"Are you kidding? I wouldn't let him in if he had an engraved invitation. He was already here when I got home." Grey braced both hands on the back of the couch and showed Spender his teeth. "I'd be happy to escort him out, though. Just say the word."
Spender tapped some ash into a coaster. "Gentlemen, please. Is this any way to treat an old family friend who's merely concerned for Fox's health?"
"Spare us the melodrama." Scully stood at Grey's shoulder. "What do you want?"
Spender ignored her, turning to Mulder with the barest hint of a smile. "It's good to see you, Fox. Three months. I'd almost given up hope."
"Oh, you know me. I'm like a bad penny. I always turn up-- eventually." Mulder tipped back the bottle and took a drink.
"I understand you've had some difficulty recalling your…ordeal. Tell me, have you managed to recover any of those elusive memories?"
Grey snorted. "I think you've been sucking too hard on that cigarette, old man. You don't honestly think he's going to answer, do you?"
Spender blew out a column of smoke. "I'd hoped perhaps we could engage in a mutual exchange of information."
The bastard's smug, self-satisfied smirk pushed all Mulder's buttons. He set the water bottle on the counter, holding onto his anger with effort. "Sorry to disappoint. I'm afraid there's nothing you could say that I'd want to hear, so..." he stretched out his arm toward the door, "you obviously know the way out."
Spender put out his cigarette and stood. "Pity. I thought you'd like to know why our shapeshifting friends find you so fascinating."
Mulder lunged forward, catching Spender by the lapels of his trenchcoat. Spinning him around, he slammed the smoker up against the wall hard enough to make the pictures rattle. He leaned in close enough to smell Spender's stale breath. "Talk. And it better be damn good because I've been having problems with impulse control and my Paxil hasn't kicked in."
Scully's voice reined him in. He glared into Spender's eyes for a long moment, tightening his grip until his fists dug into the hollow of the man's throat. Releasing the smoker with a flick of his wrists, Mulder took several steps backward and folded his arms.
Spender smoothed his rumpled clothing. "Let me ask you this, Fox. What do you remember?"
Mulder clenched his jaw. "Pain."
"From the tests?"
"If you call breaking all my fingers a test." He scanned Spender's face with wary eyes. "Why?"
"Really, Fox. I'm beginning to believe you've lost your edge. You're aware of your father's contributions to the Project? His…personal sacrifices?"
Mulder gritted his teeth. "I know what he did."
"Then you must see how special you are."
Scully moved to his side, her shoulder brushing his. "Why don't you humor us? Spell it out."
Spender chuckled, shaking his head. "Agent Scully, you're more than qualified to answer your own question. After all, you possess not only sufficient training and intellect, but an intimate connection with Fox--the ultimate credential."
Mulder looked at Scully, but she kept her attention locked on Spender. "You're alluding to genetic modifications brought about by experimentation on Mrs. Mulder when she was pregnant. Unauthorized experimentation."
"Modifications that have served you well." Spender smirked. "You should be grateful to us, Fox."
Mulder curled his lip. "If you're looking for thanks, you'll be waiting until hell freezes over."
"What were these modifications?" Scully unobtrusively lay her hand on his forearm, steadying him.
Spender reached for a cigarette, but Mulder blocked the move. "Uh-uh. This is a no smoking zone."
"The modifications?" Scully prompted.
"Perhaps you should tell me."
Scully locked eyes with Mulder, apology in her gaze. "Heightened intelligence, intuition, memory. Enhanced ability to heal."
"Very good, Agent Scully. Of course our crowning achievement was an increased resistance to the alien virus."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute." Grey made a time out motion with his hands. "You're forgetting that Fox nearly died from that virus. Seems to me that part of the grand experiment was a failure."
"Fox's genetic immunity was damaged, not absent. He successfully resisted the virus during his unfortunate adventure with Alex Krycek in Tunguska. It was his later exposure to the toxic chemicals on Brown Mountain that weakened his immunity and allowed the virus to take hold."
