, pleading, and Scully can feel herself crumbling. This is not real, she tells herself after turning away and finding Paula there when she turns back. She is trying very hard not to cry. You are seeing things as a result of stress brought on by the similarity of this case to a traumatic experience you've recently had to deal with. But this doesn't erase the image. The sound of her daughter's voice calling her Mommy, calling for help. And she can't help but wonder if this is all a sign, if God is sending her visions. If this is all happening for a reason and she is an integral part in his plan.

She finishes the autopsy. She doesn't know how, but she finishes it. Types up the transcript and goes home. She crawls into bed and finds herself unable to sleep, tossing and turning and pushing at the layers of blankets. She's so cold. It's April in Virginia, and she is freezing.

It's not until Scully gets up and goes into the living room to retrieve her photo of Emily that she can fall asleep. She curls, shivering, in the bed with the only thing she has left of her daughter under her hand. She wakes the next morning with the photo a little crumpled under her cheek. She thinks she dreamed, but she can’t remember what about.

---

The autopsy bay is crowded the next morning. Scully decides to reexamine the results of the Paula Koklos case, having judged that she wasn’t in her right mind the night before. (She couldn't really have found those winglike things, she had to have imagined or misdiagnosed it.) She is putting up the x-rays when Mulder calls, with the news that he may have tracked down another sister and that he and the social worker Aaron Starkey are looking for her in DC. He hangs up on her before she can finish explaining the night before. Less than an hour later, he's calling to tell her that the third girl is dead and Father Gregory is in custody.

Hearing the news, Scully can't help but feel a rush of frustration. I should've been there, she wants to scream. God must want her to save these girls; that's why he sent Emily to her. But another one is dead, another innocent life. She is failing.

Father Gregory insists that he is protecting the girls, that the devil wants to kill them. He tries to find common ground with Scully.  “You know. You’ve already guessed… what they are.” He tries to convince her to let him go so that the fourth girl can be protected.

Scully doesn't. Aside from the fact that Mulder would think her insane, she doesn't think it's necessary. Father Gregory may play an integral part, but she is going to save the fourth girl (who Mulder identifies as Roberta Dyer directly after their interrogation of the Father). She has to be the one—why else would God have sent her the vision of Emily? Those who have visions have some sort of purpose, and this is hers.

If only Mulder knew that. “Don't let this guy get in your head,” he tells her encouragingly, almost comfortingly. “That’s the last thing you want. Sometimes the most twisted ones are the most persuasive.”

“Mulder, he knows where she is,” she says.

“Well, that’s okay. As long as he’s locked up here, it doesn’t matter.”

“You’re not going to find her. I think you’re being misled,” she says in a rush.

“By who?” he wants to know, and she has no answer. None that he'd believe, anyway. “Scully, I think you’re the one who’s being misled. Not just willingly, but willfully. I’ve never seen you more vulnerable or susceptible or more easily manipulated and it scares me because I don’t know why.”

“I saw Emily,” she says, because maybe it will make him understand. He's believed people on visions of Samantha before—the miracle healer from years ago, for one thing. Second time they've mentioned her name aloud in months. “She came to me in a vision.”

Mulder doesn't say anything. She looks away, suddenly unable to look him in the eye. He steps closer, puts his hand on the back of her neck and leans close enough that their foreheads are almost touching. He looks off to the side as if checking for someone, and for an absurd moment, Scully thinks he's going to kiss her forehead in the middle of a damn police station to comfort her. She doesn't even think she'd mind at this point.

Instead, he says, “I think you should step away.”

He steps back, hand coming down to cover her shoulder, and she looks off to the side, blinking hard before looking back at him. “Personal issues are making you lose your objectivity,” he's saying, “clouding your judgement.”

Like that hasn't been an issue for him on a thousand goddamn cases. She's lost people too, now, damnit. She should get the same pass he's had for a while now. “You go,” she says out loud, nearly before she realizes she is saying it. “Go find the girl. I'm going to finish up with Father Gregory.” Because it's easier to agree than argue, especially in situations like this, and damnit, is this how he felt when she told him he should be off Modell’s case? She'd felt she was right at the time, and surely that's the same way Mulder feels. That he's protecting her from getting herself or others hurt. But then again, he was right on the Modell case and she feels she is right now. She knows she is right, she has to be.

“Okay,” Mulder is saying softly, taking the folder from her and walking off. Scully swallows, doesn't say anything else. She looks back down at the photo of Roberta Dyer, running her fingernails over the edge. There has to be a way to save her. She can't fail someone else.

But any hope of Father Gregory helping her is lost—he's found dead in the locked interrogation room, skin harshly blistered and burned with a guard right outside.

It takes a long time for everything to be cleared up, for them to interview everyone nearby about anything they may have heard or saw or done, and to take the body away. Scully puts in a request to do the autopsies, but she's not allowed to that night. So instead, she heads out to her car at close to ten, planning to call Mulder on the road and touch base with him. But her key won't turn in the lock of the driver's side.

Brow furrowing, she shuffles the keys in her hand, planning to try again when the phone rings. She pulls it out of her pocket and pulls out the antenna, putting it up to her ear. “Hello.”

“Yeah, hi, Scully, it's me,” Mulder says in a rush.

“He's dead, Mulder,” she tells him, bluntly.

“Who?”

“Father Gregory,” she says, fiddling with her keys. “They found him alone in the interrogation room. No one can figure it out. There was a guard sitting right outside the room.” The keys tumble from her hand and she kneels to pick them up, still holding the phone to her ear.

“We didn’t find her. The fourth girl—she was here,” Mulder is saying. But something seems to outweigh that. A strange whispering sound, and black shoes in front of her that have appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She didn't hear anyone else out here.

“Hey, Scully,” Mulder says. She doesn't respond. She looks slowly up, slowly… “Scully, you there? Answer me.” It's a man, light protruding from behind him, and yet it can't be a man. “Scully?” Mulder prods on the other end, and she can't answer because she's staring up in horror as the man's face shifts, changes to an eagle and then a lion, and Mulder is still calling her name, and the light grows brighter as the faces change…

When it fades, she is alone, still crouched on the ground with her keys in hand, her knees aching. The thing is gone. Her phone is silent in her other hand.

Scully gets to her feet, trembling a little, and scans the parking lot quickly. No one—no one going to their car or driving away, no men with many faces. The only lights are fluorescent. Shaking her head hard, she tries her key again. It works this time.

Her phone rings again a few minutes later. She answers it. “Scully?” Mulder shouts into the phone, frantic, before she can even put the phone up to her ear.

She tucks it between her cheek and her shoulder, says, “I'm here.”

Mulder's sigh is one of both of relief and of exasperation. “Thank God,” he says shakily. “I thought you were… I almost called the police.”

Somehow, Scully thinks bitterly, digging her fingernails into the leather of the steering wheel, I don't think God is who you would be thanking. “I'm fine,” she says.

“What the hell happened?” Mulder demands.

She swallows dryly. “I… I saw something.” She did, she can't deny it. For the first time in a long time, she can't deny it. Not after everything that's happened on this case.

“What? Another vision?”

Scully licks her lips. “I suppose you could say that,” she says carefully—because that thing couldn't have really been there, the same way Emily wasn't there. God is trying to speak to her.

“Jesus, Scully,” Mulder says in quiet awe. “This case… what the hell is it doing to you?”

She clenches her jaw, holding the wheel tighter. “Mulder…”

“I'm worried about you,” he's saying. “I think you need to walk away from this case, Scully. You seeing things… that's definitely not normal.”

“And you seeing things is normal?” she snaps. “What about you, Mulder? You see things on every case we're on ,and you never get booted off for that. And you're always furious when you are! Remember how upset you were when Skinner and I pulled you off the Bowman case?”

He doesn't say anything for a minute. “That's… different.”

“Why? Because you were right then and you think I'm wrong now?”

Mulder's silence is longer this time. Scully stares straight ahead at the road, glaring at the headlights across the median. Something bigger than a religious fanatic murderer is going on here—she just wishes someone could see it besides her.

“I'm just worried about you, Scully,” Mulder says finally. “Worried about your…”

“Call me if you find the fourth girl, Mulder,” Scully says tightly and hangs up, letting the phone drop in the seat beside her.

---

She goes to see Father McCue the next morning instead of going into the police station, to get his opinion on the things she's been seeing. If she could just figure out what God's trying to tell her…

Father McCue identifies the thing from the parking garage as a Seraphim from her description, an angel with four faces. The story he tells of the Nephilim, the children of the Seraphim and mortals, and the way that they are called back to heaven to protect them from the Devil, feels too familiar. It feels too much like what is happening. But Father McCue doesn't agree. He thinks she is imagining it based off of hearing the story a long time ago. Clear that she will get nowhere with him on the subject, he tells Scully that he believes God has his reasons. In the moment, she believes that, too.

Directly outside of the church, the social worker, Aaron Starkey, shows up and tells Scully that Mulder has been trying to reach her because they found the fourth girl at Father Gregory’s church. She rides with him down there, panic coursing through her the whole time. Whatever happens, she has to protect the girl. She has to protect Roberta.

When they get to the church, Scully goes straight in while Starkey lingers behind. The church is empty and silent, no sign of Mulder or any police ever having been there. When she turns to question Starkey about it, he answers in a low, menacing tone. She looks down and sees horns atop his shadow. Like the devil. She swallows and turns away to look for Roberta.

She finds Roberta under the stairs, cowering in fear. She reassures her, offers her a way out, and the girl tentatively reaches out to take her hand. Scully leads her further into the church, away from Starkey’s angry demands, muttering reassuring things. And then the light comes.

The light fills up the room, blinding her. Starkey is protesting in an inhuman voice. Roberta steps towards the light. Scully holds onto her hand, pleading with her to stay back. She can't let the girl die, she's still so young…

She looks again and sees Emily. Emily asking her to let her go. Emily calling her Mommy. “Emily,” she says in a trembling voice. She could never let her go, not her daughter…

“Mommy, please let me go,” Emily says. “Mommy, please.”

Her little fingers slip out of Scully's.

Scully watches her walk away, and she cries out for her. Not her daughter, not again. “Emily?” she calls, desperately, pleading, but Emily steps into the light anyway. “Oh, God,” she whispers, eyes slipping closed.

When she opens them, Emily is gone. When she opens them, the light is gone and so is Starkey. When she opens them, Roberta is dead.

Weakened by grief, by fear, by guilt, Scully collapses into a chair.

She tells herself that Roberta is in heaven now, where she'll be happy with her sisters. (She reminds herself that Emily is there, too, and she is in a better place.) She tells herself that this is God's will, that his means are mysterious but there was a reason he made her see Emily. He wanted her to let Roberta go. She tells herself she did the right thing.

But it is impossible to believe these things with Roberta stiff in her kneeling position only feet away. Her charred eyes look like they're calling for help, the same way Paula’s and Dara's did. An innocent girl. Scully calls for someone to come and get the body. When she hangs up, she bursts into tears.

---

When Mulder gets to Father Gregory’s church, he arrives just in time to see the stretcher being taken out of the building. The bizarrely-shaped black body bag that has the impression of kneeling.

“Oh, shit,” he whispers, moving into a jog. “Scully?” he calls out, though he has no idea if she's here, and enters the building in time to see her slumped in a chair in the makeshift sanctuary. Her arms are wrapped tightly around her torso, as if to try and shield herself. Her eyes are haunted, red and puffy.

“Scully.” He skids to a stop in front of her, putting his hands on her shoulder. “Scully, what happened? Was that Roberta Dyer?”

Scully nods, jaw clenched. She's looking at something somewhere past her; her hands clutch her arms tighter. “She's dead,” she says in a hollow voice.

“Are you okay?” Scully nods. Mulder doesn't let it end there, plows on like a freight train. “What the hell happened? Were you too late?”

She doesn't answer, still not looking at him.

Mulder sighs, collapsing in a chair beside her. Another girl dead, an innocent girl they should've been able to save. God, this must be killing Scully. And if she was here… “How did you know she was here?” he wants to know.

She finally turns to meet his eyes. “Starkey brought me,” she says numbly, but slightly accusatory. “He said that you were trying to reach me, that you had found the girl.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he says, hands flat against his knees, pressing down. “I thought you were going to take some time off. I thought that was what we agreed on last night, after you didn't answer me on the phone for about ten minutes and scared the shit out of me.”

Scully's shoulders tense even more, something he would've found impossible a few minutes ago. “I thought you needed me to come out here. That's what Starkey told me.”

“I never said a word to Starkey.” Mulder's hands ball into nervous fists on his knees. “Where is he, anyway?”

“Gone,” Scully mutters. Her arms are hanging loosely by her side now, her fingers trembling.  

“Gone where?”

“I don't know. Mulder, I think Starkey might’ve been who we've been looking for. I think he might’ve had a hand in what happened to those girls.”

“So, what, you think he's God?” Mulder demands. “Or the Devil? How did he kill Roberta Dyer?”

Scully's mouth thins. “Mulder, you're not being fair. Of all the theories I've gone out on a limb for, because you believed them…”

“This is different.”

Something inside Scully seems to snap here. “How? How is it different? An innocent girl is dead, and I should've been able to stop it!” she explodes. “And maybe I would've if I hadn't… if you hadn't… we are partners, Mulder, and goddamnit, you believe in everything, everything except for God. You conveniently decide not to believe, and you're not there when I need you… when I need your help…”

“I thought you didn't need my help,” Mulder says in a low voice, hating every word as it comes out of his mouth. Hating himself. “You made that pretty clear in San Diego.”

Scully flinches, looks away. He notices just then that her hands are shaking; her hands are shaking, and he's bringing up San Diego, and fuck, he's such an idiot. Fuck.

Scully stands, her eyes teary but her face steely as ever. Her voice, too, strong and clear as a bell as she says, “Fuck you, Mulder.” And then she gets up and turns to leave.

---

The next day is Saturday, so Scully has more than enough reason not to go into work. That's good; she's tired of taking sick days. She downs sleeping pills and sleeps for hours at a time. She dreams tumultuous dreams of the quadruplets staring at her with their charred eyes, pleading for help. And Emily, looking tiny among the angels and demons and the wash of bright lights. She reaches for help that Scully can't give. She cries out for her, calls her Mommy.

Scully wakes with a start, hobbles to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face. It doesn't help. She crouches, trembling, on the tile and presses her face into the cotton of her towel so she won't have to hear her sobs echoing off the empty walls. She mutters something again and again into the fabric. It might be I'm sorry.

Eventually, Scully picks herself up off the cold tile and goes to sit on the couch. She turns on the TV with no idea what is playing. She loses hours at a time, the way she did the first few days after San Diego. She remembers dinner when it starts to get dark outside, goes into the kitchen and microwaves a frozen meal.

Her mother called at some point during the day to check on her; they hadn't talked for awhile, and she wants to know if Scully is planning to come to Mass the next day. When the phone rings again, Scully assumes it's her mother calling again. She lets it go to voicemail and is somewhat surprised when Mulder's voice crackles over the answering machine. “Hey, Scully, it's me,” he says. “If you're screening this, pick up. I'm worried about you.”

Scully doesn't pick up. She chews on her thumbnail absently. Mulder sighs. “I'm sorry, Scully. I shouldn't have said what I said yesterday. I don't blame you for Roberta Dyer's death. God knows I've fucked up that way plenty of times, and you're always there to pull me back from the edge. I know now… how hard this case was on you. I wish… I wish I'd figured it out sooner.” He sounds miserable. He sounds sorry. Tears well up at Scully's eyes; she stares down at the plastic case of shitty spaghetti she didn't heat up enough.

“I'm sorry for bringing up San Diego, Scully. I'm not mad at you about that. I'm not… I know I fucked up again. I've done that too much lately. And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. And I just wanted you to know…” The beep of the answering machine cuts him off.

Scully sniffles, wiping her eyes. She climbs out of her chair and curls into the side of the couch, TV droning on in the background. She thinks about calling Mulder. She thinks about visiting Emily’s grave. She thinks about driving all night to clear the images in her head. She wonders if God will ever forgive her.

At some point, she crawls off the couch and pads into the kitchen, retrieves the bottle of wine from the fridge.

---

Sometime in the middle of the night, when he's half-awake on his couch, he makes the decision. The idea had sprung up when she didn't answer his phone call, but it solidified in his mind when he got the call from Scully's mom, saying that she'd called Scully several times without an answer. Her worry only rose when Mulder said he hadn't heard from her since Friday, and that she had a hard time on the latest case. “I know how hard the past few months have been on Dana,” Maggie had said, “and I feel awful that I haven't been there for her more. I'm… I'm honestly not sure she wants me to be.” Mulder hadn't said anything, scraping his teeth over his lower lip. Scully has barely mentioned her mother in the months since San Diego, but he suspects she has been avoiding her. He knows facing her family after Emily wasn't exactly easy.

“I've been worried about her, too,” he said aloud.

Maggie had paused for a minute before saying, “Would you mind letting me know when you hear from her? Or maybe even going to check on her? I think she'd rather hear from you than from me.”

Somehow, I don't think so, Mulder had thought, but he agreed to call her when Scully contacted him. And since then, he's been waiting. Trying to decide what to do.

And around midnight, it really does seem clear: he should go ahead and check on her. It's late, but she might still be awake. He can tell her that her mother is worried. He can tell her he is sorry. And he really is worried about her: the state that she was in when she left the church on Friday would worry anyone. He knows Scully, and he knows she can't be dealing well with any of this. He knows he should've been there for her.

He makes the decision and he gets up from the couch, shoving his feet in shoes and grabbing his keys. He just wants to know she's okay.

At Scully's place, he has to let himself in because she doesn't answer his repeated knocks. Inside, he finds a nearly empty bottle of wine, a glass shattered on the floor. “Scully?” he calls out cautiously. “Scully, are you okay?”

He heads towards Scully's bedroom, but stops in his tracks in the hall. He sees her lying on the floor in front of a door, in front of a chair wedged under a door. She's wrapped in a blanket and huddled on the ground. She's wearing an overlarge t-shirt that's he's stunned to realize is his—the Knicks shirt he's had for years. She's breathing slowly in sleep, but she jolts as soon as Mulder touches her shoulder. “What,” she mumbles, pulling the blanket tighter around her. He can smell the alcohol on her breath from here.

