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Chapter 17

Bethesda
Monday
10:32 AM


Mulder raised an eyebrow. "Now it's cookies?"

Tomie waved him into the kitchen and picked up another egg. She tapped it sharply against the rim of the mixing bowl and pulled the two halves apart with deft fingers. "You're a psychologist, Mulder. Surely you recognize my clever use of a non-threatening environment."

Mulder chuckled and shook his head. "Tomie, as far as I'm concerned, everything about you is threatening." He bypassed the chair she indicated and prowled along the spotless, butcherblock counter.

Tomie watched him from the corner of her eye, her hands never faltering as she made quick work of two more eggs. "That's good, isn't it? Complacency rarely encourages growth."

Mulder picked up an apple and juggled it. "I'm here to grow? And all this time I thought it was for the PTSD." He set down the apple and moved on to a set of canisters, lifting lids and peering inside. "You're out of flour."

"Since you brought it up--"

"The flour?"

"Have you been taking the meds I prescribed?"

Mulder turned and leaned against the counter. "Why bother asking me? I know you talked to Scully."

"She's worried about you. She said you've been on edge, that you can't sit still for more than five minutes and you're not sleeping." Tomie looked pointedly at Mulder's tapping foot.

Catching the hint, Mulder pushed away from the counter and dropped into one of the wooden kitchen chairs. "I sleep when I take the pills."

"But not through the night."

"Four or five hours. That's double what I'd been getting."

"It's still not enough, and you know it. Maybe you're resistant to the Xanax--I'll give you a new prescription before you leave today."

Tipping backward, Mulder balanced the chair on two legs. "You're the doctor."

Tomie plopped the mixing bowl onto the table in front of him and handed him a wooden spoon. "Here. I may as well harness some of that excess energy."

Mulder stared at the spoon, then began whirling it through the mixture of eggs, milk, and butter. "Don't you have an electric mixer?"

Tomie pulled out several cookie sheets and turned on the oven. "Mixers are for wimps. Besides, stirring is therapeutic. Gives you an outlet for all that bottled up anger."

"I'm not angry."

She gave him a long look and put the milk back in the refrigerator.

"I'm not."

Tomie braced her palms on the table. "That is utter bullshit, Mulder."

Mulder stopped stirring and looked up at her, smirking. "Don't mince words, Tomie. Tell me what you really think."

"They stripped you of your humanity, treated you as an object to be manipulated and controlled at whim. They tortured you-- physically, mentally, emotionally--and they used your wife to do it. Now if that doesn't make you madder than hell..." She shook her head. "You've got bigger issues than just PTSD."

"Maybe I'm just too tired to be mad. I've spent the past ten years of my life in a haze of self-righteous anger, and what has it accomplished? The abductions, the tests, the plans for colonization continue, and I can't do anything to stop them."

"Children are alive right now because of your self-righteous anger."

Mulder snapped his head up and studied her face. "You and Scully had quite the little chat."

"I watch the headlines, Mulder. Particularly when they involve unexplained disappearances. Dana just filled in the blanks." She took the bowl from his hands. "Those children would be dead if you hadn't come up with an effective treatment."

"Damage control. We've got a finger in the dyke; the wall is still crumbling."

He shoved back his chair and began pacing. "The abductions are just the warm-up. They intend to colonize this planet, and those of us who survive will wind up slaves--or worse yet, incubators for their young. And the aliens have the power elite of this planet on their side. The very people who block me at every turn have been collaborating with them to save their own sorry asses.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been this close, this close to obtaining solid proof, only to have it snatched from my grasp. Well, I'm damn tired of it, of spinning my wheels and going nowhere. How am I supposed to save a planet? Hell, I couldn't even save myself!"

Moments passed before the silence pulled at him. Mulder realized he was standing in the middle of the kitchen, fists clenched, breathing hard. Tomie sat at the table, watching him. To Mulder's supreme irritation, she looked mildly amused.

"What?"

"I was just thinking--it's a good thing you're not angry."

"Very funny."

