"How can you be so calm?"
She wanted to snatch back the rebuke when he lifted his head to reveal bloodshot eyes. "Don't pay any attention to the man behind the curtain," he replied, then shook his head with wry amusement. "It's all an illusion. I'm dyin' here, Dana. It was either sit down or throw up."
Her lips twitched and the tight muscles in her shoulders eased a bit. "Wise choice."
A doctor stopped at the nurses' station, conferred briefly, and strode toward them. Scully met him halfway, Grey on her heels.
"Doctor Hammond?" She offered her hand, transfixed and a bit disconcerted by the man's uncanny resemblance to her father.
"Doctor Scully, I presume." His clasp was warm and firm, his gaze direct. "And Detective Mckenzie?"
Grey nodded as his hand received the same treatment.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, I came as soon as I could. Your friend, Mr. Frohike, indicated you might know the identity of our John Doe?"
Scully steadied her voice. "We're hoping he's my husband, Fox Mulder. He was abducted from this area over three months ago."
"The description does seem to match. Some hikers stumbled across our man about forty minutes from here, in Bear Creek State Park. We're one of the better-equipped hospitals in this area, so they brought him here. He was naked when they found him, and has yet to regain consciousness. Lacking any means of identifying him, I was forced to turn the matter over to the sheriff's department. They'd planned to run his fingerprints, before you called."
"Could we see him?"
Hammond smiled, his brown eyes warm. "Of course. Right this way."
Scully's vision narrowed to the impossibly long corridor stretching before her, the routine hospital bustle, and even Grey's presence, fading to peripheral awareness. On some level she registered he and Hammond making polite conversation but the words were an unintelligible drone. When they finally stepped into the ICU, Grey's arm slipped around her shoulders.
Hammond led them to the farthest cubicle and drew aside the privacy curtain.
"Oh my God."
She stared at Mulder's pale, thin face, mesmerized, until a rush of tears blurred it and her legs buckled. Blinking furiously, she broke free from Grey and crossed to the bed.
Three months, two false alarms, and countless dead ends. She had to touch, to know he was real. Scully smoothed her palm down his stubbled cheek, brushed the pad of her thumb over dry, cracked lips, stroked her fingertips through matted, dark hair. Mulder lay unresponsive, warm skin and beeping machinery the only indications he remained tethered to life.
Hammond cleared his throat. "Our mystery man is your husband."
"What is his condition?"
The doctor plucked Mulder's chart from the end of the bed. "When we admitted him, he was suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, and the early stages of exposure. We've restored core body temperature, rehydrated him, and started him on hyperalimentation through a central line. He should be graduating to the step down unit later today. I'd have moved him earlier, but had hoped he'd awaken first."
"Why hasn't he?" Grey's quiet question beat Scully to the punch. He'd circled to the opposite side of the bed and leaned on the rail, eyes locked onto his brother's face.
Hammond flipped the chart shut. "I wish I had an answer for you. The toxicology screen was negative, there's no external indication of head trauma, and his CT scan was clean. I can find no physical cause for this persistent state of unconsciousness. It's almost as if..."
"As if?" Scully prompted when Hammond showed no sign of finishing the cryptic statement.
Hammond sighed. "As if he doesn't want to wake up. Doctor Scully, you and I both know the mind wields great power over healing. Perhaps this is a subconscious method of self-protection."
Scully bit the inside of her cheek, ruthlessly tamping down the images that rose to mind, refusing to contemplate the horrors Mulder might have endured.
"Doctor Hammond, Mr. Frohike may have mentioned that my husband and I are agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As part of the inquiry into his abduction, I'll need you to run some additional tests."
"Blood samples to be sent to our labs in DC, an MRI, x-rays--"
Hammond's raised a hand. "X-rays?"
"In cases similar to Agent Mulder's, victims have been returned with metal chips implanted in their bodies."
"Chips?" His eyebrows soared. "As in computer chips?"
"Something like that. At any rate, it's imperative that we determine whether Agent Mulder is carrying any such devices."
Hammond inclined his head. "Let's get him settled in the step- down unit. We'll proceed from there."
"You're welcome." Hammond turned toward the door. "I'm late for rounds, so--"
"Of course. Please don't let us keep you." Scully sat on the edge of the bed, taking Mulder's hand. Following her lead, Grey hooked a chair with is foot and sat, folding his arms comfortably across his chest.
The slight curve to Hammond's mouth said he'd received the message, loud and clear. "Cindy is Agent Mulder's nurse." Hammond indicated a young woman with close-cropped, strawberry-blonde hair working behind the desk. "If you have any questions or concerns, I'm sure she'll be happy to help you."
Once Hammond left, Grey reached out a tentative hand and covered his brother's. His voice rasped with emotion. "I haven't seen him this thin since--"
"Don't, Grey. We have him back; he's safe. We'll deal with the rest."
She smoothed back long, tangled strands of hair that tumbled across Mulder's brow and down his neck, leaning closer to murmur in his ear. "Do you hear me, Mulder? You're safe now. Wherever you've gone, it's time to come back." She pressed a kiss to his forehead, his mouth, then laid her head carefully on his chest.
"Grey? You still there, man?"
Grey's head snapped up and his eyes flew open. He scrambled for the receiver, catching it before it hit the linoleum, and tucked it against his ear.
"I'm awa--here, I'm here." He swigged a mouthful of tepid coffee, grimacing. "What was that you were saying?"
Langly snorted. "Dude, you are in serious need of pillow time. I asked if you were sure we shouldn't come down there. We could, you know, check out the hospital more thoroughly, make sure everything's on the up and up."