“Scully, it's me.” He touches her cheek. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“Mm, ‘m fine Mulder,” Scully mutters irritably. “Just tryin’ to sleep.”

“Why are you sleeping out here? Instead of in your bed?” He reaches for her cold fingers and pulls them into his.

“I wanted to be… didn't wanna leave her,” says Scully sleepily, her lids raising slightly. He gives her a look of confusion. The phone slips to the floor as she reaches for her necklace, to clasp it in her hands. “This would've been her room,” she clarifies.

Mulder sucks in a breath of surprise at that, feels the weight of her statement settle in. “Oh, Scully,” he whispers, pulling her up off of the ground and into his arms.

“I had it all planned out, was gonna get a bed and paint…” Scully shifts against him, balling a fist into the hem of his shirt. “I was gonna take care of her. I really loved her, Mulder. I wanted to be her mom.”

“I know.” He's stroking her hair a little. He'd mostly managed to block out what little things he'd remembered about Emily, but now they're back and crowding his brain, making him near physically ill. If he feels this terrible about a little girl he had a total of two interactions with, how must Scully be feeling? “I know,” he says again, and kisses her hair.

Scully sniffles into his shoulder. “And I barely even knew her. I never had the chance t-to love her. They took that away.”

“I know. I'm so sorry.”

Scully wipes her nose, her eyes. “I let her die,” she mumbles, her breath hot against the cotton of his shirt. “Both of them. Emily and Roberta… it never should've happened. I should've been able to save her… but I looked at her and I saw Emily. She asked me to let her go. She called me Mommy.” She sniffles again. “And I did it. I let her go. I let her go, Mulder. And now Roberta Dyer is dead because of me.”

Mulder rubs the space between her shoulder blades. “Maybe that was what was meant to happen,” he murmurs.

Scully laughs bitterly and loosens her hold on his shirt. “You don't believe that. Y-you said. You didn't… you didn't believe me. You never believe in anything religious… God… you n-never…”

He stiffens, his arms slack around her. She's right, he didn't believe. He doesn't believe, not in God. But he doesn't blame her, not for Roberta Dyer's death. But she needed him to believe. She needed him to believe…

“I'm sorry, Scully,” he says against her temple. “I'm so sorry.”

Scully pulls out of his embrace, mumbling something that sounds like, “Let go.” She leans forward on her hands and knees, lowering herself back to the floor. “Wanna sleep.”

“You should sleep in your bed,” Mulder says, touching her shoulder. “It's warmer there.”

Scully shakes her head firmly, huddling down in front of the chair and pulling the blanket tight around her. Mulder gives up, shifting to sit against the wall. Scully mutters something indecipherable into the blanket, pressing her face into it. “It's okay,” Mulder whispers. “Get some sleep.”

As soon as she's asleep, he pulls off her shoes, finds a pillow and another blanket on her bed and brings them to her. (He might as well make her as comfortable as possible.) He sits beside her again on the floor. Her right foot slides across the floor in her sleep, bumping against his arm. Her toes are freezing, so he reaches down to rub some warmth into them and vows to buy her some socks this Christmas.

Samantha used to sleep on the floor outside their mother's room when she was little and had nightmares. He wonders, briefly, if Emily would've had nightmares and if she would've slept outside the door to Scully's room in this same fashion. If Scully would've let her crawl in bed after nightmares, even though parenting books advise against letting your child sleep in your bed. He doesn't know the kind of parent Scully would've been. (Will be, someday.) Hovering, he assumes—she flat-out refuses to leave his side when he's injured. The doctors at Emily’s hospital described Scully as “one of those tiger-mothers”, said she chased a man down the hall with a gun. What if she had gotten a chance to be a mother, if the courts had approved her adoption petition. Would she have stayed in California with Emily? No, because she said that her spare room would've been Emily’s room. So, what then? Would she have brought Emily back to DC in tiny winter coats, held her hand in the elevator? Would she have painted her spare room a bright color? Would she read picture books to her daughter in bed, carry a gun so that no one could ever hurt them again? Would she have stayed on the X-Files? Would she have stayed with him?

Mulder rubs warmth back into her cold feet, closes his eyes to try and grab at the image. He'd do anything to give her this life, he thinks. Anything. Even if it had meant sacrificing their fledgling relationship. He would've lost her either way, it seems, so better to have her gain a daughter in the process. But then again, maybe she wouldn't have broken things off if Emily had lived. Maybe she wouldn't have. Are you the parents, the doctor had asked, and she'd looked to him as if for confirmation before looking away. Maybe they could've been. Maybe they could have.

Mulder sits on the floor with Scully as she sleeps until his ass hurts. Her toes curl into the palm of his hand. He rubs a thumb over the curve of her foot. He sits there with her until his phone rings. Scully turns on her side, muttering something and throwing her arm out. Worried he'll wake her up, he stands quickly and heads out into the living room, answering the phone with a sighed, “Mulder.”

“My colleague heard you speak in Boston, Mr. Mulder,” says an unfamiliar voice on the other side. “Your take on alien conspiracies and the men in Congress.”

Mulder huffs out a laugh. It won't be the first time that he's gotten calls from conspiracy nuts. Not the first time in the middle of the night, even. But he's really, really not in the mood right now. “Well, tell your colleague that three a.m. is a little late for fan mail,” he says irritably, rubbing at his forehead.

“Don't underestimate the gravity of this phone call, Mr. Mulder,” the voice says, and it sounds deadly serious.  Serious enough that he revises his plan to hang up. “It would seem that your belief system aligns with ours. A man like you could be very valuable to our movement.”

Mulder tenses from head to toe. Pacing across Scully's living room, he can still see the top of Scully's bright head. “And what kind of movement is that?”

“I'm afraid I can't say any more over the phone,” the man on the other end says smugly. “We'd like to arrange a meeting to discuss this in person.”

Mulder rocks back and forth on his heels, turning away so he can't see Scully. “Can you give me a hint, at least?”

“You're notorious for your curiosity, Agent Mulder. I'd think that'd be enough.” The man pauses before whispering, “The fountain at Meridian Hill Park. Six a.m. Don't be late.” The dial tone clicks over, ringing harshly in his ear.

Mulder lets the phone clatter down on the counter, considering. Typically strangers calling him to arrange a meeting could be considered dangerous, something he'd want to avoid. But still… what if they're allied against the Syndicate, the people doing experiments on little girls and putting honing chips into the necks of innocent civilians? He has to go. For his sake and Scully's and Emily’s and Samantha's and any chance that this purported movement could be fighting against these people. He rubs his eyes again and heads for his coat.

He starts to leave without saying anything, thinks better of it. He tears a scrap of paper loose from the pad Scully uses to make grocery lists and scribbles a note: Scully, Had to go. I'm sorry. Take these. Have a good weekend, get some rest, and call me if you need me. He sets two aspirin on top of the note before grabbing his keys and heading out the door.

---

Scully wakes up alone on the cold tile of her hallway, a blanket tucked around her shoulders. Her head is pounding. Groaning, she sits up, rubbing circles on her forehead.

She doesn't remember much from the night before, aside from a bottle of wine that tasted salty with her tears. She thinks Mulder may have been there. She finds the phone shoved under the legs of the chair shoved under Emily’s doorknob, and deduces that she called him. She got drunk enough to forget things and apparently fell asleep outside of her spare bedroom.

This can't keep happening. Scully grabs the chair and scoots it away from the door for the first time in months. It makes a screeching sound as she moves it across the floor. She can't keep hiding her feelings at the bottom of a bottle. She has to find a way to ask for forgiveness, to reconcile this all within herself.

There only seems to be one solution, she decides as she shoves the chair back underneath the table. (It seems ridiculous, suddenly, that she left it there for so long.) She needs to go to confession. She needs to absolve of her sins, to understand why God has let this happened and used her to do it. She needs to know that she did the right thing. She decides to go in the afternoon, when she knows Father McCue isn't there. This is too personal to talk to her mother's old friend about.

She finds the note that Mulder left and takes the aspirins on top of them. She drives to the church in the late afternoon, when she knows she won't run into her mother. She tells the priest her story, grateful for the grate between them so that she cannot see his face. The shame is thick in her throat.

At the end of her story, the priest asks if she believes in a life after this one. She finds herself unable to answer. She wants to believe, but sometimes… after everything she's seen… She needs to believe that there is a better place, for Roberta and Paula and Dara and their nameless sister. For Emily, for Melissa. But she doesn't know what to believe anymore.

“Has it occurred to you that maybe this, too, is part of what you were meant to understand?” the priest asks her.

“You mean accepting my loss?”

“Can you accept it?”

Scully swallows. She can't forgive the men who created Emily and ensured that she would die. And she's not sure if she can ever forgive herself. But can she forgive God? (Will she ever be forgiven?) Can she accept that her daughter was meant to die, meant to go on to a better place where she could be with the only family she'd ever known? “Maybe that's what faith is,” Scully says quietly.

In the end, she doesn't know whether or not she did the right thing. And she's not entirely sure where her faith lies. Despite having moved the chair in front of the spare room (having, in a way, let Emily go), she knows she has a ways to go in the healing process. She's still haunted by her lost daughter. She needs to deal with it.

In the end, she calls Karen Kosseff and makes an appointment for that Monday. She's helped Scully get past things before, and Scully hopes to accomplish the same thing again.

She calls Mulder once she gets home, hoping for a full scenario of what happened the night before. He doesn't answer.

---

By the next evening, he's had a gun shoved in his ribs, been invited to join a ruthless terrorist group (called the New Spartans, of all things), and told by The People Above Him that he has to. He staggers in his door sometime after five, exhausted and wishing he'd carried Scully to bed and fallen asleep beside her instead of picking up the phone and stumbling straight into a trap. Stupid, stupid. He left Scully drunk and asleep on her floor to run off and become a double agent in an assignment that will likely kill him. He trusted a lead with absolutely no basis and ran headfirst into a ruthless militia. He left her alone. When she needed him. He collapses on the worn leather of his couch and dials her number. (Speed Dial 1, just like always.)

She picks it up with her usual, brisk, “Scully.” His first thought is, She sounds better, but then he remembers that Scully has a talent for hiding her emotions. The cracks in her foundation are hairline fractures, and she remains the strongest person he knows.

“Hey, Scully, it's me,” he says.

“Mulder?” She sounds confused. “Were you… were you at my apartment last night?”

He chews at his lower lip. “Uh, yeah. Your mom called me, worried about you, and I was, uh, I was worried about you, too, so I came over to check on you… you were asleep on the floor…”

“Oh.” Now she sounds embarrassed. “Was I… I was drunk, wasn't I.”

“You'd… yes.” Mulder exhales slowly. “I was worried about you. I am worried about you. Are you okay?”

“I'm fine, Mulder, I…” He imagines her rubbing her temples wearily. “I don't remember much from last night. It's been a hard weekend.”

He closes his eyes, her words sinking into his skull. “Scully, I'm… I'm sorry about what happened on Friday. I was an ass this entire case. I haven't… I haven't been there for you lately. I should be there no matter what.”

“You called to tell me you were sorry,” she says softly. “And you were there last night.”

But I ran off before you woke up. He licks his lips, starts, “Scully…”

“Mulder, can I call you later? It's been a long day, I've just come from Confession...” Her voice is trembling, uncertain.

“Sure,” he says, digging his fingernail into a crack in the couch. “As long as you're okay. You can talk to me if you need to. I'm here.”

“Thank you,” she says softly. “I guess I'll see you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” he agrees. She hangs up on the other end. He curls further into the corner of the couch, stretching his legs out.

He wanted to tell her. Wants to tell her. Skinner told him he couldn't. “The more people that know, the more dangerous this situation is,” he said. “You're at a delicate position, Mulder. If it ever slips that you're a double agent, they won't hesitate to kill you on the spot. Even make an example of you as a warning to others.”

“Scully's my partner,” Mulder said fiercely. “She's the best ally I have.” The only one I trust, he resisted the urge to add. “If I don't tell her, she's going to get suspicious. And I need her on this.”

“If you put her on this,” said Skinner, “you run the risk of the New Spartans targeting her. If they find out she knows…” And that was enough to convince him.

He still wants to tell her—Scully can handle herself, she'd be furious if she knew that was the reason he was keeping this from her. But now is not the time. She's been through too much in the past week—the past few months—to be worried about him. He can't tell her.

He should tell her. This assignment is dangerous. More than dangerous. Skinner went over the history of the New Spartans with him, and they have left a lot of dead behind them. They are good at disguising the dead so that the bodies aren't found for months and they're hard to identify when they are. If he dies—and he will die if he is caught, they have killed several federal agents before—Scully won't know that he is dead for weeks or months or even years. She might think he is still alive until they find him. He can't do that to her. If he doesn't come home, she deserves to know why. But. But he can't risk her. He doesn't want her to die, and she deserves a chance to move past these things that have haunted her these past few months. This should be his burden alone.

He tells himself that Scully will be okay if he dies because she is Scully and she is strong. But he knows, somewhere, that his death will be enough to break her. For the same reason that she couldn't leave him after a computer tortured him. She cares about him, even if it's in a solely platonic way, and Scully has lost too many people in her life. Attended too many funerals. They both have.

God, he hopes he doesn't die. He doesn't want to die. And he doesn't want to leave her alone. Of all the times he's let her down, that might be the worst.

Chapter Text

He's hiding something from her.

It's subtle, in the way he seems distracted, absently chewing at his thumbnail as he works, jolting in an almost violent matter when she says his name. The nervousness he has around her. She couldn't place it if anyone asked her what it is, but she can tell something is there.

She's wondered more than once if it has anything to do with the interlude on the floor of her hallway a few weeks before. She only remembers bits and pieces, mostly just Mulder holding her. (She doesn't remember calling him and she doesn't remember him leaving. He's just there. The monumental constant shining through.) She doesn’t remember if it went as badly as half of their other vulnerable moments since the breakup. But she doesn't think it has anything to do with that. He'd apologized over the phone. He'd said he was worried about her. Whatever’s going on, it’s something else.

Her theory is nearly confirmed when she leaves for an appointment with Karen Kosseff around three o’clock, leaving Mulder alone in the office. When she comes back an hour later, he's gone. Over an hour before work ends and hours before Mulder leaves work, on a normal evening. Scully swallows, keys in her hand in her pocket, running her thumbnail over the Apollo 11 keychain. What the hell is he doing? she thinks.

Mulder had seemed happy, weeks ago, when she'd told him that she was going to go back to Karen Kosseff. He'd encouraged her; he's asked her about her appointments every time she’s had. She can tell he really is worried about her; she thinks he really does care. (She'd hoped this would be their chance to start to patch things up between them.)

Her appointments with Karen Kosseff have helped tremendously in the weeks since Dara Kernof and Roberta Dyer. Since what she would describe as her daughter's ghost (if she believed in ghosts) spoke to her, asked her to let her go. She told Karen what she saw (she'd called it a dream in the end, dubbing it as close as she could get to whatever the hell happened in that church), voice trembling a little as she traced the seam of her pants with one finger absently, looking at her knees instead of Karen. She'd cried, and Karen had listened. She'd started talking, and the words came almost easily.

She wasn't keeping Emily’s photo in her wallet anymore, but she still pulled it out to look at it, every now and then. She and Karen were slowly unraveling everything, the tangle of emotions she'd shoved down into the pit of her stomach all those months ago, and it felt good. Painful, but good. It felt like there was a lighter weight in her chest, like she could breathe again.

She hadn't told Karen about Mulder, or at least about their former relationship. In the midst of one session, she'd been describing how she felt like she couldn't talk to her family about this, and Karen had asked, gently, “Can you talk to your partner about this?” (She at least knew how close they were.) And for a while, it had seemed like Scully might be able to talk to him. (She'd thought in the back of her mind, just a little bit, that maybe they could even reconcile their relationship. In a month or two. When the time was right. She’d thought it was a possibility again.) But now… now, with the distance he is putting between them, she isn't sure.

She mentions it offhand the next day, when they're eating lunch over the top of the desk, just to see if he'll lie to her: “Mulder,” she says, stabbing at some lettuce and cucumber with his plastic fork, “where’d you go yesterday? You left early; you weren't here when I got back.”

He swallows hard, Adam’s apple bobbing as he takes a sip from his water bottle, avoiding her eyes. “Oh, I, um… I had an appointment with a contact,” he says, picking at the label of the bottle. He changes the subject quickly, saying, “How, uh… how was your appointment, Scully?”

She stares down at the plastic container, shuffling the lettuce around in the container. So he's not mad at her, for whatever reason—but he's definitely hiding something. She just wishes she knew what.

“Fine,” she says to the stack of files she balanced the container on. “Just fine.”

---

Nearly a month after the Kernof case, they get recruited for a task force. An attempt to catch Jacob Haley, one of the leaders of an upcoming terrorist group, the New Spartans. Mulder is instructed to be undercover at the site as a jogger, Scully providing backup from the surveillance van. Mulder's shoulders tense, just slightly, but he agrees without argument. Scully absently wonders why this assignment would make him anxious; they’ve been recruited for these types of assignments a thousand times before.

The undercover operation goes down a half-hour after they find out, but it's not without its hitches: Haley murders his contact with some sort of flesh-eating substance, and Mulder disappears right after. Panicked, Scully bursts out of the van and sprints across the park, looking for him. But she can't believe what she sees when she finds him. Suddenly, in a strange, panicked, nonsensical moment, all the time he's spent avoiding her and disappearing from work makes sense.

She sees him standing near a car. She sees him patting the hood of the car, the car pulling away. Mulder disappears and reappears a few minutes later, claiming he lost Haley—which seems impossible because he had him, he had him, and Mulder has never been one to let a suspect go, but this time, that seems to be what has happened. He's avoiding Scully's eyes.

