Once unbearable, the pain has faded to a distant annoyance, like the insistent yap of a barking dog. He can't feel his arms or legs, and simply moving air in and out of his lungs takes immense effort. He's tired. So tired. And death is close.
"Did you know that human physiology has a much higher concentration of nerve endings than ours does? It's what makes your species so sensitive to touch. And to pain."
Fresh agony blossoms in his belly, driving back the numbness. The air catches in his chest and he coughs, weak, ragged spasms that spray her pristine lab smock with a fine, red mist. He groans but doesn't try to blink back the tears. If only they would blur her voice as well as her face.
"Your stamina has been truly remarkable, Mulder. Others succumbed long before reaching this stage." She wipes his lips and chin with a soft cloth before tapping information into what looks like a palm pilot.
He can't take his eyes off her hair, not even when his vision darkens around the edges and her words stop making sense. Red, silky, soft as a butterfly wing. He loves how it feels between his fingertips, the way it flickers around her face like bright flames. The sweet, clean smell when he nibbles that spot just behind her ear, the one that makes her moan his name.
A quick, almost painless tug and he's free, severed at last from the body that holds only pain. A final breath whistles from his lungs, and he floats away...
...and awakens, screaming. His body is on fire, twisted from the inside out. They've crawled inside him--squeezing muscle and bone, rearranging organs, slithering through his blood. Fight or flight, he opens his eyes, desperate to escape. Darkness. It envelopes him. He flings his arms upward, smashing his knuckles against something solid.
He's locked in. He pushes with his hands, pulling up his legs, but his forehead and knees crack against an unmovable barrier, knocking him backward. The warmth of his own panicked breaths rebounds against his face. What...?
Oh, God. OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod. Is it a coffin? Is he buried alive? He smells antiseptic and his own blood, not freshly turned earth. There's not enough air. His heart pounding, his chest heaving, he pushes, then scratches at the blackness smothering him, sobbing and pleading.
Let me out! I'm not dead!
Mulder jerked awake. His heart hammered against his ribs and he gulped for air, surprised when it slipped easily into his lungs. He sat up, mopping his sweaty face with his tee shirt. Beside him Scully slept on, her hands curled beneath her chin and her face peaceful.
When he'd stopped shaking, Mulder eased out of the bed. He swapped his damp shirt with a fresh one and shuffled out of the room. Grey was spending the night at Kristen's, and the living room felt strangely empty without him. He sank onto the couch, clutching a throw pillow to his chest.
Tomie's theory had proven correct. Once he recalled his horrific experiences with the healing device, other memories began returning at an alarming rate. He'd suffered three more flashbacks before collapsing into bed, too tired to contemplate anything but sleep. When the nightmares had picked up right where the flashbacks left off, he'd broken down and agreed to take Tomie's damn pills.
That was four hours ago. He was still bone tired, his eyes gritty and his limbs heavy and uncoordinated. Yet beneath the exhaustion hummed a current of tension that would not allow him the respite his body craved. He felt jumpy. Jittery. There was something urgent he needed to do, some place he needed to be, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was.
It's time to go.
The odd refrain had flickered through his mind all afternoon, as if someone were whispering in his ear. He tightened his arms, rocking a little. Go where? He felt trapped by his own weakened body and the oppressive concern that radiated from Scully and Grey.
Tossing the pillow aside, he lurched upright and wandered over to the window, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. A full moon bathed the street, glinting off pavement still damp from a brief spell of snow flurries. The darkened windows, the absence of traffic, the softly glowing streetlights--all radiated a stillness that mocked the relentless turmoil churning inside him.
How had he deluded himself into believing he could take ownership of his life? That he could walk away and leave the nightmare behind? His existence was tangled up in a web of deceit and betrayal. Once Spender had accused him of becoming a player, a cheap shot meant to impugn Mulder's integrity. But the truth was that he'd been a pawn in their damn cosmic chess game from the moment of his conception. He'd never be free of it.
Time to go.
It was a compulsion now, a constant tickling in his brain. He turned from the window, rubbing his head.
