Blood Ties 6: Strange Bedfellows (2 of 2)
Grey slowly lifted his head and propped himself up against the wall, the muscles of his back screaming in protest and his ears filled with an irritating ringing. He shook his head in an effort to dispel the fuzziness, his eyes roving to regain his bearings. One moment he'd been trotting down the hallway, ducking into rooms to confirm they were vacant, and the next he was lying on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. He heard a grunt and turned his head to see a dazed Bill picking himself up off the tile and fingering a nasty swelling beneath his right eye.
Realization crashed over Grey like a tsunami, stealing the breath from his lungs and eclipsing the physical aches and pains.
"Oh my god," he murmured, tremors wracking his body and turning his normally mellow baritone to a painful rasp. "The bomb..."
Bill froze, his face losing color as well as expression. "Dana."
Grey squeezed his eyes tightly shut against the rush of tears. Rynne had detonated the bomb, and Fox and Dana were with Rynne, therefore... His mind shied away from the logical conclusion to those thoughts, but his body ached in response. A vivid picture of the two at breakfast imprinted itself in his brain -- Fox's relaxed, easy banter, Dana's constant, loving touches. He felt liquid warmth on his palms, realized he'd curled his fingers so tightly into fists the nails had sliced his skin.
"They must be dead," Bill intoned, voice as blank as his face. "No one could survive that."
He gestured to the jumbled and overturned equipment, the cracked, buckled ceiling and drifting clouds of plaster dust. Grey numbly fumbled through his pockets until he located the walkie-talkie and pressed the button with clumsy fingers.
"Walt? Walt, this is Grey -- can you hear me?" He barely recognized his own voice, heavy with grief and tears.
Skinner's response was a collage of rage, horror, sorrow, and guilt. "Grey? Grey, where are you? Are you all right? Are you injured?"
Grey struggled to answer, the words catching in his throat. "I'm on the second floor. The concussion knocked us down and we're a little banged up, but okay. Walt, what happened? Why did he set off the bomb?"
Skinner cursed, but Grey heard anguish, not anger in the epithets. "They were on their way out, Mulder talked Rynne into giving himself up. Some damn eager beaver on the SWAT team thought he'd be a hero and took matters into his own hands. He went up the chute used to transfer construction materials to the fourth floor and tried to apprehend Rynne himself. He must have spooked him into setting off the bomb."
Grey turned his back on the mute suffering in Bill's eyes, leaning his head against the wall. "How bad is it, Walt?"
Silence -- oppressive and damning. "It looks pretty bad,
Grey. Rescue crews are assessing the situation now, but the fifth floor appears to have collapsed down onto the fourth. Inadequate support due to the construction caused it to crumble."
Grey bit his lip hard, shaking his head though he knew Skinner couldn't see it. "I won't accept that they're gone until I see the bodies," he choked, swiping at renegade tears with the back of his hand. "They could still be alive up there, Fox has more lives than a cat, you know that, and if he managed to get clear of the immediate zone of impact, if he was able to protect them from..."
"Grey." Skinner uttered the name with fierce compassion. "You need to
get out of there now and let the rescue crews take over. They're the professionals; it's
their job. That
whole wing is unstable and you could..."
Skinner bit off his attempt to calm, shocked by the vehemence.
"I will not sit by while Fox and Dana might be trapped, still alive! I'm going up there, Walt. I'm going to find them."
"You don't know what the hell you're doing, Grey!" Skinner hissed, furious. "You could cause more damage, blundering around aimlessly, not to mention get yourself killed. You and I both know odds are overwhelming that they didn't survive! You need to clear out of there right now. I can make it an order if I need to."
Grey bared his teeth in the semblance of a grin. "You can try. Look, no one else is invested in finding them the way I am, Walt. They've already written them off -- hell, even you have! They'll concentrate on the obvious survivors first. Well, I have my own priorities. I'll stay in touch."
"Grey! Grey, don't you sign off on me, damn it..."
Grey thumbed off the receiver and turned to see Bill regarding him with a predatory smile. "Wouldn't have thought you had it in you, McKenzie, but lead the way."
Grey's mouth worked impotently for a reply so he settled for adamantly shaking his head. "Uh uh. No way. I don't want or need a partner on this one."