She can't believe it. She knows what she saw, but she can't believe it. Not Mulder. Mulder would never… he may resist authority, but he would never…

She's seen the New Spartans’ methods, and they are brutal. They kill civilians. Mulder is not brutal. Mulder wouldn't kill civilians, or brush off the killing of civilians for a larger cause. She knows Mulder. She's seen him put himself on the line for civilians, do whatever it takes to keep people safe. She's seen him buckle her daughter in a borrowed car seat and feel her forehead with the back of his hand. She's seen the way he cares about his sister, tirelessly looking for her, for justice; she's held him while he cried over his mother's hospital bed. She's seen the way he's fought for her, heard the stories from Skinner or her mother or small-town cops over cups of coffee as they took her testimonies after all the times she almost died. He can't ally with someone like the New Spartans; it goes against everything he stands for. But maybe… she's seem him devoted to his cause to the point of ignoring all logic, ignoring her. Is it possible that he could have found what he thought he needed through the New Spartans? That the best way he could see to take the conspirators down was to join them, the man on the inside?

It can't be. She doesn't believe it, but she knows what she saw. The surveillance tape confirms what she saw. When she confronts Mulder about it, he shrugs her off. He claims not to know what she is talking about when she accuses him of aiding in Haley’s escape, but he doesn't look her in the eye. She thinks she might believe him if he looked her in the eye.

She wants to yank him back from the edge, stop him before he gets in too far, convince him that the New Spartans are too dangerous and their methods are inhumane, even if they believe what he believes. But he won't confide in her. “I expect you to tell me the truth,” she tries, because that's what always seems to be the most important thing to him, he's always encouraging her to tell him the truth, but he doesn't respond. Brushes her off with a statement about how they're late for the meeting and walks past her out of the room. She watches him go with the dumbfounded feeling she's been experiencing too often lately. Except for this time, it has nothing to do with their partnership or the lack of credit he's giving her. This isn't something he can apologize for and vow to change and make everything all right. The implications here are that Mulder is a traitor, and there is no coming back from that.

In the meeting, he stills refuses to meet her eyes as the CIA and fellow FBI agents lay out the implications of Haley’s escape: the guns he got away with, the true mastermind of the New Spartans, one August Bremer. Scully herself lays out the mechanisms of the deadly toxin. She keeps trying to meet Mulder's eyes during the meeting, but he always looks away. He makes a dry comment about how they know the toxin isn't airborne because they're all still alive. He points out Haley’s military background, his paranoia, and Scully wonders if he knows this from personal experience. When the meeting is ended, Mulder makes a beeline for the door, ignoring her when she calls after him.

He's hiding something, has been for a month, and now she knows what it is. She doesn't want to believe it (she can't believe it), but the evidence doesn't lie. Mulder's recent behavior patterns don't lie. He may have been genuine when he said that he wouldn't leave her behind, when he apologized for not being there for her, but maybe this is something separate. Maybe this is his way of caring about her, by dismissing her methods to pursue his own, those so dangerous and ruthless that he thought it better to leave her out. Maybe he still cares, or maybe he was lying. If he really is a part of this group, who knows how long it has lasted? He could've been a double agent for months, years in advance. Maybe even since Kritschgau told him that everything he'd ever believed was a lie. Maybe he's just now acting strangely because something is coming up, something big, and he doesn't know how to face it. Maybe she doesn't know him at all.

She follows him home. She follows him home because she has to know for sure (because this isn't him, and she can't face the idea that she doesn't know him, hasn't known him after all this time; he knows everything about her for fuck’s sake, and she… she thought she knew him). She follows him, but he doesn't go home. He gets on the highway headed east, and she follows him there, too. She follows him for over two hours until he pulls off at a hotel in Angola, Delaware. She hangs back while he checks in, while he goes to his hotel room.

She watches the door of the room for a while—room 130—but nothing happens. She decides on a new approach: going to the front desk, and asking. She claims that it's her hotel room, and asks for the name. The manager tells her it's Mr. Kaplan. So he is trying to cover his tracks. Scully feels a mixture of annoyance and fear bubbling in her stomach, and she turns to leave. The manager asks if she's the wife, and she scoffs. If she were, maybe she would know what the hell is going on here.

She's headed to Mulder's room with some wild plan in her mind—maybe to confront him, maybe to convince him not to do this—but he exits the room before she can get there. She ducks behind a parked car and watches, watches as an unfamiliar car pulls up, watches as Mulder gets into it. The car pulls away and she sprints to her car to follow them.

She stays behind them for miles, hanging back with her headlights off. If anyone asked, she couldn't tell them what she is doing—it's not as if she's going to barrel into a terrorist hideout and drag Mulder out by his ear—but all she knows is that she needs to know. Whatever’s happening, she needs to know. Know how far Mulder is, if Haley can be exposed without implicating Mulder, if she even should be protecting him. She hasn't formed a solid plan yet outside of needing to know.

Maybe it's fitting what happens next: blinding headlights, screeching tires, cars surrounding her and men in suits pulling her out of the car and leading her to another one. It's the type of military arrest situation that she's grown used to, but it's usually with Mulder. Or a result of Mulder, which she supposes this could be classified as, but she has no idea why, this time.

They treat her amicably enough, these men in black figures, but they won't answer her questions, which is annoying as hell. They lead her through the hallways of some government building to an office. Behind the door is Skinner, sitting across from a CIA agent she recognizes from the meeting earlier today. “Agent Scully, take a seat,” he says.

“What the hell is going on?” she snaps as she crosses the room, mostly addressing Skinner.

“I apologize for our methods,” says the CIA agent.

“They may well have saved Agent Mulder’s life,” adds Skinner.

“What about my life?” she says angrily. “I don’t appreciate being run off the road.”

“We had our reasons,” the CIA agent says simply.

Skinner says knowingly, “You’re suspicious Agent Mulder’s betrayed his country.”

“I don‘t know what you’re talking about,” she says, protecting him like a reflex. She doesn't know if he deserves it or not, but she is still his partner, and what will they do to him if they catch him?

“Your discretion is understandable,” the CIA agent says, like he knows anything about them. “In point of fact, Agent Mulder’s actions are entirely honorable. What you’ve stumbled into is a classified action, a deep-cover assignment.”

“Until now, Agent Mulder’s true mission was known only to the US Attorney and myself,” Skinner says.

“His true mission?” Scully demands. She's remembering everything she's thought about the New Spartans, the toxin she studied, every time she told herself that Mulder couldn't join a group this ruthless. If she was right, then that means…

“The council we sat in was front to make the New Spartans believe we were unaware of Agent Mulder’s complicity,” the CIA agent explains.

“Why him?” Why not anyone else, this is a dangerous assignment, Mulder's been through enough… “Why choose Agent Mulder?”

“We didn't choose him, they did,” Skinner says quickly, like he's trying to confirm that he, too, doesn't like this.

“He spoke at a UFO conference in Boston where he broadcast his feelings about the government and their conspiracies against the American people,” the CIA agent says with some disgust. Scully wants to say fierce, angry things, wants to ask if this is his punishment for his beliefs, but she doesn't. She silently crosses to sit down next to Skinner. The CIA agent is still talking: “Somebody from the organization was listening so the man who escaped, Haley, sent out feelers in hopes that Agent Mulder was a man whose politics were in line with his own. Someone on the inside that he could use.”

“To what aim?” Scully asks, because the pictures in the back of her mind are not pretty.

“That we don't know,” Skinner says.

She turns to face him. “You've put Agent Mulder’s life in danger by not telling me,” she says roughly. She is still his partner, for God's sake.

“Agent Mulder came to me, I advised him not to tell you,” Skinner says. “He’s at a very delicate point. Everything he does now must work to build trust.”

“Including letting this man Haley get away with murder?” Scully demands. They say nothing. “Sir, we know nothing about this bioweapon. We don’t know what they want to use it for. We don’t even know if they have the capacity to store it safely. Putting Agent Mulder in this situation is extremely risky.”

“They want something from him,” says Skinner. “We have no other way of learning what.”

An agent enters at that moment, claiming that the toxin has been used again at a movie theater in Ohio, and Scully's heart leaps into her throat. In the moments after, she tells herself that it couldn't possibly be where they took Mulder because they left less than an hour ago, but she knows this feeling won't go away. Who knows where he is or what they're doing to him? Who knows if they really want him for his connections, or if they just want to make an example? Who knows if he's even still alive? She thought Mulder had betrayed his country, and he's done just the opposite: he's going to sacrifice himself for it. And wherever he is now, she can't protect him.

The CIA agent is talking to the man who just entered. Skinner's hand lands on her shoulder. “You'd better go home,” he says apologetically.

Her shoulders stiffen and she stands up, effectively throwing him off and glaring at him a little. “I know now,” she replies firmly. “I know now, and I'm not walking away from this. He is my partner, and I'm not letting him do this alone. From now on, I'm a part of this operation.”

She's actually surprised when they agree. (She suspects Skinner knows how hard she will fight back if they refuse.) They lecture her about keeping her head down, about all of this being classified, about not attempting to contact Agent Mulder. She agrees, even though she has no intention of following the third order. She needs to know that he is okay.

They want her to come to Ohio and try to identify the toxin and she agrees to that, too, even though the panic is wild inside her, a live thing thumping in her chest. She goes with them to the airport and gets on a flight to Ohio, touches the glass of the tiny window with cold fingertips and tries not to think of Mulder out there somewhere, alone with no backup, maybe hurt, maybe dead. Tries not to think.

In Ohio, the crime scene is horrifying on the same level as the burn sites in March. People with their skin burned off, sticky blood and muscle and bone all that's left. Scully paces the theater, looking for the source of the toxin. She theorizes that it must be something that everyone touched—the tickets, maybe—but there is no clear source. The CIA agent interviews the only survivors, two teenage boys, and Scully watches through the two-way mirror. The only clue as to how they survived is one of the boys sheepishly admitting that they snuck in the back instead of paying. That could support the idea of the tickets being contaminated.

After the interview is over, Skinner sends her home. He seems to think there is nothing more she can do in Ohio. She's inclined to agree, if only for the reason of wanting to go and check on Mulder, to see that he's gotten home okay. She's terrified for him and trying to convince herself not to be, that he'll be waiting at home when she gets there. She gets on a flight back to DC and arrives in the early evening. She drives straight to Mulder's apartment and finds it empty.

Pulse pounding, she tries to tell herself everything is fine. She flips off the lights, locks the door behind her and settles in on his couch. Decides to wait here for him for the night. She thinks he'll have to come home at some point tonight. She hopes. She hopes he will. She hopes he is okay.

---

He knew this assignment would be dangerous, but he thinks he underestimated it. He thinks he had to have underestimated it. He thinks he wouldn't have taken the job if he'd known this was going to happen, but then again, he walked in expecting to die.

They strap his hands to a table and break his finger. They send pain shooting up and down his hand as they bend his finger further and further back, and he can't do anything to fight them off, rendered immobile by the leather around his wrists. They have him practically begging, still feeding them lie after lie so they don't kill him. He just wants to go home. He is caught between a rock and a hard place with no way out. He should've known he'd be crushed in the end.

Haley doesn't bother to believe him until his pinky finger is broken. Until he's nearly sobbing from the pain. Haley snaps his fingers and the gimp who was torturing Mulder puts the hood back over his head. All he can see is stifling black. Mulder tries to keep his breathing steady, ignores the tears trickling down his face. The gimp unstraps his hands and hauls him up, zip-tying his wrists in front of him and taking no care to be gentle. Probably still pissed about the head butt. Mulder yelps as his bad finger is jolted. “See you in a few hours,” Haley says easily as Mulder is pulled off in an unknown direction. He's shoved into some dark, musty-smelling room and pushed down on the floor. He hears the door lock behind him.

Mulder rests his head against the wall, lowering his bound hands to his lap. He tries to slow his breathing, teeth clenched from the pain. He thought they were going to kill him, right there. Gun to the head or a knife to the throat or toxin sprayed in his face that would slowly eat away his skin. He doesn't want to die. He can put on as many acts as he wants, but he doesn't want to die. Not here, not for this. He huddles closer against the wall, curling into himself for some kind of protection.

(Do they know they've sent him into a trap he might not be able to claw his way out of? Do they know there's a good chance he may never come home? He wonders what they will tell his mother if he dies. He wonders what they will tell Scully.)

Minutes or hours later, he hears the door open, hears footsteps approaching him. One or two people, he can't tell which because his head is spinning. Someone dragging him to his feet, shoving him forward. He stumbles into a standing position, holding his useless hands out for balance. Nausea coursing through him; he breathes shallowly in an attempt not to vomit. “I do believe you, Agent Mulder,” Haley says from somewhere in front of him. He claps him on the shoulder with a gloved hand, and Mulder's skin crawls at the thought of the toxin. “I do.”

“That's nice of you,” Mulder snaps when there's no pain, no feeling of his skin being eaten away. “I wish you hadn't felt it necessary to snap a goddamn bone to come to that conclusion.”

Someone grabs his bad hand, hard, and pain sparks in his finger like a match; he makes a sound somewhere between a yelp and a whimper. “I believe you,” says Haley generously, “but I need to know that you understand what needs to be done. I need you to earn your trust, because right now, your loyalty strikes me as weak enough that you could be persuaded to betray us if asked.”

Mulder shuts his eyes behind the hood. The hood gives him a certain advantage in the area of concealing his lies, but he'd rather be able to look Haley in the eye, see what he's thinking. Look for signs of a bluff. He can't breathe in this thing. “What do you want me to do?” he growls in an unsteady voice.

Someone grabs his wrists, and he tenses for a moment before he hears the snap of something slicing through the plastic ties, the pressure being released. He lets his hands drop to his sides in relief. “I want to know about fund transfer schedules for the eastern seaboard,” Haley says simply “Whatever files you can get on the federal reserve bank. We need cash, Agent Mulder.”

He nods, blindly. “Fine, fine.”

Someone grabs him by his shirt again, drags him forward. “You say you didn't sell me out?” Haley hisses in his ear. “That it was one of my own? I want proof. Get me surveillance files. I know your people have them.”

Breathing hard, Mulder resists the urge to pull away. “Okay, fine,” he blurts. “Fine, fine, whatever you want.”

He's let go, rocking back on his feet. “Take him out of here,” Haley says dismissively, maybe even with disgust, and one of Haley’s goons shoves him forward. Mulder stumbles blindly, grateful that his hands are free if only for the advantage of balance. “You're a valuable asset, Agent Mulder,” Haley reminds him as he's shoved in the other direction, out of the room. “But you'll do well to remember what we do to traitors.”

I remember, Mulder thinks. His finger throbs. I've never forgotten.

---

They drive him around in circles for a few hours, likely to confuse him about where their headquarters are, before dropping him back at the hotel in Delaware. They whip the hood off and shove him out of the car in an obscure portion of the parking lot. Blinking in the bright sunlight, Mulder staggers forward, towards the room he'd left earlier. He doesn't go to the hospital. He goes back into the room and sleeps for a few hours, curled stiffly on his side, before driving back to DC.

It's dark before he gets home. He parks the car and takes the elevator up to his floor, sagging hard against the metal wall. He's regretted taking the phone call that morning in Scully's apartment for the past month, but he regrets it more than ever now. His hand hurts. He just wants this all to be over, but he knows it's not. It's just beginning.

His apartment is dark when he enters. He can't remember if he left any lights on. Sighing, he tosses his keys aside, looking at his pinky where it sticks out at an odd angle, and then jumps about a foot when Scully says, “Don't be alarmed,” somewhere from the depths on the apartment.

She appears in front of him, and what the hell is she doing here. He knew he was suspicious, but he didn't know… she can't be here. She can't, it's too dangerous. He rubs his face, says wearily, “Scully, get out of here.”

“Mulder…”

“Get out of here!” he snaps, half-shouting.

“I know what you're doing,” she says, walking towards him. “Skinner told me everything.”

Well, Scully is nothing if not persistent; she must've had to tear apart a great deal of their charade for Skinner, who never wanted her to know in the first place, to tell her. “I don't know what you're talking about,” Mulder says bluntly, hoping she’ll believe him and go away.

“What happened to your hand?” she prods, gently.

“Nothing,” he insists, but she doesn't listen. He winces as she takes his hand in hers, laying it flat across her palm.

“Oh, Mulder, what did they do to you?” she whispers in horror, studying it, and he remembers the hours he spent in the New Spartans cell, pain rattling through his hand, wishing she was there. His doctor. She prods the hand, and he winces, clenching his fingers together protectively. “Okay, this needs to be set,” she says, moving his fist to rest against him. “You're in pain.”

“Yeah, if you keep pulling it around like that,” he tries to crack. She pats his clenched fingers a little before heading for the fridge, assumedly for an ice pack. He goes to the couch and sits beside the fish tank, the faint light of it.

Scully approaches, whispers, “Let's get the swelling down,” as she sits across from him on the coffee table and puts the ice on his hand. Their knees brush. He swallows roughly, looking away.

Scully sighs. “”They've killed again, Mulder,” she says, and he looks back at her in surprise. “Fourteen people in a movie theater in Ohio. The same toxin they released in the park.”

“Fourteen people?” he repeats incredulously. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Unless it was a test… for something bigger,” Scully says softly. She's still holding the ice pack in place on his hand; she begins a smooth motion of her fingers across the back of Mulder's hand. He shudders a little under the feather-soft stroking, but he doesn't pull away. “Why do this to you, Mulder?”

“They’re testing me, too,” he says. “Haley’s paranoid and spooked. I was sure he was going to kill me.”

Scully winces, just a little, and it is a small reaction, but it is there. “What stopped him?” she asks, her voice still calm. Her middle and ring finger still tracing lines on his hand.

His good hand reaches out, fumbling, before it finds her knee. He covers her kneecap with his palm and squeezes. She doesn't pull away. “They still need something from me,” he says, “and I’m sensing there’s someone Haley trusts even less—the man giving him his orders. Someone I haven’t met yet. A guy named August Bremer.”

“The man Skinner told us about in the meeting,” Scully says.

“Yeah.” Mulder squeezes her knee again before pulling away, looking at his shoes flat on the floor. If Haley is second in command behind Bremer, then he's not particularly looking forward to meeting the guy. He’d hate to see what the leader would do to a traitor.  

