"Hey." He ran a hand over his face and let out a gusty sigh. "Where's Grey?"
"Well, when it became apparent you were down for the count, he headed over to Kristen's so they could get something to eat."
He darted a quick look at the clock. "Shit. She was coming for dinner tonight, wasn't she?"
"We'll do it tomorrow. The steaks will keep."
He dropped his head onto the back of the couch. "Is there a more worthless human being on the face of this planet?"
"I thought not."
"Mulder, do I really have to say it?"
"Only if doing so gives you some intrinsic sense of satisfaction."
She pursed her lips, but left it alone. "Did you sleep well?"
"I didn't wake up screaming, so I guess that would be a yes." When Scully tensed, he reached for her hand and wove their fingers together. "I'm sorry. I'm just so damn tired of everything."
She scooted closer and he obligingly slipped an arm around her shoulders, resting his cheek on her head. "Mulder. You are the most driven person I've ever known. Do you remember what I once told you? About your search for the Truth?" She felt him smile.
"I think it involved me digging up the desert with shovel."
"Close enough." Scully slipped her hand under the tee shirt and stroked warm skin, her voice low and pensive. "Once you've set a goal, you push yourself beyond all reason to achieve it. That intense, obsessive focus is precisely what made you the best profiler in the Bureau's history. But it's also why you crashed and burned."
Mulder tensed. "I thought I was the one with the psych degree."
"You can't force this, Mulder. This isn't a conspiracy to be uncovered or a criminal to be caught. Your body, your mind--both need time to process the past three months."
He made an odd sound. Scully pulled away and looked into his face, reading both anger and uncertainty in the lines around his eyes and the tight set of his jaw. "What?" she asked quietly. "Mulder, talk to me."
"Maybe I don't want to process--did that ever occur to you?" He huffed. "Why would it? After all, Fox Mulder's all-consuming passion is the truth. Who could predict that one day he'd shuck his moral high-handedness and wish for ignorance?"
She stared at him. "You don't want to remember."
Mulder just evaded her eyes, his throat working.
"You think I don't understand?"
Her words hung there, suspended between them, until Mulder finally choked out a reply. "I'm the one who didn't understand."
Pieces clicked into place. Scully laid her head back on his shoulder. "That was different."
"How?" He sounded angry, bitter, but she knew the emotions were directed inward and not toward her.
"We were in a different place. We'd barely scratched the surface-- not just of what was out there, but of what lay between us."
"You can justify it all you like, Scully. But the fact is I pushed you to remember. Hard. I was so...so driven to discover the truth, I didn't stop and think about what that discovery might do to you."
She closed her eyes, remembering her struggle between fear and the desire to please him. Mulder wanted to plow ahead, rock solid in his purpose, while her entire world was tilting crazily on its axis and she could barely keep her feet. Shamed by her apparent weakness, she'd wondered if anything scared her seemingly fearless partner.
"You'll get through this, Mulder. You've never backed down from a challenge in your life. This is just one more opportunity for you to put that tenacity to use."
His lips twitched. "Tenacity. That's a lot more tactful than pigheaded."
"Well, you've been back less than a week. The grace period hasn't expired yet."
Mulder tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his fingers lingering on her cheek. "There's something there, Scully. Buried deep. Something... It's bad."
She kept her voice steady. "Whatever it is, we'll deal with it."
"Sure. We're good at dealing. Plenty of practice."
The weary reply, so close to her own thoughts of late, made her stomach ache. Scully traced the outline of a rib with her fingertips, feeling the angular hardness of bone beneath a thin layer of flesh. "Sometimes it feels like a lifetime, not just ten years."
"It's not the years. It's the mileage." Her smile at the familiar quote faded when he continued, "I'm tired, Scully."
"No, I don't think you do. Scully, I don't know if..."
She gently untangled herself from his arms and sat up. Mulder was chewing on his lower lip, his eyes red-rimmed and over-bright. "Say it, Mulder."
"I don't know if I can do this anymore."
Scully smoothed her palm up and down his thigh as she considered her response. Complete honesty won out.
"Neither do I." She shrugged at Mulder's raised brows. "I didn't sleep well the last few months. A cold bed in the middle of the night inspires reflection."
"Life. Death. Whether chasing little green men and unmasking vast, shadowy conspiracies is worth the price."
"Grey told me you fought to keep the X-Files open."
"Because I needed Bureau resources, Mulder. And because it was the only piece of you I had left."
Mulder snagged her hand and enfolded it in his. When he spoke again, it was with tender affection. "And what revelations did this soul searching produce?"
"That the personal cost of our investigations inevitably outweighs professional gain. That I don't give a damn about finding the truth if it means losing you." She took a calming breath, then continued. "When is it enough, Mulder? There's so much more you need to do with your life. So much more than this."
"There was a time when this work was everything, Scully. It was all I had."
"I know. But things have changed."
"Have they? I look at Grey, and I see the life I might have had--a normal job, the respect of peers, a warm, loving family. But no matter how hard I try, I can't picture myself in his shoes. And sometimes I resent the hell out of him for that."
"What are you saying?"
He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I'm saying that while the thought of getting back into the field makes me break out in a cold sweat, I can't imagine doing anything else. That while the damn job may no longer be all I am, it's still a significant piece of who I am." He shook his head. "Basically that I'm hopelessly fucked up."
The slight tremor in Mulder's hand and the ragged edge to his voice convinced Scully that the conversation had gone on long enough. She surreptitiously slid her fingers up to his wrist and eyed her watch. "No, you're exhausted. We can discuss this later. Now is not the time to make life-altering decisions."
He snorted. "What is it the time for?"
"Tea? " He jerked his wrist from her grasp, wise to the subterfuge. "Stop that. I'm fine."
"Yes, tea. I'm going to make myself a cup. Want some?"
"See, I would have sworn now was the time for coffee." Scully looked levelly at him until he broke. "Fine. I'll have tea." He said it with all the enthusiasm of an inmate marching to the electric chair.
Scully stood and smiled down at him. Reaching down, she fingered a tumbled lock of his too-long hair and then smoothed it back from his forehead. Mulder caught hold of her wrist and they locked eyes as he drew her down to straddle his lap. Scully licked her lips, warmth tingling through her limbs and pooling in her belly. More than three months...
Mulder brushed his mouth across hers, tracing her lower lip with the tip of his tongue and then nibbling gently. She sighed, winding her fingers into the hair at his nape and opening to him, welcoming him home. The melted together, kisses deep and slow and tender. Then Mulder's hands slipped under her sweatshirt to cup her breasts, and her world narrowed to the exquisite sensations of his tongue gliding against hers and his thumbs stroking her nipples. She rocked her hips, jolted back to reality when she realized Mulder's level of arousal didn't quite match her own.
Mulder broke the kiss and touched his forehead to hers. "Sorry. The spirit is willing..."
"It's okay." She kissed him again, exploring every nook and cranny in his mouth and leaving him panting for breath before she was finished. "It can wait."
"I can't," Mulder grumbled. "No coffee, no sex..."
She stared at the jutting lip and smoldering eyes and a lump filled her throat. How many hospitals, morgues, police stations had she haunted, hoping against hope for another glimpse of that beloved face? How many nights had she curled up alone in bed, praying next time...please, God, next time let it be him?
"Scully?" Now Mulder was staring at her, eyes soft with concern.
Scully blinked, surprised when moisture trickled down her cheek. She brushed the tears away with a knuckle and smiled. "I'm just really glad you're home."
"Me, too." He wrapped his arms around her, tucking her head under his chin. "One thing I do remember, Scully. You were the only thing that kept me going. When things got bad, really bad..." He tightened his arms until she was crushed against his chest, his rapid heartbeat thudding under her ear. "I knew they were messing with my head, that it wasn't really you. But sometimes, when I was whacked out with pain and sleep deprivation, I wanted to believe it was."