Bill's smile widened. "I told you before, hotshot. Until Dana's safe and sound (he faltered, the smile less feral and more brittle) or until I find her body, you've got more than just a partner. You've got a damn Siamese twin."
Grey moaned, dropping his chin to his chest in defeat. "I can't believe this is
happening. All right, I give. Let's get started."
Something was wrong. Scully lay very still, grasping for elusive thoughts that tried to drift away like dandelion seeds on a breeze. She could feel Mulder's warm solidity at her back, the soft puff of his breath on her neck. But instead of pliant, warm flannel under her cheek she felt cold resistance. Instead of fabric softener and Mulder, she smelled dust and ash. And she hurt -- her whole body a cacophony of aches and pains, but especially her left arm that was somehow twisted beneath her.
Scully slowly opened her eyes, an involuntary whimper escaping as the pounding in her head turned from solo to ensemble. She battled heavy eyelids to focus in the semi- darkness, at first unable to make sense of the confusing jumble of metal beams, broken tiles, and chunks of drywall. Something warm and wet trickled into her eye and she sluggishly lifted her free hand to swipe at it, bringing away crimson stained fingers. And then, like the flip of a switch, it all fell into place.
Panicked, she desperately tried to wriggle out from under Mulder's oppressive weight, at first succeeding only in dislodging a few loose ceiling tiles and irritating her already excruciating arm. Forcing herself to relax, she lay motionless until the shifting debris settled, then gingerly wormed her way free and sat up.
Spots flashed, obscuring her vision, and the banging in her head switched to a high-pitched whine for several minutes. When her sight cleared and her stomach ceased doing somersaults, she was able to reach out and touch Mulder, for the moment just confirming that he still drew breath, that his heart still beat.
Cradling her injured arm against her chest, she ran her eyes over his body, only making it as far as his torso before recoiling in dismay.
"Oh, Mulder," she whispered, tears spilling to mix with the blood on her cheeks.
By sheltering her with his body, Mulder had borne the brunt of the fallout. Blood matted his silky brown hair and dripped down his pale cheek, his right arm appeared to be pinned beneath a large, wooden beam, and his left side...
Scully closed her eyes and swallowed thickly, taking deep slow breaths until the resurgence of panic receded to a more manageable level. A half-inch metal pipe, probably part of the sprinkler system, had pierced his left side and embedded itself in the tile, pinning him to the floor like a bizarre specimen in an insect collection. Blood steadily oozed from the wound and pooled on the floor in a sticky crescent.
Mesmerized by the steady trickle, Scully stared for several minutes until her paralysis wore off and the need for action became imperative. She turned her head, her eyes panning a full 360 degrees and even above them, her drive to find help shattered by reality. The fallen beams, sections of wall and ceiling, and other rubble contained them in a precarious pocket of safety so small she could not even rise to her feet without hitting her head. Occasionally she could hear a creaking groan followed by a crash as somewhere a damaged support gave way.
She bit her lip hard, forcing down the overwhelming urge to dissolve into tears, and cautiously slipped out of her jacket and flannel shirt, grunting in pain as she worked the material over her damaged arm. Clad only in a white tee shirt, the swollen, already bruising flesh from elbow to wrist confirmed at least one broken bone. She loosened her leather belt and slipped it from her jeans, refastening it to bind the limb to her body with her hand elevated as much as possible. The discomfort flared into white-hot agony, and she had to pause twice, panting and willing herself not to pass out.
Impatiently brushing sweat and blood from her eyes, Scully used teeth and her functioning hand to tear two strips from the flannel shirt. The first she converted into a makeshift bandage for the gash above her left temple, tying the material in a manner similar to the headbands she and Charlie used to create when stuck playing Indians to Bill and Missy's cowboys. Taking the second strip in trembling fingers, she tenderly cleaned the worst of the blood from Mulder's face and then the cut on the back of his skull, which had already begun to clot. Mulder didn't even twitch, and she couldn't help pressing two fingers to his throat. Weak, but steady -- small comfort, but comfort nonetheless.