Scully moves the ice pack to check Mulder's finger. “Swelling’s gone down,” she murmurs. “Supplies still in the cabinet?”

There's a cabinet in his kitchen that she stocked with medical supplies a long time ago. He hasn't moved it since she patched him up after the AI case. “Yeah,” he says again, bobbing his head up and down absently.

Scully presses the ice pack back into place. “I need to set this,” she says softly. “I'll be right back.”

He leans back into the couch as she goes, eyes slipping closed. He hears rather than sees Scully's approach, feels her hand on his forehead. “You look exhausted, Mulder.”

“Yeah, well, I am exhausted,” he mutters.

“Yeah, well, this will probably wake you up,” she says apologetically, rubbing circles on the palm of his bad hand. He opens his eyes in nervous anticipation. “This is gonna hurt,” Scully says, smoothing the pad of her thumb over his life line, catching the hook of his thumb. He nudges her thumb with his, a faux thumb war. “You ready?” she asks.

He nods. “Ready as I'll ever be.”

He sucks in air through his teeth as she sets his pinky, tapes it to his ring finger. “Sorry,” she mutters, smoothing his hair. He closes his eyes again, breaths coming shakily. His hand presses against her hip. They're leaning into each other a little, just enough so he can feel her body heat. Scully covers his hand with hers on his thigh, her fingers cold against his. “Why wouldn't you tell me?” she whispers.

He exhales slowly, looking at her. Her eyes are shining in the half-light of the fish tank; she looks near tears. “I wanted to tell you,” he says. “I swear I did. Skinner… he told me it wasn't a good idea. He thought they'd find me… or you. It seemed safer to…”

“Don't do that again,” she blurts, sternly and softly and tenderly. She leans forward, their foreheads bumping together; he doesn't pull away. She shuts her eyes as if overwhelmed. He lets his own slip shut. Scully is whispering, “Mulder, I don't want… I thought you had gone over to the other side. And then when I found out you went over to the other side… if they broke your finger because they thought you had betrayed them, Mulder, than what will they do if they find out the truth?”

“They won't find out,” he mumbles. Their noses brush.

She sighs again. He can't see her, but he knows she's there, can picture her perfectly. He could recognize her in the pitch black after not seeing the light in years. “I can't lose you, Mulder,” she whispers, and it feels like they have torn something apart, like they have pulled everything into the open. He opens his eyes to look at her, and she is looking back at him, eyes just a little wet. Just a bit.

“You won't,” he whispers back, even though he doesn't know. “You won't.”

They breathe shudderingly in tandem. Her hand presses harder over his. He pushes a loose strand of hair behind her ear with his good hand, rubs her cheekbone with his thumb. She leans further into him. He brushes his thumb over her cheek again, says, “You should go.”

Her hand briefly tightens over his. “Mulder,” she starts, warily.

“If they're watching,” he replies, and that's all it takes.

Scully tenses, relaxes, pulls away a little. Puts a hand on the back of his neck and kisses his forehead lingerly before standing up. “Stay safe,” she tells him sternly. And then she turns to leave.

She's halfway to the door before he tries to stop her. He's standing up and following her. “Scully, wait,” he's saying, and then she's turning and kissing him for all he's worth. Different than how she kissed him in Dallas; soft and sweet and desperate. One arm curling around his shoulders as she leans forward on her tiptoes to meet him, and the other wrapped around the hem of his shirt. Holding him to her. Overwhelmed, he pulls her closer, cupping her head in his bad hand. She kisses him harder, their teeth clicking. Her mouth soft under his.

Finally (regretfully), he pulls back, hugging her hard and burying his face in her hair. Breathing hard, she doesn't pull away; in fact, she tightens her hold on him. “You've got to go, Scully,” he whispers.

She nods, regretfully, leans forward to breathe in his ear, “I love you.”

It almost feels like he can't breathe, like she's sucker-punched him in the best way possible. He leans back a little and kisses her forehead, tightening his arms around her. He's loved her for so long now. “I'm coming back, Scully,” he whispers against her cheek, hugging her close again. He might be lying, but he hopes he isn't. He hopes. “I'm coming back, I promise. You don't have to say your goodbyes.”

“I know.” She kisses his cheek, pushing his hair back. “I know you're coming back,” she whispers, inches away. “That's why I'm saying it.”

Chapter Text

He doesn't have a lot of time after Scully leaves, and he especially doesn't have time for a full night's sleep. He catches a few hours on the couch, tossing and turning restlessly before getting up sometime after midnight and heading to the Bureau to meet with Skinner and the CIA contact that's more or less in charge of the project. If he waits too long to get what Haley needs, he suspects bad things will happen, and he'd like to avoid any more broken bones.

Skinner's CIA buddy has what he needs, surprisingly enough. This seems to make Skinner nervous; he suggests putting a tail on Mulder. The CIA agent refuses on the grounds of it being too dangerous. Skinner looks between them, says to Mulder, “You may not have another chance to contact us.”

So he's going in deep now. No way out. Mulder nods a little, takes the files and leaves, calling behind him as he goes, “If you don’t hear from me by midnight… feed my fish.”

Mulder drives back to Angola, where Haley and the gimp are waiting for him in the hotel room. He gives them the files and they give him the hood, lead him out to the car to drive off into the great unknown. But this time, they leave his hands free and his interrogator doesn't roughly jostle him. He supposes bringing them the file gained their trust or whatever. That might buy him some time, enough time to gain intel and get out. Or maybe it bought him enough time to deeply infiltrate them, to have enough information so that the FBI and CIA can take the New Spartans down completely. Either way, he really doesn't want to be doing this right now. He stares straight ahead beneath the hood, black threads clouding his vision. He sits stiff, not allowing himself the luxury of leaning back or falling asleep. Like this will give him some credibility.

August Bremer (second in command, the notoriously ruthless one) is at the base when they arrive. He's a little suspicious of Mulder at first, but Mulder's affirmation of their beliefs seems to convince him. He informs Mulder that they have a job to do and tosses him a Dracula mask. If Scully were here, Mulder would make a crack about the irony of a Dracula mask, with their history, but she's not, and this situation isn't particularly funny, so he doesn't. He puts on the mask.

They get into an armored truck headed for a bank in Pennsylvania. A bank robbery. He can do that. His hands are slick with cold sweat, and he wipes them on his pants. He takes the gun Haley offers and resists the urge to just end this all now, before someone gets hurt. “Make sure you point that the right way,” Bremer says, as if he could read minds. Mulder swallows nervously, nodding. He suspects that if anyone blows his cover, it will likely be Bremer.

Inside the bank, they instruct him to take the teller. He points his gun at the man through the glass until the teller starts to move his hand towards an alarm button on the wall. Mulder starts to stop it, to prevent the man from being killed, but it's too late. A shot explodes through the glass, and the teller falls. The teller falls, but does not die. He lies on the ground, bleeding just below his armpit, as Mulder is instructed to finish him.

Mulder aims the gun on instinct before freezing. The man is shaking on the ground, searching for air as he looks up at the ceiling. Innocent, unarmed. Not a criminal, and he is an FBI agent, supposed to protect people, and he can't do this. Mulder casts a glance out into the bank. His masked companions are watching him. Mulder keeps the gun aimed, but he doesn't shoot. He can't, he can't shoot. The man gives him a pleading look and he falters. He has killed before, but only when it was necessary. Only in the heat of a dangerous or furious moment. Never like this, never a cold-blooded murder. Never slow enough that he had time to think about what he was doing.

He looks back out into the bank, fighting off onslaughts of nausea. “One minute thirty!” Haley shouts. Mulder watches as they open the vault, the large gun trembling in his hands. Trying desperately to come up with a way out of this. He thinks he hears the faint sound of a aerosol spray can from the vault.

“What are you waiting for? Do it!” Haley shouts, at him this time, and Mulder turns away, aiming the gun again. But he can't pull the trigger. He should be able to, he's done it before and will likely do it again, but he can't. This man is innocent, he doesn't deserve to die. He's just a pawn in this sick game, the same way Mulder is—except Mulder is the one holding the gun. Mulder doesn't shoot.

“I told you to finish him!” Haley roars muffedly through his werewolf mask. “Finish him!”

Breathing shudderingly in the musty mask, Mulder steps closer, fingers tapping on the barrel of the gun. He is thinking he will just shoot near the man, tell him to lie still, but Bremer appears at his shoulder, saying, “That weapon's traceable. Go!”

Relief coursing through him, Mulder walks away. He walks away thinking that the teller will live, because they're leaving and there's no point in killing the man now, up until he hears the gunshot behind him, the screams of the other hostages. He turns around and sees the teller dead, gunshot wound to the head. He feels suddenly, violently sick. He didn't save anyone; he just miserably prolonged their death. Bremer is saying something, shoving him out of the bank and into the car. Mulder goes. He doesn't know what else to do.

On the ride back, someone jabs him in the side, laughing about his weak stomach. Mulder takes off the mask, twisting it in his finger, and wipes sweat from where the plastic had stuck to his skin off of his forehead. He just wants this all to be over.

---

He's going to die. He knows as soon as Bremer points the gun at him. He knows as soon as Bremer plays the tape of him talking with Scully in his apartment. He knows it for sure as soon as they force him to his knees, as soon as they pick him up off the ground and begin leading him away. He's going to die; he broke his promise. He doesn't want to die.

He's stiff and standing up straight, not pleading, even though his insides are knotting into a nervous mess. He doesn't want to die.

All he can see is all the people he will never see again. Scully, Scully searching for him, Scully finding him dead. His mother at his funeral, another child lost. It will wreck her. He can't leave her alone like this, no one will find his sister. They steer him through a ragged area with sheets flapping in the breeze. He's so cold, why is he so cold.

Skinner will be furious, maybe even blame himself. Scully will blame herself, especially if she ever finds out how they found out he wasn't on their side. He can't leave her. He walks along silently. He doesn't know why he doesn't protest or fight back, but if he runs, they will kill him, but if he doesn't run, he will die anyway. He can't die, and they're directing him to his knees, telling him to put his hands behind his back, and he looks at Bremer for any sign of mercy, but he finds none. He kneels, the wind rustling across his face, and all he can think about is a completely mundane few days he spent with Scully on the coast, a weekend they'd had off and chosen to spend in the location of their latest case, the way Scully had pinned him to the bed and kissed him, whispered, “I've wanted to do this for so long,” as she pressed her forehead to this, “I've known for such a long time, I think, but I made my decision in the hospital when you were there beside me,” her eyes the brightest thing in the room above him; the hug his mother had given him last Thanksgiving, the most sincere part of the weekend when she'd said she loved him and she missed him, and he'd felt like he had a family, if only for a few minutes; the people he loves, these small, insignificant moments where he'd felt happy or at peace; he can remember how he felt in those slow moments, and he doesn't want to die, wonders if it is fast as they say, gunshot wound to the head, and it's not worth it, not for this, not for this…

The gun explodes behind him.

---

Afterwards, he drives away at twenty miles over the speed limit, terrified that he will look behind him and see black-clothed men following him, pointing guns at his head. They heard him talking to Scully, they could come for her, too. Maybe August Bremer only let him go to follow him back to DC, to find out how many people know about the New Spartans’ plans, to kill them all…

Mulder pulls off on the side of the road, just once, to empty his stomach into the grass. He doesn't bother to linger while his stomach settles; he stumbles to his feet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and rounds the car to the driver's side. His hands are shaking. He starts the car and speeds off again without stopping.

For at least twenty miles, he's forming a plan. He'll find Scully and convince her to disappear with him. They'll fade away into the wilderness, find a safe place to hide out and recuperate. They can start a new life in some small Canadian town where the New Spartans and the Syndicate will never find them. Ten miles more, and he's realizing how ridiculous this is. Even if they weren't trying to uncover a massive conspiracy, there is still the money that the New Spartans coated with the toxin. There is still danger.

Mulder drives. The silence in the car is thick like bog over a swamp. His breaths are ragged, his heart still pounding audibly in his chest. All he can hear is the explosion of the gun behind him. The millisecond in which he thought himself dead.

---

He drives back to the robbery site in Pennsylvania, shoves his way out of the car with his badge held out like a shield, yelling for people to get out of the bank. He pushes through the people, into the passageway beside large sheets of plastic, hears Scully calling his name before she rounds the corner, approaching him. Heart-pounding relief courses through him, as he blurts, “The money, they sprayed the money!”

“We got here an hour ago before any of the funds were touched or transferred,” she says, reassuring, coming to stand in front of him. “The cash supply is being isolated. It’s being locked down in the vault.”

More relief, overwhelming; he looks around as if he is expecting the New Spartans to descend on the bank any minute, guns blazing, before asking, “How'd you know it was this bank?”

“I recognized you from the surveillance tape,” says Scully.

He motions to his face. “With the…?”

“Your finger,” she clarifies.

Mulder looks down at his bandaged finger with a rush of gratitude just as Skinner exits the place walled off with plastic. “August Bremer—or whatever his real name is—he’s working with us,” he says to Skinner.

“Mulder, before you go any further, you should know that the biotoxin they used may have come from government labs,” Scully is saying. She's looking up at him, her eyes wide and full of relief and apology and maybe even comfort. “Our government.”

“You’re saying I was set up?” Mulder says, dismayed.

“We have no definitive information to justify that position,” Skinner says.

“I was being used?” The sense of betrayal is thick in his throat; all those moments where he thought he was going to die, those were for nothing? “This whole operation? The people who died in that theatre?” he demands, thinking of the teller he watched die. The one he could've saved.

“Agent Mulder,” says Skinner's stupid CIA contact, approaching them from somewhere behind Skinner. He says almost smugly, like he's talking to a small child, “Our government is not in the business of killing innocent civilians.”

“The hell they aren't,” Mulder snaps, approaching him. He's known about this for years, years, and no one would listen to him. “Those were tests on us, to be used on someone else.”

“Those bills have been analyzed. The money in the vault gave no readings,” the CIA agent says, lying through his teeth. “There’s absolutely no evidence of any biotoxins. So, before you climb on any bandwagon…”

“You knew about this all along!” Scully roars, pushing past Mulder to face down the CIA agent. “You knew about this the whole time!”

The CIA agent looks at Scully with similar contempt as he had for Mulder. “I want that money rechecked,” Mulder orders, hating the man more and more by the second.

“That money has been cleared. It’s being used as evidence in a federal crime.”

“That money’s as dirty as you are, isn’t it,” Mulder says. The CIA agent says nothing. He can hear Scully breathing hard with outrage beside him. “Isn’t it?” he prods.

“Say that were true,” says the CIA agent, finally angry. “Then what do you hope to accomplish, Agent Mulder, as a whistle-blower? To mobilize a civil rights action? To bring down the federal government? To do the very work that group you were a part of is so bent on doing? What do you want? Laws against those men, or laws protecting them?”

Who is in the right when both sides are killing innocent people? There's a reason Mulder trusts no one. “I want people to know the truth,” he says.

“Well, sometimes our job is to protect those people from knowing it,” says the CIA agent.

They say nothing. There seems to be nothing to say. Scully is staring at him, glaring at him incredulously, furious on Mulder's behalf. Mulder's mouth is dry. They killed that man in the bank, those people in Ohio. They almost killed him, made him think Scully would be in danger, and for what? For fucking what?

“Excuse me,” the CIA agent says, pushing past them. None of them follow. Scully reaches out and squeezes Mulder's arm. He can feel the tremble of her fingers; she was worried about him.

“Agents…” Skinner starts.

“Don't bother,” Mulder snaps, because he can still taste gunpowder under his tongue and see blood splattered across the carpet of the bank floor. He turns and stalks away, towards the car he parked haphazardly in the street.

“Mulder!” Scully appears behind him. “Mulder, wait.” She catches his wrist, and he jerks away on instinct. She looks stunned for a moment before hiding it. “Are you okay?” she asks softly, her eyes full of concern.

He clenches his teeth, wonders if it's too late to run away to Canada. “Fine,” he mutters.

She runs her hand up and down his arm, warm through his jacket. “That's not your car,” she says softly. “Why don't you come home with me?” He must look hesitant, because she adds, “That's not a come-on, Mulder. I just… I didn't think you should be left alone.”

She says she doesn't want him to be alone, but he sees that she doesn't want to leave him. He recognizes Scully's subtle in-public affection, her overwhelming relief that he's okay shining in her eyes. She loves him.

He nods. She squeezes his arm again, right above his wrist, and motions him forward. He follows, the same way he went to his death, but he feels none or that fear now. Being near Scully has made him go soft at the edges. He's safe now.

It isn't until they're a few minutes away from the bank, merging onto the highway, that everything starts to sink in again, crowding his head. The explosion of gunshots and the taste of blood thick in the air. The smell of burning Halloween masks. The panic thick in his stomach. And it was for nothing, it was all for fucking nothing. Once again, he's been caught up in this sick game. And all this time, he thought he was supposed to be stopping these people, but he wasn't. Everything the New Spartans did was intentional, aided by the goddamn government. And he was a pawn. They'd deceived him and almost killed him for his troubles. Made him think he was going to die…

“Goddamn it!” A sound somewhere between shouting and crying out. His palm is stinging, and he realizes that this is because he's pounding the dashboard, smashing it with every ounce of anger and fear building inside of him.

To Scully's credit, she keeps the car moving semi-steadily. She's talking, and it takes him a moment to hear her. He slows the motion of his hands, sagging against the seatbelt with his head against the cold window pane as Scully says, “Shh, Mulder, shhh, it's okay, you're safe now, I'm here, it's okay.”

