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Chapter 9

2:33 AM

Oh, God. It hurts!

Logic tells him struggling is useless--the bright beam pinning him to the table is relentless, unbeatable. Fighting to break free only expends energy his wasted body can't afford to lose.

A crack, like a pencil snapping, and logic disappears, obliterated by his bloodcurdling shrieks. Screams that scour raw nerve endings, wring tears from his eyes, but never pass his lips--the light that immobilizes him also renders him mute.

"Resistance is futile, Mulder. Haven't you learned that by now? Cooperation is the only way you'll survive."

The seductive whisper is as great a torment as broken bones. Scully's sweet voice, her warm breath tickling his ear, the soft curve of her cheek. He can't even close his eyes to block out the beautiful, terrible sight.

"Talk to me, Mulder. Tell me what you're feeling. On a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain?"

The light winks out, releasing him. Flinching from her touch, he moans, the low cry of an animal in pain. He slams his eyes shut and shudders course through his body--pain, shock, fear.

But he can't shut out her voice.

"Tell us what we need to know, love, and I'll help you. I'll give you something for the pain and hold you until you fall asleep."

He wants it so badly, the comfort only she can give. Yearns to feel her arms, her body. Velvet and steel, solace and strength. The face, the words, the tone--everything is right except the eyes. Flat. Assessing. Devoid of human warmth and emotion.



Mulder bolted upright, choking back a scream. Heart pounding, he wrapped his arms around his body and panted. Sweat trickled into his eyes and plastered his tee shirt to his chest. He held up trembling hands, flexing his fingers.

Beside him, Scully slept the sleep of the exhausted. He leaned in closer, resisting the urge wake her. Lips slightly parted, respiration slow and deep, her warm breath feathered across his cheek.

"Resistance is futile, Mulder. Haven't you learned that by now? Cooperation is the only way you'll survive."

Mulder jerked backward, shivering. Brow furrowed, Scully murmured a soft protest and then quieted. Swallowing hard, he swiped the moisture from his face with the hem of his shirt and slipped out of bed, careful not to shake the mattress.

He wandered into the living room and picked up the remote control, his finger poised over the button when he noticed the outline of a body on the couch. Grey sprawled across the cushions, cocooned in a blanket. Like Scully, he slept soundly, oblivious to Mulder's restless prowling.

He paced to the window and stared at the glowing streetlights and frosted car windows. The desire to run, to feel the crisp night air on his face and hear the slap of shoes on pavement, nearly overpowered him. Rubbing a hand over his protruding collarbone and too prominent ribs, he remembered the look on Grey's face when he'd stripped off his hospital gown and wondered how long it would be before his wasted body was capable of running again.

When his legs began feeling wobbly, he padded into the kitchen. Eschewing the overhead light for fear of waking Grey, he pulled a carton of milk from the refrigerator and sat down at the table.

He'd consumed about a third of the carton and was staring morosely at the ticking clock when the lights clicked on.

"Fox?" Grey stood in the doorway, rubbing his eyes. "What were you doing here in the dark?"

"Drinking milk." Mulder raised the carton. "Care to join me?"

"Thanks, but I think I'd rather have juice." Grey grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it, and dropped into the chair beside his brother's. He wrinkled his nose when Mulder took another swig. "You're going to catch hell if Dana sees you doing that."

Mulder shook his head. "Shows how much you know. Scully and I already faced off on this issue and negotiated a mutually agreeable solution." He tapped the label. "This is two percent. Scully prefers nonfat. She always makes sure I have my own carton so I can…" His voice caught and he blinked at the container.


"I've been gone three months. Scully left here on the spur of the moment, with no guarantee she'd be bringing me home. Why would this be in the refrigerator?"

"Faith? Hope?" Grey smiled. "She never gave up on you, Fox. Not for a minute."

Suddenly the carton seemed to weigh ten pounds. Mulder set it down with a thud and buried his face in his hands.

"Fox? Are you all right?"

