Four weeks later
Grey picked up a towel and mopped off the front of his shirt. "Hey, darlin'. How was your day?"
Scully blew a wisp of hair from her face. "I'm partnered with an incompetent idiot, how the hell do you think my day was?"
"That good, huh?"
"Callahan didn't think it was necessary to hold on to the suspect, since he was already cuffed. 'C'mon, Agent Scully, how far could the guy get?'" She mimicked her temporary partner's nasal twang with deadly accuracy.
Grey surveyed her mud-splattered shoes, suit, and face. "Pretty far, I take it."
"Nearly a mile. Across a field roughly the consistency of chocolate pudding. Turns out the guy went to college on a track scholarship. That, of course, was years before he started passing himself off as a faith healer and conning a lot of desperate people." She dried her hands on his towel, leaving the shoes in the sink.
Grey took it back and wiped a smudge of dirt from her cheek. "So, I take it Callahan has joined the ranks of the X-Files undead?"
Scully pursed her lips and shouldered past him, heading into the bedroom. "Three people can hardly be considered an army, Grey, and that's not funny."
Grey resumed his seat at the computer, raising his voice to be heard. "It's just that I don't think Walt intended the selection of Fox's stand-in to turn into an episode of Survivor."
"What the hell kind of crack is that?"
He swiveled his chair, facing her. She leaned in the doorway, brow furrowed and teeth clenched. Now minus suit jacket and hose, she held a bath towel in one hand. Grey mentally chastised himself for poking an already pissed woman licensed to carry a weapon. Sighing, he dug the hole deeper.
"Dana, I'm only suggesting that you may not exactly be keeping an entirely open mind." He winced at his wishy-washy delivery. "I mean, c'mon. They can't all be that bad."
"Bad? Adams only cared about staying in one piece till retirement, Parkinson couldn't think outside the box if his life depended on it, Callahan refused to take any kind of direction--I'm telling you, Grey, they were all hopeless! None of them were X-Files material, none of them were...were--"
The quietly uttered name sucked the wind from her sails. Shock and grief twisted her mouth and glistened in her eyes. She quickly regained control, lips relaxing, the tight lines around her eyes and mouth easing, but Grey could see the effort it cost.
She tipped up her chin, voice brittle. "You're putting words in my mouth."
Grey shook his head. "I'm putting voice to what's already in your heart." He got up, walked over, and stood in front of her, ducking his head to look into her eyes. "Darlin', we both know Fox Mulder is one of a kind. So how 'bout you stop using him as the blueprint for that job description?"
"You don't understand." The protest started strong but faded to a whisper.
"What? That sharing the office again is harder than being alone? Or that it just about kills you every time you turn and see the person watching your back isn't Fox?"
Her breath hitched and her face crumpled. His own chest tight, Grey drew her over to the couch and took her into his arms. Hands fisted in his tee shirt, tears hot against his neck, her small body trembled with repressed sobs. Grey swallowed the bitter taste of his own guilt and held on, shushing her with murmured words of comfort that rang hollow to his own ears.
Eventually she sat up, fingers swiping at the tear tracks on her cheeks. Her eyes dodged his, resting on a wet and muddy spot beneath the collar of his shirt, and she grimaced.
"Not a problem. 'S why God invented washing machines." Grey dropped his head onto the back of the couch. "I miss him, too."
Dana tensed, then relaxed into his side, head on his shoulder. "Did Mulder ever tell you how we came to be partners?"
Grey smiled up at the ceiling. "He said the smoking man sent you to spy on him, to shut him down. But you turned around and kicked the bastard's skinny excuse for an ass instead."
A glimmer of amusement crept past the weariness in her voice. "Sounds like Mulder." A pause, and she continued, pensive. "I never intended to do their dirty work for them. I'd joined the FBI hoping to distinguish myself. Agreeing to take on the X-Files was supposed to be just a stepping stone to bigger and better things."
"Don't know how to break this to you, but nine years is a helluva big stepping stone."
"Tell me about it."
"Fox Mulder happened." She exhaled through her nose. "I'd heard all about him, of course. Mulder was a legend in his own time."
"For his profiling abilities."