Steeling herself, Scully folded the already hiked-up leather jacket to expose the wound in Mulder's side. The sharp steel had sliced cleanly through the skin above Mulder's left hip but below the diaphragm. The positioning looked to be dangerously close to the area of the spleen, or possibly the kidney. She longed to wrap her hands around the invader violating her partner's body and remove it, but the doctor in her realized that to do so would likely initiate severe hemorrhaging. Though every fiber of her being screamed against it, she left the pipe in place, laying the remainder of her shirt over the open area of the wound and pressing firmly.
Mulder moaned, a bottomless, fundamental cry of torment. His eyelids fluttered and his unfettered arm and legs jerked spasmodically as the fresh infliction of pain dragged him to consciousness. Terrified that he would aggravate the already grave injury, Scully restrained his arm by looping her leg over it and leaned close.
"Shhh. Mulder, be still. I know you're in pain, but if you keep moving you'll make it worse," she murmured, her words both commanding and calming. Ignoring the nauseating throb in her arm and head, she skimmed her fingertips across his cheek and kept up a continuous patter of reassurances until his body stilled and his eyes finally remained open, though clouded with pain and confusion.
"Shhh. Don't try to speak, love, just listen. We're at Georgetown Memorial, remember?"
She could see the bewilderment vanish, sorrow and regret replacing it. "Rynne," he said softly. "The bomb."
He tried to shift then, to twist his body so that he could better see her face. Scully's hand shot out to arrest the motion but her own reflexes were sluggish. Mulder screamed, his eyes flying open is if they would pop, then slamming shut as his face contorted in agony. His fingers clenched into an impossibly tight fist and he pressed his ashen face into the floor while tears leaked from beneath his lids and mingled with the dust, grime, and dried blood.
"Slow it down, Mulder. Concentrate on my voice and slow it down," Scully said over his frantic pants for air. "Breathe in, breathe out. In. Out. That's it, love. In. Out."
She could sense him lock onto her words, see his respiration drop accordingly, but the aftermath left him shivering helplessly, his skin cool and clammy to the touch.
*Shocky* she thought absently, disregarding the little voice in her head that warned her own condition was marginally better. She tucked her discarded jacket around him as best she could and threaded her fingers through his hair. The odors of acrid sweat and coppery blood mingled and filled her nostrils, forcing her to breathe open-mouthed to assuage the queasiness roiling in her gut.
"Gonna be sick," Mulder gasped, mirroring her thoughts.
"It'll pass," she told him with more conviction than she felt. "Just keep breathing, love."
Time lost any meaning, so Scully was uncertain how long it took for his respiration to even and her stomach to settle. She felt disconnected, drifting, her only anchor the feel of Mulder's hair sifting through her fingers.
"What's wrong with me?"
So wispy and colorless, but the question tugged her back to reality with a jolt.
"There's a piece of metal pipe embedded through the flesh
just above your left hip," she replied through numb lips.
"Hurts," he groaned. His hand flailed, then clamped around her wrist in a crushing grip. "Pull it out, Scully. Please, pull it out."
The thin cry for help coupled with eyes glassy with agony left Scully feeling as if her insides had been filled with broken glass. She took a gulp of air that hiccuped into a whimper, blinking furiously.
"I can't, Mulder." What was intended to sound both strong and compassionate fizzled to a beseeching moan. "Right now the pipe is acting as a cork, preventing hemorrhaging. If I remove it you could bleed out before anyone finds us."
Mulder didn't speak, but his vise-like hold loosened and his thumb moved back and forth in a gentle caress. "'S okay, babe. I understand."
Scully saw him try to meet her eyes by twisting his head without moving his body, and gingerly stretched out beside him with her good side pressed to the frigid floor. His gaze sharpened, losing its vagueness, and he slid his hand across until the index finger traced the edge of the cut peeking from her homemade bandage.
"You all right, kemosabe?" he murmured.
As always, his sense of humor even in the midst of a nightmare, seeped through the cracks in her defenses, liberating her tears.
"I'm fine," she choked, then made a face at his look of disbelief. "My arm is broken," she amended. "And I think we both have concussions."
He showed his teeth in a sort of grin. "Scully, this is the first time we've had matching head injuries! Cements the bond, dontcha think?"