He peered through his fingers. "Me? I'm on the top of the world, can't you tell?" He hated the cautious, gentle expression that was Grey's response.

"No one else expects you to ignore the past three months and just pick up where you left off, Fox. Why do you?"

"What I expect is for you to be my brother and not my shrink. I'm the psychologist, remember? And as you may recall, I've had more than a passing acquaintance with post-traumatic stress."

"This is different."

"Why? Because after twenty-eight years I finally got what was coming to me?"

"How about you can the pissy act and tell me why you were sitting here in the dark instead of curled up in bed with your wife?"

"I…" He drew in a shaky breath. Half of him needed to tell Grey, ached to unburden himself. The other was terrified of putting voice to the horror. "I remembered something"

"Talk to me, Mulder. Tell me what you're feeling. On a scale of one to ten, how bad is the pain?"

He shivered, squeezing his eyes shut and knotting his fingers in his hair. "Shit!"

Time slipped its track. The next thing Mulder knew, Grey was rubbing the nape of his neck and making soothing sounds. He concentrated, and the sounds gradually resolved themselves into words.

"…just a memory, Fox. It's over now. You're home. You're safe."

"I'm okay," he panted. His head throbbed and his eyes felt hot and scratchy. "I'm okay."

"'Course you are." Grey sat back, lines creasing his forehead and marring his smile.

Mulder braced himself for interrogation, surprised when Grey got up and walked out of the room. Reappearing moments later, he poured a glass of water and placed it and two Tylenol on the table.

He stared at the offering, then picked them up. "How'd you know I have a headache?"

"Your face gets squinty."

He nearly inhaled the pills. "My face gets squinty?"

"Yeah. You know." Grey scrunched up his own features.

Mulder shook his head. "I'm not sure what's scarier--that you're right about the headache or that you used the same word Scully does."

Several minutes of silence passed before he realized Grey was waiting him out. He looked down at his hands, flexing and curling the fingers.

"They, uh…" His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. "They broke my fingers. All of them. One by one."

He looked at Grey, gauging his reaction. His brother licked his lips but his expression remained calm. Only his hands, slowly curling into fists, gave away his anger. Grey finally spoke in a tight, controlled voice.

"Do you have any idea why they did it? Did they speak to you?"

Mulder's throat closed up but he ground out a reply. "Let's just say I've developed a whole new perspective on lab rats." He cocked his head. "You want to tell me why you don't seem all that surprised?"

Grey closed his eyes. "The x-rays, the MRI…"

Milk and water churned in his stomach. Mulder breathed through his nose, fighting the nausea. "There's more?"

Grey sighed and opened his eyes. "Lots more."

"Great. Something I can look forward to." He pressed both palms to the table and spread his fingers. "There's no residual pain. No impairment of mobility. I'm completely healed. How can that be?"

"We were kind of hoping you could tell us."

Mulder scowled but said nothing.

Another long silence stretched between them. Grey slid his hand across the table and clasped Mulder's arm. "Fox. What aren't you telling me?"

Mulder looked away. "I don't know what you mean."

"There's something else bothering you. Something more."

"What? Like the Great Fox Mulder Lab Experiment isn't enough?"

"Look, you can deny it all you like. But I know you, and I can tell when you aren't leveling with me."

"Let me guess--my face gets squinty."

"All I'm saying is that you need to talk to someone. If not me, then maybe Dana--"

Mulder cut him off, horrified. "Scully is the last person I could tell."


Mulder shoved back his chair, snatched up the carton of milk and returned it to the refrigerator. Bottles clanked and rattled when he slammed the door shut, then pressed his forehead to the cool metal. It was a long time before he spoke.

"There's a little detail I may have forgotten to share about our alien friends--some of them are shapeshifters. They can duplicate any human form; that's how they move among us without detection. They're good, too. It's nearly impossible to distinguish the copy from the real person."

Grey leaned forward.