"A theory for which you have no real proof," Scully said.
"Come now, Agent Scully, you're not thinking like a scientist. You know that any successful experiment requires both a study group and a control group. After all, a result can't be considered significant unless it can be reproduced."
"How many?" Mulder ground the words out through his teeth. "How many besides Samantha and me?"
"Let's just say you're one of a very select group. I'm quite serious, Fox--you should be thanking us. Those 'unauthorized experiments' are the only reason you're still alive."
"That's a bit of an overstatement, isn't it?"
"Hardly. Have you never wondered why you've been allowed to continue this tiresome quest of yours, meddling in things best left alone? Any other man would have been rewarded with a single bullet to the head and a swift burial."
"I'm too valuable to kill--is that what you're saying?"
Spender inclined his head.
"What does any of this have to do with Fox getting nabbed by the spaceship from hell?" Grey looked from Mulder to Scully, then glared at Spender.
Broken bones. Cuts. Burns. Agony. "How bad is the pain, on a scale of one to ten?" Thick greasiness filling his eyes, his mouth. Crawling under his skin, burrowing into his brain…
Mulder gasped as he tumbled back into his body with a jerk. "They know."
"What? What the hell are you talking about, and why do you look like the bastard just sucker punched you?" Grey ground the words out, his voice harsh.
"Your brother has just experienced an epiphany of sorts." Spender pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
"They were testing the merchandise." Mulder's lips felt numb, his head light. "Measuring the success of the experiment."
Spender pursed his lips, blowing a plume of smoke. "We're understandably concerned. The genetic modifications were performed in absolute secrecy. They were never supposed to learn we had…side projects."
"Projects? You're talking about a human being, you son of a bitch!" Scully's grip on Mulder's hand was gentle, despite the fury in her words. "What will it mean for Mulder, now that they do know?"
"We're not talking about human beings, Agent Scully. I couldn't begin to guess." Spender turned to Mulder with a smile. "Perhaps you should have taken more care in what you wished for, Fox. You wanted proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Now you have it."
"That's it. He's so outta here." Grey grabbed Spender by his upper arms and frog marched him toward the door.
"Mulder? Mulder, you need to sit down."
Scully guided him to the couch and seated him with a gentle shove. She disappeared and returned a moment later, pressing the partially consumed water bottle into his hand.
Mechanically, he did as instructed, sipping water and staring blankly into space. His thoughts a twisted jumble of confusing images and emotions, he only distantly registered the slam of the front door and Grey's return.
"Is he okay?"
"No. He's not 'okay.'" Mulder tipped his head back and regarded his brother. "That Bill Mulder was a helluva a father, wasn't he? He certainly left me an inheritance I'll never take for granted."
Grey winced at the bitterness. He eased onto the arm of a chair with stiff, correct posture that was incongruous with his usual careless sprawl. "Don't let that bastard get to you, Fox. You can't trust a word from his lying mouth."
"He wasn't lying, Grey. Not this time." Mulder's fingers curled into fists where they rested on his thighs.
"He said it himself--he can't guess their intentions. How can you be sure--"
"Because I was there!" Mulder spat out the words, lunging to his feet. He paced to the window, catching a glimpse of Spender as he drove away, smoke trailing from his partially lowered window. "They went fishing for me with that rock and I took the damn bait. Everything they did to me was calculated. Methodical. All designed to test out the new model, from breaking my fingers, to infecting me with the black oil." He scrubbed a hand over his gritty eyes.
"You didn't mention anything about the oil." Scully's tone held worry and not reproach.
Weariness slammed into him, leaving his hands shaking and his legs weak. Mulder turned around, "I didn't remember until now."
"You can't jump to conclusions, Mulder. What they put you through was horrific, but they sent you back. They may have the answers they sought. We've been given no reason to believe they'd take you again."