Playing her part, she rolled her eyes. "Most couples just exchange rings, Mulder."
He chuffed a little, but stiffened, biting down hard on his lip. "Can't laugh, babe," he said tersely. "Better start talking about Bill. That'll do the trick."
"Shhh," she replied, automatically shifting into her method for soothing him, rubbing lightly up and down his arm.
Like a Pavlovian response, his eyes lost focus and the lids began drooping. The doctor in her knew that in his shocky condition falling asleep could be dangerous, but denying him the respite from pain was too cruel to contemplate.
"Just rest, love," she crooned, her throat tight with a fresh surge of weeping. "I'll listen for the rescue crew."
He didn't argue, didn't acknowledge, just slipped away from her. Scully studied his beloved face -- the sweep of dark lashes against a milky cheek, the lines of pain around his generous mouth that remained even in slumber.
She told herself that she wasn't letting him down. That she fervently believed they would be found in time. That allowing him to sleep against her better judgement wasn't giving up.
It felt like a lie.
Outside Georgetown Memorial
Skinner was not having a good day.
The chaos surrounding the hospital, reaching epic proportions during the immediate aftermath of the explosion, showed no sign of ebbing. Sirens blared as a steady stream of ambulances evacuated Georgetown's current patients, as well as those injured by the blast, to other facilities in the area. Machinery roared as rescue workers struggled to gain access to the most severely affected floors, still cut off from help. Reporters and television news crews threatened to overflow the barriers as they shouted questions, thrust microphones, and flashed cameras.
Skinner hated the press.
And through it all, through the noise and confusion, barking orders and making
decisions to achieve some damage control, Skinner grieved. For a small, fiery-haired woman
whose grit and determination were only exceeded by her loyalty and integrity. For a man,
hounded by loss and tragedy but possessing a brilliant mind and an ability to think
outside the box that made him one of the best agents
Skinner had ever had the privilege of working with.
A senseless loss, and completely avoidable.
And that's where Skinner's grief blended seamlessly into fury. The entire incident had
been a hair's breadth from peaceful resolution, no doubt due to Mulder's uncanny ability
to profile his adversary. No casualties needed to occur -- especially not the two he'd
privately come to regard as friends and not just colleagues. Until the action
of one overzealous cop blew it all to hell. Literally.
A tragedy, said Chuck Draper, captain and officer in charge of the D.C. cops whose arrival had coincided with Skinner and his agents'. A well-meaning but inexperienced officer makes a poor judgement call that costs not only his own life, but others as well. A deadly object lesson in the necessity of following the chain of command.
Draper was a good man, and Skinner publicly accepted his assessment and his condolences. Privately, however, he nursed more than his share of doubt and resentment. He'd had dealings with Mike Fenton, the SWAT team leader, before. Skinner closed his eyes, lifting his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. And remembering...
**Thirty-two and SAC of his first big case, a bank robbery gone bad. Ten hostages -- one critically injured. Two gunmen packing assault rifles with mile-long records of breaking and entering and armed robbery.
His negotiator establishes a dialogue with the gunmen, feels confident he can talk them into surrendering peacefully.
Fenton, all bluster and bravado, has a different opinion. The criminals will never willingly give up, he argues. The only way to save lives is to go in, and to go in full throttle. He's territorial -- resenting Skinner's involvement from the beginning. He flaunts his additional eight years on the force, eight years in the trenches to Skinner's comparative inexperience.
They argue bitterly until Fenton undermines his confidence to the point where he acquiesces. Fenton's commandos go in with teargas and blazing guns.
Both gunmen die, but not before killing three hostages. Fenton is coolly ambivalent. He points out the seven lives saved and uses terms like "acceptable losses."
Skinner can't forgive himself -- even sixteen years later.**
Skinner sighed and opened his eyes, staring across the sea of activity at the empty SWAT van, its inhabitants now assisting with crowd control. Fenton had the good grace to give him a wide berth and he was wise enough not to seek a confrontation -- at least not here and now.
He'd once told Grey that there were times he was certain that life was just a single series of events endlessly repeated. Well, this time through he was not an inexperienced rookie, lacking confidence. This time, by God, he'd see that Fenton accepted responsibility for his actions.
"Assistant Director Skinner? Sir?"
The light, feminine voice, overlaid with anxiety, pulled him from his dark rumination. He swiveled his head toward the sound and was confronted by an attractive young woman with honey blonde hair and wide blue eyes. Not just a woman, but an agent with which he was all too familiar.
"Agent Harding," he said gruffly. "I seem to recall assigning you the Winkler file. Is it finished already?"
Normally a stickler for protocol, she ignored him -- a fact that clearly attested to her state of mind. "I heard about the explosion, rumor has spread all through the Bureau. They're saying Agent Mulder and Agent Scully are dead. Is it true?"
The fresh stab of pain at her words surprised him. "It looks that way," he confirmed through tightly clenched teeth.
Kristen dropped her eyes and nodded, projecting composure, but he could see her hands tremble before she slipped them into the pockets of her navy pantsuit.
"Was he with them?"
He had to admire her strength -- the question was uttered with a level tone, only a slight break at the end betraying emotion.
"No. But," he lifted a hand to quell her sigh of relief, "he was inside the building when the bomb went off. And he disobeyed my directive to come out and let the rescue teams conduct the search. He's convinced they may still be alive, and he's taken it upon himself to look for them."
Kristen pursed her lips, a mixture of worry and affectionate exasperation on her face. "He's incredibly hard-headed sometimes."
Skinner's eyebrow lifted. "I have to admit, I thought you'd be more upset. That building is completely unstable, and sections are going to continue to collapse. He's placed himself in serious danger."
Kristen's eyes slid away from his, and he realized that the fear was present, just carefully masked. "Of course I wish he were here, sir, out of harm's way. But I love him. And that means I have to accept that he'd walk through fire -- or in this case a collapsing building -- to save his brother."
"And what if there's no one left to save?" Skinner muttered.
She lifted her head, straightened her slumped posture. "Then I'll be here to help
pick up the pieces."
"This isn't working."
Grey used his arm to brush sweat and damp, curly tendrils of hair from his brow. He glared over his shoulder at the man sprawled on the landing, sipping from a bottle of water.
"And it never will if you just sit on your butt and leave me to do all the work!" he retorted. "Your sister is up there somewhere -- or have you forgotten?"
Bill slammed the plastic bottle to the floor, leaning forward. "Of course I haven't! But I'm smart enough to recognize a useless expenditure of energy when I see it. We've been trying to clear a path through that rubble for over an hour and you'd never know it. Face the facts, McKenzie. We aren't going to get through that way."
Grey set aside another chunk of drywall, watched his hands jitter with fatigue. He stomped down the four steps to the landing and threw himself to the ground beside Bill, curling his arms around his folded legs and resting his head on his knees.
He was furious. Furious that a glory-seeking kid had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Furious that Bill was right, that their hour of hard labor had succeeded only in sapping their strength. Furious at the traitorous tears that clogged his throat and hovered constantly behind his eyelids in spite of his determination not to break down in front of this man.
"I haven't heard any brilliant ideas from you," he growled, fueling the anger to sublimate the grief.
Surprisingly, Bill didn't allow himself to be baited. "I never claimed I had any."
Silence filled the space between them. Grey tried to quiet the Pandemonium in his spirit, but images of Fox kept interfering.
"He nearly died a week ago. He's still so weak." Grey bit off the words, horrified that he'd spoken them aloud.
An elbow nudged his arm and a bottle of water was thrust into his hand. Still embarrassed by his admission and confused by Bill's small gesture of kindness, Grey turned his head and took a long pull from the container. The water was lukewarm but delicious.
After another brief silence, Bill spoke. "If anyone could pull him through something like this, Dana can. God knows, she refuses to let go of him no matter what happens."
It was a grudging, left-handed offer of comfort but Grey accepted it with grace. Another few minutes of stillness before he broke it.
"He would, too, you know. Don't forget that he went all the way to Antarctica to bring Dana back safely."
"Course, she wouldn't have wound up in Antarctica if not for his damn quest," Bill pointed out, an edge to his voice.
It added tinder to the dying spark of Grey's anger. "How can you continue to hold Fox responsible for every bad thing that happens to your sister?"
"Because he is! Dana had a good life before she became mixed up with the X-Files and your brother! She was close to her family and she knew where her responsibilities lay. She was content!"
"They do an important job, Bill, a job that makes an impact against the evil in this world. I've seen it!"
"But at what cost? She's nearly paid with her life more times than I can count!"
"You have such tunnel vision, Bill!" Grey exploded. "You think that it's been a picnic for Fox? Every time I see him he's added a new scar to his collection! It's what they *choose* to do. The least we can do is respect that choice."
"Why should I respect a choice that has brought so much grief to Dana and to our family?" Bill snarled.
Grey leaned his head against the wall, staring into space. "Martin Luther King, Jr. said that unless you've found something worth dying for, your life isn't worth living," he mused quietly.
Bill snorted. "You think little green men are worth dying for?"
Grey cast him a sidelong glance, lips twisted in a rueful smirk. "Do you honestly think it's the *quest* she's willing to die for? You're even denser than I thought, Billy boy."
Billy gaped, open mouthed, until Grey's meaning sank in. Flushing a dark red and jerking to his feet, he yanked the stairwell door open and paused on the threshold.
"I'm going to see if I can find another way up," he snapped, the words clipped and delivered without expectation of a response. "You can sit on your ass or come along -- I really don't care which."
He stalked out the door, leaving Grey to replace the water bottles in his makeshift backpack and heft it onto his shoulder. The overtaxed muscles of his arms protested loudly, sending little jolts of pain as an expression of their discontent.
"With a gracious invitation like that, how could I possibly refuse?" he replied, resisting the latent, school boy portion of his psyche that wanted to make faces at Bill's back.
Instead he swiped the sweat from his face and counted to ten, this time making it all
the way. "Brace yourself, Grey," he muttered. "If all goes well that idiot
could be your brother-in-law someday." He affected a mock shudder, pulling open the
door. "Now *that's* an X-file."
Startled, Scully carefully shifted to face him. She'd been lying on her back, staring at the deepening shadows as day waned and the light faded. Mulder's eyes gleamed from beneath heavy lids and his tongue slipped out in a vain effort to moisten parched flesh.
"Me too," she admitted, reaching out to brush the pad of her thumb across the swell of his lower lip. "Welcome back."
Mulder gingerly tried to shift his upper body, grimacing. "Never thought I'd say this, babe. But I was hoping to wake up in a hospital. A different one, of course."
Scully's thumb moved up to caress the arch of his cheek before her fingers trailed down the length of arm and entwined with his. "They'll be coming soon," she said quietly. "Grey and Skinner will move heaven and earth to find us."
Mulder's gaze skittered away. "Unless Grey was caught in the explosion too."
"There's no reason to assume the worst, Mulder," she chided. "Skinner is out there, right? And we know Grey was responsible for calling Skinner. I think it's reasonable to assume that he was with him -- or at the very least, a safe distance from the blast."
Mulder accepted her reassurance with a perfunctory nod, but his teeth worried the inside of his cheek and his expression remained troubled. Scully watched him brood for several minutes, longing to ask a question that had been troubling her, but loathe to upset him further.
"What happened? Why did Rynne set off the bomb?"
Mulder's mouth tightened into a thin line and his eyes narrowed. "Daniel didn't do it. Lawrence did."
Scully blinked, his answer knocking her completely off balance. "*Dr. Lawrence*? I don't understand. How...why would Dr. Lawrence set off the bomb?"
"Somehow a cop came up that materials chute by the windows. Looked like SWAT or
some other Special Forces unit. Daniel got scared and turned back so Lawrence started
struggling, hitting him. He must have tripped the switch."
The lengthy speech overtaxed Mulder. He broke off, panting for air and shivering.
Scully fumbled for the bloody strip of flannel and tenderly blotted the beads of perspiration from his brow. "Easy. You keep forgetting to breathe, love," she murmured.
"Daniel was going to give himself up, Scully," Mulder puffed, ignoring her admonition. "Skinner guaranteed his safety. *I* promised him. Why would they renege and send someone in like that?"
Scully shook her head, searching for the words to comfort but coming up empty. Mulder's use of Rynne's first name was not lost on her. He'd done it again, his unique gifts of profiling and empathy forming a connection with a criminal until the lines between guilt and innocence, blame and absolution blurred beyond recognition.
"Skinner wouldn't have authorized it, Mulder," she said, capturing his
fingers once more. "There must have been a misunderstanding, miscommunication between
him and the police. But regardless of that, Rynne strapped on that bomb and he is still
the responsible party. Not the police, not
Doctor Lawrence, and certainly not you."
Mulder's eyes played keep away again, dropping to their joined hands. "That may be true, Scully. But two kids just lost their father, and maybe their mother. And it didn't need to happen."
She had no reply for that, and knew he wasn't really expecting one. Scully pushed herself upright, wanting to check the wound in his side before darkness made it impossible. She shivered as a draft of cold air teased her bare arms to gooseflesh.
"Put your coat back on, Scully."
Irritated that he'd glimpsed the evidence of her discomfort, Scully chose to ignore the weak command and concentrated on carefully removing her improvised pressure bandage. Despite her soft touch, Mulder sucked in a sharp breath of air and shuddered helplessly. She stared unhappily at the wound; the edges inflamed an angry red and still steadily oozing fresh blood. She refolded the shirt in a useless attempt to press a clean side to the injury, biting her lip hard when Mulder whimpered.
"Sorry," she whispered, scooting around to lie down beside him once more. She cautiously snuggled into his side, both to give and receive additional warmth.
Mulder gradually regained control of his breathing and opened eyes that had clamped shut. Scully saw him scrutinize her thin cotton tee shirt and the frown on his face deepened.
"Take back your jacket, Scully," he repeated, pushing the words past his lips with as much force as he could muster. "I mean it."
"I'm fine, Mulder..." she began, only to gape when Mulder used a word she'd never heard him utter in her presence, let alone direct toward her.
"You are *not* fine! You're injured, you're only wearing a tee shirt, and it's getting cold in here! Now take the damn jacket or I'll..."
Mulder reached awkwardly over his shoulder, groping for the coat, but inadvertently twisted too far. This time he didn't even scream. The small amount of color remaining in his cheeks evaporated and his eyes rolled back in his head, the lids fluttering shut.
"Mulder? Mulder, don't zone out on me!"
Scully ran her knuckles briskly across his cheek and was rewarded by a small moan and a glassy stare. He blinked languidly twice, finally focusing on her frightened face.
"Smooth move, Mulder," she scolded, giddy with relief. "Now lie still and stop causing trouble."
Amazingly, though he could barely lift his head, Mulder picked up where he'd left off. "Take coat...please."
Tears stung the back of her throat, but she tenaciously held on to rationality. "Mulder, your condition is much worse than mine. You're still losing blood, and you're in shock. You need that coat more than I do."
In the end, as always, it was his eyes that undid her. She could have her mind made up, her responses set in stone, and yet one moment of immersion in the intensity of his gaze left her defenseless.
"For me," he croaked, and Scully was dismayed to see he also was close to tears.
She silently lifted the coat from his back and slipped her uninjured arm into the sleeve before draping it around her. Relief and gratitude smoothed the creases from his forehead and he seemed to slump further down onto the tile.
"Why?" Scully asked, hating how wonderful it felt to have the soft material enveloping her again. "Why couldn't you let me do this one little thing for you?"
"Don't want you to make another sacrifice for me, Scully," he answered. "God knows, you've paid enough."
She frowned, bewildered by his words and the strength of the emotion underlying them. Then, abruptly, she recalled their conversation after Mulder's failed basketball outing and it all began to make sense.
"The deal I made with Spender for the serum," she said, searching his face. "That's what's really bothering you, isn't it? You can't get past the fact that I willingly placed myself in his hands in order to save your life."
Mulder squirmed a little but immobilized as he was, he could do little to avoid her. Settling for closing his eyes against her knowing gaze, he curled his fingers as if trying to dig them into the floor beneath his cheek.
"You shouldn't have done it, Scully."
Tired, thirsty, and hurting, his perpetual self-deprecation drove her to anger. "Why, Mulder? Why the double standard? You've repeatedly put your life on the line for me without giving the matter a second thought. You broke into that research facility and the DOD looking for a cure for my cancer. Despite a gunshot to that hard head, you dragged yourself halfway 'round the world to find me and bring me home safely. And I happen to know that the only thing that stopped you from making your own bargain with Cancerman was Skinner. Why is it so hard to accept that I'd do the same for you?"