Now, while she's sleeping. Hurry.
He opened the closet and reached for his coat. When his fingers brushed Scully's jacket, an electric tingle shot up his arm and the tickle in his head became a command.
IN THE POCKET TAKE IT REACH INSIDE PICK IT UP TAKE IT HOLD IT TOUCH IT YOURS ALL YOURS
He slid his hand inside the pocket and grabbed it.
Smooth, slick, warm, it fit perfectly into his palm. He shut his eyes as serenity washed through him, the rush as sweet as a narcotic. His chin dipped to his chest and his body relaxed.
The voice gentled.
Relax. Let go. You don't have to think anymore. Just do exactly as you're told. We'll take care of you, Mulder. No more fear. No more worries. Come back to us. It's time.
He smiled and opened his eyes. Of course, everything made sense now. He didn't belong here; he needed to go back. They were waiting for him.
He put on his jacket--Quiet, don't wake her--and walked to the elevator. Punching the button, he hummed quietly and watched the lighted numbers count down.
Outside, a gust of wind ruffled his hair and peeled back his jacket. Mulder zipped it to his chin, hunching his shoulders. He stared up and down the deserted street, a thread of uncertainty penetrating his comfortable haze. He had to go--but how?
His patted his pockets. No keys. He couldn't take the car or get back into the apartment without waking Scully.
Uncertainty blossomed into anxiety. This was crazy; he was standing on the street in the middle of the night with no idea where he was headed or how he was going to get there. He should turn around, march right back into the building and...
Relax. Don't think. Feel. Feel us. Come back.
He started walking, and the relief was instantaneous. Apprehension melted away with each footstep and he smiled, barely acknowledging the chill cutting through his too-thin jacket and nipping at his feet. Cupping the rock in his hand, he caressed the smooth surface with his thumb, mesmerized by the touch. For the first time in longer than he could remember, he felt good. So good.
Ducking his head and shielding his face from the brunt of the wind, he quickened his pace.
She snapped her eyes open and sat up, listening. After a wretched afternoon battling flashbacks, he'd fallen into an exhausted sleep. Unfortunately, the returning memories had pursed him into his dreams and he'd awakened in a cold sweat shortly thereafter. The fact that he'd finally agreed to one of Tomie's pills testified to the depth of his fatigue.
She'd crawled into bed full of hope that the night might pass without further incident. Mulder, sprawled across the mattress, hadn't twitched when she'd snuggled up to his back. The slow, steady whisper of his breath had lulled her into slumber.
She should have known it was too good to last.
Stopping to check the bathroom, she continued into the living room. She expected flickering blue light and Mulder stretched on the sofa, remote in hand, but found only darkness and silence.
In the kitchen, an empty water bottle sat beside the sink. "Mulder?" Louder and more insistent, but still greeted with silence.
She did another sweep of the apartment, this time with an investigator's eye. The shirt Mulder had worn to bed lay discarded on the floor; his dresser drawer hung open. She'd seen enough sweat-soaked clothing over the past week to recognize evidence of a nightmare.
In the living room she picked the throw pillow off the floor and returned it to the couch. The curtains were open a crack, revealing the street below.
Damn it. Nick had made it very clear that running was out of the question. Not only would it sap Mulder's already flagging energy level and expose him to the elements, it burned calories he desperately needed.
Scully opened the hall closet. Her coat had been knocked off its hanger and left in a heap on the floor next to Mulder's running shoes. His Birkenstocks, however, were missing. What the hell...?
She snatched his leather jacket from the hanger, eyes slipping shut when she felt a telltale bulge in his pocket.
Mulder's wallet and keys.
You didn't go running in sandels and you sure as hell didn't traipse around in the middle of the night without your keys.
What was he doing? Had he become caught in some kind of flashback? Could he be wandering around the city, trapped in his own mind? She had to find him, now, before he hurt himself. Scully refused to consider the possibility that he might hurt someone else.
