TITLE: Last Kiss
AUTHORS: Sally Bahnsen and Dawn Zemke
ARCHIVE: Gossamer and Ephemeral. Others are fine, just let us know.
DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to Chris Carter, 1013 and Fox. No copyright infringement intended.
SUMMARY: When your worst nightmare comes true, could it be time to just let go?
FEEDBACK: Gratefully accepted.
AUTHORS' NOTES: Many thanks to dtg and Vickie for insightful beta, and to Suzanne for both beta and medical expertise. This story was three years in the making, and was inspired by the Pearl Jam song, "Last Kiss." We hope you like it!
Last Kiss By Sally Bahnsen and Dawn Zemke
11:52 PM Location unknown
Darkness enveloped him, moon and stars hidden by an impenetrable black veil. Wind battered him from head to toe, piercing his clothing as thoroughly as the blade of a knife. He squinted against the droplets that pelted his face, crystals that collected on his eyelashes and melted to trickle down his cheeks in icy tears.
Oh, God. What had he done?
Hands, stained red. Dark hair matted against pale skin. Tight, painful breaths. Chest heaving. Pain. All over. It resounded through his head. Thumping, adding to the confusion. Where was he?
WHERE THE HELL WAS HE?
"Scully." Softer now. Barely a whisper, the word evaporating on his lips like the sheer white cloud created by his breath. Swirling into the night. Gone.
Find her. Yes. He had to. But where? Which way? Branches scraped at his face, tearing the skin, stinging.
Can't, it hurts.
Knees trembling, weak.
Shivering. Freezing. Sleet clung to his clothes, ran in rivulets through his hair, wound its way down his back.
Margaret Scully's House Six hours earlier
Damn, it was cold!
He shivered against the freezing wind that whipped his legs, catching his thick coat and pulling on it until it resembled a billowing sail, stretched taught on a gale-driven yacht. His hair blew into spiky tufts, standing straight out from his head, a look any punk rocker would envy.
Slush crunched beneath his feet and a fine dusting of sleet settled across his shoulders, sprinkled like powdered sugar. He tried brushing it off with his fingers but as quickly as he scraped at it, more appeared. His hands were freezing. He cupped them to his mouth and huffed into them, his warm breath useless against the icy chill. She had told him to wear his gloves. He should have listened.
He jogged the remaining distance to the house and stomped loudly up the wooden steps. Ice quivered nervously on the railing then slid soundlessly to the ground. A security light winked on above his head, bathing the porch with a brilliant white glow. For a second it startled him, and he blew out a long breath that swirled into a frosty cloud.
Squinting, unaccustomed to the sudden glare, he reached out and rang the doorbell. He smiled when the cheesy tune of "Home, Home on the Range" sang out from inside.
He waited, tucking his hands under his armpits trying to keep them warm, jiggling his legs like a toddler desperate to use the bathroom.
The door swung open and a blast of warm air rushed out at him. He shivered.
"Fox! Come in, you must be freezing."
"Hey, Mrs. Scully." Mulder stamped his feet and swiped at the last remnants of ice that clung to his clothing and hair.
"Oh, don't worry about that. Come on in! I want to close the door before all the heat gets out."
Inside was blessedly warm. He removed his coat and hung it on the coatrack beside a smaller version of his own, smiling. Scully.
"You go on ahead to the kitchen, Fox; I'll be there in a minute. I just need to fetch some wine from the basement." Maggie punctuated her words with an affectionate squeeze to his arm.
Mulder's lips automatically returned her smile, but his brow wrinkled. "Are you sure you don't need any help?"
"I think I can still manage to heft a bottle up one flight of steps--even if they are a bit old and rickety." Maggie tossed the words carelessly over her shoulder, the dry wit in her tone reminding him sharply of her daughter. "Go reassure Dana you've arrived in one piece. I've had to listen to her fret about you driving in this weather for the last half hour."
Any acknowledgement he might have voiced was lost in the creak of the basement door and the clumping of feet on wooden steps. Rather than stinging, her dismissal warmed Mulder, driving away the last vestiges of chill winter air. Actions truly spoke louder than words. Maggie's casual treatment only served to reinforce the fact that, at least in her mind, his status had irrevocably shifted from guest to family member. The feeling of welcome, of belonging, was one he hadn't experienced in a very long time.
Longer than he cared to admit.
Ironic, that Maggie's genuine affection, her willingness to embrace him, warts and all, brought an equal mix of pain to temper the joy. The sad truth was that he was more relaxed and at peace here, with her, than he'd ever felt with his own mother. That admission, disturbing enough while she was alive, now haunted him.
He'd tried to love his mother deeply and unconditionally, like any good son. Focused on her perseverance and strength of spirit. Her ability to survive unimaginable sorrow with quiet grace and poise. Struggled to accept that there were parts of her he'd never know, that he'd never be allowed to know.
Charred photographs, dark secrets, and bitter half- truths.
She'd taken that damn self-possession to her grave.
Mulder blinked, pulling his thoughts from their dark plunge with an almost physical tug. He sucked in a deep breath, brushing his fingers over the smooth fabric of Scully's coat, and headed for the kitchen.
He wandered through the living room, redolent with the spicy scent of cinnamon and apples and warmed by a crackling fire, and into the dining room. The polished top of the large cherrywood table gleamed in a spill of bright light from the kitchen doorway. Pausing with his toes just shy of the tile, fingertips trailing back and forth across the smooth wood, he admired the view.
Scully stood at the stove, stirring something in a large metal pot and humming under her breath. Burnished copper tresses brushed the neckline of a moss green angora sweater, and well-worn denim hugged her curves in all the right places. She swayed a little to the tune in her head, small feet clad in ridiculously fuzzy pink socks scuffing back and forth against the tile.
MINE Mulder thought, a little surprised by the intensity of the accompanying emotions--overwhelming wonder, wide-eyed disbelief, fierce possessiveness, and not a shred of shame for his caveman attitude. Deliberately quieting the tread of his sneakered feet, he crept up behind her and slipped both arms around her waist.
"Hey, baby. What's a looker like you doing slaving over a hot stove?" He pitched his voice low and husky, nuzzling the tender skin just behind her right ear.
A breathy gasp and then Scully relaxed, her body sinking into his with easy familiarity. "Making Irish stew for the man I love," she answered, her own tone smoky.
"Lucky guy." Mulder nibbled his way down the pale skin of her throat, lips curving when she couldn't suppress a shiver.
Scully released the spoon and turned within the circle of his arms until she faced him, arched eyebrow tempered with a grin. "And he better not forget it."
Mulder's smirk faded as he gazed intently into her eyes, heart on his sleeve. "Not a chance," he murmured.
Before she could swallow the lump in her throat, he'd taken possession of her mouth with a kiss that curled her toes--literally. With a sound that was half sigh, half whimper she surrendered, body melting into his embrace and mouth opening under the assault of his lips and tongue.
She experienced a hefty dose of missing time before recovering her wits enough to remember the pot of stew. Scully's fumbling fingers located the dial to shut off the burner, inadvertently breaking the kiss in the process. Struggling to slow her rapid respiration, she lay one hand on his cheek, frowning a little at the lack of warmth.
"Mulder, you're freezing."
He leaned over to press his forehead against her own so that when he spoke, his warm breath puffed gently against her lips. "Brilliant deduction, Agent Scully. The temperature's dropped another ten degrees and my damn heater's acting up." She felt, rather than saw him wriggle his eyebrows. "Had to think warm thoughts about my partner to avoid turning into a Popsicle."
His lips trailed across her cheek before returning to her ear and she reflexively slid her fingers into the short, silky hair at the nape of his neck while tilting her head encouragingly.
"To what...ah...do I owe...oooh, yeah...all this attention?"
Mulder never faltered in his task, punctuating every few words with his lips and teeth on her neck. "Because...nibble...I can. Don't have to worry...lick...about aliens...nip...or protocol...kiss...or the Bureau rumor mill."
Scully's eyes, which had drifted shut, cracked open in time to see her mother leaning in the kitchen doorway, lips pursed in a poor attempt to disguise a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin.
"Very true, Mulder," she agreed, breath catching when he began working his way back along her jaw. "There is, however, my...ah...mother."
"Downstairs getting wine," Mulder mumbled against her lips.
"Not any more."
Five thousand volts of electricity couldn't have affected a quicker halt to Mulder's festivities. He pulled back, the back of one hand swiping across his lips as if to remove the damning evidence and a flush spreading across his cheeks.
"No need for more salt, Scully, the stew tastes fine. So, uh, what can I do to help?"
Maggie smirked, crossing over to the refrigerator and removing a tomato and a cucumber. "You can cut these up for our salad, Fox. That is, if you've finished...sampling the stew."
Mulder accepted the vegetables, casting Scully a quelling look. "I think so. For now anyway."
He retrieved a knife from the block and began carefully slicing the tomato. Maggie took Scully's place at the stove, giving the pot a final stir and examining it with a critical eye.
"Were the roads a problem?"