"Not really." Tomie cradled the mixing bowl against her body, stirring the batter with smooth, efficient strokes. "Mulder, you and I both know that putting this experience behind you will take more than recovering a few lost memories. You must acknowledge and accept the emotions that go along with them. Anger, fear, guilt--the feelings themselves aren't negative, they just need a healthy outlet."

"Sounds like a lot of psychobabble to me."

"Some psychobabble has validity, kiddo." Tomie stood and walked over to the counter. She took the lid off a canister and sighed. "You're right; I am out of flour. There's a five-pound bag on the shelf in the cellar. Mind sparing an old lady's legs?"

Mulder rolled his eyes but headed for the door. "Those old legs of yours manage to kick my butt fairly efficiently."

"Down the steps and to your right."

Mulder flicked on the light and descended four steps, pausing when the walls began closing in. Pressing one hand to the cinderblock, he forced himself to take deep, slow breaths. Turning his head, he focused on the bright spill of light from the sunny kitchen and the soft sounds Tomie made as she puttered about.

Get a grip. You're a little old to be scared of the dark.

Four more steps and he'd reached the bottom. The cellar was small but clean, its cement floor neatly swept and the walls freshly painted. Shelves filled with labeled boxes, jars of homemade preserves, canned vegetables, and staples like sugar, flour, and rice lined the walls.

He quickly scooped up the flour and made for the stairs. He had one hand on the railing when an object toward the back of the room caught his eye and he froze, mouth dry.

Oblong, about five feet in length and three feet high. A freezer, he told himself firmly. Just an extra place to store meat, ice cream, TV dinners. Nothing threatening could be found in white enamel, a hinged lid, a few lights and dials.

He stared at the glowing, amber light and his stomach turned over. What...?

Agony. Everywhere. Coughs tear through his body, leaving warmth on his chin and copper in his mouth. Hands...pulling, dragging, lifting. Dark. Walls pressing inward. Can't move, can't...out! Let me out. A coffin. Buried alive. Oh, God, not again..._

The bag of flour smacked the floor and burst open, spraying a cloud of white dust into the air.


"Where is he?"

Scully stepped into the foyer, turning her head as she searched for some sign of Mulder. Grey laid a steadying hand on her shoulder.

Tomie shut the door and moved in front of them. "He's all right, Dana. I gave him a hot drink and something to help him relax. I know you're both anxious to see him, but I need to talk to you first."

"Okay." Scully folded her arms, tamping down her urge to shove the woman aside. She'd been halfway between the Gunmen's place and the Bureau when Grey had called her cell phone. In the thirty minutes required to collect him and drive to Tomie's house her threadbare patience had unraveled completely.

"First, let me repeat--he's all right. I didn't ask you both to come because he was in trouble."

"It sure as hell didn't sound like he was doing so great when you called," Grey said.

Tomie smiled at him. "I said he was all right, not great. We had a rough time of it for a while there. He was in a bad way--completely dissociative for more than twenty minutes. But I'm fairly confident we've weathered the worst of the crisis."

"You said he had a flashback. He remembered something?" Scully studied Tomie's face, looking for any hint that the doctor was keeping something from her.

Tomie nodded, compassion crinkling her eyes. "Quite a large something. In fact, I have a feeling this particular memory has been acting like a cork, if you take my meaning. The trauma his mind couldn't accept, that triggered the protective amnesia he's used to bottle up all recollection of his experience."

"He's told you the details?"

"He blurted out snips and pieces during the flashback, but nothing since. He wanted you two to be here first. He said he has no intention of going over it more than once."

"Then let's get started." Scully took one step forward, halted by Tomie's upraised hand.

"I'm not finished, sweetheart."

She bristled a little at the endearment. "Can't this wait? Considering what he's just been through, I don't think it's wise to leave him alone."

"He needed a few minutes to pull himself together. And I need a few to prepare you before you see him."

"Tomie, he's my partner and he's my husband. You can't even begin to imagine what we've been through together. I think I know what to expect."

"Humor me."

Scully pressed her lips tightly together, but motioned for Tomie to continue.