"Scully, the Files are littered with accounts from multiple abductees. Dwayne Barry. Max Fenig. Cassandra Spender. We've been given no reason to believe they won't."
Mulder returned to the couch, collapsing onto the cushions. "I never wanted to hate him. I made excuses for him, blamed myself because it was easier to believe I'd screwed up than to admit my own father didn't give a damn about me."
Grey leaned forward. "Except he did, Fox. I swear to God, he did. It's just that for some crazy, screwed-up reason he could tell everyone but you."
"He turned his son and daughter into science experiments, Grey. If that's love, then he had a funny way of showing it."
Scully's soft interjection drew their attention. Mulder raised his eyebrows. "Really? Then explain it to me, Scully. Because right now he's not getting my vote for father of the year."
"I agree that what he did was wrong. I just think you should keep an open mind as to his motivations. Mulder, they were operating under the shadow of impending colonization. Your father saw the big picture, was aware of the risks. Maybe Strughold convinced him that cooperating in the experiments would ultimately be a gift to his children. Maybe it was his misguided way of protecting you."
Mulder stared at her for a long moment, then shook his head. "I wish I could be as optimistic as you. But from where I'm standing, it's an awful shitty gift." He dropped his head onto the back of the couch, blinking up at the ceiling. "I'm tired, Scully. And I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Scully tapped his leg as his eyes started drifting shut. "Not yet, Mulder. You haven't had anything to eat since early this morning."
He covered his eyes with the crook of his elbow. "I'm not hungry."
"Just some soup, then, and a few crackers. I've got some of Mom's--"
"I said I'm not hungry."
"You have to eat. You're too thin, Mulder. Remember what Nick said? You can't afford to skip meals."
Mulder snatched down his arm and glared at her. "God, I am so tired of everyone thinking they can run my life! You tell me when to eat, when to sleep, when to talk--I'm surprised you're not scheduling when I can take a piss."
Scully flushed. "You think this is fun for me? Do you have any idea what it's like watching someone I love go through hell, how utterly powerless I feel? I can't take away your pain, stop the flashbacks, or even replace those thirty pounds. I wish to God I could, but I can't." She pressed the back of her hand to her lips, steadying herself. "I can make soup. Or drive you to the doctor. Or hold you when the nightmares get bad. It may not mean much to you, but it means a hell of a lot to me."
"C'mere." Mulder enfolded her resistant body. Tucking her head under his chin, he stroked his fingers through her hair. "It means everything to me, Scully. Don't ever doubt it. I'm just being a pain in the ass."
Grey snorted. "Like that's a news flash."
"Don't you have something to do?" Mulder asked dryly.
Grey stood and hooked a thumb toward the kitchen. "How about I heat the soup?"
"Refrigerator," Scully said. "Third shelf."
Grey offered up a mock salute and disappeared.
Mulder tightened his arms, gratified when Scully's curled around his waist. The feel of her soft skin, the smell of her hair, loosened the knot that had formed in his stomach the moment he'd seen Spender sitting in the living room like he owned it.
"I do know what it's like, Scully."
He sensed her frown; felt the subtle contraction of muscles where her face pressed against his chest. "What are you talking about?"
"You asked if I knew what it was like to feel powerless while someone I loved went through hell. I do."
She was still for a moment, then her body tensed. "My cancer."
"I watched the disease slowly suck the life from you. You were dying, and I couldn't do a damn thing about it. I would have done anything to save you."
She sat up and looked into his eyes, bringing her hand up and cupping his jaw. "And you did. I'm alive because you never gave up." She brushed her thumb across his cheek, her smile fading. "I'm afraid I can't produce a miracle, Mulder. Much as I wish I could."
Mulder brought her hand to his lips. He pressed a kiss to the palm, then gave her a crooked grin. "You're here. You've put up with a pain in the ass for ten years. Babe, if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is."
Continued in Chapter 17