"Not when I left DC, but they've gotten pretty icy since then. For the last fifteen minutes of the trip I had to slow down quite a bit in order to keep the car on the road." Mulder set aside the tomato wedges and began attacking the cucumber.
"Well, I'm glad you made it in once piece. This weather is so unpredictable. Who would imagine we'd be hit with a snowstorm this late in the season?" Maggie added a pinch of thyme to the pot and resumed stirring. "Dana, would you mind setting the table? We're just about ready to eat."
Mulder felt Scully's warmth along his back, one hand lingering on his waist while the other reached around to open the drawer to his right. Unfortunately, she misjudged the distance and the drawer's corner clipped his right hip. The impact, more startling than painful, caused the knife to slip, slicing flesh instead of the cucumber.
Mulder hissed in pain, dropping the knife to clutch his left index finger, which attempted to bleed all over the cucumber slices.
"Oh, Mulder, I'm so sorry!" Scully yanked several paper towels from a nearby roll and thrust them into his hand. "Here, put pressure on that."
"Don't worry about it, it's not that bad," Mulder replied, grimacing a bit as he followed her instructions.
"Dana, there's a first aid kit under the bathroom sink." Maggie's voice was calm and unruffled. "Take Fox in and patch him up."
"It's not a big deal, really, I can just..." Maggie's stern glare stopped his words cold.
"No sense risking an infection." She raised a Scully brow. "Anyway, you don't really think Dana is going to let you get away without examining that, do you?"
Hazel eyes cut over to blue and Mulder's lips curved. "I see your point. Lead the way, Scully. I'll come quietly."
Scully's hand curled around his elbow and she steered him out of the kitchen. Once in the bathroom, she retrieved the kit and uncovered his finger. She carefully blotted the blood, which had slowed to a steady trickle.
"Fairly deep, but not very long. It's your lucky day, Mulder. You won't need stitches." Her voice was light and teasing, but her face twisted with remorse. She busied herself unwrapping a sterile gauze pad and a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
"Hey." Mulder ducked his head, forcing Scully to meet his gaze. "The finger is still there. Stop beating yourself up over this."
She bit her lip as she struggled with the bottle cap, which stubbornly refused to yield. "It was careless of me to reach around you like that when you had a knife. I should have known better.
Mulder stilled her restless hands and liberated the bottle. Sticking it under his arm, he wrestled the cap open one-handed. "It was an accident, Scully. I'm prone to 'em--in case you hadn't noticed. Now slap a bandage on it and you can kiss it and make it better...later."
That coaxed a rueful little grin onto her lips. "Deal." She upended the bottle, liberally soaking the gauze pad, and stretched out her hand. "Here. Give me that."
For the first time Mulder seemed to register what the bottle contained. Eyes wide, he snatched the injured digit to his chest and vehemently shook his head.
"Are you crazy? That stuff is going to burn like a son of a bitch! Just hand me a band aid; we don't want dinner to get cold."
Scully folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. "Mulder, you are such a baby. That cut has to be cleaned. Do you know how many germs there are in the average kitchen?"
He stuck his lip out, the poster boy for belligerence. "This is your mother's house, Scully. You could eat off her floor!"
She shook her head and waved the pad at him. "If that finger becomes infected you could lose dexterity. Next thing you know, you can't handle your weapon and poof!--there goes your field agent status for a week. Is that what you really want?"
Mulder stared at her for a long moment as if desperately trying to gauge how serious she was. Finally, he huffed and stuck out his hand.
Scully took it gently in her own, though the corners of her mouth turned up in a smirk. "Now hold still. If you're a really good boy, I'll see that mom gives you a special treat after dinner."
Mulder waggled his eyebrows. "Really good is my middle name, Scully. But there's only one kind of treat I'm interested in and it doesn't come from your mo...OW! Shit! Sculleeee!"
"There, all done. That wasn't so bad, now was it?" Scully chirped, reaching for a bandage.
"Remind me to explain the concept of 'playing doctor', Scully, because you've got it all wrong."
Midnight Location unknown
Tiny twigs and stones pressed into his face. Mud clung to his lips, gritty against teeth and tongue. He spat, a half-hearted effort that required more energy than he was capable of expending. He knew he had to get up, keep moving, but couldn't quite figure out why. His head hurt when he moved. So much better on the ground. Lying still, sinking into the darkness.
Bone chilling. Icy. Pressing into his body, the damp ground soaking his sweatshirt, the frigid air boring into every cell.
Can't stay here. He knew that. There was something he had to do, some place he had to be.
Mulder took inventory of his situation, digging deep within to summon the energy needed to drag his body up. He pulled his right arm close to his body, spreading his fingers wide and pushing the heel of his hand down in readiness to take his weight. He tried to do the same with his left, but it seemed to be missing.
A moment of panic seized him before he realized his arm was trapped beneath his body. Numb and useless.
He wished for a similar numbness in his head. Anything to dull the unrelenting percussion ensemble behind his eyes.
With his face screwed up in a tight grimace he pushed hard with his right hand, managing to tip himself awkwardly onto his side, eventually coming to land none too gently on his back--panting hard.
And then...he screamed. A loud, ear-splitting wail.
A blinding jolt of agony shot through the fingers of his left hand, along his arm and into this shoulder. His head rocked from side to side; the immediate pain almost unbearable.
Short ragged sobs seemed to be the only way he could get oxygen. Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes, hot against icy skin. He hugged his arm to his chest, and moaned.
It felt like an eternity before the gut wrenching agony began to subside, only to be replaced by a continuous undulating thud. It originated in his fingers, worked its way up his arm and enveloped his shoulder before traveling back to his fingers to start over. Mulder grunted, fighting both dizziness and nausea. If he could just concentrate on the simple task of breathing, maybe everything else would take care of itself. Somewhere, from deep in his memory, echoed a familiar mantra.
Deep breath in, slow breath out. Come on, Mulder, breathe with me. In...out...
"SCULLEE!" His eyes flew open, blinking against the fine flakes floating from the sky.
"Scully?" And then he remembered. She wasn't with him. He was alone.
There was someplace he had to be. Scully was there. And he had to go to her.
Oh, God, that meant he had to get up.
Maybe if he just took his time.
Slowly. He could do it.
Take a breath. Hold it.
Support left arm against chest.
Slide right arm against body. Use elbow for leverage. Push.
Wait. Deep breath. Another.
Okay. Bend at the waist. Sit up.
Breathe! Breathe! No! Don't pant! Don't pant.
A little more. Just a little more.
Bend knees. Brace right hand on the ground. Big breath. Hold it. Now...PUSH!
Oh God. His knees trembled, his head pounded, his stomach heaved and worst of all, his arm gave another spike of pure agony.
But he was standing. Staggering to maintain his balance and regretting ever having made the decision to move, but standing nonetheless.
Wobbling like a newborn colt, Mulder managed a few ungainly steps towards a tree, and giving himself a minute to recover, hung on with the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a life raft. He had to stay upright. If he fell, it was all over. He'd never make it up again.
Time had become a blur, its relevance completely lost on Mulder. He had no idea how long he'd been leaning against the tree until his body's reflexes reminded him that he was cold. The shivering sent little sparks of pain radiating from his wrist. It pricked at his skin like hot needles. His hand throbbed relentlessly.
He stared at the arm cradled protectively against his chest. It was too dark to see the damage clearly, but he had a pretty good idea what was wrong. Hesitantly he ran the tips of the fingers on his right hand over the wrist of his left, flinching when even this light contact provoked a sharp stab of pain.
Mulder swayed when he felt a large bump protruding from the side of his wrist. Further investigation revealed fingers swollen to twice their normal size, but something else caught his attention. A soggy, wet bandage wrapped around his index finger, cutting into the distended flesh.
He toyed with it. Gently caressing the frayed edges peeling away from his skin. A memory flashed through his mind.
Oh, Mulder I'm so sorry!
"Wha...Scu..." The words caught in his throat.
Here, give me that.
He could see her so clearly. Hear her voice in his head as if she were standing beside him.
There, all done. That wasn't so bad, now was it? Blue eyes smiling at him.
Where was she? Where the hell were these images coming from? His head ached with the effort of thinking, the need to focus.
If you're a good boy, I'll see that mom gives you a special treat after dinner.
Mrs. Scully. Oh God, he was supposed to pick her up from her mom's! But...if the memories were real, if she had put the bandage on his finger, he must have been there already.
Then where the hell was she?
Mrs. Scully's House Two hours earlier
"Fox, where's Dana?"
"She went upstairs to get her overnight bag." Mulder lounged against the banister, picking idly at the bandage on his finger.
"It's been so nice having her here this weekend. I appreciate you driving all this way just to give her a ride home," Maggie dried her hands on a dishtowel, turning to face him.
"You think I made the trip for Scully? It was your stew that brought me out on a night like this," he replied with a crooked grin.
Maggie folded her arms, eyes twinkling at his gentle teasing. "I'm flattered. I hope you know you don't have to stand on ceremony. As far as I'm concerned, you're like one of my boys, welcome any time."