"He may seem disturbingly calm. Indifferent, even. Don't let his detachment throw you. The sedative I gave him is bound to dampen any emotional response, but he's also insulating himself from a highly traumatic revelation."

Tomie waited for a nod from each of them, then continued. "And then there's the issue of his hands."

Scully stiffened. "His hands?"

"They're a bit worse for wear. His was in my cellar when the flashback came on. By the time I got down there he'd backed himself into a corner and was...clawing at the walls. Nothing is broken, but he bloodied his fingertips and peeled back a couple nails before I stopped him."

"What in the hell was he doing in your cellar?"

"I was in the middle of a batch of cookies. I'd sent him down for a bag of flour."

"You sent him down there alone, knowing what he's been going through? The flashbacks, the panic attacks--the man still can't get into an elevator, for God's sake! Was that supposed to be your idea of therapy?"

"Dana." Grey touched her arm, the slight shake of his head a gentle rebuke.

"You of all people know flashbacks can occur anytime, anywhere. In this particular instance I don't think it was either the dark or the enclosed space that triggered Mulder's memories--though I've no doubt they were contributing factors.

"But the answer to your question, Dana, is yes. That is my idea of therapy. I've never denied my methods are a bit unorthodox--in fact, I seem to remember that was what brought you to me. I provide a safe place and a listening ear." Tomie tipped her chin up. "I'd say it's working."

Scully sagged as the indignation flowed from her body. "I'm sorry, Tomie. I just--"

Tomie wrinkled her nose and waved a hand. "No apology needed. We've all got his best interest at heart. Now, how about I stop talking and take you to him?"

She led them down a short hallway to a pair of French doors. Inside lay a cozy den complete with a gas fireplace and a large picture window looking onto what would likely be a flower garden in warmer weather. Mulder sat in an overstuffed chair near the fire, his bandaged hands cradling a mug.

Scully crossed the room and crouched at his side. "Hey."

"Hey." He twitched his lips in a weak smile, looking from Scully to Grey.

"How are you doing?"

"I'm fine, Scully. Don't look so worried."

Tomie was right--Mulder's placid tone unnerved her. Scully tried telling herself she should appreciate the respite after days of nervous fidgeting and snappish remarks, but the sense of wrongness set her on edge. Mulder existed naturally in a state of motion--canvassing crime scenes, tracking down leads, searching out witnesses. The drive to be doing, saying, thinking even permeated their home life--he couldn't watch a movie without providing commentary, reading in bed inevitably led to lovemaking, and skipping his morning run for more than a day or two left him wired and out of sorts.

Scully curled her fingers around one thin wrist and squeezed. "Guess I should've warned Tomie about letting you help in the kitchen."

Mulder laughed weakly but his eyes were hollow.

Tomie touched Scully's shoulder, then pressed a warm mug into her hands. Scully stood and joined Grey where he sat on the couch, sipping from his own cup. The tea was hot and sweet, laced with milk and sugar--not the way she normally took it, but she appreciated the therapeutic value for jangling nerves.

Tomie sat in a rocking chair across from Mulder. "All right, kiddo. We're listening."

Mulder turned the mug between his palms, staring into the amber liquid. "The x-rays, the MRIs, and the few memories I already recovered paint a pretty clear picture of what was done to me. But they don't account for how I could possibly have survived." He licked his lips. "Now I know."

The clock ticked a measured beat; somewhere outside a dog barked furiously. Grey opened his mouth, but Tomie shook her head sharply, silencing him. Mulder took a small sip of the tea, grimaced, and continued.

"They had a box--a kind of machine. It was big enough to hold a person. Namely me. Whenever I became too damaged to be of further use, they'd haul me over and dump me inside. Shut the lid, flip a few switches, and voila! One fully restored guinea pig, ready to rock and roll."

"A healing device?" Scully took a steadying breath. "I know we've had our suspicions, but...my God, that certainly explains everything."

"Let me get this straight." Grey spoke through clenched teeth, his eyes narrowed. "They'd torture you until you were half dead, run you through the machine to fix you up, and then start all over again?"