"They…ah…they talked to me as they broke my fingers. Asked me questions. I couldn't get away, couldn't move, pinned down like a bug by that damn light--" He sucked in a deep breath. "They wanted to know exactly how it felt. How bad was the pain on a scale of one to ten? Did I build up a tolerance or did the degree of discomfort increase exponentially with each finger? The fact that they showed no empathy, only cold, clinical detachment, was almost as terrifying as the pain."

"I can't imagine--"

"No. You can't." Mulder turned and leaned against the appliance, wrapped in a self-hug. "Refusing to answer pissed them off. At first they tried upping the pain. When I still wouldn't give them what they needed, they came up with a different strategy. Suddenly…suddenly the leader of the alien inquisition looked a hell of a lot like my wife." Legs folding, he slid slowly down to the floor and rested his head on his knees.

Grey slipped out of his chair and sat beside his brother on the cold tile. Mulder leaned into him, drawing strength from the simple contact. He choked out a ragged laugh. "I guess it explains why I nearly strangled Scully."

"She understands, Fox. In fact, she suspected something like this."

"Is that supposed to make me feel better? What they did, using Scully against me, was worse than 1000 broken bones. They stole the one thing in my life that I trust without reservation. How am I supposed to get it back?"

He felt Grey's hand, warm and solid, rest on his bowed head. "You don't have to get it back, little brother. You haven't lost it. Sure, they've got you confused, all twisted up inside. But you said it yourself--you trust it without reservation. Trust her without reservation. What happened to you just puts that to the test."

"When you say it like that, it sounds easy."

"Hell, no. I can pretty much guarantee nothing's going to be easy for a long time." He removed his hand, a tough edge creeping into his voice. "Fox, for three months I watched that woman focus mind, body, and soul on a single goal--finding you and bringing you home. Nothing else mattered. Don't you dare give her anything less."

Mulder turned his face toward Grey. "I never said I deserved her."

"Yeah? Well, you're in luck, 'cause she seems to think you do." He shifted, grimacing. "And on that note, I suggest we either move this discussion to the table or go back to bed. I'm freezing my ass off."

Mulder accepted the outstretched hand and allowed Grey to haul him upright. Baring his soul to his brother was both liberating and exhausting. Suddenly sleep sounded like a very good idea.

"Bed," he replied around a yawn. For the first time he really noticed the dark shadows under Grey's eyes. "You look like you need it as bad as I do."

Grey shrugged, one corner of his mouth turned up in a self- deprecating grin. "I've been having a little trouble with insomnia, but I think it'll be better now."

"Thanks." Mulder's voice wavered and his eyes burned. He gritted his teeth, cursing emotions too close to the surface.

"You're welcome. For what?"

"Being here. Listening." He huffed. "Kicking my ass for trying to wallow in self-pity."

"Hey, I'm you're big brother. Kicking your ass is not only a pleasure, it's an obligation."

They stared awkwardly at each other for a few moments before Grey pulled Mulder into a careful hug. "In case I forgot to mention it, it's really good having you home."

Mulder nodded, not trusting his voice. He waited until Grey had settled back onto the couch before shutting off the lights and feeling his way back down the hall to the bedroom.

Moonlight seeped through the blinds and spilled across the bed. Scully slept peacefully, lying on her stomach with her face turned toward the door. He stood over her for a long time, mesmerized by the muted fire of her hair, the delicate fringe of lashes, the pale shell of an ear.

When he slipped into bed, Scully rolled onto her side and her eyes fluttered open. "Mulder?" She touched his cheek, brushed her fingers through his hair. "Are you all right?"

He looked into eyes filled with warmth, affection, and concern and the weight in his chest eased. "I just needed a drink of water. Sorry I woke you."

She scooted over, tangling their legs and laying her head on his chest. "Your feet are like ice."

He pressed a kiss to her forehead. "It's a shameless ploy for shared body heat. Looks like it worked."

She tightened the arm around his waist. "And it didn't even have to rain sleeping bags."

He chuckled. The laughter felt rusty and unfamiliar, as if pulled from mothballs after a long season if disuse, but amazingly good. Mulder was still smiling as he sank into dreamless sleep.

Continued in Chapter 10