She returned to the kitchen and grabbed the phone, punching numbers with shaking fingers. It was picked up on the second ring.
"Kristen, I need to talk to Grey."
"What's wrong? Is it Mulder?"
"Kristen, please, I can't...I have to--"
"Calm down, darlin'. I'm right here."
She sagged, her legs trembling. "Grey, Mulder's gone."
"I don't know. If I did I wouldn't be standing here talking on the phone!"
"Okay, okay. Slow down and back up."
She sucked in a deep breath. "He was sound asleep when I went to bed. That was around midnight. When I woke up about fifteen minutes ago, he was gone. His shoes are missing but he left his wallet and keys."
"Maybe he went for a run." She could hear Grey moving about the room, opening and shutting drawers.
"Wrong shoes. And he'd have taken his keys."
"You've got a point. Are you sure he didn't leave a note? Maybe he went for a walk and just forgot the keys. If he'd had a flashback, wasn't thinking straight--"
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"What if he wasn't in his right mind when he left? The flashbacks have been intense. If he thought he was back on the ship--"
"From what you're saying, he didn't just run out of the apartment. He had the presence of mind to go to the closet, put on shoes, a coat--"
"Oh my God." Scully stiffened, and spun toward the hallway. Her eyes locked onto her jacket as she forced her legs into motion.
"Dana? What is it?"
Ignoring Grey, she scooped up the coat and plunged her hand into the pocket.
Oh, God. Mulder.
"Damn it, Dana! Answer me!"
"It's my fault. How could I have been so stupid?" Tears flooded her eyes and caught in the back of her throat. "God, this can't be happening. It can't be happening!"
"What are you talking about? Dana, talk to me. I'm in the car but I can't get there for at least fifteen minutes and you're scaring the shit out of me. What's your fault?"
Her legs folded and she slid down the wall. "Mulder has the device."
"What dev--the rock? How?"
"Skinner wanted our lab to have a look at it. I'd picked it up from the guys and was taking it to the Bureau when Tomie called. In all the commotion this afternoon I just...I..." Her voice cracked and she couldn't continue.
"You forgot." Grey sighed. "We spent the afternoon peeling him off the ceiling, Dana. It's no wonder--"
"Why would he do it, Grey? Why would he touch it knowing what we know? It doesn't make any sense, unless..."
"Unless he didn't have a choice." Grey's voice hardened. "Put on some clothes and meet me out front. He doesn't have a car or his wallet--he can't have gone far."
"Can't he? If we're right, Grey, then they called him. They want him back."
"I don't give a damn what they want. They can't have him.
* * *
The first weak threads of sunlight were glinting off car windows as the cab coasted to the curb.
"Hey, buddy. Need a lift?"
Mulder pulled up short and stared at dark eyes in a stubbled face. "What?"
"I said, do you need a lift? I've been watching you for the last two blocks and no offense but ya look like you're ready to keel over."
He limped closer. His legs were weak with exhaustion and his feet felt like wooden blocks. Funny, he hadn't noticed until now.
"You'd give me a ride?"
The cabbie popped his gum. "For the standard rate." He squinted at Mulder. "Ya got money, don't ya?"
Money? Mulder searched through his pockets. No wallet, but he pulled out a slim leather folder. The cabbie's eyes widened when the case flipped open.
"FBI? Hey, you on a case?"
It's time to go. Hurry.
"I have to go. It's urgent."
"Never let it be said that Pete Sobricki didn't do his part to uphold justice. Hop in--I'll bill ya."
Mulder blinked, then opened the door and climbed in back. "Thanks."
Pete slung an arm over the seatback and turned to face him. "Were you in an accident or something? 'Cause you're sure acting a little rough around the edges."
"I'm fine. I'm just in a hurry."
Pete lifted his hands. "Okay, okay. So tell me where we're going."
Mulder frowned, then his forehead smoothed. "West. Virginia."
Pete snorted but turned back toward the wheel. "Virginia. Could you be a little more specific?"
Mulder relaxed, tipping his head onto the seatback and closing his eyes. Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive."