"Mmm, Mulder. What time is it?" She stretches her arms above her head, deliberately provocative, enjoying the way his eyes darken and his hand creeps up the exposed skin of her thigh.
"Time to put a beach blanket and all that moonlight to good use."
His tongue trails heat down her neck and between her breasts, then he twines his fingers with hers and stands. He's wearing boxers, she realizes, and has a blanket tucked beneath one arm.
Questioning is second nature, but she lets him tug her upright. Enfolded in his arms, the feel of his desire kindles her own. She opens to him, losing herself in the rough glide of tongues, the sweet press of lips.
"I want to make love to you under the stars, to the sound of the waves." He murmurs the words against her mouth; she feels his smile.
Her body agrees, but she musters a token protest. "Rosa…"
"Is sound asleep." He chuffs into her ear, sending tingles down her spine. "Anyway, I think she'd approve." He steps away until only their hands remain linked. His thumb strokes the back of her hand; the love shining in his eyes steals her breath. "Please, Scully."
She's mesmerized by the delicate touch, imagining she can feel each whorl on the pad of his thumb. Stroking…stroking…
Scully's eyes flew open. She'd pulled her chair close to Mulder's bed and laid her head on the mattress, intending to rest only a moment. Her stiff back and dry mouth suggested it had been significantly longer.
She straightened with a groan, elusive dream fragments still flickering through her thoughts. Remembering that beautiful night on the beach, her heart ached with loss. The waves' soothing whispers, the brilliance of a million stars, the glide of Mulder's skin--
Mulder's fingers twitched, his thumb tickling the back of her hand. Scully lunged to her feet, nearly topping the chair. She tightened her grip on the restless digits, reaching over and cupping his cheek.
Her spirits soared when he leaned into the touch. Lashes fluttering, his tongue poked out, moistening dry lips.
"Come on, love. Wake up."
Eyelids cracked, he squinted against the harsh fluorescent lighting. For a moment his gaze held no recognition, then the corners of his mouth curved.
"He…" He swallowed, then tried again. "Hey, Scully."
The ragged, sandpapery rasp, though far from his mellow baritone, sang in her ears. Scully blinked furiously, smile quivering.
She reached for the water pitcher, pouring a small amount into the plastic cup. "Go easy, Mulder. Just a couple swallows, for now."
He let her hold the cup, too weak to protest. A line formed between his brows. "Hospital?"
She nodded, words blocked by the lump in her throat.
The crease deepened. "Sorry."
Scully smoothed a lock of hair back from his face with a watery little chuckle. "Sorry? For what?"
"Must've done something…really stupid."
"You don't remember?"
He shook his head, wincing when the motion caused pain.
Scully ignored the sudden, jittery feeling in her gut. "Mulder, what's the last thing you do remember?"
He chewed on his lip for a moment. "We were waiting for something…Grey was there…Trees…Forest?" He groaned. "Oh, God. Not again." When Scully didn't speak, he became very still. "That wasn't the right answer, was it?"
She looked away, searching for the right words. "A lot has happened. I'm not sure now is the best time--"
His heartbeat picked up and his fingers clamped painfully over hers. "Why not? Scully, what's going on? I deserve to know." He pushed himself up on one elbow but could get no further.
Scully helped him lay back down, rubbing soothing circles on his chest. "Calm down, Mulder, of course you do; I'll explain everything. Just--"
"Well, well. Good to see you awake, Agent Mulder." Hammond strode into the room, Mulder's chart in his hands. "How are you feeling?"
"Like the morning after the night before." Mulder locked his gaze with Scully's for a long moment before rolling his head toward the doctor.
Hammond chuckled. "Considering your condition when you arrived, I guess that'd be just about right."
"Mulder, this is Dr. Hammond. He's been supervising your care." Scully jumped in, recognizing Mulder entering "interrogator" mode. "Dr. Hammond, Mulder apparently has some…gaps in his memory."
"Gaps big enough to drive a bus through. Which Scully was about to fill." Mulder's voice faded in and out, succumbing to the strain. "What's wrong with me? Why am I here? And while you're at it, where is here?"
"How about we stop a minute to take inventory? Then I'm sure your wife and I can answer your questions."
Mulder muttered something under his breath but submitted to Hammond's examination. When the doctor had checked his pulse, blood pressure, and pupil response, he tucked the chart under his arm and smiled.
"Coming along. You've improved greatly over the last 24 hours."
Mulder gritted his teeth. "Glad to hear it. Now, who's going to catch me up on what I've missed?"
Scully turned to the physician. "Dr. Hammond, if you're finished for now, I'd like some time alone with my husband."
Hammond inclined his head. "Very well. I'll be back when we have the test results. Otherwise, you can page me if you need me."
"Thank you." When the door snicked shut, she propped her arms on the mattress. "Mulder, do you remember Paige Thompson?"
Understanding lit his eyes. "The little girl who was abducted! That's why we were in the woods." His brow furrowed. "We waited a long time, almost gave up. But then…we found her, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did. Do you remember what happened after that?"
He scrutinized her face. "She was comatose, like the other kids. You…you rode to the hospital with her."
"Grey and I stayed behind. We wanted to go over the scene before the local boys showed up."
Scully waited. When he didn't continue, she prodded gently. "And then?"
He kneaded his forehead with shaky fingers. "We walked back to the campsite. It smelled like ash; the tops of the trees had burned. I was checking the magnetic field and Grey--"
He jerked, hand shooting out and grasping the rail.
