Outside Richmond, VA
"Still having back trouble?"
He glanced over at Scully, a wry smile twisting his lips. "Tends to flare up when I'm tense. And I haven't exactly been keeping my chiropractor appointments these last few weeks."
"What the heck for?"
She lifted one shoulder, amusement coloring her voice. "I feel partly responsible. After all, you injured it pulling Bill to safety-- despite the fact he'd just behaved like an ass."
"Darlin', don't take this the wrong way, but your brother's been an ass ever since I met him. I'm afraid it's a permanent condition."
"You've got a point."
"How has your family reacted to Fox's disappearance?"
"Mom's...bewildered. Kidnapping she could understand, but alien abduction?"
"Kinda hard to swallow." Grey laughed quietly. "Yeah, I can relate."
"Charlie, on the other hand, has been a rock. He's called me a couple times a week, keeping tabs on me, on the search. The whole alien component doesn't seem to faze him--but then, it never did." She smiled. "Charlie's always been the believer in the family. He was the last to give up on Santa Claus and the first to become convinced a ghost haunted our neighbor's shed. During his telekinesis phase, he lost at least a half dozen spoons trying to bend them with his mind. Drove my mother nuts."
"And Billy Boy?" Grey prodded when she fell silent.
"Bill is Bill."
"Huh. Like I said, it's a permanent condition."
"Let's just say Bill has had his own...theories regarding Mulder's whereabouts. None of them flattering to Mulder's character."
"You don't want to hear this, Grey."
"Sure I do."
"Dana, what the hell did he say?"
Scully bit her lip, staring out the window. "In his kinder moments he suggested that Mulder had been kidnapped by one of the many 'nutcases' we've encountered during the course of our work."
"That's the kind version?"
Scully chuckled through gritted teeth. "His less charitable theory had Mulder...snapping under pressure. Experiencing a complete mental breakdown, losing it, and wandering off to parts unknown."
"Son of a bitch."
"That term was mentioned, yes."
Grey flexed his fingers, curling them more tightly around the steering wheel. "Speaking of losing it... What exactly happened in that elevator, Dana? Some sort of panic attack?"
Scully leaned over and peered into the back of the SUV. Mulder sprawled across the seat, one leg bent at the knee, the other trailing onto the floor. Lips parted, his chest rose and fell with the deep, slow breaths of heavy sleep.
She turned back to Grey, voice hushed. "More like a flashback. His reaction in that elevator was uncomfortably similar to his behavior during the MRI. In both instances, confinement in a small space triggered not only extreme anxiety but what I believe could be a memory."
Grey winced. "That's a helluva memory."
"Just the tip of the iceberg, I'm afraid. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, Grey. Mulder will need help dealing with the past three months, but he'll fight it. Things could get ugly."
"We'll double team him, darlin'. He won't know what hit him."
She blinked stinging eyes. "I just assumed... You've been on leave of absence more than four weeks."
"You expected I'd drop you two at the curb and make tracks, huh?"
"Well, when you put it that way..."
He reached over and squeezed her shoulder. "I'll be here as long as you and Fox need me."
The knot in her chest loosened. "Thank you."
"Have you talked to Walt recently?"
"Earlier this afternoon, once I knew Mulder would be released. He made it very clear that the Bureau will cover Mulder's bills, since he essentially incurred his...injuries on the job. Which reminds me..."
She pulled the bag from her pocket. "Recognize this?"
Grey's eyes widened. "That's it. That's the rock Fox picked up just before we saw the spaceship. The one that burned his hand."
"And the object he was clutching when they found him. I touched it earlier, in his room, and it was uncomfortably warm. Yet now it's cool."
Grey shrugged. "It must hold some significance, but I'll be damned if I know what."
She tucked it away with a sigh. "I'll have the boys take a look. Maybe they can come up with something, or at least--"
Soft rustling of cloth and restless limbs caught her attention. In the back seat Mulder had curled into a fetal position, knees drawn to his chest and arms hugged tightly to his body. His face contorted, eyes squeezed shut in a pained grimace.
"Don't...please." Words moaned in a breathy whisper, barely audible over the engine's hum.
Scully took off her seatbelt and leaned between the seats. "Shh. It's okay, Mulder. You're dreaming."
He folded into a tighter ball, arms now wrapped around his head. "Stop...hurts. Scully...no."
Scully reached out and grasped his wrist, tugging the arm from his face. "Mulder, it's all right. You're safe--"
Her soothing murmur cut off with a sharp cry as Mulder opened his eyes wide and clamped his hands around her throat. Snarling, he squeezed, dragging her into the back seat. "No! I won't let you."
Scully clawed at his fingers, gasping for air. She kicked frantically, pummeling Grey and momentarily dislodging his grip on the steering wheel. The car swerved, veering onto the wrong side of the road and into the path of an oncoming van.
"Shit!" Grey seized the wheel and jerked hard to the right, cutting across their own lane and onto the shoulder. He stomped on the brake and the car skidded to a stop.
Scully saw spots dance across her vision. Digging her fingernails into Mulder's arm, she thrashed, unable to choke out a protest. Mulder growled, shaking her until she went limp. "Leave me alone!"
A click, the rush of cold air, and she dropped to the floor. Harsh, raspy coughs tore through her chest, watering her eyes as she gulped air. She heard Grey shouting, but his voice sounded as if it came from the end of a long tunnel. Still draped painfully between the seats, she crawled the rest of the way into the back and sat up.
Grey held Mulder in a headlock, speaking soothing words into his ear. As she watched, her fingers pressed protectively over her throat, Mulder stopped struggling. Slowly, the anger and fear faded from his eyes. His forehead wrinkled and his lips parted as he gaped at Scully's ashen face. Grey cautiously released him.
"Scully?" Mulder reached for her, snatching back his hand when she flinched. "Scully, what happened? I--"
A truck whizzed past, flooding the car with light. Mulder recoiled, his breath stuttering, then speeding up. "What... I...I did this?" Once again, he stretched a hand toward her.
This time, Scully remained still as he gently traced her throat with trembling fingers. "You remember?" She spoke with difficulty as the words grated past irritated tissue.
Mulder shivered. "No. No! I would never... I mean, yes, I remember but...but not this, not you." He pressed his forehead to his knees and rocked.
Scully scooted onto the seat. She stroked her fingers through his hair while Grey, his forehead scrunched and spine stiff, rubbed circles on his back. "Tell me, Mulder," she rasped. "Tell me what you remember."
He shook his head violently. "Doesn't make sense."
"Tell me anyway."
He was silent a long time before speaking. "Pain. Worse than anything I've ever felt. Like being ripped apart from the inside out." His muffled voice cracked and broke.
She continued the gentle motion of her hand, forcing breath past the weight in her chest. "What else?"
"Fighting. Light pinning me down. Voices telling me not to resist. To submit." He lifted his head, teeth chattering from the tremors running through his body. He scanned her face as if looking for the answer to his confusion. "Your voice. It was you, Scully...but it wasn't. I...it makes no sense." He ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Head hurts."
Scully shrugged off the horror his words invoked. "I can help with that. Grey, could you get my purse and a bottle of water?"
She gave Mulder two pills, steadying his hand as he swallowed them without question. Grey helped them settle into the back seat, reclaimed his spot behind the wheel, and resumed driving.
Mulder touched her neck. "I'm so sorry, babe. I didn't mean...you know I would never..."
"Of course you wouldn't."
He turned away with a bitter laugh. "You must be asking yourself why you kept looking."
"That's not funny, Mulder."
"It wasn't meant to be a joke."
She cradled his face between her palms. "I looked because I need you, Mulder, like I need my next breath. Because you are my center; you touch every part of me." She brushed her thumbs across his cheeks, the smile quivering on her lips. "Because you make me a whole person, and I can't do this without you. That's why I kept looking, why I would have continued looking no matter how long it took."
"Scully." He whispered her name, blinking back tears.
More than three months. Scully leaned over and touched her mouth to his in a long, sweet kiss. Eventually, she pulled away, and resting her forehead against his, murmured, "Welcome home."
He turned his face into the curve of her neck.
Scully pulled the pillow into her lap and patted it. "Rest, Mulder. It's still another hour to DC."
He tensed, spine straightening and face expressionless. "That's okay. I'm not tired." Blinking bloodshot eyes, he smothered a yawn with the back of his hand.
"Do it for me, then. It's been a rough trip and you're still very weak."
"Mulder." She smoothed the hair back from his brow. "It's all right. I promise I won't let you dream."
Too tired to argue further, he let her guide him down, curling up with his head in her lap. Body stiff and eyes wide open, he fought exhaustion until the monotonous drone of tires on pavement and the seductive warmth of her body lulled him to sleep.
Scully dropped her head onto the seatback. Her throat throbbed and she felt bruised inside.
"You hangin' in there?"
She'd almost forgotten Grey's presence. His eyes in the rear view mirror reflected affection and concern. "I'm fine."
"Uh-huh. And if I believe that one I'll bet you've got some swampland in Florida for me."
"It's not as if I didn't expect this, Grey. I warned you things would get rough."
Grey snorted. "This was way beyond rough, darlin', and you for damn sure know it. You can't tell me you expected your husband would assault you. So drop the 'I'm fine'--nobody here is buyin' it."
Scully brushed the moisture from her eyes, smiling weakly. "Okay, maybe fine is an exaggeration."
"Now we're getting somewhere."
"What do you want me to say, Grey? Yes, the fact that Mulder tried to strangle me is only slightly less horrifying than the fact he identifies me with the torture inflicted upon him." Mulder flinched, brow furrowing. She rubbed his arm until he settled, then continued in a more subdued tone. "I'm fine because I have to be fine. Because Mulder needs me to be fine."
Grey blew out a gusty breath. "Just help me understand, Dana. Why would Fox associate you with pain when we all know you'd never hurt him?"
She felt ill, her stomach twisted in knots. "One race of aliens we've run across can change their physical appearance at will. They've proved to be excellent mimics. I was nearly taken in by one that looked just like Mulder."
Grey turned toward her, his face blank with shock. A horn blared, and he jumped, dragging his gaze back to the road. Clearing his throat could not mask the unsteadiness in his voice. "Are you saying..."
"They used me against him, Grey. The one person he trusts more than any other. To confuse him, control him--perhaps simply to torment him. His mind may tell him it wasn't real, wasn't me, but his body remembers. Mulder remembers."
She touched Mulder's hair, his cheek, shivering despite the warmth seeping from his body to hers.
"I hope to God he can forget."