The sincere warmth in her words hit him unexpectedly on the raw. "Thank you." He ducked his head, but the emotion must have bled onto to his face.
Maggie's gaze was gentle but shrewd. "It never really stops hurting, does it? I'm sorry if what I said..."
"Don't." He pasted on a smile to soften the word's sharp edges. "Please, don't apologize. It's not necessary. I'm...I wasn't very close to my mother. We didn't see much of each other, and when we did, we didn't really get along."
Maggie absorbed his words with a barely perceptible nod. "I raised four children, Fox. We had more than our share of disagreements--issues as insignificant as skirt length and as life-altering as career path. But not one of those arguments had any bearing on the depth of my love."
Memories rose, unbidden. A stinging slap. Photos turned to ashes. No note--oh, God, how could she have left him without even saying goodbye?
"I know my mother loved me." He chuffed a bitter little laugh. "I just don't think she liked me very much." He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned away, willing the conversation to be over.
"What's going on? Why the grim faces?"
An arm snaked around his waist, fingers tickling the area just above Mulder's right hip, and an auburn head nudged its way under his left arm.
From the corner of his eye, Mulder saw Maggie give him a searching look before turning her attention to her daughter. "I'll let Fox explain it to you in the car." Her brow furrowed. "Are you sure you don't want to stay here tonight? If the temperature has continued to drop, those roads must be pretty slick by now."
Mulder answered Scully's questioning eyebrow with a slight shrug, deferring to her judgement. After a brief hesitation, she sighed and shook her head.
"Thanks for the offer, Mom, but we really need to get back. Mulder and I were out of town all week and I've got a mountain of laundry and a case report that A.D. Skinner expects first thing tomorrow morning."
"All right, I get the picture. You two get your coats while I pack up some of this leftover stew to take with you."
Mulder allowed Scully to tug him back toward the front door, enjoying the softness of her hand in his. He liberated her coat from the rack, holding it so that she could slip her arms into the sleeves, and took the opportunity to envelope her in a brief embrace.
Scully watched him don his own coat, eyes sharply assessing. "What exactly were you and my mother talking about, Mulder?"
He filched her knit cap from her pocket, tugging it snugly over her ears until only the wisps of her bangs protruded. "Baseball," he said, keeping his face guileless. "She wanted to know if I thought the Yankees had a shot at the World Series."
Both eyebrows disappeared under cream colored yarn. "Baseball. My mother."
"Sure, Scully. You didn't think I really bought that 'I've never hit a baseball' act, did you? I mean, between your father and brothers--not to mention your own tomboy past--I bet your mother could teach me a thing or two about the game." His voice was light and teasing, his eyes dark and intense.
Scully pursed her lips and looked up at him through a fringe of lashes. "Everyone can use a little personal instruction now and then, Mulder." She let her voice drop. "A little one on one."
Mulder leaned in until his lips brushed her cheek. "Wrong sport. But I'm only too happy to give private lessons whenever you'd like."
She shivered, tilting her head to bring his lips to her own. "Oh, I like."
The kiss was just getting really interesting when the rustle of plastic and a cleared throat reminded them they were not alone. Scully pulled back reluctantly, licking her lips. She turned to accept the bag of food from her mother, self-consciously pressing one hand to her flushed cheek.
"Thanks, Mom. For dinner, and for the doggy bag."
"It was delicious; thank you for the invitation," Mulder added.
"I meant what I said, Fox. Any time." Maggie gave them each a quick hug and kiss, urging Dana to turn up her collar and grumbling over the fact that Mulder had neglected to wear gloves.
"Drive carefully, and call me when you get home," she said, swinging open the door to admit a blast of frigid air. "And keep warm."
Mulder leaned in close as they descended the porch steps. "You heard your mother, Scully. We need to keep warm. And I'm full of ideas on how to accomplish that."
12:46 AM Location unknown
It consumed him. It clung to every fiber, every cell. It penetrated his sodden clothing and wormed its way deep into his bones.
There was no reprieve. No escape. The cold just was. He had come to accept it.
He no longer shivered with the teeth-jarring regularity of earlier. A spasmodic jerk feebly offered intermittently was the only sign that his body was making even the slightest attempt to warm itself.
Numbness. He ached with it.
His feet were nothing more than useless clumps of flesh crammed into saturated sneakers. His sweatshirt hung heavy across his shoulders, the icy weight of it further contributing to his discomfort.
Time had ceased to exist in any organized form as he sat huddled beneath the spindly branches of a weather-beaten pine tree, seeking its meager shelter.
How long had it been since his body gave up all pretense of staying upright? Since the cold had sapped what little adrenaline-driven energy he had been relying on to push him forward? He didn't know, and now, he was beyond caring.
Mulder's world had narrowed down to a one-dimensional existence: misery.
He fought to keep it a bay. Clawed through the veil of hopelessness that wrapped around his thoughts, making him doubt what was real, what was truth. Confusing him. Perhaps he was trapped in the midst of a cruel dream. Caught in a nightmare and unable to awaken. But he felt the pain. It was real. It hurt.
His wrist throbbed mercilessly. He hugged his arm to his chest. Fat, swollen fingers scraped against his stubble-roughened chin. Mulder groaned and his head swam when even this meager contact heightened the agony in his arm.
He tried to think beyond the pain, beyond the frigid temperature sapping him of his strength.
How did he get here?
How did he come to be alone?
If he was hurt then what about Scully? Was she lying in a ditch somewhere? Injured? Waiting for him to find her?
MULDERRRR! I need your help!
NO! No, that wasn't right. That cry was from a time before. A past he wished he could forget, a past he wished he could erase from his life. But more so from Scully's.
Drive carefully, and call me when you get home.
Drive carefully. Drive carefully. Drive carefully.
Mulder! Watch out!
His heart froze in his chest, the blood in his veins as cold as the rain and sleet beating against the ice-deadened skin on his face.
Memories more horrific than his imagination could ever conjure flooded his mind. The truth. It pummeled him. And now he knew. He knew there was no reason to fight the cold. So he didn't. He lay down among the prickly, frozen pine needles scattered on the ground. He buried his head into the crook of his uninjured arm, letting his painful left one lie uselessly beneath his chin.
He waited. Praying the cold would carry out its task quickly. No longer possessing the will to fight, Mulder allowed himself to succumb to the frigid temperatures. As he slipped into a numb, pain-free sleep he could have sworn he heard a voice, calling to him on the wailing gusts of the wind.
Mrs. Scully's House Two hours earlier
"If you're sleepy, I can drive. It's late, and I know you haven't slept much this week."
Mulder slid behind the wheel, tossing the ice scraper into the back seat and blowing on his chilled fingers. At this point the heater was doing little more than blowing tepid air. "I'll be all right. You know me--this time of night is when I get my second wind."
"Looks like we might actually have some accumulation by morning." Scully squinted through the windshield as he guided the car carefully onto the main road. The back end shimmied when he completed the turn, gliding across the pavement toward the center line. Mulder grimaced and reduced their already sedate speed.
"Sorry. It's a lot slipperier than it was a few hours ago."
Scully studied his face in the dim glow from the dash. "It's not too late to go back to my mom's."
"What about the case report? And all those dirty clothes?"
"Skinner will understand. And it wouldn't be the first time I had to wash a pair of underwear in the sink."
The corner of Mulder's mouth curved. "Or better yet, go without." He darted a quick look at her face, openly smirking. "C'mon, Scully. You had to know that one was coming."
She blatantly ignored the jibe. "The storm, Mulder? Do you want to turn back?"
"Nah, it'll be fine. If it makes you feel better, turn on the radio. They should be giving status reports on the roads."
A soft click, rapid snatches of country, rock, and muzak, followed by the drone of a newscast. Mulder listened idly to the announcer describe the latest in a rash of convenience store hold-ups, muttering under his breath when ice began to coat the windshield wipers and render them useless.
"What were you and Mom talking about?"
Trust Scully to remember that little detail. Mulder tightened his grip on the steering wheel and concentrated on not clenching his jaw.
"We talked about a lot of things, Scully. You, the weather, Irish stew..."
It never ceased to amaze him how one word--his name-- on her lips could convey such a wide range of meaning. Light and teasing when she managed to snag the last bagel. Sharp and urgent when danger loomed at his back. Low and throaty when his lips and fingers shattered her customary reserve.
Gently reproving when his smoke and mirrors proved no match for her powers of perception.
Mulder sucked in a long slow breath; let it out in a whoosh. "We were discussing mothers in general." A beat. "Mine in particular."
He watched Scully from the corner of his eye, saw the way she worried her lip between her teeth. Scully, of all people, knew this subject was an emotional minefield. Her hand crept across the seat to rest on his thigh, warm and solid.
"I'm sorry if she said anything...painful, Mulder. If she did, it was completely unintentional."
Her gentle attempt to comfort became tangled up in the maelstrom of feelings regarding his mother's death. One piece of him was warmed by her tender concern, another irritated by the kid glove treatment.