"Oh, they didn't stop at half. I mean, where's the fun in that?"

"What are you saying, Mulder?"

"I'm saying I'm pretty damn sure I didn't always go into the box alive. I wanted to die, Scully. It got to the point where I reached for it with both hands. But the bastards wouldn't let me go. They kept bringing me back."

Mulder shut his eyes and his voice lost all inflection. "It was like waking up in a coffin, buried alive. No light, no air, walls surrounding you, closing in. And I could feel it working inside of me, bones fusing, tissue regenerating, muscles knitting together. The pain... It felt like I was being ripped into little pieces and slowly reassembled. The agony I went through in that machine was ten times worse than anything they did to put me there."

"That's where you'd gone, then," Tomie said, nodding at Mulder's hands. "I couldn't understand a good deal of what you were saying, but one phrase was very clear: You were begging me to let you out."

"I think it was seeing your meat freezer. The shape, the controls...it seemed so familiar. And then it all came rushing back." Mulder scrubbed a hand over his face. "Sorry for losing it like that. I guess there's probably not much hope for that batch of cookies."

"Oh, I'd say those cookies served their purpose. You've made a bit of a breakthrough today, Mulder. How do you feel?"

"Ready to get the hell out of here." Mulder looked at her with weary eyes. "No offense."

Tomie smiled. "None taken. I think you've accomplished quite enough one today."

"Car's parked down the street," Grey said after Tomie had escorted them to the door and they'd stepped into a chill wind. "Y'all wait here and I'll pull around."

"I can walk." Mulder zipped his jacket and turned up the collar. "I'm stoned, not crippled."

"Who said I was doing it for you? I'm sparing Dana the hike. Those shoes look damn uncomfortable." Grey twirled his keys around his finger and jogged down the sidewalk.

"He just likes to drive," Scully said dryly. She studied Mulder's pale face. "How are you doing?"

He lifted a shoulder and gave her a lopsided smile. "Been worse. Been better. You?"

"That about sums it up, I'd say."

"I'm sorry, Scully."

"For?"

"Being such a bastard the past few days. I'm surprised you haven't kicked my ass to the curb."

"Well, I can't say I haven't been tempted. But the truth is, I've grown rather fond of your ass."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Well, that's...that's good, Scully. Because I've grown pretty attached to yours, too." He sighed. "Not that you could tell lately, I'm sorry to say. But I hope to remedy that. Soon."

Scully looked up at him through her lashes. "Bring it on."

Mulder tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, then leaned over and touched his mouth to hers. The chaste brush of lips quickly escalated when she opened to him, and he enveloped her in his arms. Scully relaxed into the embrace, one hand drifting up to cradle the back of his neck and the other curled around his waist.

He jerked as if she'd jabbed him with a needle and took a quick step backward, stumbling over his own feet.

"Mulder? What's wrong?"

He stared through her as if she were a stranger. "What?"

"What's going on? Are you hurt?"

Blinking, he focused on her at last. "No. Why?"

"Why? Because you practically jumped out of your skin, that's why. Are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine, Scully."

Scully frowned. Mulder's tense posture and shuttered expression said otherwise. But before she could press the issue, he began walking toward the street.

"There's Grey. Let's go."

After hesitating briefly, she followed. Mulder moved easily, no hint of discomfort in his stride or as he climbed into the back seat. As she buckled her seatbelt, Scully glanced over her shoulder. Mulder had tipped his head back and closed his eyes.

Nothing to worry about, she told herself. He's fine.

Grey hunched over the steering wheel, occupied with the task of driving and his own thoughts. Numb with fatigue, Scully sank back into her seat, mirroring Mulder's position. Within minutes, the silence lulled her into a doze.

Mulder slowly opened his eyes. A line formed between his brows and he sat up straighter, cocking his head. Listening intently. Nodding.

Grey eased the car around a corner, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. Scully drowsed, her breath a soft, rhythmic whisper. And the tires hummed against the pavement.

Continued in Chapter 18