What an image. Grey choked, nearly inhaling coffee. "Ahh, no, no, that's not necessary. We'd, um, rather you guys stay put, you know, in case we need you to, uh, track down...stuff."
"Can do. Just keep us posted on the G-man."
Grey hung up the phone with a jaw-cracking yawn. Langly was right about one thing--he desperately needed sleep. Dozing off while talking to the Gunmen on a payphone clearly proved he'd lost his edge.
He navigated a maze of hallways until he located Dana just outside an area labeled "Diagnostic Imaging." Propped against the wall, eyes closed, she looked as exhausted as he felt.
Her eyes popped open as he leaned beside her. "Did you reach the boys?"
"Yup. They'd already done a full background check on Dr. Hammond. He's squeaky clean, in case you were wondering."
"That's good to know, but I expected it. I don't think Spender or his associates had anything to do with what's happened to Mulder."
"For once." Grey ground the heels of his hands into gritty eyes. "All three of them were ready to hop on the next plane out. I, uh, discouraged that plan."
Scully huffed, half amusement, half dismay. "And for that I'm eternally grateful. We've got enough on our hands without throwing those three into the mix."
"You spoke to Walt?"
"Briefly. Kim hunted him down between meetings. He promised he'd alert the lab to expect Mulder's blood samples and run interference with the local sheriff's office. We're to keep him posted on...Mulder's condition." She uttered the last two words around a yawn. "Sorry."
"Don't be. I'm not exactly firing on all cylinders myself." Grey's head smacked the wall with a soft thud. "We're both running on fumes, Dana. We can't function much longer without sleep."
Her body stiffened. "I'm not leaving him alone."
"I'm not suggesting we should. The boys booked us a room in a nearby motel. Once Fox is done here and settled in his new digs, we can spell each other. One of us will always be with him."
Her grudging nod was a pleasant surprise--he'd expected an argument. When she did speak, after several minutes of silence, her voice vibrated with tension.
"I'm afraid of what they're going to find."
Grey had to search hard for a comforting response. "Hammond said the CT scan was clean."
"That was just his head. They're doing a full body MRI now, a much more exhaustive test. And frankly, Grey, these people don't know what the hell to look for, not like we do."
Grey nudged her shoulder with his. " We have him back; he's safe. We'll deal with the rest."
She gave him a glare usually reserved for his brother, but leaned into his support. "I just hope--"
Shouts and scuffling feet, an eruption of barked orders and frantic activity came from across the hall. One voice pierced the clamor, terrified and desolate.
"NO! No more! No more!"
"Mulder!" Scully launched herself across the corridor, nearly colliding with Dr. Hammond when he appeared in the doorway.
"Doctor Scully, we need you in here. NOW."
Grey darted after them as they ran into the room. Controlled chaos assaulted his senses. A technician furiously punched buttons, shutting down the equipment, while two nurses struggled to restrain his thrashing brother, who had already managed to tear out his I.V.
Out of his head with fear, Fox twisted and bucked, arms flailing and feet kicking as he screamed in protest. "Get your fucking hands off me, you sadistic little bastards! I won't let you put me back in there. No more! No more!"
"We were in the middle of the test when he woke up." Hammond bellowed over the din. "We've tried to talk to him, but he's not responding."
Scully shouldered her way past a nurse draped across Mulder's body, holding him down. She caught his head between her palms, throat constricting at his flushed, sweaty face and huge, panic- stricken eyes.
"Mulder, it's Scully. Stop struggling, you need to calm down."
To her astonishment, he squeezed his eyes tightly shut and turned his head away. His hoarse voice shook with emotion and tears trickled down the sides of his face. "Don't do this, I know it's not real. Let me die this time. Please. Just let me die."
White-lipped with shock, Scully could barely choke out words of comfort. "Mulder, it's all right. You're safe; no one's going to hurt you. They just need to--"
"NO!" Mulder wrenched free of her grasp, fighting with renewed fury. "This is not real; you're not real! Let me go!"
From the corner of her eye, Scully saw Hammond bare Mulder's hip for the nurse, hanging on while she injected him. Mulder's struggles slowly weakened, his body stilling and eyelids fluttering. Fingers fumbled, then latched onto Scully's sleeve and she looked into weary, pain-filled eyes.
"Please..." His eyes slid shut and his body sagged, fingers falling limply from her arm.
No one moved. Finally, Hammond turned and conferred in hushed tones with the nurse holding the syringe. The other, still draped over Mulder's inert form, straightened, patting Scully's arm before carefully arranging Mulder into a more comfortable position and gathering materials to start a new I.V.
"What the hell was that?" Grey had backed into the corner, arms wrapped around his body and face ashen.
Scully smoothed her fingertips over Mulder's damp cheek, then reluctantly tore her attention from him. She sucked in a deep breath. "I'm not sure, but I think it was some kind of flashback."
"I've never seen him...Dana, he didn't know who you were."
She bit her lip. Mulder's heartbreaking plea still rang in her ears. "He recognized me, Grey. He just didn't believe."
"We're going to go ahead with the scan, Dr. Scully, as well as the x-rays." Hammond handed Mulder's chart to the nurse and joined them. "Given his reaction, I think it's best we complete the tests while he's asleep."
"What was your first clue?" Grey muttered it under his breath.
Hammond, sensing Grey's distress, just smiled. "The Ativan should keep him under for at least an hour, so we'll avoid traumatizing him any further."
Scully watched Mulder's body slide back into the tube, the machine whirring to life. The adrenaline rush dissipated, leaving her exhausted and overwhelmed by the road ahead.
What did they do to you, Mulder? And how in God's name are we going to make it right?