"Scully, your mother's only offense is in making mine suffer by comparison." The sharp, cold tone of his voice both startled and gratified him. "I've come to terms with what happened; it's over."
Scully observed his white-knuckled grip on the wheel and his studiously blank expression. You've put it aside, Mulder. Buried it in a dark place. But come to terms with it? I don't think so.
"You know, Mulder, it's not surprising that you'd..."
He shushed her, twisting the knob to raise the radio's volume.
"...steadily dropping temperatures have transformed the freezing rain to sleet and snow. Roads are extremely slick, making travel hazardous; there is a travelers' advisory for the entire metropolitan area. We highly recommend you stay indoors if at all possible. We've already had a five-car pile-up on the BW Parkway near 175; police and EMTs are on the scene..."
Mulder signaled and jockeyed the car into the far right lane.
He indicated an approaching exit with a tilt of his head. "That accident isn't more than five miles ahead, Scully. I'm going to get off the Parkway and take back roads from here."
She nodded and sank back into her seat, watching Mulder guide the car off the highway and onto a darker, quieter stretch of road. Though she wanted to pursue their earlier conversation, Scully held her tongue. Mulder needed to focus on navigating the icy roads, not old wounds.
As she had countless times before, she wondered what had possessed Teena Mulder. Not to take her life-- after her own bout with a terminal illness, Scully could empathize all too well with the crushing sense of hopelessness, the overwhelming weariness. What she could not understand was the lack of a note, of some attempt on Teena's part to connect with her son one last time.
Despite Mulder's emotional words, inspired by a vision of his sister in a starlit field, Scully feared it was a gift he'd never truly receive. And a part of her she kept carefully hidden hated Teena Mulder for that.
The sound of Mulder cursing lustily under his breath tore her from her dark thoughts. He was hunched over the wheel, peering through the windshield, his body thrumming with tension.
"Visibility is practically zero," he said tightly. "It doesn't help that the heater isn't working well enough to defrost the glass. Scully, grab that ice scraper from the back seat. As soon as I find a safe spot to pull over I'm going to...SHIT!"
She'd just removed her seatbelt and was fumbling for the scraper when Mulder's sharp cry jerked her attention forward. Through the curtain of sleet and ice she could just make out the station wagon lying sideways across their lane, its front end hanging off the side of the embankment.
Time slowed to a crawl. Mulder pumped the brake, struggling to guide their car around the crippled vehicle, right hand flung out in an instinctive gesture to protect her. Despite his reduced speed, the slick pavement provided no traction, and their sedan lurched into a sickening spin that seemed to pick up momentum as they neared the stalled car. Impact was swift and unavoidable.
"Mulder! Watch out!"
The cars collided with a bone-jarring jolt and the shriek of metal on metal. Their vehicle ricocheted off the stalled car and suddenly everything turned topsy-turvy as the violent impact tumbled them into a head over heels roll. Her hands wrenched from the vinyl seat, Scully was thrown sideways. A blast of frigid air enveloped her and she was airborne for a brief, sickening moment before her body slammed into something with enough force to tear a scream of pain from her lips.
Everything went mercifully black.
U.S. Route 1 One hour earlier
Mulder came to slowly and painfully, Scully's scream echoing in his ears and a faint smell of cordite stinging his nostrils. For a moment he thought he'd been shot, and it took a few seconds for him to realize the smell was coming from the airbag.
Carefully, he forced himself to move, sucking in a sharp breath as pain ricocheted along his left side. He was crammed in tight against the steadily deflating airbag, his knees jammed under the dash and the roof nudging his head.
It took a few seconds to work through the cotton in his brain until the pieces fell into place.
Mulder turned his head toward the passenger seat. What he saw almost stopped his heart. A gaping hole where the door should have been and the empty seat beside him confirmed his worst fears. "Scully!"
Panic deadened the pain in his side. He wriggled and kicked till he could pull his legs free, heaving the airbag aside with his right hand and grabbing at the door handle with his left. But the fingers wrapped around the handle were strangely weak and uncooperative. His wrist throbbed and sharp pain shot up his arm.
Leaning hard into the seat with his left shoulder, he reached across and tried again with his right hand, at the same time giving the door a solid kick with his right foot. It burst open and Mulder half fell, half climbed from the stricken vehicle.
Wind blowing straight off the snow whipped through his hair, its icy chill flaring the ache in his head to a squeezing agony. Dizzy and disoriented, Mulder leaned against the side of the car, desperately trying to force his body to cooperate. Tentatively, he reached up and touched his forehead, not surprised when his fingers came away damp and stained with his own blood. Using the mangled hood of the car as leverage, he propelled himself forward and staggered around to the passenger side, struggling to maintain his footing on the slippery ice.
A crumpled form lay on the snow-covered ground a few yards from the rear end. "Scully!"
Mulder dropped to his knees beside her, working his hands under her body so he could turn her over. "God, Scully!"
He scraped through the shallow layer of snow around her, his clumsy movements reminding him of his injured wrist.
"Scully! Talk to me!"
Gently he brushed the hair from her face. Thick blood coated his fingers. It clung to her hair and oozed along the side of her face.
A flicker of eyelids, a slight twist of her mouth, and then his name on her lips. "Mul..."
"I'm here. Just hold..."
"Cold...I'm...cold." Her eyes rolled shut.
"Scully. No! Stay with me."
He slid cross-legged to the ground, carefully pulling her onto his lap, fear and panic making him oblivious to any other injuries she might have sustained. "Scully, wake up! Come on, talk to me!"
His mind whirled, eyes darting from her pale, motionless features to the sleet and snow swirling lightly about them.
Get her warm. Get her warm. That's all he needed to do. Then she'd be all right.
He scrambled to his feet, shrugging out of his coat as he stood, but the sudden movement sent his feet skittering from under him. Rubber soles fought to find a grip on the smooth ice. He managed a couple of staggering steps before losing his balance and crashing to the ground. Reflexes kicked in and instinctively he stretched out both hands to break the fall. Agony, sudden and violent engulfed his left wrist and Mulder couldn't help the scream.
Injured arm nestled against his chest, Mulder rolled onto his knees and shuffled back to Scully. One-handed he pulled at the coat and placed it over her. Then, gritting his teeth he gathered her up and stumbled back to the car. By the time he had laid her on the back seat he was seeing stars. A couple of deep breaths stilled the spinning in his head and settled the nausea in his stomach.
He dropped to his knees by the open door, leaning in to tuck the coat around her.
"Scully." Panting heavily and keeping his head low to avoid the dented roof, he clambered inside the car and slid along the seat till he was perched on the edge by her waist.
Carefully, he moved the hair from her face and traced the line of her jaw with his index finger. Closing his eyes he dipped his head so his forehead rested on hers. "Scully. Please. C'mon, babe, wake up. You've got to help me out here. I don't know what to do for you."
She remained silent.
He pulled back and looked at her. The pale glow from the partly veiled moon offered little illumination, but it was enough for Mulder to make out the ashen tone of her skin, the bluish tinge to her lips.
Trembling fingers sought the soft skin under her jaw. He held his breath and concentrated, but no matter how hard he willed the artery to throb beneath his fingers, he felt nothing. "NO! Scully." Ignoring his injured wrist, Mulder grasped her arms and pulled her towards him.
She remained quiet and unresponsive, her head lolling bonelessly to the side.
His lungs froze in his chest, his vision narrowed to a pinpoint of light. He shook his head and forced himself to breathe. No! He couldn't pass out. Scully needed him.
And then he knew what he had to do. It was all so clear to him now, so obvious.
Gently laying her back down, Mulder made sure the coat was securely tucked in place. He leaned over until his mouth was pressed against her ear and whispered, "I'm going to get you out of this, babe. I promise." Then bringing his lips to hers, he kissed her one last time. "I love you, Scully."
Mulder backed out of the car and moved to the front. He squeezed into the confined space, desperately hunting for his cell phone. The glove box, the door panels and the compartment between their seats all came up empty. He searched the back again, feeling along the floor under the driver's seat and...there it was. He snatched up his cell phone and climbed outside again. It took 2 attempts before he finally hit the right buttons, frantically pacing as he waited for 911 to connect. When nothing happened he pulled the phone from his ear and inspected the digital window. "No signal" glared back at him.
"Shit!" He hurled the phone at the car, feeling little satisfaction as it clunked against the abused metal and dropped onto the ice. He stood panting, right hand cupping his forehead as he struggled to come up with a plan.
The other car. THE OTHER CAR. Get there. Might be help. God! Was there someone in it? Were they hurt too? Where the hell did it go?
He turned in circles.
Where is it, where is it?
He could just make it out, hidden in the shadow of several trees. The mangled rear end angled skyward, the front buried in a ditch by the side of the road.
Swaying like a drunk, Mulder staggered towards the wrecked vehicle and slid to a halt. The icy ground forced his momentum forward and he came up hard against the side of the car. It wobbled under the impact.
Check the doors.
Keeping his painful left hand tight against his body, Mulder reached out with his right and tugged on the side rear door. Then the front. Both locked. He skittered around to the other side, hammering on the windows with the heel of his hand. "Hello! Can anyone hear me? I need help!" No sound. No movement.
The car shuddered under his pounding, shifting slightly to the right before starting a slow tilt towards the left. Mulder tried to scamper out of the way. But instead of firm earth beneath his feet, the ground dropped away under him. He landed with a solid thump on his stomach. The impact sent a jarring shockwave of agony through his injured wrist, momentarily robbing him of breath and clear thought. He came to his senses with the realization he was slipping. The soggy undergrowth offered little resistance as he clawed at the ground, desperately searching for a handhold to stop his decent. But the rain had loosened the earth and every time he managed to grasp onto a small bush or a handful of grass it came away in his grip. He fought to gain traction among the tangled scrub making one last desperate grab at a small sapling to his left. Pain ripped through his wrist and up his arm, a silent scream twisted his lips as his last tether to safety slipped from his grasp. Mulder's rapid slide turned into a roll that abruptly ended in a teeth-rattling jolt. Sparks momentarily burst before his eyes like fireworks, then darkness descended. Gnawing, relentless pain and bone-chilling cold tugged him back from blissful darkness. He was lying face down, cheek pressed against frigid, snow-covered ground. Spitting grit and snow, he struggled first to his knees, then to his feet, swaying, his injured arm clutched to his chest. He managed one, staggering, drunken step, then two, and three. Clothes sodden with snow clung to his limbs like leaden weights and he could barely see through the curtain of swirling flakes.
He didn't know where he was. Numb feet and uneven terrain conspired against him and once again he slipped and went down on his knees, a frustrated sob wrenched from his lips.
His clumsy attempt to scrub the frozen crystals from his lashes only succeeded in shoving more of the cold wetness into his eyes, thanks to his snow-encrusted sleeve. A flash of color, vivid against the all- encompassing white, caught his eye and he lifted trembling hands to stare at crimson fingers. His breath caught in his throat and his stomach did a lazy roll.
Oh, God. What had he done?
Hands, stained red. Dark hair matted against pale skin. Tight, painful breaths. Chest heaving. Pain. All over. It resounded through his head. Thumping, adding to the confusion. Where was he?
WHERE THE HELL WAS HE?
Route 1 1:55 AM
Assistant Director Skinner stepped out of his car into a wind that whistled in his ears and spit light snow across his field of vision. He stood silently, hands buried deep in the pockets of his heavy overcoat, and surveyed the scene of the accident. Paramedics were lifting a gurney into the back of an ambulance, the small figure on board barely visible beneath a pile of blankets and a wall of medical equipment.
He headed toward the ambulance, hoping for a quick word with the EMTs before they transported Scully to the hospital.
Thick white bandages wrapped around her forehead, a small patch of red already soaking through the bulky padding. An oxygen mask covered her face. She looked so still and lifeless that the AD found himself checking the heart monitor for reassurance.
Skinner stepped to the side as one of the paramedics pushed past him and slammed the doors shut. "How's she doing?"
"All things considered, she's one lucky lady.
"Is she going to make it?"
"Her vitals are stable and so far she's holding her own. We'll know more when we get her to the hospital. Now, I really need to get going."
Skinner nodded, his jaw clenched and mouth set in a tight line.
Skinner turned to face the man approaching from behind.
"I'm Special Agent Rawlins." He held out his hand and Skinner gave it a firm shake. "I've got the owner of the other vehicle here. You wanted to speak to him?"
"We've got him waiting in one of the police vehicles."
Skinner nodded letting his eyes wander over the bustle of activity surrounding them. Searchlights had been erected around the perimeter of the accident site. A small generator hummed in the background. An assortment of emergency vehicles parked in a semi- circle bordered a makeshift command center. The local PD had acted quickly and efficiently in response to his call.
The ambulance with Scully inside pulled slowly away, the flashing red and blue lights a colorful contrast to the desolate background of snow and deeply shadowed trees. He sighed inwardly--at least one of his agents was in relative safety. Now all they had to do was find Mulder. Again.
He turned back to Agent Rawlins. "How long before the dogs get here?"
"ETA is 10 minutes, Sir."
Skinner nodded and fell into step beside Rawlins as he led the way toward the parked cars.
"Sir? We're checking along the road. There's a few houses not far from here, maybe Agent Mulder made it to one of them."
"Maybe." Skinner stared into the darkness. But knowing Mulder, he doubted it.
When he opened the back door of the Ford Crown Vic, Skinner was confronted by a wildly disheveled man. He could have been 60 or maybe 70, his gray-streaked brown hair standing up in unruly tufts around his head. What looked like a two-day-old growth shadowed his jaw. Despite his unruly appearance and the early hour, the man's eyes held a surprising clarity.
"Sir, this is Mr. Harper."
Skinner slid in beside the man, glad of the brief respite from the frigid cold. He refused to think of Mulder wandering out in this weather, instead, choosing to believe that his agent had found refuge in somebody's home.
"Mr. Harper, I'm Assistant Director Skinner with the FBI. Can you tell me what happened?"
"I don't exactly know myself. My car stalled on the side of the road earlier tonight, and no amount of coaxing from me would get the old girl started again. The battery's been acting up for sometime, so I figured that was the problem. I live a half-mile or so up the road, and rather than sit around here and freeze my butt off on the wild chance help would come by, I decided to hoof it on home. My son lives in town, and I figured I'd call him and get him to come down to give me a jump."
"What time was this?"
"Hmm...maybe ten, or a little after."
"And what time did you get back here?"
"By the time I got home and called my son...I guess we got back here some time after midnight. Damn near gave me a heart attack when I saw the state of the cars. And finding that poor young woman in the back..." The man paused obviously still having a hard time coming to terms with the situation. "We thought she was dead at first but when my son went to check on her she started to mumble something. Couldn't make out what she was sayin', but she sure seemed to be in a bad way."
"Did you see anyone else? Was there a man with her?"
"No, sir. Looked like someone else had tended her though. She was laid on the back seat with a coat over her. We found a wallet in one of the pockets and an FBI badge inside. It had a picture of a young fella. Is that the man you're looking for?"
"Yes it is."
"My son, Tommy, drove back to the house to call the cops. His cell wouldn't work out here. He had some blankets in the back of the pickup, so we covered the young lady with them before he left. I stayed with her till help arrived. If Tommy had seen anyone along the way he would have picked 'em up."
The police had been in constant radio contact during the trip from DC and Skinner knew that so far there'd been no sign of Mulder.
He slid his hands under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Something had happened to Mulder, of that he was certain. The blood spatters they'd found indicated he'd been injured, but still mobile. That had to be a good sign, right? Or in Mulder's case, maybe not. Damn it. Why the hell didn't he stay with the car? Stupid question. He'd gone to find help for Scully.
Skinner heaved a gusty sigh. There was nothing more to be gained by talking to this man. He'd confirmed that Mulder had been with Scully. Now all they had to do was find him.
"Thank you for your help, Mr. Harper. An officer will be along shortly to take your statement."
The blast of cold air that hit when he opened the car door only reinforced his growing concern for Mulder's safety. How long could he survive out there?
"Assistant Director? The tracker dogs are here." Agent Rawlins pointed to a van pulling in beside the other emergency vehicles. "We've got Mulder's coat for them to work off. Sir, once they pick up his scent it will only be a matter of time."
"But will it be enough?" Skinner's eyes locked with Rawlins's, the implication not lost on either man.
Skinner turned toward the police van acting as the command center. "I'm going to touch base with the officer in charge. Let me know when the search team is assembled."
"You're going with them?"
"Is that a problem, Agent?"
"No, Sir! I'll go and check on their progress."
A quick nod of his head and Skinner was striding towards the police truck.
2:00 AM Somewhere off Route 1
The voice was nagging, buzzing in his ear like a persistent mosquito. Mulder mentally swatted it away, straining to sink back into the velvet comfort of darkness.
"Fox. Wake up."
His befuddled mind conjured up images of early morning darkness, chilled air and warm blankets. His eyelids fluttered, but remained closed.
"Five minutes, Mom. Jus'...five..."
"Fox William Mulder! Open your eyes this minute!"
The familiar rebuke jolted through him like electrical current. Mulder's eyes flew open and he scrambled to push himself upright, moaning as the sharp agony in his wrist jerked him to full consciousness. He stared stupidly down at his soggy clothes, then squinted into the swirling flakes, teeth chattering. His brain sluggishly tried to process the discrepancy between dream and reality.
The name left his lips as little more than a froggy croak, sorrow and embarrassment prompting him immediately to wince at his own stupidity. You've really lost it now, Spooky. First you killed Scully and now you're calling for your dead mother. Pathetic. He ground the heel of his hand into his eyes, tears blazing a path down his icy cheeks.
"Sitting there, feeling sorry for yourself isn't going to solve anything. You need to get up, Fox. Get moving or you're going to freeze to death."
Breath caught in his chest, heart thudding wildly, he whipped his head around stare in the direction of the hauntingly familiar tone. Standing not more than five feet behind him, her elegant clothes and meticulously styled white hair undisturbed by the gusting wind, sleet, and snow, stood his mother. Lips pursed, forehead lined with exasperation--he'd seen that expression countless times over the years. The "oh for heaven's sake, Fox!" look.
"You're dead." Not the most astute observation, but then what could you expect from someone most likely concussed and definitely on his way to becoming a Popsicle.
The irritated frown deepened. "I realize that, Fox. Now get up and turn around. If you keep heading in this direction no one will find you. At least, not until it's too late."
The initial chill as he'd jolted awake was fading, shivers tapering off as a seductive feeling of warmth took their place. Mulder drew his legs up, aching arm sandwiched between thighs and chest, and laid his cheek on his knees. "It doesn't matter."
An impatient huff. "Don't be ridiculous. You, of all people, know every choice we make matters. Is this what's become of you? The Fox Mulder I knew would never just lie down and give up."
Anger rose up inside him, driving back the fogginess. His head snapped up and his lip curled. "And the mother I knew would never seal herself in a room and crank up the gas. I guess we're even."
Several indefinable emotions flickered rapidly across his mother's face before it settled into a neutral expression. When she spoke, a hint of warmth softened the words. "Not everything is as it appears, Fox. There's much about me you don't know or understand yet."
"Really? And whose fault is that? How many times did I come to you, begging you to open up to me about Dad...about Sam? For years you let me chase my own tail, blaming myself for losing her, for not being able to bring her back." He dug his knuckles into bleary eyes. "Why am I wasting my breath? You aren't even here."
"Of course I am. When did you stop believing in those extreme possibilities, Fox?"
Mulder pressed his throbbing head to his knees. "I didn't, Mom. I just stopped believing in you."
There was a long silence. Certain if he lifted his head he'd find her gone, her voice startled him yet again. "I suppose I deserve that."
Was that...regret in her voice? Impossible. Teena Mulder was nothing if not sure of her convictions.
"Fox, you and I may have been a bit of a disappointment to each other. But I did love you. I tried my best to protect you, even when you despised me for it."
The adrenaline rush was seeping away, leaving only weary resignation. He met her gaze, surprised but unmoved by the emotion he found there. "You protected yourself and that bastard who wants to call himself my father. As for love--I saw the proof of your love. It was nothing but ashes."
"There are none so blind as those who will not see." She shook her head impatiently. "Damn it, Fox! The burned photos? Use your head. Does that sound like something I would do without an extremely good reason?"
"I don't know. You're the one with all the answers. You tell me." To his chagrin the gibe caught in his throat and tears burned his eyes. Suddenly she was beside him, carding her fingers through his hair the way she'd done when he was a little boy. The warmth and solidity of the familiar gesture bypassed his defenses.
"They were only pieces of paper, Fox. Everything important is imprinted indelibly in my heart."
"You left me." The words escaped before he could stop them, aching and needy. He clamped his lips together and blinked, horrified.
The fingers stilled, then cupped his cheek. "If you believe nothing else, believe this: I had no choice."
He leaned into the caress, chuffing raggedly. "I want to believe."
The warmth withdrew, her voice turned cool, composed. "Now it's time you got up and started moving."
Overpowering lethargy weighted his limbs, his eyelids. "Can't."
"You can. Your boss, Mr. Skinner, is looking for you as we speak. You just need to turn around and head in the right direction."
An image popped into his mind--his boss, jaw clenched in the classic Skinner grimace, as he lifted Scully's cold, lifeless body. Mulder squeezed his eyes shut. "Scully."
"Do you think this is what she'd want? I'll admit I never got to know Miss Scully well, but she didn't seem the kind of person to give up. What would she say if she could see you now?"
One corner of his mouth turned up in a painful, lop- sided smirk. "She'd kick my ass."
His mother's voice was dry. "Undoubtedly. Get up, Fox. For her, if not for yourself."
It was possibly the only thing that could have reached him. Mulder staggered to his feet, grimly holding himself upright as the initial dizziness and nausea abated. "You never cut me any slack," he muttered, surprised to find no bitterness in the observation.
She smiled a tight little smile. "You never really needed it, Fox. You just thought you did." And she was gone.
Somehow he got his legs moving, one foot in front of the other, plowing doggedly back the way he'd come. Just when he was certain he couldn't take another step, he caught a glimpse of bobbing lights and heard the faint sound of a dog, barking. Five more strides and his right foot hit a hole, pitching him to his knees. After several attempts to stand he sank back, exhausted. His ears were ringing, his vision narrowed to a pinprick.
"Here." The weak, raspy cry for help would have been comical if it hadn't come from his own mouth. "I'm over here."
The barking seemed to grow louder, the lights brighter, and then everything faded away.
Rugged terrain and slippery patches of ice were fast reminding Skinner how many years he'd spent behind a desk. Muscles bunched tight along his thighs and calves ached in protest as he fought to keep up with the tracker dogs. Despite the cold, an irritating stream of sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, and he'd made a mental note to himself at least a half mile back to change his brand of deodorant. Within minutes of the team assembling, the dogs had picked up a scent and were straining on their leads, itching to follow Mulder's trail.
The going had gotten tough almost immediately. They'd half slid, half climbed down a sharp incline and Skinner couldn't begin to imagine why Mulder would have gone this way. Lord knows, it was nowhere near civilization and, if anything, was heading away from the main road and his best chance of help.
They'd been on the hunt for nearly an hour, the dogs alternating between a breakneck pace and lengthy pauses when the scent petered out. At one point, they had actually turned completely around, finding themselves heading back the way they'd come, albeit on a slightly different route. If Skinner's estimation was correct, they couldn't be more than a half mile from the road.
Skinner's feet were heavy in sodden boots, and he felt the early warning sting of blisters on his heels. He was on the verge of swallowing his pride and succumbing to his body's demand for rest when there was a loud cry up ahead.
A new rush of adrenaline spurred the Assistant Director on. Picking up his pace, he caught up with the lead team in a matter of seconds. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the bright beam of light trained out in front of him, and then another moment for him to realize what the flashlight was illuminating.
A few yards ahead, a body lay sprawled on the ground, barely visible amongst the tangle of small shrubs and spindly grass. Two members of the search and rescue team were hunkered down beside it.
"Shit!" Skinner pushed past the dog handlers and crouched next to the men. He lay two fingers against Mulder's icy throat and nearly collapsed with relief when he located a pulse. "He's alive!"
Within seconds, the two paramedics who accompanied the search party were at Mulder's side. Skinner stepped out of the way, but remained close enough to keep an eye on what was happening. The wind was brutal, knifing through his overcoat and seeming to freeze the sweat on his overheated body. He stomped his feet and hugged the coat tighter, wondering again how Mulder could have survived this.
The EMT's worked swiftly by flashlight, noting their observations aloud in medical shorthand that made Skinner wish fervently for Scully's expertise. The one reading he needed no help understanding was Mulder's measured body temperature. Ninety-two degrees was dangerously low.
"Hey, buddy, can you hear me?" One of the men checked Mulder's pupils with a penlight. "Pupils are equal and reactive but it looks like he took a pretty good blow to the head."
Skinner gritted his teeth, liking less and less the report on Mulder's condition. "Yeah, and he's got a fractured left wrist," the other EMT supplied. As he worked on immobilizing the arm, Mulder moaned softly. "Hey, buddy! You with us?"
Mulder didn't respond. "Let's get him out of here." They unfolded the stretcher and placed Mulder on it, nestling warm packs around his torso and then covering him with heavy blankets that must have felt like heaven. Skinner got his first good look at Mulder's face as they lifted the stretcher, and his heart sank to his toes. He couldn't help wondering if either of his agents would survive this night.
Georgetown Memorial Hospital 9:22 AM
The maddening itch dragged him to awareness.
Mulder's head rolled restlessly back and forth and he scrunched his nose, cheek brushing a pillowcase whose coarse texture and medicinal smell screamed hospital. Try as he might, he could not seem to raise either arm to deliver the much needed scratch. Eyelids struggling to half-mast, he blinked blearily at his surroundings and took inventory.
The expected hospital room--private, thankfully. He could feel a bandage on his forehead, just beneath his hairline. Both arms were immobilized, the left by a cast that extended from wrist to elbow, the right by an IV that seemed to be delivering fluids and, if his muzziness was any indication, pain meds. Several blankets had been tucked snugly around him and the blinds had been shuttered against the early morning sunlight. His gaze panned across the room and froze on the chair pulled up beside the bed.
The empty chair.
Mulder squeezed his eyes shut and breathed slowly through his mouth, willing away the tears that stung his eyes and clogged his throat. Though he tried valiantly to conjure up the memory of her laughing, eyes sparkling with mirth, all he could see was her still, white face. His tongue touched his lips, recalling how cold Scully's had felt, pressed against his in a desperate kiss. The last kiss.