She nodded. "And for torpedoing his own career. There he was, the golden boy, destined to become the Bureau's youngest A.D., and he chucks it all to chase aliens. Half the agents I knew pitied him; the other half made him the punchline of a lot of cruel jokes."
"Not exactly good company for someone climbing the ladder to success."
"Very true. But...I was intrigued. And maybe a little arrogant. After all, I'd dazzled my professors, my fellow students at the academy." She laughed quietly to herself. "I figured I'd walk into that basement office and dazzle Fox Mulder, too."
"Way I heard it, that's just what you did."
Scully snorted. "That's not exactly how I remember it. 'So who did you tick off to get stuck with this detail, Scully?'" She mimicked Mulder's dry delivery, then huffed. "I walked away from that first meeting equally impressed and annoyed. He was every bit as brilliant as I'd been told, and twice as irritating."
Grey chuckled. "I hear you. We didn't exactly hit it off in the beginning either." His grin turned wistful. "He kinda grows on you, though."
"He won me over on our very first case. I'd never known anyone so passionate about his beliefs. All that fire and enthusiasm--he was a vortex I couldn't help but be sucked into. When he opened up to me one night, confided in me about his sister, I began to understand. I couldn't give credence to his certainty that aliens had abducted Samantha. But I felt he deserved to know the truth, and I was confident I could help him discover it."
She sighed. "It was a journey I undertook willingly, if a bit naively."
"One that came at a high price."
"Higher than I ever could have imagined."
Her lips curved but her eyes welled up. "I once told Mulder I wouldn't change a day."
Grey shuddered theatrically. "Flukemen? Liver-eating mutants? You sure about that?"
He got the raised eyebrow, then Dana sighed again. "Anyway, you've made your point. Whomever Skinner sends to replace Callahan...well...I'll try not to set the bar so high."
Silence grew between them. Despite his reluctance to extract his weary body from the soft cushions, Grey hauled himself upright. "When was the last time you consumed anything but coffee or diet soda?"
Dana lifted one shoulder, also getting to her feet. "I've eaten."
"Really? See, where I come from half a bagel or a cup of yogurt don't count."
Dana's blank expression transformed to a scowl. "That little sneak. Is that why she keeps dropping by my office? You've got her spying on me?"
Grey held up both hands. "This is Kristen we're talking about. No one 'gets' her to do anything unless she damn well wants to." He shrugged. "She's worried about you. Now why don't you clean up and I'll fix us something to eat?"
"Speaking of Kristen--won't she be expecting you? I don't need a babysitter, Grey. I'm capable of feeding myself." She flushed when Grey folded his arms and deliberately looked her up and down.
"All evidence to the contrary, darlin'. Kris is working late tonight, which is why I came over here to use the computer. Besides, I figured maybe you'd like a little company. You telling me you're gonna make me eat dinner alone?"
Scully rolled her eyes, lips twitching. "Oh, God, not the pout. Mulder always..." She caught herself, blinking hard.
Grey moved toward the kitchen, giving her space. "You've got twenty minutes. Not sure what I'm cooking, but I guarantee it'll be ready by then."
True to his word, twenty minutes later Scully walked into a kitchen filled with the aroma of eggs and freshly brewed coffee.
"Smells good," she said, taking her usual seat at the table.
Grey set a piping hot omelet and a mug in front of her before retrieving his own food and claiming a seat across the table. When she dug into her meal with increasing enthusiasm, a smug smile tugged the corners of his mouth.
Scully looked away when she caught him gloating, a distinctly sheepish expression on her face. "I guess I was hungrier than I realized."
"Glad to hear it."
They ate in companionable silence. When he'd finished, Grey shoved back his chair and stretched out long legs, fingers laced across the back of his neck. Stomach full, fatigue descended with a vengeance, weighting his eyelids and fuzzing his head.
"You know, you're a fine one to be delivering lectures. Just how much sleep have you gotten lately?"
His eyes popped open and he straightened, smothering the yawn that tried to sneak past his lips. "I've slept."
She pursed her lips. "About as much as I've eaten, I'd imagine."
"It's not the same."
"Really?" Sarcasm dripped from the word. "All evidence to the contrary."
His brows drew together and his tone became sharp. "You've been deliberately skipping meals, Dana. If I'm short on sleep, it's not for lack of trying."
