Nine weeks later
"You're certain? Did you check private hospitals as well as public?"
"Police stations, highway patrol, hospitals, even clinics. No one matching Mulder's description--hell, not even a single John Doe-- has turned up within a fifty mile radius of the hot spot." Frohike paused. When he resumed speaking the apology in his tone held a crumb of pity.
"Scully--Dana. We're doing everything we can, using every resource at our disposal. If he turns up, we'll be the first to know it."
"When he turns up you'll be first to know."
The pause was longer this time, and Scully could practically see the hangdog expression on his face. "Yeah. Get some sleep, Scully. We'll be in touch."
Scully replaced the receiver, straightening a stack of papers she'd inadvertently displaced and smoothing her palm over the file on the blotter. Sightings in the deep woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula--a wild, half human-half beast creature Mulder had hoped might prove to be another "New Jersey Devil." The open folder lay just as he'd left it--as was the sloppy pile of receipts from their last out-of-town case, his favorite Knicks cup with a ring of dried coffee staining the bottom, and the fresh crop of pencils poking out of the ceiling above her head.
Everything just as Mulder had left it, waiting for him to return.
Scully lifted the nameplate from its perch amid the clutter, tracing a fingertip over the letters. Her throat ached from suppressing the tears burning behind her eyes. Soul-deep weariness pressed down upon her, smothering her like a heavy blanket. Weariness born of fruitless searching, of hopes raised one moment only to be dashed the next. She'd spent every spare moment working with Grey and the Gunmen, tracking UFO hotspots, calling local police departments, hospitals…morgues. Nine weeks and two false alarms later, she had only an empty bed and the dark circles beneath her eyes to show for her efforts.
A throat cleared, startlingly loud in the silence. Scully bolted upright in the chair, fumbling for the nameplate when it nearly slipped from her fingers. Skinner stood in the doorway, hands shoved into the pockets of his charcoal dress pants, tie still pristinely knotted around the neck of a crisp white shirt.
"Sir." Scully stood, self-consciously smoothing her skirt. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear the elevator. Please, come in."
He walked to the center of the room, eyes roaming over newspaper clippings and photos, then sat in the chair on the other side of Mulder's desk. When Scully remained standing, he gestured for her to reclaim her own seat. She lowered herself onto the edge, spine stiff. Realizing her fingers still clutched the nameplate, she set it quickly on the blotter.
"Was there something you needed, Sir? I was actually on my way out the door."
Skinner's raised eyebrow said he doubted the veracity of her statement, but he let it slide. "I need to talk to you about the future of the X-Files department, Agent Scully, and your role in it."
All her alarm bells began clanging. "What are you saying?"
Skinner tightened his lips, a small muscle twitching along his jawline. "I'm saying you've run out of time. The brass are always looking to shut down the X-Files and now Mulder's given them the perfect excuse."
"Mulder was abducted. Against his will. It's hardly his fault that he's not here to run the department." She annunciated each word with razor sharp precision.
Skinner leaned forward, elbows propped on his knees. "That's not how they see it, Scully. To them this is just one more instance of Mulder haring off without letting anyone know where he's gone. Only this time he hasn't bothered to come back."
Scully curled her hands into fists. "That's a lie. Grey was there when Mulder was taken, you heard his testimony."
"I know. I believe him. Unfortunately, I'm not the one who needs to be convinced."
Scully poked her tongue into her cheek and counted to five. "I won't let them shut us down, shut Mulder down. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Files open."
Skinner sat back, arms folded across his chest. "Are you sure?"
"Yes." She looked at him through narrowed eyes. "Why do I get the feeling I'm going to like this even less than what you've already said?"
"You've got to get out in the field again, Scully. Start investigating X-Files instead of catching up on paperwork and loaning yourself out to Quantico."
"I can do that."
"Not without a partner."
His words hit her like a physical blow, a right cross she'd never expected. Scully tipped her chin up and offered her boss her best steely-eyed glare.
"I have a partner."
"You can't operate in the field without back-up, Agent. Mulder bent a lot of rules, but even he couldn't get around that one."
"And if I refuse?"
Skinner gritted his teeth. "They close the X-Files and you wind up with a teaching position at Quantico. I hear the Pathology department has an opening now that Kramer is on maternity leave."
Scully closed her eyes. "In other words, I have no choice." She opened them and stood, her posture rigidly correct. "I hope I at least have some input into which agent you choose."
Skinner also stood, eyes softening along with the tone of his voice. "Of course. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. You've been running yourself ragged trying to handle things alone. Another body down here will ease the workload, give you more time for…other things."
Scully resisted the urge to turn away. She knew how she must look to Skinner--the rumpled suit that hung on her small frame since she'd dropped a few pounds, the pallor even cosmetics couldn't disguise. Prepared for pity, his next words took her completely by surprise.