A whoosh of air followed by footsteps alerted Mulder to the fact he had company. He kept his eyes shut, unwilling to face the bland cheer of a nurse certain to remind him how lucky he was to be alive, when lucky was the last emotion he was feeling. Anticipating fingers grasping his wrist, he was surprised to hear the chair scrape across the linoleum, followed by a weighty sigh and the faint scent of sweat and aftershave. Intrigued, he cracked open one eyelid.
"Mulder." Skinner sat forward. "About time you joined us."
Mulder blinked, oddly disoriented by the sight of his boss in Scully's accustomed place. "Sir?" The word emerged more breath than substance.
Skinner held up a quelling hand and fumbled with a cup of water. Mulder sipped slowly from the straw, taking the opportunity to study his boss. Skinner's normally pristine suit was rumpled and he sported more than a five o'clock shadow. Behind his glasses, his dark eyes were lined with fatigue.
Mulder abandoned the straw, a frown pulling at the bandage on his head, and tried again. "Sir, you look terrible."
Skinner snorted, shaking his head. "Mulder, I'd be remiss not to point out that you've seen better days yourself. How are you feeling?"
Mulder shrank from the intense gaze, choosing to inspect the ceiling instead. "Seems like I'll live." And that was the irony, wasn't it?
"Yes, you will." A pause, and he could feel Skinner scrutinizing his face. "Mulder, do you remember what happened?"
He nodded, turning back to his boss with jaw clenched. "There was a stalled car in the road. I tried to swerve around it but the pavement was icy and... Scully was thrown from the car on impact. She wasn't... I couldn't..." He sucked in a deep breath and pushed the memory away, determined not to break down in front of Skinner. "I tried to help her, but...there was nothing I could do."
"You must have become disoriented from the cold and the knock on the head. From what we can tell, you'd wandered nearly a mile away from the road. Then, for some reason, you doubled back."
"You found me."
"Well, the dogs did. It was touch and go for a while there. You were dangerously hypothermic, and they're still a bit concerned about frostbite on a few toes. Another fifteen minutes and..." Skinner's voice trailed off and he cleared his throat, discomfort palpable. "You were lucky, Mulder. Very lucky."
"You think so?" Dismayed by the tremor in his voice, Mulder returned his gaze to a particularly fascinating crack in the ceiling. "That's a matter of perspective, I guess." His head throbbed, his wrist ached, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than the oblivion of sleep.
He could hear the frown in Skinner's voice. "Perspective? How else could you...?"
The door swished open to admit a young woman with long, curly dark hair, a stethoscope slung around the neck of her white coat. Skinner rose as she offered Mulder a dazzling smile.
"Agent Mulder. It's good to see you're finally awake. I'm Cindy George; we met earlier. I've been taking care of you since you were brought in."
Mulder gave a slight shake of his head, followed quickly by a wince at the foolishness of the action. "I don't remember."
She waved a hand dismissively. "Not surprising. You were in pretty rough shape, but you're looking much better." She tipped her chin toward Skinner. "Mr. Skinner. I need to examine Agent Mulder for a few minutes. You can wait in the lounge, if you like, and I'll come get you when I'm finished."
After an unsuccessful attempt to make eye contact with Mulder, Skinner left Dr. George to her poking and prodding. He retreated to the lounge, grateful to find it unoccupied, and claimed an uncomfortable plastic chair. Shoving his glasses to the top of his head, he scrubbed at weary eyes and stubbled jaw, longing for coffee yet too weary to search it out. Something about Mulder troubled him, a nagging sensation that his agent's behavior was off. Of course, considering the concussion, broken wrist, and exposure, he supposed normal was a relative term. With everything he and Scully had been through, Mulder could hardly be expected to...
The revelation hit Skinner like a proverbial ton of bricks. Scully. Mulder had been conscious for a good five minutes before the doctor's entrance, yet he'd never once asked about his partner. Skinner sat up straighter, replaying bits of conversation in his head.
Scully was thrown from the car on impact. She wasn't... I couldn't...I tried to help her, but...there was nothing I could do.
You were lucky, Mulder. Very lucky. You think so? That's a matter of perspective, I guess.
My God. Surely he didn't think...
But it all made sense. The cryptic remarks. The air of despondency. And, above all, the complete lack of interest in Scully's current medical condition. Mulder hadn't asked because he thought he already knew.
Mulder believed Scully was dead.
Skinner stood and began to pace, eyes flicking toward Mulder's doorway. Ten minutes passed. He watched a nurse enter and leave, but it was another five minutes before Dr. George finally emerged. She flashed him a reassuring smile, eyebrows soaring when he barreled down the hallway to meet her.
"There's no cause for alarm, Mr. Skinner. Everything is looking good. My concerns about frostbite appear to be groundless--his extremities have good circulation and there's no tissue damage. The blow to the head was severe, but he's obviously awake and oriented, pupils even and reactive. Immobilizing the wrist has removed the pressure on the nerves in his hand and he appears to have regained nearly normal sensation in his fingers. I'd like to keep him one more night, just to be safe, but he should be able to go home tomorrow."
"And Agent Scully?"
"Ironically, though she gave us a scare when they first brought her in, she's doing better than he is. She'll have a pretty severe headache for the next couple of days, and I'd be hard pressed to find a square inch of her that's not bruised, but being inside the car protected her from the worst of the cold. If Agent Mulder hadn't moved her the way he did, she undoubtedly would have died from exposure."
Skinner winced. "Yes, well, about that. I'd like to talk to Agent Mulder for a moment, if possible."
"I'm afraid it's not." At Skinner's blank look she quickly added. "Gail gave him his next dose of pain medication while I was performing my exam. He was out like a light by the time I left."
"Damn." Skinner squeezed the back of his neck. "How long will he sleep?"
"Hard to say for sure, but given his level of exhaustion I wouldn't expect him to surface for at least a couple of hours."
Skinner shoved his hands in his pockets as he mulled over the doctor's words. "Perhaps that's for the best. It gives us, gives Scully, a little more time. You said she's feeling better?"
"Well...yes. She's still quite weak and sore, though. I'd planned to keep her overnight, as well."
"Better enough to be mobile? In a wheelchair, maybe, if she took it easy?"
Dr. George's brow creased. "You're losing me here, Mr. Skinner."
"There's been a bit of a misunderstanding, Doctor. But I think we can put things straight." He couldn't help grinning at her obvious suspicion. "If you'll show me where I can get a decent cup of coffee, I'll be glad to explain."
One corner of her mouth turned up. "You've piqued my interest, sir. It's a deal."
Georgetown Hospital 12:06 PM
This time he fought the pull of sounds and smells, struggling to burrow back into the comforting forgetfulness of insensibility. With consciousness came pain, the throbbing of his arm and head barely more than a minor annoyance as compared to the aching emptiness in his chest.
Scully was dead.
Sensing a presence in the chair beside him, Mulder swallowed and turned his face away, ignoring his dry throat's screams for water. He couldn't deal with Skinner now--not with pity barely concealed in overly kind eyes, and especially not with his boss's attempt to ease a void no one would ever be able to fill.
Scully was dead.
Long ago, even before they'd become physically intimate, he and Scully had come to terms with the risks inherent in their job and the consequences of those risks. Losing her was an inescapable possibility: a stray bullet, a terrorist's bomb, the flick of a knife...these were potential outcomes he'd had to acknowledge, to accept in their continued pursuit of the truth. That she'd been taken from him by something so inane, so pointless as a stalled vehicle and an icy patch of asphalt multiplied his already crushing sense of loss and guilt.
Scully was dead.
He'd once told her he didn't think he could continue without her, emotion-filled words uttered under desperate circumstances. Now, irrevocably, he knew the truth in them.
He squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, remembering how she'd felt in his arms just scant hours earlier, the soft curve of her cheek, her tone low and smoky.
Everyone can use a little personal instruction now and then, Mulder. A little one on one.
Had he ever told her what hearing his name on her lips did to him? He'd always loved Scully's voice in all its varied inflections and timbres: teasing, lecturing, comforting, seducing... He could hear it now, as clearly as if she'd spoken aloud. The thought that such clarity would fade with time was unbearable.
Quiet, coaxing, a puff of breath tickling the sensitive flesh near his ear. His eyes flew open, his heart suddenly hammering at breakneck speed. No. It couldn't be. It was a trick, an illusion conjured up by his grieving mind in a cruel effort to blunt the pain.
The fingertips that brushed his forehead and trailed back through his hair were unmistakable. Breath caught somewhere between his lungs and his throat and he slowly turned his head to lean into the touch, terrified to look, powerless not to. It seemed as if everything around him, all sound and what little color the drab room had to offer, faded away as his gaze locked onto wide blue eyes and a rare, teeth- flashing smile.
"Hey." Her hand dipped, thumb brushing his cheek now, heart-stoppingly warm, and solid...and alive.
The name clawed its way out of his parched throat, rough, shaky, nothing like the reverent supplication he'd intended. He saw her impossibly beautiful smile widen a split second before it blurred and the first, choked sob tore loose from his chest.