He buries his face in his hands. “Innocent people are dead, Scully,” he mumbles to his palms. “Innocent people are dead, and even more may die now, if that money ever gets out. I almost killed someone, someone innocent… they, they put a gun to my head and made me think I was going to die, they made me think they were coming for you next…”

“Mulder,” Scully is saying, and her voice is quivering a little, just enough that he notices. “Mulder, you're okay. I promise. Nothing is going to happen to you.” The car manages to stay straight, speeding easily down the highway, as her fingers brush over the back of his hand. He wipes his eyes before wrapping her hand in both of his. Scully doesn’t comment, looks straight ahead at the road and maneuvers the car one-handed. If circumstances were different, he might make a joke about what a terrible driver she is. If circumstances were different, he might reconsider the logistics of clutching at his ex-girlfriend's hand like a lifeline, even if she did say she loved him a few days ago. But the truth of it is that he loves her, and she's always going to be so much more than his ex-girlfriend. They can't be boiled down to something that simple. He loves her and he needs her to anchor him to earth. He leans his head back against the headrest and lets his breathing traveling from rapid gasps to slow and deep inhales inhales and exhales as Scully rubs circles on his palm, pulls her hand up and holds it against his mouth. He thinks she might be saying more soothing things. He knows that during the entire two-hour drive back to her apartment, she only takes her hand away to make some tricky maneuvers with the wheel, and she gives it back every time.

Scully doesn’t ask until they get back to her building. She parks the car, he runs his thumb over her knuckles before letting her hand go, and she asks. “Mulder…” she starts, warily. “When you said… you were worried they came after me…”

He chews his lower lip, staring down at his knees. Skinner had advised him not to tell her, and he was right. He should’ve listened, why didn’t he listen? Even if neither of them are in any danger because Bremer is on their side and let him go or because the government orchestrated the actions of the New Spartans all along, it could’ve gone differently. He bites his lip so hard he tastes blood, says remorsefully to his knees, “They recorded us talking the other night. They knew that I told you.”

Scully doesn’t say anything. He turns and sees her looking at him in horror, her fingers digging into the cloth of her pant legs, right above her knees. He swallows, holding her gaze, his own guilt written across his face. She must hate him for putting her in danger, again; how many times is he going to fuck up this way? It's Scully. It's Scully, and he can't lose her, and he keeps putting her in danger. Even if she wasn't in any real danger this time, he didn't know that she wouldn't be. He didn't know. If she is in any danger now, it's his fault. He doesn’t deserve to mourn all the near losses, not when he’s the reason they keep happening. The Ruskin Dam and the ordeal in the warehouse with Bowman and now this.

She looks away first, the same events likely running through her mind. “You look exhausted,” she says, the same way she did the other night. “Come on up and get some sleep.”

“Scully…” he starts, maybe trying to apologize, but she’s already getting out of the car. He follows her silently. There seems to be nothing else to say.

Scully lets him use her shower. She instructs him to get some sleep, tells him to take her bed and offers to take the couch. He shakes his head firmly. If she’s not opposed to it, he doesn’t want to be alone tonight. He can’t be.

Scully crawls in bed beside him, still avoiding his eyes. Mulder curls on his side, facing her back, and hunches down under the three quilts spread across the bed. Last year, he’d always gotten hot, teased her about being freezing every single night, but tonight, he’s grateful for the warmth. He’s so cold, he can’t stop shivering. He can feel her lying inches away, the heat of her, the mattress bobbing with her breathing. He thinks that even if they don’t touch, this will be enough. Just knowing that she’s here and that she’s okay and that he’s not alone. He closes his eyes, tries to ignore the images beating against his skull. Tries not to cry out.

And then all of a sudden, Scully is rolling against him, her arm wrapping hard around his ribs. “God, I’m sorry,” she says into his shirt.

He opens his eyes, just a little, presses his nose into her bright hair. “Scully…” he mumbles.

“I’m so sorry, Mulder.” Her mouth is warm through the cotton of his shirt, and her voice is strange. It sounds like she’s choking, like she’s trying to talk around shards of glass. He can feel hot liquid trickling down his chest and thinks she might be crying. “If anything had happened to you…”

“They were going to kill me,” he mumbles into her hair, clutching her to him. She burrows closer, holding him tighter, her fingernails digging painfully into his shoulders. He thinks he’s trembling. He wants to run away, but he is so tired. He reminds himself that he is safe, but the phantom feeling of cold gun metal grazing his ear lingers. He shudders, manages through clenched teeth, “I was going to…”

“You’re safe,” she says, and it sounds like she is trying to reassure them both. She’s stroking his hair with quavering fingers, her left hand pressing harder still into his shoulder. “You’re safe now. You're here. It's okay.”

His eyes are closed. With Scully wrapped around him, he begins to drift, slowly, towards sleep.

He thinks he hears Scully apologize again before he drowses off, but the next day, he can’t remember if she did or not.

---

The morning after they got back from Florida, Scully had woken up next to Mulder—not for the first time, but the first time like that. She’d smiled, curled on her side faced away from Mulder, head nestled into the crook of her elbow. His hand was resting absently on her hip, palm warm. She hadn’t known it could be like this.

He woke up slowly, rolled over so he was lying parallel to her and broke every single math rule by wrapping his arm around her, fingers spread out across her stomach. “Morning,” he mumbled into the back of her neck.

She slid her hand down to cover his, leaning back into him. “Morning,” she whispered, smiling at the curtains stretched over her windows. He kissed the back of her neck, right where her hair met her neck, and she shuddered happily, pressing her feet against his legs. She’d rolled over and into him, and in that moment, she had never wanted to leave him. Couldn’t imagine ever wanting to leave him.

She couldn’t remember them getting up, how the rest of that day went. She couldn’t remember anything outside of that one moment where she knew. She just knew.

In the moment of being in bed with him, the morning after he escapes the New Spartans, Scully isn't apprehensive immediately after she wakes up. She doesn't disappear into the bathroom the way she did in Dallas, panicked, and she doesn't jolt away as soon as she wakes up. She lies beside him, hand covering his fist where it balls between them on the mattress, and leans her forehead against his shoulder. She replays the moment of that first morning again and again in her mind. It feels a little like that first morning, if only for the feeling of not wanting to leave. Not wanting to leave him. It would be more like the first morning if it weren't for the tension still embedded in her, the fear. The feeling of having almost lost him.

But she did almost lose him, and in a sudden, heart-stopping moment, Scully remembers why. It's her fault. She can blame the CIA and the FBI all she wants, because they did have a hand in this, sending him down the rabbit hole with no way out, but he might’ve been okay. They might’ve never found him out if it weren’t for her. If she’d listened to Skinner about not contacting him. If she’d trusted him, if she’d stayed away.

Acting on pure instinct, Scully rolls away from him and out of bed. Mulder shifts violently on the mattress, muttering something, but he doesn’t wake up. Scully stands beside the bed, the guilt cold in the pit of her stomach. She should’ve known they’d be listening, somehow, should’ve found another way to let him know that she knew. Maybe he always would’ve gotten away, if Bremer or whoever he was was on their side, but she still put him in danger. She is the reason that he slept restlessly, plagued with nightmares, that he thought he was going to die by a bullet to the head. How fucking selfish can she be? She is just as bad as the people who ordered him to take this assignment in the first place, put him in peril just to reassure herself.

Feeling sick, Scully retreats, out to the living room. She puts on a pot of coffee and sits at the kitchen table in her pajamas. The danger is over, but the feeling of it will not leave her. The guilt. She stares down at her hands, flat on the kitchen table, and pushes back these murky feelings building inside of her. She wonders if Mulder blames her—but then again, he must. They were going to kill me, he said when she apologized the night before. They almost killed him, and they never would’ve had a reason to if she hadn’t…

“Scully?” He calls her name from the other room, a combination of what seems to be panic and confusion in his voice.

Scully takes her hands off the table, stands and crosses to the coffee pot. “In here,” she calls out.

He enters just as she is pouring herself a cup. Black circles under his eyes, a bruise darkening just under his jaw. Scully winces. He is looking at her with, yes, confusion. “I didn’t know if you…” he starts, stops. He gulps, his throat moving with the motion. He looks a little betrayed.

Scully has to look away, because she keeps seeing him with a gun to his head. “I made coffee,” she says. “I can make some breakfast, too, if you want it. You have to be hungry.”

“Sure,” Mulder says, his voice thick with emotions she can’t identify. He turns and heads back into the bedroom. “That sounds great.”

The coffee is too hot; it burns her hands through the ceramic. They drink it at her table, still barely speaking. Mulder seems to be finished discussing his ordeal, and Scully won't push him. She holds herself back from touching him, from crossing the old boundaries that seem to be back up. She doesn't know if he resents her for everything that's happened, and she doesn't know how to ask. The coffee scalds her tongue. She doesn't reach for him.

---

Haley is found dead, his skin burned off by the same toxin that killed so many others, and Mulder wonders why it was him who managed to live through the ordeal. "No other reported deaths by the same biotoxin," Scully says when she tells her, phone still in her hand. "It's over, Mulder."

He shakes his head. "They're covering their tracks, Scully. Any similar civilian deaths will be written off as nothing. It may never be over."

"It's over for you," Scully says, and her voice is firm. "You've paid your dues." Her fingernails click on the buttons of the phone as she hangs up.

Mulder chews at his lip, looking at the rug. He wants it to be over. He wants to leave it all behind, but. If the toxin is still out there, if they are still using it on innocent people… He doesn't know what to do now. He doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what he can do.

Scully's gaze lingers on him for a moment, shifting back and forth nervously, before she puts the phone back on the hook. She seems to be watching him out of the corner of her eye, has been for the past few hours. But for whatever reason, she's holding back. Whatever was happening last night, it seems to be over now. He would wonder if it had anything to do with Bremer's tape, but she acted fine last night. She slept tangled around him, holding onto him like she thought he was going to disappear. But now... the distance between them is back and he wishes he knew why.

"I should go home," he says suddenly, like an exhale. He doesn't know why, but he suddenly misses his apartment like a pull in his gut, like a magnetic pull.

Scully looks startled, if only for a brief second before her look moves back to neutral. "Okay," she says. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine, just tired." He'll have to take a cab home, his car is still in Delaware. He stands, says, "Thanks for letting me stay here."

"Of course." Her arms are wrapped around her ribs, like she's trying to protect herself. What are you thinking? he'd ask her, if he thought he wanted to know. If he didn't already feel vulnerable and exposed. He needs to go home and call his mother; he doesn't want to linger on whether or not Scully resents him now, whether or not she wants him to stay. He gives her a small smile before moving towards the door.

"Call me if you need anything," Scully adds as he's leaving, that firm tone back.

He nods. "I will." And he lets the door slide shut behind him.

The last time he was home, he was in pain and scared and Scully kissed him and told him she loved him. He wishes he'd asked her to stay. He wishes they'd run away to Canada. He goes into his empty apartment, shakes some food into the fish tank before collapsing on his couch. 
---

It does seem to be over. The fear leaves him slowly, like air from a deflating balloon, but it does eventually leave. He stops jumping at the sounds his neighbor is making through the wall, stops holding onto his gun by his side. The nightmares, the stench of blood and gunpowder, the chill of gun metal all leave eventually.

His mother hadn't known what was going on when he called. Of course she hadn't, he hadn't told her and no one else he's close to knows his mother well enough to tell her, but he still wonders what they would've told her if he'd died. He doesn't tell her when he calls, but he also doesn't let the normal awkwardness force its way into their conversation. They talk for nearly half an hour, that first day after, and he actually hangs up the phone feeling better than he did before he called. I have a family, he reminds himself over the sound of the dial tone. I'm alive.

He meets with Skinner the second day after, who claims to have been in the dark about any government involvement, who apologizes formally for Mulder's ordeal. The third day, he takes a bus up to Angola and drives his car back. The fourth and fifth day, he watches TV on the couch. Calls the Gunmen to ask about any new projects without much enthusiasm. Frohike, who has assumedly been filled in by Scully, offers to keep an eye on the New Spartans' recent activity for him. Mulder agrees, if only for his fear of other people being killed. He really is ready for it to be over.

Scully calls several times during his days off, always to check on him. He wishes she would come over, but she never brings it up and he doesn't ask. There seems to be some stiltedness that he wishes he could blame on the phone line, a sense of clumsiness to their conversations. Treading lightly. She says that she hopes he is doing okay, and he hears her torn-apart voice saying, I'm so sorry into his shirt, like she had anything to apologize for. But then again, he supposes that she understands what it is like to be haunted.

She says that she's glad he's coming back to work, her voice warm and genuine. He's missed her. He'd forgotten that.

(He almost asks: Why did you leave that morning? He almost crosses the invisible line they’ve drawn between them. He’s relived the two nights standing out in his mind—the night in his apartment and the night in hers—trying to figure out where things went wrong. He can’t figure it out. He’s thought, more than once, that she’s upset about what he told her, about putting her in danger, but the more he’s thought about it, the less it’s made sense. She came to him and told him that she knew, not the other way around. And if Scully really was angry at him for that, she likely would’ve made it clear at some point, the way she has before. She doesn’t seem angry, just distant. It’s made him wonder if she regrets what she told him before she left his apartment. It’s made him wonder a lot of things.)

Mulder goes back to work after nearly a week off, an unusual occurrence for him. He hasn’t missed this much time since he got shot (the first time). Scully’s waiting for him in the office when he gets there, and she offers him a small smile with something like relief in it. “Hey,” she says, sitting up in his chair. “How you feeling? How’s your hand?”

He waves his bad hand at her. “Annoying as hell. But then again, pain is kind of the norm for me at this point, Scully. I’ve considered the possibility of a curse more than once.”

“Well, if you’re cursed, than I’m cursed, too,” she says, her eyes soft.

He offers a small smile back as he sinks into the chair on the other side of the bed. They sit in silence for a few moments, Scully capping her pen and Mulder flipping through the file she has open on the table.“Skinner wants to meet with us,” says Scully suddenly. Mulder’s fingertip slides awkwardly, almost painfully, over the edge of one of the papers. “I think he has a new assignment.”

“Oh boy,” Mulder says dryly. He’s had about enough of Skinner’s assignments.

“Mulder, I’m sure it’s nothing like your last assignment,” Scully says reassuringly. 

It’s nothing like his last assignment, but that doesn’t lessen the annoying factors of it.

Skinner wants them to perform a threat assessment of some siding company, one that has apparent reports of a monster. Mulder’s annoyed by the seeming pointlessness of the whole thing, presses Skinner as to why the Chicago field office can’t deal with it. This is it, his first assignment after going undercover with terrorists? They want him to go check out a tape claiming monsters in a corporate office? Skinner makes it seem like he is the only person who can handle such a case, which only annoys Mulder more. It all sounds like bullshit to him, the monster. Bullshit that anyone could handle.

“I must’ve done something to piss him off,” he says to Scully as they leave Skinner’s office, irritation coating his tone.

“What do you mean?” Scully asks.

“Get stuck with this jerk-off assignment? Or have I finally reached that magic point in my career where every time somebody sees Bigfoot or the Virgin Mary on a tortilla I get called to offer my special insight on the matter?” He rubs his forehead with his bad hand wearily.

“You’re saying I a lot. I heard we,” says Scully, her voice unyielding as always. “Nor do I assume that this case is just a waste of our time.”

“Not yours, anyway,” he says, the thought occurring to him in the moment. Why should Scully waste her time on this shit when it’s just going to be awkward, anyway, when they’re just going to hold each other at arm’s length and awkwardly avoid talking about things? He’ll finish this assignment up on his own and be back in a few day’s. A little more time alone to clear his head. “There’s no reason both of us should go to Chicago. I’ll take care of it,” he says as he walks away, towards the elevator.

“Mulder…” Scully calls after him, protest in her voice.

“I’m monster boy, right?” he calls back. This is his job, his reputation, not hers. The elevator door slides closed behind him.

She calls him just as he drives up to the airport, hastily-packed duffle bag thrown in his trunk. She doesn’t bother with hellos, just launches straight into questions as soon as he answers. “You're not seriously going to Chicago on your own, are you, Mulder?”

“I’m at the airport right now,” he says, tucking his phone between his ear and shoulder, popping the trunk.

“Mulder,” she says, disapproval thick in her voice. “After everything that’s happened lately, do you really think that it’s a good idea to split up?”

He bites his lower lip hard, slinging the duffel over his shoulder. “Scully, this isn’t like last time. I’ll be fine on my own, really. This’ll probably just last a few days, if that, and I’ll be headed home. There’s no reason for you to come.”

“There’s no reason for me to stay,” she says on the other end.

He sighs, leaning against the car. “Scully, I’m fine,” he says. His broken finger aches, just a little, when he brushes it against the side mirror. “Really. Think of this as me taking a few extra days off, and I’ll be back to work in a few days.”

“A vacation where you’re working.” She’s got that skeptical deadpan I-can-see-right-through-you voice.

“That’s the best kind.”

Scully sighs, drawn out, on the other end. “Call me if you need anything, Mulder,” she says. “Please.”

He sighs again, rubbing at his forehead. He wishes he knew what she wants. He wishes that invisible line, the invisible wall, was torn down. The small luxury of this case might be avoiding thinking about his uncertain future with Scully for a few days. “I will,” he says.

That awkward silence again. Unsaid words on Scully’s end, it seems. “Mulder…” she starts, uncertain.

The metal of the car is hot through his suit jacket. “Yeah?” he asks, clutching the phone in his hand.

Scully doesn’t say anything for a moment. She finally sighs, says, “I’ll see you when I get back.”

Mulder smiles a little, unpleasantly, at his reflection in the side mirror. He doesn’t think they could ever really talk about anything if they tried. “See you then,” he says, before hanging up. He switches off his phone and lets it drop in his duffel bag before turning to go into the airport.

Chapter Text

Within a few hours of Mulder's arrival in Chicago, he's calling Scully to check up on some phrase. Hiding in the light. Scully resists the urge to point out that she doesn’t like the idea of him being on this case alone if it really isn't a waste of time. She begrudgingly agrees to pick her way through hundreds of casefiles to look for the phrase. Why, she thinks absently to herself as she hangs up the phone, is it never me working alone on these cases and him checking through papers for references? Well, there was that one time in Maine, she supposes. But he was desperately unhelpful then.

She spends the afternoon flipping through casefiles, leaves at five and comes back at eight to start it up again. A half-hour in, she finds it: Jerrold Resnick, Florida, 1992. A deacon who shot members of his own congregation, claiming that they wouldn’t bleed if they were victim to the evil presence he claimed was stalking them. He told the police the evil was “hiding in the light”.