"My hands may be tied here, Scully, but the Bureau doesn't own me once I walk out that door. If there's anything I can do, anything at all…"
Intense brown eyes convinced her the offer was genuine. Scully's lips curved despite the pain in her chest. "Thank you."
Skinner dipped his head and walked to the door. He paused in the hallway, one hand on the jamb. "This is temporary, Agent Scully. We both know that."
"Get some sleep."
After Skinner's footsteps faded down the hallway, she operated on autopilot--dumping coffee and rinsing the pot, shutting down the computer, packing her briefcase. She'd reached the door, finger poised to turn off the lights, when a glint of metal caught her eye. Setting down her briefcase, she walked slowly back to Mulder's desk. Carefully, reverently, she picked up the nameplate from the blotter and set it back on the edge of the desk, where it belonged.
Just as he'd left it.
Shouldering her briefcase, she flicked off the lights and locked the door.
He squinted under the abrupt flare of the porch light, blinking eyes gritty from too much driving and too little sleep. Kristen pushed open the screen door and stood aside, smothering a yawn with the back of one hand. Her voice was rusty with sleep.
"I thought you weren't coming until the morning."
Grey squeezed past her and set his duffel on the tile. "Thought you'd be glad to see me." He shook his head with mock regret. "I guess the thrill really is gone."
She chuckled throatily and slid into his arms. Her lips were warm and firm, her body soft where it molded to his. Grey nuzzled skin smelling faintly of lavender, smiling.
Kristen stepped back, evading his grasping hands. She scrutinized his face, brow furrowing. "It's not you showing up early, it's what it took to get you here." She brushed the flesh beneath his eye with a fingertip. "You're exhausted, Grey. It's crazy to make that trip running on fumes. You could have fallen asleep at the wheel, driven into a truck."
He snagged the silky sleeve of her robe and she allowed him to draw her back into an embrace with minimal protest. Grey ducked his head to rest his chin on her shoulder, releasing a gusty sigh.
"I'm here and I'm in one piece. Can we just, please, leave it at that?"
Kristen must have heard something in his voice. One hand tightened around his waist while the other came up to stroke through his hair. "Talk to me."
He smiled into her neck. "Okay. Anything in particular you'd like me to talk about?"
"Could I have a glass of water first?"
She chuffed and wriggled out of his arms, hooking his fingers with her own and leading him down the hallway to the kitchen. Grey leaned up against the counter while she filled a glass with ice and water. Placing it into his hand with a flourish, she propped herself up beside him, arms laced across her chest.
Grey drained the glass, set it down, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Very aware of Kristen's patient but expectant silence, he sucked in a deep breath and scrubbed his face with both hands.
"It's been more than nine weeks."
Her shoulder nestled more firmly against his. "I know."
"Nine weeks and we're not a damn bit closer to finding him." He shook his head. "This isn't working, Kris. Something has to change."
"I know how frustrated you are. Dana isn't doing any better-- whenever I see her at work, she's on edge. I just don't see what you can do that you aren't already doing."
"I could be spending a hell of a lot more time looking for him." Grey growled the words through clenched teeth.
"Sweetheart, ease up on yourself. You're already burning the candle at both ends. No one knows better than I how hard you've tried to find Fox. But there aren't enough hours in the day for you to do your job and spend any more time on this."
"I know. That's why I'm not going to be doing my job."
Kristen's head whipped around, shock written in her eyes. "What?"
"As of 6:00 PM this evening I'm on an indefinite leave of absence." Grey showed her a toothy smile. "Mind if I stay a little longer than just the weekend?"
"You… Grey are you sure you've thought this through?"
"Of course I have. If I can't stay here I'll camp out on Fox and Dana's couch."
"Damn it, Grey!"
He stepped away from the counter and turned to face her. "Did you hear what I said, Kris? It's been nine weeks and Fox is still out there, somewhere, going through God knows what. This isn't working. Something had to change, so damn it, I did."
She flinched a little at the controlled anger. "I'm not questioning the urgency of finding your brother. I'm an FBI agent and well aware of the statistics: the longer someone is missing greater the odds they won't be found alive. But this is your job we're talking about, a job you love. How long will they be willing to wait?"
"I don't give a shit." When Kristen merely looked at him with compassion, his shoulders slumped. "Everything will work out. Mark will hold down the fort for me and frankly, I'm too good at what I do for them not to take me back."
He snatched the empty water glass and took it to the sink. Bracing his palms on the counter, he stared at a swath of stars through the small window. "I owe him this, Kris. I was right there, and I did nothing. Whatever it takes, I'm going to get him back."
Arms slid around his waist and warmth pressed against his spine. "Why don't you bring in your other bags? I'll make some room in my closet and dresser."
His chin dropped to his chest and his lips curved. "I love you."
He felt her smile against the back of his neck. "Back at ya. Now go get those bags so we can both get some sleep."
Grey covered her hands with his own. "That sounds good, darlin'. That sounds real good."