Time became hazy along with his awareness. When he came back to himself he was cradled in Scully's embrace, face buried in the crook of her shoulder. Despite the uncomfortable tug of tubing, he'd managed to bury his I.V.-impaired hand in her hair, sifting the silky locks through his fingers in continual reassurance that she was real.
"Scully, God, I...I thought I'd lost you."
Scully gave a watery little chuckle and he felt her lips brush his forehead. "For a while there, I did too."
Adrenaline ebbed, replaced by overwhelming weariness and a sense of peace. Abruptly he remembered Scully's injuries and jerked backward, scrutinizing abnormally pale skin and the thick bandage near her right temple. He recognized the fine lines of pain around her eyes and mouth, and the slight squint that indicated headache. Reluctantly he removed his hand from her hair, swiping impatiently at the moisture on his cheeks before carefully tracing the gauze with one finger.
"I'm fine, Mulder." She helped him settle back onto his pillows and poured him a cup of water, her movements smooth despite the unsteadiness in her voice. His face must have registered his disbelief as he accepted the straw; one corner of her mouth turned up in a wry grin. "Well, all things considered. Still, I'd say a concussion and a few bruises are pretty tame compared to what might have been." She curled her fingers around his. "I was unconscious until they brought me here, Mulder. If you hadn't moved me into shelter of the car, I would have died of exposure."
Mulder pushed the cup aside, unable to meet her eyes. "I left you."
Her grip tightened, drawing him back. "You covered me with your own coat. Went out into that storm, looking for help, despite a head injury and a broken wrist."
He snorted and shook his head, not ready to concede the point. "I wandered around in circles. If not for Skinner we both would be..." He trailed off.
He searched her face, feeling lightheaded as some of the shock returned full force. "You were dead, Scully. I was so certain. I tried... There was no pulse."
Scully released his hand, reaching across his body to caress the fingers that peeked out of the plastic cast. "Feel that?"
Mulder looked down, frowning a little at the odd sensation. "Feels like my hand has been asleep. Pins and needles."
"Dr. George tells me you'd lost almost all sensation in both hands by the time you were brought in. Mulder, what with the cold and the pressure the swelling from that broken wrist was exerting on the nerves, you wouldn't have been able to feel much of anything."
"I was alive. And thanks to you, I stayed that way."
He looked away, blinking, uncomfortable with emotions stripped raw and too close to the surface. Scully evidently sensed his unease and moved on.
"You know, I was never as much at risk as you were. Skinner says you'd wandered away from the road, that it was pure luck you turned back to where they could find you."
The bittersweet pang was unexpected, though not necessarily unwelcome. "Luck? Not exactly." Mulder didn't even realize he'd spoken aloud until he heard Scully's concerned reply.
"Mulder? What is it?"
He shook his head. "Nothing."
She huffed. "Really? You certainly got an odd look on your face. Did something happen out there?"
His mother's face appeared in his mind's eye and he felt the phantom touch of her fingers on his cheek.
If you believe nothing else, believe this: I had no choice.
He looked up, relieved to feel the shadow of a genuine smile on his lips. "Soon, Scully. I promise. I just need a little time to process everything."
The door opened and a nurse stuck her head inside. "Miss Scully? Dr. George says your time is up. She wants you back in bed."
"Huh. She can stand in line."
Scully cocked a warning eyebrow at Mulder's nearly inaudible mutter, wincing when the motion pulled on tender flesh.
He tipped his head toward the wheelchair parked beside the bed. "Go get some rest. You look exhausted."
She leaned carefully over, lips brushing, then clinging to his until the waiting nurse politely cleared her throat. Scully pulled away, a lingering hand cupping his jaw.
"Are you all right?"
The fist around his heart, which had begun to loosen the moment he saw Scully's face, finally let go. "Ten minutes ago I'd've had to say no. But now..." Mulder's lips curved. "Yeah, Scully. I'm damn near perfect."
He sank back into the soft pillows, battling heavy eyelids and smothering a yawn as he watched Scully climb back into the chair. By the time the nurse had wheeled her from the room, he was asleep.
Georgetown 1:30 AM
The low drone tugged Scully from slumber, vague memories of pain and helplessness fading as she registered the comfort and security of her own bed. She reached one arm behind her, frowning when her fingertips encountered cool sheets rather than warm flesh. With an impatient puff of breath, she eased herself carefully upright and swung her legs to the floor, snagging her robe from the foot of the bed. Standing slowly to accommodate aching muscles and avoid reawakening the now dormant headache, she slipped the soft terrycloth over her arms and padded barefoot into the living room.
Flickering blue light from the television illuminated Mulder, slumped on the sofa, his long legs stretched out beneath the coffee table and his casted wrist cradled to his chest. Though his gaze was fixed on the screen, even at a distance Scully could see his mind was miles away.
"Hey." She switched on a small lamp, detouring to shut off the TV before dropping onto the cushions and leaning against him.
"Hey." Mulder's lips curved and his good arm came around to pull her more snugly against his side. "Couldn't sleep?"
"Hmm." She nuzzled the soft fabric of his tee shirt, soaking up his warmth. "Bed got cold."
He chuffed softly. "Now I know my true place in this relationship."
"Yup. Human hot water bottle."
The sank into silent contentment for a while, Scully listening to the steady, soothing beat of his heart while his fingers stroked through her hair. When it became clear he had no intention of speaking, she shook off her stupor and sighed.
"Does this mean you're still processing?"
His fingers faltered a moment before resuming their previous rhythm. "What are you asking, Scully?"
"Something happened out in that snowstorm, Mulder. It's been there, in your eyes, ever since you woke up in the hospital. Now, if you need more time, that's all right. But you're not getting off the hook until you talk to me."
Another long silence while she stubbornly resisted the urge to drift back toward sleep. Finally Mulder's hand left her hair and came to rest on her shoulder, fingers curling in a firm grip as if to reassure himself of her solidity. When he spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper.
"Do you remember what Skinner told you about how they found me?"
She frowned, slipping her hand under his tee shirt to touch the soft, warm skin beneath. "Which part? That you were three-quarters frozen, or that you'd nearly wandered away from any possibility of help?"
"I'd headed in the wrong direction, Scully. I was very confused, hopelessly turned around, and definitely not firing on all cylinders."
"I'm not surprised. Hypothermia alone could produce such symptoms, and you were concussed on top of it."
The fingers tightened and she could have sworn she felt him shiver. "It was more than that, Scully. I thought you were dead. After a while, it got harder and harder to come up with a reason to keep going."
She sucked in a sharp breath and lifted her head, scrutinizing his studiously blank expression. "What are you saying?"
One shoulder lifted almost imperceptibly. "I'd given up. Decided to just...let go."
She tamped down on the flash of anger, the desire to shake some sense into him and demand that he never, ever consider such an alternative, no matter what might occur in the future. "What happened?"
Silence, then a reply so mumbled she could barely make out the words, certain she'd misunderstood.
"I saw my mother, Scully. And I don't want to hear about concussions, hypothermia, and hallucinations. I saw her, heard her speak. She was there."
Okay. If the defensive tone and rigid tension in his body were any indication, she'd best tread very lightly across this minefield.
"What did she say?"
The guarded look faded from his eyes, replaced by a hint of the affection she'd feared Teena had destroyed along with some childhood photos and her own life. "She kicked my butt. Told me to stop the pity party, turn around, and start walking." He looked intently at Scully. "She told me to do it for you, if not for myself. That you wouldn't want me to give up."
Scully raised an eyebrow. "Smart woman."
She laid her cheek back against Mulder's chest, thoughts and emotions swirling, chaotic.
Mulder's hand returned to the back of her head but simply rested there. "You think it was all my imagination, don't you? That she wasn't real." The question held no condemnation, just an edge of disappointment.
"I would, except..." She blew out a long breath. Time to further demolish her reputation as resident skeptic. "I saw my father, Mulder. The night he died."
"You never told me."
"I never told anyone. Not even Melissa."
"He was sitting in that chair." She gestured at the wingback on the other side of the coffee table. "He and Mom had been over for dinner earlier that evening. I fell asleep on the couch and when I woke up, there he was. It think he was trying to tell me something; his lips were moving but I couldn't make out the words. Then the phone rang and it was Mom, calling from the hospital."
"So, you believe I saw her?"
Scully smoothed her hand over the curve of his hip, considering. "I believe the people we love are not lost to us. That they can speak to us, if we listen with our hearts."
His body, relaxed back into its boneless sprawl, told her she'd answered well.
"Thanks, Scully." A tug on her hair, and then Mulder was drawing her up until her face was inches from his own, cheek cupped in his palm. "But I have to say, I prefer the more direct form of communication."
He kissed her then, the long, slow glide of lips and tongue leaving her body melting and her soul filled with peace. Pulling back, he touched his forehead to hers.
"I thought I'd never get to do that again, Scully." His voice broke on her name, but he smiled. "I'm glad I was wrong."
Eyes burning, she matched his grin. "So am I, Mulder. More than I can say." Threading her fingers through the soft hair at the nape of his neck, she proceeded to show him.