Scully turned her face into the soft, cotton tee shirt, breathing in Mulder's musky, comforting scent. "And sometimes, in the middle of the night, I'd close my eyes and imagine you spooned up behind me, your warmth along my back, the whisper of your breath on my neck."
Mulder pressed a kiss to her temple. "Did it help?"
"Not much." She lifted her head and smiled. "There's no substitute for the real thing."
"Hey, at least your substitute wasn't playing Dr. Mengele." When Scully stiffened, he grimaced. "Sorry. Guess that was in poor taste. I'm just whistling in the dark."
The front door creaked open, then banged shut, and Grey breezed into the room. "I won't be surprised if we get snow tonight; it's cold as a witch's elbow out there." He blinked. "Uh, would y'all prefer I drive around the block a few times?"
"Nah, have a seat. I've always been an exhibitionist at heart," Mulder deadpanned.
Scully punched his arm and eased off his lap. "I'm making tea."
Grey smirked. "Really? Must be a whole new brewing method."
She folded her arms. "Can I get you a cup?"
He stripped off his coat and plopped down beside his brother. "I take it you're feeling better."
"Than what?" When Grey lifted his hands, palms out, he tempered the sharp reply. "Let's just say I'm better than I was, but not as good as I'd hoped to be. According to Scully, I'm a work in progress. How's Kristen?"
"She's good. She said to tell you she hopes you're feeling better, but if you cancel out on dinner tomorrow night she's taking the steak to go."
Mulder chuffed but didn't reply. They sat without speaking, listening to clinking glassware and thudding cupboard doors as Scully moved about the kitchen, humming quietly.
"What's it like, Grey? Having a normal life?" Mulder was barely aware he'd verbalized his thoughts.
Grey snorted, scrutinizing Mulder's face as if trying to gauge his sincerity. "Well, I don't know, Fox. Why don't you ask somebody who has one?" He shook his head. "What in hell gave you the mistaken impression that my life is anything approaching normal?"
"I make my living chasing little green men, mutants, and other freaks of nature. I've been shot, frozen, set on fire, gnawed, infected, possessed, and brainwashed. I just spent three months on a spaceship with alien shapeshifters that obviously mistook me for a human guinea pig. Hell, my conception was nothing but a great lab experiment." Mulder tipped his head back and stared at the ceiling. "Your life seems pretty damn normal to me."
"Fox." Much of the outrage had left Grey's voice. "My biological parents sent me away--gave me to another family like some kind of booby prize--because of a grand conspiracy I never really understood. I make my living chasing thieves, rapists, and murderers. I've been assaulted, shot, and nearly lost my brother to a killer with a grudge against me." He paused, then continued.
"I watched my wife die, eaten alive by a killer I couldn't stop. All my training, all the lives I saved in the course of my job, meant nothing. Losing her turned me into an emotional cripple with commitment issues I'm still trying to shake." He laughed quietly. "I'm a work in progress, too."
Mulder looked at his brother. "So you're telling me it's all an illusion. You don't really have a normal life."
"I'm telling you no one does. Not if by 'normal' you mean some kind of storybook fantasy where we all wind up living in a house surrounded by a white picket fence, with a beautiful wife and 2.5 kids. Life, by its very nature, is abnormal." He smirked. "Yours is just farther off the scale than most."
"That is the crappiest attempt at reassurance I've ever heard." Mulder grinned in spite of himself.
Grey shrugged. "You want deep, turn on Oprah."
They were still when Scully returned with three mugs of tea. She stopped, eyebrow arched. "Did I miss something?"
Mulder eyed Grey, then smiled up at her. "Just two equally pathetic people sharing their fractured fairy tale lives. Care to join us?"
She passed him a mug, smiling. "Move over, Mulder. From the sound of it, I already have."