"Oh my God." He panted, short, sharp gulps for air, his eyes squeezed shut.
Scully smoothed back his hair. "Talk to me, Mulder."
"There was a spaceship…bright light. I couldn't move. Grey--" His eyes snapped open and darted wildly around the room. "Scully, where's Grey?"
"Shh, it's okay, Mulder. Grey is fine; he's at the motel getting some sleep."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Deep breaths, Mulder. Slow it down."
Mulder's nurse bustled into the room, mouth pursed. "What's going on in here, Dr. Scully? Your husband's heartrate just went through the roof."
"He got a little upset, Camilla, but everything's fine now--right, Mulder?"
Pale as the sheets, a fine sheen of sweat on his brow, Mulder flashed his teeth. "Just peachy."
Camilla sniffed. "You need rest, Mr. Mulder. If having a visitor is too disturbing…"
"It's okay, really. I'm chillin'." The words came out in a barely audible croak.
Camilla narrowed her eyes but said nothing. When she'd marched out, spine stiff, Mulder raised both eyebrows. "Camilla?"
Though relieved by the spark of his customary humor, Scully pressed ahead. Mulder was fading, the emotionally charged conversation too great a drain in his fragile condition.
"Mulder, what do you remember after the bright light?"
He was silent for a long time before finally shaking his head. "Nothing. It's a big blank, Scully." He chewed the inside of his lip. "I assume I was… Was I abducted?" When she nodded, he sucked in a deep breath. "No wonder you look like hell. How long was I missing--forty-eight hours? Did you and Grey find me?"
"What does that mean?"
She desperately wished she could lie, could spare him from what lay ahead. Six years and she could still vividly remember the terrifying weight of the black hole in her memory.
"What happened to you was different from what happened to the children, Mulder. There's no evidence you were subjected to brain surgery, and your brain activity has been what we'd expect, given your condition."
He captured the hand stroking his arm, stilling it. "There it is again, that word. Why don't you stop beating around the bush and tell me? Just what is my condition?"
Before she could speak an odd expression crossed his face. He released her arm, brought the hand up and stared at his palm. "Wait a minute, wait a minute." He swallowed, and an edge crept into his voice. "I burned my hand on some kind of strange rock. This hand." He swallowed again. "Scully, how long have I been gone?"
She closed her eyes. "Just over three months."
When his silence became unbearable she cleared her throat. "A couple of hikers found you in Bear Creek State Park. That's about thirty miles from Holiday Lake. We don't think you'd been there more than a couple days--the nights are too cold for you to have lasted much longer. I'm still waiting for some test results, but so far, other than being dehydrated and malnourished--"
She nodded, tears filling her eyes and stinging her throat.
"I… That can't be. There must be some mistake."
Irrationally, her temper flared. "There's no mistake, Mulder. At first we were certain you'd be returned in two days, just like the children. We assumed the same craft that returned Paige had taken you. After a week, we were forced to accept that those rules didn't apply. With the Gunmen's help we started reviewing satellite transmissions, monitoring UFO hotspots and checking with the local police, hospitals…" She ran out of steam, shoulders slumping. "We never gave up. Not for a minute."
His fingers brushed her jaw, a feather-light touch. Scully caught his trembling hand and pressed it to her cheek.
"Sorry." His words slurred in exhaustion. "I believe you. I just don't want to."
"It's a lot to take in."
"You said you're waiting for test results."
She kissed his palm and laid his hand back on the mattress. "A full body MRI and x-rays."
"Making sure I didn't come back with any…modifications?"
"Something like that. You should sleep, Mulder. We can discuss this some more when you've rested."
"I don't need sleep; I need answers." His heavy eyelids and thready voice contradicted him.
"Sleep now, answers later. Don't make me call Camilla."
He settled, muttered protest dying midstream as his eyes drifted shut. When his breathing slowed and deepened, Scully sank into her chair. She watched him sleep for a while, debating whether to duck out on a coffee run as her own level of fatigue reached critical mass. She'd just decided to risk a quick trip to the nurses' lounge when a soft knock drew her attention to the doorway. Dr. Hammond beckoned and withdrew.
"Camilla mentioned that your husband became quite agitated earlier," he said when Scully had joined him in the hallway.
"Discovering you've been missing for three months is a bit of a shock."
"I can only imagine. It looks like he's doing better."
"Mulder is amazingly resilient.
"I've received his x-rays." Hammond tapped the envelope in his hand. "We're still waiting on the MRI."
Scully studied his face. "May I see them?"
Hammond nodded and led her around the corner to an exam room. He snapped on the lightbox, but paused with a film in his hand.
"Dr. Scully, I have to ask you a sensitive question. Was your husband abused as a child?"
Scully folded her arms, face blank. "Why would you ask that?"
Hammond's lips tightened to a thin line. "Because right now I'm at a loss to explain this." He snapped two films in place and stepped back.
Scully pressed her fingers against her mouth, stifling a gasp. One film showed Mulder's ribs, the other his upper arm. Multiple white lines, indicating healed fractures, covered them both.
Hammond handed her the envelope. "They're all like this, Dr. Scully. Now, if these aren't childhood injuries--and frankly, I don't believe a child could sustain this much trauma without permanent damage--then you tell me. What the hell is going on?"
Continued in Chapter 5