Grey shifted, drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and then cleared his throat. "You're going to be late."
"This was a mistake."
"No, it wasn't. It's another step toward getting your life back."
God, he was so tired of that gentle, handle-with-care tone. "Don't patronize me."
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
Grey's question finally drew Mulder's gaze from the building. "Not exactly, but.… I do think you and Scully tend to treat me like I could shatter at any given moment." He huffed, shaking his head. "Not that you don't have your reasons."
Grey sighed, his lips curving into a rueful smile. "Look, I'm not trying to tell you what to do. But while it may not be my life, I've got a stake in it, Fox. And I don't imagine you're happy with the way things have been going the past few days."
"Gee, what was your first clue?" Mulder looked back at the house. "I know why you pulled chauffeur duty."
"Hey, I had to arm wrestle Dana for this privilege." When Mulder didn't smile, Grey sighed. "She just needed a little break, Fox."
"You think I don't understand? I have eyes; I see what this is doing to her. The flashbacks have only gotten worse, and I never know what's going to trigger one." He raked his fingers through his hair. "I can't even hold it together long enough to get a damn hair cut."
"Which brings us back to my original point," Grey said mildly. "You're gonna be late."
Mulder opened his mouth to argue, realized the futility, and settled for a glare. "See you in an hour."
He felt Grey's eyes follow him as he strode to the front door and pushed the bell. He folded his arms and waited, deliberately ignoring the idling engine at his back.
"Door's open! Let yourself in." A woman's voice, faint but cheerful.
Mulder tugged open the storm and saw that the front door was, in fact, ajar. He stepped into the foyer and unzipped his coat. To his left lay a small living room with very modern, glass and chrome furnishings. To his right, a short hallway, presumably leading to bedrooms. And straight ahead, the sound of rattling pans and the rich aroma of fresh-baked bread.
"You can hang up your coat and come on back."
Feeling more than a little surreal, Mulder followed orders. He peeled off his jacket and hung it on the coat rack, then made his way to the source of the voice--and the delicious smell.
The kitchen was a scene of controlled chaos--dirty bowls and pans overflowed in the sink and flour dusted the countertops not occupied with cooling loaves. Propping a shoulder against the doorframe, he watched as a sixty-something woman with salt-and- pepper hair kneaded bread dough.
"Agent Fox Mulder. At least, I hope that's who you are. Otherwise I've just invited a stranger into my home." Smiling, she offered a floury hand, then pulled it back. "Guess that's not such a good idea. Have a seat, Fox. Can I get you anything?"
Mulder claimed a chair at the small oak table. "How about a different name?" At her raised eyebrow, he added, "I don't use Fox. Just Mulder is fine."
"Got some issues, have we, Just Mulder?" She plunged both hands back into the dough.
Mulder leaned back and folded his arms. "Oh, I'm a bundle of issues, Dr. Shanley. Didn't Dr. Verber fill you in?"
"He gave me the basics. And please, call me Tomie."
She chuckled. "Aye, ya heard right. Me da had his heart set on havin' a son ta carry on the family name. Imagine his surprise when wee Thomas Shanley the third turned out to be a she." She dropped the brogue. "I officially shortened it to Tomie the day I turned 21. I know all about issues, believe me."
She collected several loaf pans and began parceling out the dough. "How much have you remembered?"
The abrupt segue caught Mulder off guard. "Not enough." He lifted his shoulders. "Too much."
"You were missing three months?"
"So I'm told."
"You weren't aware you'd been gone that long?"
"Time flies when you're having fun."
Shanley gave him a sharp look but simply picked up the filled pans and carried them to the oven, a blast of hot air washing over Mulder as she loaded them inside. She then pulled a knife from a drawer and cut into a golden loaf, slicing a generous slab and transferring it to a plate. Moments later the plate, a knife, and butter were placed in front of Mulder.
Mulder gaped at her. "Shouldn't we be discussing my...issues?"
"I thought we were." Shanley took two mugs from a cupboard and filled them with coffee.
"So what's...?" He gestured at the food.
Placing one mug next to his plate, she sank into a chair and took a long draught from the other. "You looked like you could use it. You're skin and bones, kiddo."
Shaking his head, Mulder took a sip of coffee and tore off a small piece of warm, fluffy bread. "Gotta hand it to you, Tomie. You're not what I expected."
"It's part of my charm." She sobered. "Why are you here, Mulder?"
"Why are any of us here?" When she didn't let up on her probing stare, he sighed. "I'm here because I have to be. I don't have a choice."
"Bullshit. You always have a choice."
Mulder blinked. So much for the motherly aura.
Tomie leaned forward, cupping her mug between her palms. "When I was in college, I began experiencing brief periods of lost time. Holes in my memory I couldn't account for. Sometimes it was hours, sometimes days. I thought I was going crazy--becoming schizophrenic or developing multiple personalities or any one of half a dozen mental illnesses. At first I was able to cover for myself with lies--I was sick, I went home for a few days, I was visiting a friend... But after a while things got so bad I couldn't hide it any longer. My grades dropped, I flunked out of school, couldn't keep a boyfriend or a job..." She pursed her lips. " My family didn't know what to do with me. And that's the way my life went for many years.