Mentally berating himself for revealing too much, Grey snatched up both their plates and carried them to the sink. He turned the water on hot, scrubbing egg and dried cheese from the porcelain and ignoring the scrape of her chair across the tile.
She touched his arm, stilling the frenetic movements. He released a long breath but didn't object when she reached around him to shut off the water.
"Why didn't you tell me you were having trouble sleeping?"
"Why didn't you tell me you'd dropped five pounds?" He bit back the anger she didn't deserve, voice gentling. "Anyway, falling asleep is not the problem."
"Scale of one to ten?"
Her voice wavered a little and he abruptly wondered how often she and Fox had played out this scene. He forced a chuckle into his reply.
"I'd give 'em a thirteen--unless practically assaulting your bed- partner ranks a lot lower than I think."
Scully didn't have a comeback for that one. Instead she placed a dishtowel into his hands and nudged him aside, filling the sink with soapy water. But he wasn't off the hook yet.
"You're dreaming about Mulder's abduction?"
Grey really, really didn't want to talk about this. But how could he ask her to bare her soul and then hold back? He ran the towel over a slippery plate with more care than necessary, searching for the words.
"Sometimes. Nothing earth shattering there--he's screaming for help and I'm... You don't have to point out the irony, by the way. Three years of listening to Fox relive Samantha's abduction and now I get hands-on experience."
"We've been through this, Grey. There was nothing you could have done." When he concentrated all his attention on polishing a plate she poked him with her elbow. "Do you hold Mulder responsible for what happened to Samantha?"
She gestured with a sudsy hand--Well, then?
"He was a twelve-year-old kid. I, on the other hand, am a supposedly competent professional law enforcement--"
Grey choked. "Yadda?"
"As in yeah, yeah, sure, fine, whatever." Dana dried her hands, oblivious that she sounded exactly like Fox.
A line formed between her brows. "You said sometimes you dream about Mulder being taken. What else are the nightmares about?"
Shit. He so did not want to go there. Images flashed through his mind--Fox strapped to a metal table in a stark white room, laid out like some alien science project. Huddled in a ball on the floor, rocking, all signs of that incredible intellect wiped from his blank face and dead eyes. Dropped into a remote field in a godforsaken stretch of no man's land, limp, cold...lifeless.
Exhaustion short-circuited his poker face. Grey saw his own horror creep into her eyes. He'd opened his mouth, wanting to reassure, wanting to deny, when the phone rang.
Scully scooped it up and disappeared into the other room. Grateful for the reprieve, Grey finished drying the dishes and put them into the cupboard. He was debating whether to dump the remaining coffee when Dana's voice pierced his sleep-deprived fog. Tossing aside the dishcloth, he bolted for the living room.
Scully was jotting something on a legal pad, the phone in a white- knuckled grip. "How sure are you?...Damn it, don't patronize me! We've been down this road before--more than once--and I...I'm not sure I can handle another disappointment, Melvin. How sure are you?"
She looked up at Grey as she listened. His heart stuttered at the flicker of hope in her wide blue eyes.
"I'll drive out there tonight...No, there's no sense all of us going, we don't even know for certain it's him...I won't be alone. Grey--?" He nodded emphatically. "--Grey will come with me. We'll call as soon as we know anything." Whatever the little man said next caused her eyes to fill. "I will."
Scully hung up the phone and looked at Grey.
"The boys located a John Doe in a hospital in Farmville, Virginia. That's less than thirty miles from Holiday Lake State Park. He fits Mulder's description."
Grey swallowed, his throat dry as sandpaper. "Condition?"
"Unconscious. The rest is sketchy."
Grey studied her face. "There's something else you haven't told me. Something that has you believing it's him."
"The doctor wouldn't tell Frohike much, but he did mention something odd. When the John Doe turned up he was holding something in his right hand. They could barely pry it from his fingers."
"What was it?"
"Some kind of unusual rock. Smooth and polished, like black glass. The doctor couldn't figure out why Mulder would be clutching it so tightly." She leaned in closer. "It was warm, Grey. Almost too warm to touch."
The stuttering in his chest became a jackhammer. "Let's go."