Scully calls Mulder to tell him the story, and she can practically hear him thinking through the phone line, the gears in his brain chewing up that story and spitting it out. “Scully, at the risk of you telling me ‘I told you so’, I think it’s time for you to get down here and help me,” he says when she is finished.

“I told you so,” she says, not without smugness, but also not without teasing. When he hangs up, he leaves a pleasant silence in his wake. She’s thought before that things are less awkward between them if they have something to work on, something to talk about, to argue over.

She heads straight for the airport, stopping only briefly to pack a bag, and gets on a flight to Chicago after an hour of the familiar airport dance. She arrives in Chicago a little after one. At the rental car place, she’s forced to ask for directions from the man behind the counter. “Do you know how to get to the VinylRight office?” she asks, signing her name on a form. Mulder never gave her an address.

The man raises his eyebrows. “VinylRight? You mean the place where they’re having that hostage crisis?”

Surprise flickers over her face as she repeats, “Hostage crisis?”

“Oh, yeah, some guy with a gun is holding people inside the building. They’ve got the FBI down there and everything. I’d avoid VinylRight today if I were you, miss.” The man offers her the keys to the car.

Mind racing, Scully absently says, “Thank you,” and takes the keys. She’s too late to prevent what happened with Jerrold Resnick from happening here. And Mulder, Mulder might be in there alone because she didn’t come with him. Because they both believed this case was a waste of time, no matter what she said at the Bureau.

As she climbs into the car, she tries to reassure herself. She likely wouldn’t have been able to help Mulder if she’d come up with him; in fact, she might even have a chance to save him because she stayed back and was able to look into that hiding in the light lead. He has an idea of what to expect now. And there’s no guarantee he’s in there; he could be on the outside looking in. She’s about to call him, but she revises this plan quickly: it may not be safe to call him, a phone call could get him killed if he is, in fact, being held at VinylRight. She calls the Chicago field office, rattles off her badge number and gives her status as Mulder’s partner before demanding to know what’s going on. They confirm what she already feared—that Mulder is likely being held at VinylRight—and give her directions to the site. Heart thudding like a drum, Scully navigates the busy streets of Chicago, telling herself again and again, It’s not like last time, Mulder’s smart, he may be an idiot sometimes but he probably won’t provoke his captor unless other people are at risk, probably won’t, we’ll get him out, it’ll be fine. She just wishes she believed that.

At VinylRight, the agent in charge, an Agent Rice, tells her that no one is answering the phones, that there are eighteen cars in the parking lot and one of them is Mulder’s. Scully manages to keep up a calm facade, pretends her insides aren’t tangled like a first-grader trying to tie a knot. They tell her they are going to try calling Mulder, and she says, “No. Not until we get a clear idea of the situation.”

“There’s a small cafeteria in the building. We think our guy’s got everyone barricaded there, he couldn’t have picked a better spot—one door, no windows,” says a member of the SWAT team. “We’re not going to get a clear idea of the situation unless someone in there talks to us.”

“If you make a phone call right now, it could compromise Agent Mulder,” she says back, before addressing Rice. “Sir, we need to find another way.”

Rice seems to be considering her words. Scully turns to look towards the building when, all of a sudden, rapid-fire shots explode through the building and it’s suddenly hard to breathe. She ducks behind a police car as the agents on the roof run away, sliding down a crane to the ground. Something crackles through the SWAT agent’s headset, something about shooting through the ceiling, something about an A.K. “We got to find out what the hell’s going on in that building,” Rice says. She’s looking away from him, watching the building, but she looks back at him when he says, “I’m calling your partner.”

“No,” she says, insistent. “If it was safe to do so he would have called us already.”

“Agent Scully, we don’t have a lot of options here.”

Panic coursing through her, she looks back towards the building, as if she’d be able to see or hear Mulder right through the walls. She hears the beeps of Agent Rice dialing, hears the phone ringing as he puts it to his ear. The rings seem to go on forever with no answer. Scully digs her fingernails into the fabric of her pants, trying to breathe easily. And then a brief series of gunshots from the building, and her breath catches in her throat. Seconds slowing as if stuck in molasses, lasting an eternity. The phone seems to ring forever. The phone rings and rings and rings until she hears the click of someone picking up. “Hello?” Rice says, standing and stepping away. “Hello. Is anybody on the line? We heard gunfire. Is everyone all right?”

Scully stands beside the SWAT agent, waiting, waiting. She can hear the muffled sound of a voice on the other end, but no words from this far away. “Who am I speaking to?” Rice asks. The sounds of yelling now. Rice lowers the phone, says, “I think he just shot a hostage.”

“Who?” she demands, fragments of an uneven prayer flickering through her mind. Not Mulder, she wants to say. She wants to say that it can't be Mulder, because she would know if he was dead, but you never know. She has experience in this field, and she can testify that you never fucking know.

Rice shakes his head a little to indicate he doesn’t know. “He’s still asking for his 15 minutes of fame.”

Her gaze flickers towards the building, before she says, commands, “Give it to him.”

Rice calls again to tell him that they are bringing him a cameraman, and there are no signs of aggression on the other end. Scully stands by the monitor that the footage from inside, watches the camera blink to life. It pans across the people clustered together, too fast for her to see if Mulder is among them (if he’s all right), before it lands on him directly. Him alone, at gunpoint with his hands behind his head, his lower lip split. Her eyes widen, nausea stirring up in her stomach. “You see who’s going to get hurt if you bust down this door?” the gunmen says, and it feels like he is talking directly to her. She looks back at the building, thinking, Yes, I understand, I’ll do what you want, just don’t hurt him, even though this has nothing to do with Mulder. If anything, he’ll keep Mulder alive now, as leverage, since he clearly knows Mulder is an FBI agent. But that won’t stop him from being hurt.

The “reporter” is doing a fairly convincing news report, stoking the gunman’s ego. The correct move. “Is he getting this?” Scully asks.

“Yeah,” Rice confirms. “Closed circuit’s bouncing it back into the building. He thinks he’s going to be a star.”

Mulder is looking into the camera. She swallows. She wishes he knew she was here, that she is going to get him out. The SWAT agent tells the cameraman to show them the room and the cameraman turns away from Mulder, revealing the people clustered around the counter, the people bound to the door, the clear exterior wall. The SWAT agent commands his team into position, stands to go and join them. Scully watches the man move towards the building before her gaze goes back to the screen, to Mulder.

“Lie down on the floor,” the gunman commands. Mulder turns towards him questioningly, and he snarls, “Do it!”, shoves Mulder forward. Scully’s stomach leaps. Mulder obeys, lowering himself to the floor. The gunman steps in front of the camera as the footage focuses on him. He stands proud with his gun in his hand, ready for his rousing speech. Someone from the news van announces that they are about to switch to the footage inside. Scully watches as the gunman prepares himself, as he begins speaking. “People of America… a monster walks among you.” He instructs the camera man to pan the camera over to a man sitting against the counter, a balding man in a suit who would not fit the definition of monster for most. “Get up,” the gunman commands, and the balding man complies, a frightened look on his face. Offscreen, the gunman says, “Now I’ll show it to you.”

“No, Gary!” All of a sudden, Mulder is stepping in front of the balding man, and Scully’s breath catches in her throat. Why does he have to be the goddamn martyr all the time?

“Get out of the way,” the gunman—Gary—says, and she gets the sense that there is a gun pointed at them.

“Don’t do this,” Mulder says.

“Get out of the way,” Gary growls.

“Don’t do this, Gary,” says Mulder, and just then, the lights go off. The SWAT team is about to strike. Mulder could be hurt in the crossfire. Get downMulder, she thinks desperately.

Gary is screaming for Mulder to get out of the way. “Put down the rifle,” Mulder says.

“Get out of the way now!” Gary shouts, and Scully breathes shakily, eyes glued to the screen. It is too dark to see anything but shapes, Mulder’s figure and the figure behind him.

Silence for a second, and then Gary whispering something. She can see Mulder hesitating. “Look at it!” Gary roars.

Mulder looks behind him. Scully sees nothing, hears nothing but the anxious breathing of the other man. “See?” Gary says pleadingly, nearly whimpering. See what, Scully thinks, what the hell does he want Mulder to see?

The SWAT van gears up, starts towards the wall, and Scully holds her breath, and there’s the brief flicker of light, the screaming of hostages as the van pushes through the wall, just before the footage cuts out. The cameraman taking cover. There’s the brief sound of gunfire, and Scully holds her breath.

---

Mulder sees it. Just before the SWAT team bursts in, he sees it. Just briefly, he hears the buzzing, sees the wavering gray insect in Pincus’s place. The FBI comes in, shoot Gary, swarm around the room and around the body, taking his weapons away. Mulder watches numbly. Is it possible… he thinks. It can’t be possible, but he saw it. He saw it. He looks over at the Pincus-thing, who gives him a blank look. He looks away.

Gary is on the floor, blood trickling from his mouth, Mulder draws closer, kneeling beside him. Gary looks at him, meets his eyes and whispers, “Now you know,” before closing them.

Mulder winces, blinking in the daylight as he looks away. Gary can’t be right. He can’t be. He is a madman who killed someone. He looks over at Pincus, who is being helped by an agent. The man looks perfectly normal, if not a little stressed out. But he saw him as an insect in the dark, moving and buzzing…

“Mulder?” Scully appears at the edge of the hole in the wall, haloed by the light afternoon light. Relief fills her eyes as she spots him, as she crosses to stand beside him. He gets to his feet, taking the completely unnecessary hand she offers to help him up. “Are you okay?” she asks, her voice warm at the edge. She squeezes his fingers.

Her skin against his is a relief, but he’s distracted, eyes moving back to Pincus. “Yeah,” he says softly. “I’m fine.”

---

He gives his account to another agent, watching the paramedics examine Gary, do CPR, but it’s too late. They begin putting him in the body bag just as the agent finishes up. Mulder alternates between watching Pincus get interviewed and examined, and watching them bag Gary. He watches them take him away, wondering, wondering if he was right. If If Pincus is a monster.

“You look exhausted,” Scully says, approaching him from the side. She squeezes his arm.

“No, I’m fine,” he says. He’s considering: Would she? Would she believe me if I told her what I saw? Would anyone?

“Agent Rice has the situation in hand. Let’s get you out of here,” says Scully, but he isn’t listening. He’s watching Pincus as a paramedic smooths a bandage over the wound on his head. “Mulder?” Scully asks as he walks towards the man, the monster.

“I can’t begin to thank you,” the Pincus-thing says to him gratefully. “I owe you my life. We all do.”

“Do you have any idea why he fixated on you the way he did?” Mulder asks.

“Not, not at all,” Pincus says innocently. Like he’s in shock and disbelief. “I feel like I barely even know the man. I mean, I try to be a good guy to work for.”

He is wincing as he touches the bandage, and Mulder is wondering if Gary was wrong, if he was just seeing things, he’s stressed, exhausted, it’s been a long fucking week, it was dark… “You mentioned another incident with another employee at a plant in Kansas City in 1994,” he prods.

“Yes.”

“Were you at that plant at that time?”

“Well, I wasn’t there when it happened, but yeah. Did I mention that?”

Mulder shakes his head. He can feel Scully watching him, and he remembers what she mentioned yesterday, about Jerrold Resnick. “What about Lakeland, Florida. Have you ever lived there?”

“I’ve been there. I have relatives there.” Pincus looks between him and Scully expectantly. “Was there anything else?”

Scully cuts in: “Uh, no, Mr. Pincus. Thank you very much for your patience.” She draws closer to Mulder as Pincus leaves, asks gently, “What’s going on?”

Maybe he’s wrong. Maybe he is wrong. But the connections to Florida are so improbable, and what happened in Kansas City… But anyone who he tells his theory will think him delusional. Like Gary.

“I don’t know,” he whispers, walks away.

He’s nearly made it to his car when Scully catches up with him. “Mulder, you need to rest,” she says, brushing her hand over his elbow. “What you’ve been through…”

“I’m fine, Scully,” he says, maybe a little harshly. He’s tired and he’s tired of this fucking shit happening to him and he wants to know if he’s imagining things or not. He’s tired of Skinner putting him in these situations where he almost dies, and he’s tired of thinking he’s going to die. He can taste copper in his mouth, feel the scrape of gun metal against his head. It never fucking ends.

Scully’s jaw works as she watches him. “Has anyone checked your lip?” she says softly. She reaches for his face, but stops just short of touching it.

He nods irritably. “It’s fine, just another bang-up. I’m kind of used to them, you know.” Scully grimaces, just a little, and he keeps plunging on before she can say something else. “I want to go home, Scully. We can grab a flight back to Washington and be back by this evening. It’s not even that late.”

Worry in her eyes, she lowers her hand, the side of her knuckle brushing his cheek briefly. He can’t tell if it was an accident or not. “Okay, sure,” she says quietly. “We’ll have to drive separately.”

“Fine, that’s fine.” He’s nearly bouncing on his feet. “I’ll have to go by the hotel and check out anyway. And pack. You go onto the airport and get the tickets, I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay.” Scully steps closer then, hands reaching out to land on his shoulders, and it’s not quite a hug, but he can feel her presence, her body heat, and for a moment, he allows himself to be relieved that she’s here, she came. She leans closer, whispers, “I’m glad you’re okay,” in his ear, brushes her mouth over his cheek before stepping away.

Mulder watches her walk to her car, the feeling of panic falling away, if only for a second. He has missed her. He has. He loves her. He wants to tell her about what he saw in there, tell her the things he thinks about with a gun to his head, ask her why she left that morning. He gets into the car and starts it. Maybe she’ll believe him if he tells her about the Pincus-thing. Maybe. Maybe if he can find the right angle to make himself sound sane. Maybe she can help him understand what he saw.

A few minutes in the car, and he’s already revising his theory. She won’t believe him, she never does. And besides, who would, at this stage? What he needs is proof, and he knows how to find it. If it appeared in the X-Files in Florida, than maybe it appeared somewhere else. If he can find the proof, show Scully the patterns, then maybe he can convince her, convince others, bring Pincus down before he/it hurts anything else…

A plan forms in his head as he goes to the hotel and packs, as he drives to the airport. He needs to gather the evidence, build a case. Convince Scully to investigate. He needs to be smart about this, or he’ll end up in deep shit. Smart. He can do this. If there are zombies out there, if Pincus really is a monster, he’ll be smart about the way he finds them. He can lend credibility to Lambert’s claim, give it a perspective outside of Man With Gun Who Is Killing People, help bring the monster down.

Scully watches him out of her wide, worried eyes as they share a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a bag of pretzels at the airport. Mulder bites a pretzel in half, tears at the sandwich crust. They don’t talk much. They don’t need to. He doesn’t know what he’d say. Hey, Scully, you know the guy who almost killed me? Well, I think I might believe him—except, don’t worry, I’m not going to kill anyone. They board the plane, put their carry-on into the overhead compartment. He takes the window seat and watches the city of Chicago vanish below them.

He doesn’t remember falling asleep, but he wakes up from a dream of muddled grays and blacks and an incessant buzzing like an enormous fly hovering somewhere over West Virginia. Scully’s head is on his shoulder as she snores softly into his shirt. He blinks away visions of bug eyes and alien-like faces, rests his cheek on the top of her head. Her presence is almost grounding, even 10,000 feet in the air. He’s missed her. He has.

He kisses the part in her hair just as the lights come up, nudges her awake gently. “Hey, Scully, we’re back,” he whispers.

She wakes slowly, blinking and moving herself off of his shoulder. “Mm, you okay?” she mumbles, stretching.

One side of his mouth quirks up in bitter amusement; it might be funnier if they hadn’t gone through the past two weeks. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he says. “We’re about to land. Up and at ‘em.”

The plane lands, and they are out of the airport within half an hour, a new record for them. It is around seven o’clock, the sun of early summer still high in the sky. Mulder can’t quite believe it’s already mid May; it still feels like January. He thinks a part of him has never completely left that hotel room.

They are parked in different parts of long-term parking, so Scully says goodbye on the sidewalk. “Call me if you need anything,” she tells him sternly. “I’d advise you to stay home and get some rest tomorrow; I think you should’ve taken off some more time after everything that happened last week.”

“Your advice as my doctor?” he asks: somewhere between teasing and annoying, he hasn’t decided yet. (He, of course, has no attention of going home.)

“Yes, actually.” She crosses her arms over her chest. “Get some rest, Mulder,” she says quietly. “It’s over now.”

It is absolutely not over. “Okay,” he says, practically lying. He touches her arm before turning and heading to his car. He does not go home. He goes to the Bureau, in search of answers.

Now you know, Gary had said. A monster walks among you, Gary had said. They can’t see it because it hides in the light, Gary had said. Mulder doesn’t want to believe him, but he needs to know if he should. Wants answers. Wants to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. More zombies, more mass shootings, and it never stops because the only people who ever make the connection are blown off as insane. It has to end somewhere.

---

He spends the night in the office, digging through other X-Files. He finds five variations, more or less, of the case in Chicago; seven towns, four of which are connected to VinylRight. He starts a map, connecting the cities, finds Pincus’s records and finds that he’s worked at VinylRight for ten years. It all makes sense. It’s all coming together. Every single similar incident can be traced back to Pincus. Believing that anything else is the cause of these tragedies, that Pincus’s presence at all of them can be chalked up to mere coincidence, is simply too farfetched.

Scully doesn’t believe him. Of course she doesn’t. He can see it in her eyes as soon as she comes in, asking him why he didn’t stay home, if he’s slept. He tells her his theory anyway, tries to convince her. Presents the facts. “Mulder, he was disturbed,” she says in return.

“Yeah, but did he see it because he was disturbed, or was he disturbed because he saw it?” he offers.

“He was mentally ill. This monster was a—a sick fantasy, a product of his dementia.”

He nods at her words—he can’t help it, these are the things he’s been thinking all night. The things he’s worried about in himself. “I saw it too,” he says, and watches her face shift in surprise. “Does that make me disturbed? Demented? Does that make me sick, too?”

She hesitates, just for a moment, says, “No,” as she looks away. “No, I mean, this… this kind of thing is not uncommon. You… you you through a terrible ordeal and sometimes people in close associations, under tense conditions… the delusions of one can be passed on to the other.”

“Folie à deux? It’s not that, Scully,” he says. He knows, he knows what he saw. “It’s not Helsinki Syndrome either. What I saw was real, and there may be a way to prove it.”

“How?”

“Lambert pointed out certain individuals he said had been victimized by Pincus, turned into zombies. The man he shot, Backus was one of them. If you would autopsy the body…”

“No. No, absolutely not,” she says, shaking her head.

He has to know, he has to know if he’s seeing things. He has to know if Pincus is real and dangerous and going to hurt more people. “Scully, if this is all in my mind I would be very grateful if you would prove that,” he tries. He needs her on this.

“Mulder, I am not going to serve the delusions of Gary Lambert, a madman, by giving credence to them.”

He knew it. He knew, before, that she wouldn’t believe him, but some part of him had really thought that she would. Some part of him had hoped. But whether she believes him or not, he needs to know. “Then I’ll prove it without you,” he says, getting up and walking past her. She calls after him, but he doesn’t answer. He needs to know, and he is going to find out. The door shuts behind him.

Mulder calls the Chicago field office on the way to the airport and reports that he is on his way back to further investigate Gary Lambert. Agent Rice, the guy in charge of the hostage negotiation, seems a little perturbed as to why Mulder is coming back to work so soon after the hostage situation, what his interest is with Lambert, but Mulder manages to convince him that it’s a good idea. As soon as he hangs up the phone, it starts ringing again. Scully, he assumes. He turns off his phone.

He manages to be in Chicago by lunchtime, and at Gary’s residence an hour and a half later, having sent Mark Backus's body back to Quantico for Scully to autopsy (he needs her to do this, and she can't very well deny it this way). He finds that Gary was doing the same work he was: tracking Pincus, tracking his attacks. Agent Rice seems skeptical of his theories in the same way that Scully was, but Mulder finds he doesn’t have time to worry about that. He moves to Gary’s window, looks outside and sees a hostage from the day before standing in the yard, one of the people Gary claimed was a zombie. He looks again and sees that her face is green and gray and bloated, her eyes lifeless. Just like Gary said. He turns and runs outside, Rice calling after him. He pounds down the stairs and out the door, to the street, but the woman—the zombie, wherever—is nowhere to be found.

Agent Rice thinks he's acting suspiciously, similarly to Gary Lambert; Mulder can see it. Mulder ignores him. He has proof now, he's seen Pincus and he's seen what Pincus can do. The aftereffects. He has to stop it from happening to anyone else. He doesn't go back to the field office; he follows Pincus. He keeps a tail on him throughout the day and into the night, and finds that Pincus’s day-to-day routine is more or less ordinary, outside of dropping the hostage-zombie off at her house. But that night, Pincus does something that Mulder deems worthy of attention: he goes to a house. Not his house, Mulder deduces from the fact that he doesn’t go in the front door. He gets out of the car and follows him.

Pincus isn’t on the side or at the back of the house. He must’ve gotten inside somehow. Mulder looks up and sees a broken window, confirming his suspicions. He grabs a wooden table and shoves it over to get some leverage—if he can sneak inside, he can surprise Pincus. He can catch him-it before it hurts whoever is inside.

Standing at the window, he can see a woman sitting in front of the TV inside. And the thing, the monstrous buzzing thing hovering behind her, going to the back of her neck. Mulder goes to break the window, gun in hand to shoot it, but the thing has already bitten her by the time he forces his elbow through the glass, is buzzing out of the room and towards the front of the house. He leaps down from the table, running to meet it.

He has to break down the door to get in; no open windows, Pincus must still be inside. Inside the house, he finds the woman sitting on the couch still, but her skin is the same decomposing color as the zombie from Gary’s house. He’s too late.

Behind him, he hears a thumping sound and turns, gun drawn. He goes further into the dark house, gun held out in front of him, looking, looking… He pokes his head out of the window and sees nothing but an empty yard. He hears scratching-like sounds, looks up and sees Pincus skittering up the wall. It vanishes onto the roof before he can shoot it. He purses his lips in frustration.

When he turns back into the house, the dead woman is standing behind him, holding a butcher knife in one hand and a phone in the other. “The police are on their way,” she says in a monotone voice.

Panic running through him, he says, “Ma’am, I am an FBI agent…”, lowers his gun and reaches for his badge. This can’t go the same way it did with Gary. He knows what he saw. He is not seeing things…

“Stop right there,” the zombie says, and she might sound excited or fearful or even threatening if she wasn’t dead.

“There was a monster in here, ma’am, it… hurt you,” he tries, but the zombie-woman ignores him, stabs the air with her knife and says, “You were at VinylRight, weren’t you? Gary held you hostage? You’re just as crazy as him. Crazier.”

Mulder’s stomach turns. He’s not going to argue this, he’s not going to hurt people or push them to hurt him just to prove he’s right. Even if this woman is dead. He sets his gun down on the windowsill, puts his hands up and lets the zombie hold a knife on him until the police arrive.

---

Skinner flies down to Chicago immediately. The FBI, who the police released him to, in turn release him to Skinner. Skinner barely speaks to him, takes him to an office room where they meet with the zombie, an apparent employee of VinylRight named Gretchen Starns, and the Pincus-thing. Skinner doesn’t believe him.

A night in a police cell hasn’t done him any good; he’s full of nervous energy, anger at Pincus for doing this to him. For killing these people. He snaps at everyone, makes accusations he likely should’ve saved for later. Pincus waxes some bullshit poetic about how Mulder is a hero, and he wants to handle this matter privately, but when Skinner turns his back Pincus changes form, sneaking up behind him, buzzing and buzzing.

Mulder tries to save Skinner, leaping at the monster with his gun drawn. Skinner pins him to the table, calls the local hospital and has him admitted. They strap him to a bed. They won’t let him explain. They won’t let him call Scully. They have him here, helpless to anything the monster might try, and they don’t believe him.

---

She’s on a plane to Chicago as soon as she finds out. She gets on the phone with Skinner as soon as the plane lands, insisting on clearance to see him. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea, Scully,” Skinner says regretfully. “He’s not himself, he’s not in his right mind… He tried to attack Mr. Pincus. They have him in restraints.”

“I have to see him,” Scully snaps, her fingers clenching around the room. Needs to see how far gone he is, needs to tell him she’s here for him. She never thought it would end up like this. She prays it’s not permanent. But she has to know. She has to see him.

She argues with Skinner most of the way to the hospital, but she finally convinces him to call and give her an in to see Mulder. The nurses wave her through. He’s lying behind a curtain, his shadow just visible through it. She takes a deep breath, pulls aside the curtain and takes his hand. “Five years together, Scully. You must have seen this coming,” Mulder says, like he’s trying to make those self-deprecating jokes he makes so often, but his heart doesn’t seem to be into it. She doesn’t say anything because she doesn’t know what to say. “Did you examine Backus’ body?” She nods. “What did you find?”

“More or less what we thought we’d find.”

“‘More or less?’ What is that supposed to mean?”

She sighs, running her finger up and down the side of his hand, says, “The body showed signs of decomposition beyond what we expected to find which, in and of itself means nothing, really. Time of death is notoriously hard to quantify.”

“Or that Lambert was telling the truth and that man was dead before he was gunned down,” Mulder says insistently. Maybe even a little desperately.

“No, Mulder…” she starts.

“Scully…” he says, frustrated. “When that monster… Pincus—whatever the hell you want to call it—when he attacked that woman last night, he did something to the back of her neck. H-he bit her there, or he injected something in there. There’s got to be evidence of that. You got to check for that.”

“Mulder, the case is over. There’s no more evidence to be gathered.” She meets his eyes, squeezing his hand in hers. “There’s only my hope that you’ll be able to see past this delusion.”

You have to be willing to see,” he tells her insistently.

“I wish it were that simple,” she says softly.

“Scully, you have to believe me.” He squeezes her hand this time, manages to be firm and pleading through a simple gesture. Asking for help. It breaks her heart a little. She looks down to their fingers clasped together on the mattress. “Nobody else on this whole damn planet does or ever will. You’re my one in… five billion.”

They look at each other in silence for a moment. She has to look away first, looks down at where his thumb is curled around his, some side effect from lazy thumb wars. "I want to believe you, Mulder," she says quietly. "But I..."

"Scully, do you remember what you said to me after Cassandra Spender, about ignoring the evidence and, by default, ignoring you?" There's no malice in his voice, just a question. She nods. "And do you remember on the Dara Kernof case, when you were upset at me for not believing you? Because you needed me to believe and I wasn't there?"

She grimaces a little, says, "I remember, Mulder. What are you..." as she starts to pull her hand away.

"It's the same thing." His fingers close over hers, stilling the motion. "I need your help, Scully. I need you to believe me."

He's right, she realizes; even if he isn't right about Pincus—which is still yet to be determined—he is right about this. She owes him the benefit of the doubt here, with everything that's at stake. She asked for it from him, and now he's asking for it from her.

She squeezes his hand again. "I'll look," she says. "I'll check the body, but that might be all I can do right now."

He looks so grateful that she immediately feels worse for not offering more. When she didn't believe him during the Bowman case, he ended up seeing her dead, almost shooting her. "That's fine, that's all I need," he says, rubbing her ring finger with his. "You'll see when you look at the body."

She might make fun of his confidence if the situation wasn't so bleak. She lets go of his hand, reaches up to smooth his hair. "I'll have to go to Washington," she says apologetically. "But I'll come back. As soon as I can."

"I'll be here," he says, almost gloomily.

"It's going to be okay, Mulder." She has a sudden, rushing urge to prove him right, maybe for the first time in their partnership. She leans down and kisses his forehead briefly, brushes her fingers down the side of his face. "Just hang on."

---

In Washington, she checks Mark Backus’s neck and finds exactly what Mulder said she would: a bite mark, three bright red puncture wounds. Shock courses through her as she realizes that he was right. She doesn’t know how much he’s right about, but he was right about Mark Backus. The decomposition, and now this. He is right, and she suddenly finds she’s ashamed she didn’t see it before.

There’s still the matter of him breaking into this woman’s house, of course, and the alleged assault on Pincus, but this is enough to start on. This lends enough credibility to Mulder’s theory to present to Skinner, open an investigation, begin the process of getting Mulder out of there. It’s a start.

Scully goes straight to the airport after typing up a quick memo to Skinner presenting the new evidence, flies to Chicago in the evening instead of waiting until morning. She wants to tell Mulder she believes him. She wants to tell him that she’s going to get him out of there, she wants to tell him that she is sorry.

She drives to the hospital in the nighttime darkness, forgetting somewhat about visiting hours. She assumes she can use her badge or The Power of an MD to bypass that.

The nurse has other ideas. “I’m very sorry, but it is after hours and Mr. Mulder is resting,” she says. “I’ll have to ask you to come back in the morning.”

“I’ve come a long way,” she says. Third fucking flight today, fifth in total this week, I am not leaving here without seeing him, not after spending hours upon hours on a fucking plane. “And I know he wants to see me, so what do you say?” She flashes her badge politely.

The nurse grimaces apologetically, shrugging, says, “I’m sorry. Really. It’s hospital policy.”

Scully locks eyes with the nurse, preparing herself to argue again, but something seems to shift before her eyes. To change. She sees the nurse normally one second, and then different the next; her skin gray, her eyes white and lifeless. A zombie. Just like Mulder said.

On instinct alone, she takes off running.

She can hear Mulder screaming for help as she sprints down the hall; horror rises in her throat. She pulls out her gun. She kicks the door to his room down, throws the curtain aside, sees the monster looming over him, buzzing. He’s screaming because he has no other way of getting help, of running away or fighting back. She freezes only for a split second before shooting twice at the insect. It squeals in pain, scrambling off of Mulder and towards the window, its escape. She follows, shooting at it again. It falls backwards through the window, shattering the glass on impact. She runs to the window, peering out of it, and sees nothing. Only shattered glass and an empty parking lot.

She wonders, only for a moment, if she imagined the creature, too. No, she immediately corrects, that’s impossible, you shot at it and hit it. Mulder was calling for help. You saw the nurse, the bite on Backus… She looks back at Mulder, who motions desperately towards the window with his head. She looks out again with wide eyes, trying and failing to see where the thing went. Nothing, nothing.

Her stomach turns. He was right. He is right, she saw the monster. Whatever Pincus is, he does a good job of convincing people they are not in their right mind.

“You believed me,” Mulder says in an incredulous voice behind her, still full of terror. She turns to face him, her heart pounding; his eyes are huge and dark in the dim room.

“Are you okay?” she asks softly, scrambling to his side and pulling at the Velcro restraints with her right hand, clutching the gun in her left. “Mulder? Did it hurt you?”

Mulder winces as his right wrist comes loose. “It would've if you hadn't…” His hand comes up to cup her cheek and god help her, she leans into the warmth. She yanks hard on the left Velcro until he is loose, wraps an arm around his waist to help him up. He presses his forehead into her shoulder, just briefly, before climbing out of bed.

She sees the red lines around his wrist where he's been struggling and winces, rubbing a thumb over the soft inside of it, remembering the moment when he'd done the same thing in the foyer of Pfaster’s house. “I'm going to get you out of here,” she mutters, gun still in her hand. She thinks she can still hear buzzing. She rubs the indentations again before sliding her fingers down to take his hand; he shivers, drawing closer, eyes darting back and forth between the door and the window.

Pounding footsteps down the hall, and then two nurses appear in the door. One is the one from the front desk who looks like a corpse. “We heard gunfire,” the other nurse says nervously, scanning the room with panic.

“There was something in here,” Scully says fiercely. And you didn’t listen when he was calling for help. You fucking ignored him. “I shot it. It should be gone now. We’re leaving.”

“Ma'am,” the corpse says in a stern monotone, and Scully suddenly understands why Mulder did what he did. The zombie-esque people are eerie, jarring. She wants to cringe away, to step in front of Mulder like a shield. “The patient is extremely unstable, and must remain…”

“The patient,” Scully snaps, her fingers tightening around Mulder's, “has a name, and he was being attacked in here a minute ago.” She practically is shielding him now, standing near in front of him, shoulders rigid in defense of them both. “I'm getting him out of here.”

The other nurse (the living one) speaks up timidly. “Ma'am, hospital policy…”

Scully bites back fiercer things she wants to say, says instead, “It is my belief that Agent Mulder is mentally sound, as I just saw the monster he claimed was attacking him. Now I'm taking him out of here to somewhere safer.” She wants to shout at them for pinning him to the bed like that, making it so he couldn't fight back. She remembers the feeling of being trapped, unable to run, rendered helpless and vulnerable to danger, and her stomach turns of the thought of Mulder feeling that way, being put in that position by doctors, by his boss, by the people who are supposed to be allies. Once again, he's been put in danger by those above him. She wants to hate Skinner for putting him here, but really, she hates herself for not being there for him when he needed it.

She pushes her way through the door, past the nurses, Mulder at her side. The dead nurse trails behind them, something like determination in her eyes. Mulder walks faster, his gait unsteady and uncertain, and Scully moves with him. They reach the elevator, the door closing just as the dead nurse catches up to them.

“Thanks,” Mulder says, and it sounds like a sigh of relief and a cry for help all at the same time. His hand is cold in hers, fingers quivering. He's looking at the ground.

She turns towards him, wrapping her arms tight around him and resting her chin on his shoulder. Trying to envelope him, to keep him safe. He hugs her back, so tightly she nearly can't breathe. “I'm so sorry I didn't believe you sooner,” she whispers.

Sorry she left him this time. Sorry she left him all those other times. Sorry she's put him in danger again and again and again. (Sorry for Pincus and the New Spartans and the AI and Bowman and fucking San Diego; sorry for everything terrible that’s happened over their five years together.) Sorry she wasn't there when he needed her, and she needs him as much as he needs her. They're a part of each other now. Folie à deux.

His hand is cupping the back of her head, his nose in her hair. He says nothing. Doesn't let go until the elevator door opens.

They get to her car, and she resists the urge to hover over Mulder, smooth his hair and check him for wounds. He buckles his seatbelt with a click. Scully climbs into the driver's seat, pressing her foot to the pedal. "Where are we going?" Mulder asks softly. His fingers are tapping against the glass, a nervous habit.

How many times will he be cornered and scared after having barely escaped death; it's happened three times in the last two weeks. She swallows back soothing, scared things she wants to say, and says instead, "Your hotel room."

Mulder's head thunks against the cold glass of the window. Watching the blur of red headlights and yellow streetlights in the dark of the city. He says, "If that thing comes back..."

"It won't," Scully says firmly. "And even if it does... you'll be able to fight back this time."

Mulder doesn't say anything, rubbing his chafed wrists. "I won't leave," Scully adds. "Unless you want me to."

"No." He's shaking his head, turns to look at her. "Stay. It's fine." He tries to smile, but it doesn't come out right. She reaches for his hand. Same song and dance as a week ago. They find themselves shoved into the same tight spots all too often. She rubs the back of his hand with her thumb.

They drive in silence for a few minutes, navigating city traffic. "How are you going to explain this to Skinner?" Mulder asks suddenly, and as if on cue, her phone starts ringing.

She shakes her head, teeth clenched tight. "I'm not. Not tonight. We both need to sleep. This can wait until morning."

Mulder nods again, slumping back in his seat, holding her hand against his stomach. "Thanks for coming after me," he mumbles.

"I'm always coming to come after you, Mulder," she tells the car in front of them sternly. She never wants him to think anything differently. "Always."

She can see the lights of the cars reflecting in his eyes. He keeps his eyes on her the whole way to the hotel. 
---

One room, one bed. They take turns in the shower, Scully going first while Mulder eats a sandwich at the little desk. (He has a notorious hatred of hospital food, and she really doesn't blame him.) When they trade places, she sees his gun lying out on the desk. In case that thing comes back. She moves it to the drawer of the bedside table, her preferred spot for her own when she's frightened, and crawls into bed in one of Mulder's button-downs hanging to her knees. (She didn't bother to pack a bag, just went straight to the airport. It saved considerable time.)

Mulder exits the shower minutes later, the lights from the TV flickering over his form. He climbs in beside Scully, puts his arms around her and pulls her into him. She drapes an arm over his side, a leg around his waist, breathes in tandem with him. He kisses the top of her wet head, his fingers unsteady against her back, his wrists raw. "You're not..." he mumbles into her hair, clears his throat. "You're not gonna... run off tomorrow, are you? Before I wake up?"

Her habit the last two times they shared the bed. Scully swallows, suddenly understanding why the morning after the New Spartans went the way it did. She kisses the curve of his throat, presses her face into his stubbly neck. "No," she says. "I'm not."

She falls asleep warm and wakes up warm and this time, she really doesn't roll away as soon as she wakes up. Mulder's already awake, arm around her shoulder, covers piled up on his side of the bed—he's a notorious cover-stealer. She grins, yanking the covers back to her side. He doesn't smile, but he curls into her. Body seeping through the cotton of his/their shirts. It's been so long since they've done this. One in five billion is a cheesy fucking line, but for them, she thinks it might actually apply.

Scully's in no hurry to get back on a plane. They don't get out of bed until sometime after two.

---

Scully’s called into a meeting with Skinner as soon as they return to DC. Mulder insists on coming along with her, puts on a suit and everything. He waits outside while she tells Skinner what happened, gives credence to his claims. She tries to hold back just a little—to clarify that there was, in fact, something or someone, but leave it up to interpretation as to what it was—but Skinner won’t allow it. She sighs, explains the whole thing until he believes them.

Mulder’s waiting by the elevator, pushes the button as soon as he sees her coming. “What did you tell him?” he asks.

“The truth,” she says, moving to stand beside him. “As well as I understand it.”

“Which is?” he prods further.

The elevator dings, doors opening. They step in together, side by side; Mulder reaches out to press the button again. "Folie à deux," she says, as an answer. "A madness shared by two."

The elevator doors close.

Chapter Text

After leaving the Bureau, Mulder goes home with Scully. It’s not a discussed thing, not planned; it just happens. His car is still in long-term parking at the airport, and so he simply rides home with Scully. He offers to take a cab when they get back to the apartment, fingers caught in the key ring, and she wrinkles her brow, says, "Don't be ridiculous, Mulder, come on up." And so he comes.

---

He's given a week-long suspension. Paid, incredibly enough—Scully suspects Skinner feels bad about everything that's happened. She doesn't take any days off; after Emily and her vacation days in January, she doesn't have any days left. She wishes she could, but she can’t. She goes into work and Mulder calls her from his apartment or her apartment or the Gunmen's loft to pester her about cases. He does his own thing during the day—anything to distract himself—but he always reappears at her apartment in the evenings, parking himself permanently on her couch. (He's been sleeping on the couch ever since they got back from Chicago; they haven't discussed it, and she doesn't know how to bring it up. She's fine with it this way, though. Fine with letting the knot they've formed unravel itself, slowly. She knows how he feels and he knows how she feels. All they can do now is wait, and she doesn't mind at all: she waited for four years.)

Mulder sleeps on her couch for four straight nights after their return from Chicago. On the fifth night, Scully gets home from work and finds the apartment empty, stacks of scribbled-on paper strewn across her coffee table. Lips pursed in amusement and annoyance (if it is possible for those emotions to be in conjecture), she sweeps them aside to one corner and goes into the kitchen to fix some dinner. Mulder has been late a few nights, not necessarily home when she got home, so she's not worried.

She's still not worried when she's worked her way through dinner and settled down to read in the living room. A little wistful, maybe, at the idea that Mulder has chosen to go home, but not worried. She goes to bed at ten, telling herself that he had to go home at some point. She falls asleep and wakes up an hour or two to the sound of Mulder staggering through the apartment. Her heart stutters, her first thought being: Burglar, and her second thought being: Oh, God, Mulder's hurt. Her third thought, as she stumbles to her bedroom door, surveys her living room and sees Mulder offering her a sheepish, apologetic smile from his position standing on the rug: He came back.

"Sorry, Scully," he's saying, shedding his leather jacket over the arm of her chair. His catastrophic untidiness would normally annoy her, but she's half asleep and finds it incredibly endearing. "I, uh, the Gunmen had a lead on the New Spartans, they thought... I think it was bullshit, but, um, I got caught up in things there, and then my phone was dead... I should've called or something, or just gone home, I woke you up..."

She's already shaking her head, smiling a little. "Mulder, it's fine."

He freezes a little in the motion of pulling at a shoe—though whether he's trying to take it off or put it back on, Scully can't tell. "Seriously?" he asks, a little incredulous.

She shrugs a little. "Well, I'd rather you called next time, I suppose... but you don't have to apologize for coming back, Mulder. You've been staying here for nearly a week, remember?"

"Right." He chews at his lower lip, yanks his right shoe off. "Sorry I woke you, Scully, go on back to sleep, I can get the stuff for the couch bed..."

The coming into her living room and clomping around like an elephant straddles the line between annoying and endearing, but his nervousness, in the moment, is just annoyingly endearing. She stifles a smile by pressing her lips together, says, "You don't have to sleep out here, Mulder."

His socked foot slides across the hardwood floor as he pulls off his left shoe. He looks up at her uncertainty. "Unless you want to," she clarifies, feeling awkward. Even after

"I, uh." He sheds the shoe, getting to his feet to face her. "I wasn't sure if you wanted me to. Sleep out here, or um, in there."

"Of course I..." She stops, hands sliding over the silk of her pajama top. Nothing is a definite with them anymore. She starts again: "I want to take things as slowly as they need to go, but if you're ready... if we're ready... um."

"I didn't think you were," says Mulder, rubbing the back of his neck. The bandages on his finger flash white through the air. "The night after the New Spartans... you stayed with me, but you were gone the next morning before I woke up... like in Dallas... and I dunno, that made me wonder if you, uh. If you regretted…”

"What I said the night before," she finishes, the reason for the awkwardness after those two nights dawning on her. She laughs a little in bitter realization. "Oh my god, Mulder," she mutters, rubbing her forehead. "We're both terrible at this, aren't we."

Mulder is shifting back and forth on his feet, making the floorboards creak horribly. "What... do you mean?" he asks slowly.

"I didn't regret what I told you that night," Scully says. "Of course I didn't, Mulder... I know that with everything that's happened, it might not have been the best time to bring it up. But I wanted you to know that I felt the same way." He's still looking at her with a question in his eyes, so she plunges on: "Mulder, the only reason I bolted that morning was because it had... just dawned on me that you almost died because I showed up at your apartment. Skinner told me to stay away or risk blowing your cover, and I didn't listen, and blow your cover is exactly what I did. And I felt... awful, Mulder, for putting you through that... if anything had happened to you..."

He's already shaking his head. "I thought you left because you weren't ready... because you were angry at me, for putting you in danger by telling you, because if Bremer heard it then he could go after you because you knew..."

She laughs—not because it is particularly funny, but because it is slightly ridiculous. For all their assuming, they've built a facade that couldn't be further from the truth. Karen Kosseff was right when she said they need to communicate. "God," she repeats, shaking her head as well, "we're really terrible at this, Mulder."

"Absolutely fucking shitty," he says, and then he's closing the distance between them, cupping her face in his hands and leaning down and covering her mouth with his. She responds with an enthusiasm that makes him seem to go weak at the knees; he scoops her up, hand cupping the back of her head, and whirls towards her bedroom. 
---

In the morning, Mulder scrambles the last two eggs in Scully's refrigerator while Scully spreads light cream cheese over a bagel. (He raises his eyes at her, and she slugs him in the shoulder.) She pulls the newspaper across the table and flips it open to the crossword. Behind her, Mulder switches off the burners. Scully tries her pen against the side of the paper. No ink. She shakes it a little, scribbles again with a renewed fervor. Still nothing.

"22 down should be 'Iambic'," Mulder says smugly, hovering over her shoulder.

She throws the inkless pen at him. "If you're going to offer unnecessary hints, than the least you can do is get me a new pen."

"Unnecessary, huh?" He's already halfway to her desk in the living room. I seem to remember plenty of times when you tried to get answers out of me without telling me you were trying to get answers out of me." Her desk drawer squeaks on the background.

She scoffs. "I never have."

He doesn't speak for a moment. She looks up from her newspaper. "Mulder?"

He's standing at her desk, his back to her, with something in his hands. He turns to her, and she sees the little white square with her daughter's face on the front. She swallows, surprise hitting her like a gut punch. "I, uh. I didn't know you had this,” he says.

Scully nods, a little numbly. "Yeah," she mumbles.

His hands fumble with trying to put the picture back into the drawer. "I'm sorry, Scully, I didn't mean to..."

"No, it's..." She waves her hand in dismissal. "It's fine. Really. I've been..." An unsteady breath. She pushes her face back into its neutral stance. "I've been working on putting that behind me."

Several Karen Kosseff sessions, and it's gotten easier to think about Emily, to talk about Emily. Several Sundays at church, and she can admit that Emily is in a better place. But it still hurts. Every single time, it hurts. She doesn’t know if it will ever stop hurting.

He crosses the room and kneels beside her, hand covering her knee. "I know..." he starts uncertainly. "I know I wasn't the most supportive with Emily. I was worried that if you adopted her, they'd come after you." She looks down at his hand on her knee. "That was wrong of me," he says. "I'm sorry."

She swallows back the lump in her throat, starts, "I know..."

"I would've been there for you two." His fingers tightening over her knee. She lifts her eyes to meet his. "You and Emily. If you had adopted her... I would've been there as much as you'd wanted me. Done anything for either of you. I'm sorry if I ever made you doubt that."

Tears burn at the back of her eyes. Scully sniffles a little, seizes his hand and squeezes it. "Thank you," she whispers.

She pulls at his hand until he's crouching in front of her, level with her, and wraps her arms around his shoulders. He holds her to him with a certain gentleness. She wipes her eyes, leans the side of her head against his and says, "I just wish I could've gotten to know her. I wish I could've been her mom."

"I know." She can't see his face but his voice is as soft as his hand on her hair, the motion of his stroking fingers. "I do, too."

---

She has to go to work shortly after, when the tears have stopped and the ache in her stomach has faded. Mulder gets up off the ground with her, walks her to the door like they're some bizarre reversal of a couple from the fifties. He must get the same impression, because he leans down and kisses her briskly on the mouth, says, "Catch a monster for me today, honey." Clearly trying to lighten the mood.

"Ha ha," she replies dryly, but she’s smiling a little when she says it. "I'll see you tonight, Mulder."

His grin is huge, makes her want to stay home. "See you tonight."

Sometime after lunch, he calls her from his apartment. She knows it is going to be fucking ridiculous and a total waste of time as soon as he says, "Hey, Scully, so I was watching this documentary on the Loch Ness Monster, and I think there's some substance to this..." and it's exactly what she needs. She lets him talk, tapping the tip of her pen against her teeth and smiling behind her hand.

---

Mulder has to go back to his apartment to check on the fish over the weekend. Scully goes with him, in the car he’d eventually retrieved from long-term parking. They spend the weekend on his couch, playing cards or old, cheesy board games across the cushions, watching bad B-movies, Scully usually wrapped in a blanket or two because she manages to be cold even in May. Friday night, they fall asleep sprawled on opposite ends of the couch, feet touching in the middle, Scully having stolen both blankets. On Saturday, they sleep closer together. It is a challenge not to fall off, but they make it work.

They don't talk about their relationship. But then again, they've never been very good at that.

On Sunday night, Scully has to go back to her apartment. "I need clothes for work tomorrow," she tells him, and Mulder doesn’t argue. He does, however, suggest they get dinner first.

She scoffs a little. “What, like a date?”

“Sure, like a date.” He nudges her shoulder. “You deserve to go somewhere nice, Scully.”

She laughs, shrugging a little. “I dunno if we’re very ‘somewhere nice’ people, Mulder.”

He shrugs back. “Who cares.”

She doesn’t say anything for a moment, so he nudges her again. “C’mon, Scully. Even if you don’t want to go to dinner, at least let me drop you off at home. You shouldn’t have to take a cab all the way to Georgetown.”

Scully smiles in spite of herself. “Dinner sounds good,” she says. “It’ll give us a chance to talk.”

“Talk?” he asks. No malice in his tone. No overeagerness, either; just a question. Asking for clarification.

“Yes,” Scully says. “About… things. Us. Anything.”

Mulder smiles. “Sounds good. You pick.” He touches her shoulder briefly before standing and heading towards the door.

Scully watches him go, getting to her feet and reaching for her bag. She's reminded of the fact that she's a little in love with him. That she doesn’t want to lose him. That it’s starting to look like she won’t have to. Like things are finally starting to work out.

Mulder slides the key in the lock, turning it to the right. “You ready, Scully?” he says over his shoulder.

She knows it's just a clarifying question, but it sounds too much like the question she's been asking herself again and again the past few months. She smiles, getting to her feet and going to join him. She grabs his free hand, pulls it to her mouth and kisses his callused fingers before squeezing it and lowering it between them. She doesn't let go. “Yeah,” she says. “I'm ready.”

 

 

a note: i’d call this fic a labor of love, and i’d mostly be right, but as much as it is a labor of love, it’s also a labor of anything but. i thought this fic would be about 20k and that it’d be done in mid-november. i now find that idea absolutely hilarious. this fic is mostly the reason i won’t finish my rewatch before season 11′s premeire. this fic took over my life for the past month and a half, and likely would’ve been finished a lot sooner if not for the hell of finals season. it’s a relief to be done with.. and that being said, this was also incredibly fun to write.

- the origin of this fic was soft yellow, a ficlet i wrote in response to a prompt in the spring. the origin of that was a headcanon i came up with sometime last year: scully was ready to begin a relationship with mulder as early as season 5 (based off of redux ii and detour), and the reason they didn’t was because of scully’s devastation at losing emily, which became “what if they did begin a brief relationship in early season 5, and scully ended it after emily to give herself time to process things?” soft yellow was never intended to have a sequel, because i more or less assumed things went normally from there on out as the show portrays them and scully and mulder reunited in season 7, but people asked for a sequel. and almost six months later, i gave it to them. sorry!

- the headcanon that sprouted this story/the story itself are more or less intended to be interpreted as canon compliant, but also as a “what if this had happened” rather than a “this definitely happened”. i think this could’ve happened (and fit into my idea that there’s no way that chaste millennium kiss is their first), but i don’t necessarily think it did? if that makes any sense? i’ll leave it up to interpretation

- anyone watching my tumblr (@how-i-met-your-mulder) over the past couple months has likely noticed my countless rants on how weird season 5 is. and it really, really is. whereas season 6 has the tension between mulder and scully present in most episodes, season 2 has something of a fallout of scully’s abduction (through literally bringing it up or an interpretation of m&s’s actions) in most episodes, season 4 has the cancer arc, etc etc, season 5 has none of that. it’s a constant shifting of weird tension between m&s/mulder kind of being useless or an asshole and them being fine and bantering as normal. i don’t know if this was intentional or not, but there remains little to no trace of the emily arc in s5 (outside of all souls) and mulder is kind of all over the place. i tried to make the canon of season 5 (strong in its standalones, crazy when you put it all together and try to make it coherent) make sense all together, and also in the context of a recent breakup. it was hard as shit. i hope i’ve managed to do that.

- i tried to put in as much from the episodes as possible, but there are four episodes i kind of wrote around: schizogeny, chinga, bad blood, and mind’s eye. most of the reason i did this is for lack of emotional significance. schizogeny is just terrible, so i didn’t see any point in going in depth. mind’s eye is excellent, but that mostly is due to lili taylor. (there isn’t even any conflict! scully doesn’t believe mulder, as usual, but then the evidence shows that he’s right about marty glenn being innocent, and she’s literally like, “ok. cool. hey, mulder, you were right.” nothing to dramatize.) chinga had a similar lack of emotional significance, outside of mulder flirting with/annoying the shit out of scully, so i skimmed over that one. bad blood i saw more potential with, but, as excellent as the episode is, it’s like 70% unreliable narration! i can see why there’s barely any freaking fic about it. it was daunting as hell to write the fandom’s most beloved episode. daunting as hell.

- another reason that this season was hard to write as fresh out of a breakup was the fact that mulder and scully are presented with around four potential love interests! (this number is kind of arbitrary; sheriff hartwell and jack bonsaint are more overt, while marty glenn is mostly subtext and esther/invisigoth is mostly headcanon--but c’mon, she and scully had a ton of chemistry.) i tried to make the stuff make as much sense as possible: jack bonsaint was largely one-sided, there was a largely muted attraction between scully and esther that could’ve led somewhere if they weren’t both extremely hung up on their boyfriends, sheriff hartwell was a small crush that got over-exaggerated by mulder and scully both in their petty retelling of the events in chaney, texas, and mulder’s potential attraction to marty is mostly a thing noticed by scully that goes nowhere because of where the episode leaves them. (another reason season 5 is weird: scully and mulder get little to no romance, and then they get a ton right on top of each other? it’s a conspiracy to give me a headache.)

- this fic also had a root in my irritation at my rewatch of the emily arc and its seeming pointlessness (a rant of which can be found here). i wanted to give scully space to grieve, and i wanted to confront how that loss would affect her. that’s a big part of why i wrote this fic.

- that being said, this is kind of the yang to the yin of my emily au, part of which runs parallel to season 5 (the unspeakable fear of things). if looking for something lighter, ufot deals with a lot of the same events in this fic through the lens of scully as a single mom, awkwardly navigating her relationship with mulder. 

lotg was almost a very different fic; i couldn’t decide between this premise and an AU where the emily arc never happened, which would explore the rest of season 5 from a lighter perspective where scully is trying to figure out how to make a move on mulder. i eventually settled on this one, and never looked back. this fic was very much uncharted waters--because we’ve never seen a breakup for these characters outside of s10, where they’re in a very different place than s5--which made it both very fun and very scary to write. i kind of like how it turned out.

- this fic holds the record as the third longest thing i’ve ever written, and the fastest i’ve ever done it. i started lotg on november 3 and finished december 20. i’m very proud of how fast i managed to write it. i hope it has been enjoyable.