"And then one day while watching television, I stumbled onto a program about alien abductees. I can still remember how terrified I became, listening to those people describe their experiences. It could have been me on that TV screen. I switched it off and tried to put it out of my mind. I couldn't.
"Eventually, I couldn't endure the mess that my life had become a moment longer. I connected with MUFON and they put me in touch with a psychiatrist who used hypnosis to help me recover those missing pieces."
"And you lived happily ever after."
Shanley didn't flinch at the bitterness in his tone. "Hardly. But I did reclaim control of my life. I accepted what had been done to me, and that it could happen again. Then I set it aside and moved on."
"So you got a doctorate in psychology in order to help other abductees."
"I got a doctorate in psychology to help myself. Helping others was just a side benefit."
"Physician, heal thyself."
"Something like that. Look, Mulder, I'm not going to engage in psychological sparring matches with you. I've heard enough from Heintz to know I'd probably lose. If you're here because you're ready to deal with what happened, I'll be happy to work with you. Otherwise, we'll finish our coffee and part company."
Mulder took another bite of bread, chewing slowly. Delicious, yet it sat like lead in his stomach. "I can't ride in an elevator or step into the closet without hyperventilating. I'm afraid to sleep because of the nightmares. I'm getting flashbacks four or five times a day, during which I've trashed my own bedroom, punched and damn near strangled my wife. Scully.…"
He bit down on the name and looked away. "I'm not going to let this destroy the good things in my life. I will deal with this."
"I was hoping you'd say that." Her fingers grazed the back of his hand. "Now, finish your bread or you'll hurt my feelings."
A little of the weight eased from his shoulders. Mulder picked up the rest of the slice. "Do you always conduct your appointments in the kitchen?"
"You'd rather I had you stretch out on the couch?" She carried his empty plate to the sink. "I'm not one for breaking the ice, Mulder. I much prefer a slow thaw. Now how about some more coffee?"
Twenty minutes later Mulder stepped out the door, a bemused smile on his face. Preoccupied, he'd climbed into the car and was reaching for his seatbelt before realizing that Scully, not Grey, sat behind the wheel.
"Scully? I thought you were dropping by the Hoover, catching up on some paperwork."
"I did. But I was having a little trouble concentrating." She scanned his face, a small line between her brows. "Are you all right?"
Mulder cupped her cheek, tracing the shadows under her eyes with the pad of his thumb. "That should be my question, shouldn't it?"
She caught hold of his hand and pressed a kiss to the palm. "I'm fine."
"You're exhausted. You should go to your mother's tonight, Scully. Get some real sleep. Let Grey play zookeeper."
She dropped his hand and put the car into gear, pulling away from the curb. "Mulder, I can't spend a morning in the office without worrying about you. What in the hell makes you think I could sleep any better at my mom's?"
"Oh, I don't know. The lack of screaming, maybe?"
"We've discussed this already. I'm not going anywhere." A car scooted in front of them and she slammed on the brakes with more force than necessary. She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Let's start over. How was your session with Dr. Shanley?"
Oh, barrels of fun, he thought, but wisely restrained himself. "Let's just say she's not your average, run-of-the-mill shrink." He chuffed, turning to look out the window. "Verber sandbagged me."
"He may have found the only doctor on this planet that I can't bullshit."
Scully raised an eyebrow. "I think I'd like to meet this Dr. Shanley."
"Tomie." Mulder chuckled again. "Also one of the few people who actually beats me in the category of most irritating first name."
Scully stared at him, then jerked her gaze back to the road.
"Nothing. It's just... You're taking this amazingly well."
"Ah. You were expecting a quivering wreck, is that it?"
"Something like that."
"It's hard to get rattled over coffee and freshly baked bread."
"You lost me, Mulder."
"We didn't DO anything--except lay a few ground rules. It's all part of Tomie's diabolical strategy to take me out at the knees before I could fight back. Next time we meet I'm sure she'll show no mercy."
The cautious hope in her voice broke his heart. "Yeah, next time. She wants to see me twice a week, for now. And she wants me to take these." He pulled the two prescription forms out of his pocket. "A sedative to help me sleep for more than three hours at a stretch. And an anti-depressant."
"And you agreed?"
"To the first two. The jury's still out on the anti-depressant." When she didn't say anything, Mulder slid his hand onto her leg. "I'll think about it, babe. I promise."
They drove the rest of the way in silence. When Mulder pulled open the door to the apartment building, Scully paused and lightly touched his arm. "I'm proud of you, Mulder. I hope you know that."
Mulder guided her inside with a hand at the small of her back. "This from the woman who has to walk up two flights of stairs because her husband's terrified of the elevator."
He silenced her with a long, deep kiss, then touched his forehead to hers. "You're the only thing getting me through this, Scully. I hope you know that."
Grey met them at the door. "Well, hey. Look who's back. Y'all have got impeccable timing."
Mulder frowned as he shrugged out of his jacket. "What's wrong?"
"What makes you think somethin's wrong?"
"Because that southern drawl of yours always gets stronger when you're on edge." Mulder tossed the jacket onto the coat tree and stepped into the living room.
He smelled him before he saw him.
Cancerman blew out a cloud of smoke and smiled. "Hello, Fox. My, my. I must say, I've seen you look better."