"Because it scares the hell out of me."
The fragile, hushed reply annulled her anger and laid bare her heart. Scully traced one finger over the delicate skin of his closed lids with a gossamer touch until he hesitantly opened them.
Slipping into a conditioned response, Mulder tried to deflect with humor. "You mean other than the fact that I'm a wuss?"
Scully's steady, unrelenting stare was his only answer. His heart, already fluttering at an abnormal rate, lurched and the twisting sensation in his gut temporarily eclipsed the fire in his side. Then her soft palm cupped his face, her thumb exploring the boundary between the stubble of his jaw and the smoothness of his cheek, and even his stubborn, screwed up, overcautious brain could read the elemental love in her eyes.
For a split second Mulder's mind turned inward, to a place he sometimes visited when the demands of day to day existence left him feeling confused and adrift...
**Brilliant golden sun, warm brown sand, cool azure water. He sits on a large, flat rock, the crash of the waves filling his ears and the breeze kissing his sun-flushed cheeks. A small, dark haired boy stands on a pier, his red swim trunks a bright splash of color against the weathered boards. Mother and father, already in the water, are calling encouragement. Even from a distance, he can see indecision warring within the child as he remains poised above the surf. It's written in the hunch of small shoulders, in toes curled tightly over the edge of the planks.
To jump, or not to jump?
Love and trust pull him forward. Fear holds him back.
And then mother swims closer, planting her feet against the tug of the waves and raising outstretched arms. "You can do it," the gesture says clearly. "I'll catch you."
And immediately, without hesitation, the boy jumps.**
"Mulder?" Scully's hushed utterance of his name was questioning, uncertain.
Mulder blinked, coming back to the stench of plaster dust, the gloom of approaching darkness, and the bite of the metal in his side. Yet he could still feel the lingering warmth of sunshine on his cheeks. He looked into Scully's eyes, recognizing love, recognizing safety, but immobilized by fear.
And decided it was time to jump.
"I'll tell you why, Scully." He reached up, wriggling his fingers until they'd slipped neatly between her own. "It terrifies me because it means that you really could love me as much as I love you. And I don't think...I *know* I can't live up to that. Eventually, I'll wind up disappointing you, babe. I always have. And I always will."
Scully's fingers clamped down convulsively on his and a tear trickled down her cheek, but her words were tinged with humor. "Mulder, you are such an idiot. In fact, I sincerely doubt that a bigger idiot exists. Even on Reticula."
Mulder's lips curved in spite of his morose mood. "Don't pull any punches, Scully. Give it to me straight."
"Just exactly what kind of ideal do you think you need to live up to? I believe I have a right to know, since it would seem only fair that I achieve the same level of perfection -- don't you agree?"
Rather than irritate, her exaggerated sarcasm acted as a salve to his raw emotions. "I don't think you have anything to worry about, babe."
Her eyes narrowed. "Oh really? So you don't mind when I nag you about leaving the toilet seat up and getting shells all over my coffee table? Or what about when I'm grouchy because I haven't had enough sleep and I argue with practically every word out of your mouth? Are you telling me that none of that bothers you, makes you want to grab hold and give me a good shake?"
Mulder's mouth twitched. "Well, sure. I suppose there are times that you get on my nerves, but I'd hardly consider them important in the greater scheme of things! I mean, I love you, and nothing else really..."
He broke off, confounded by Scully's smug expression, both copper eyebrows arched.
"You were saying, love?" she prodded sweetly.
"I...It's not the same, I..."
"Got you, Mulder. Big time. Now I suggest you come to terms with the fact that this is an equal partnership -- even in love -- and get over yourself."
Mulder appeared struck speechless, a rare occurrence indeed. He tugged their joined hands to his lips, pressing kisses to her knuckles. After several minutes of silence, he cleared his throat.
"Scully, this is the last time I'm going to ask about this. I promise to accept whatever answer you choose to give me, and I won't bring up the subject again."
Scully frowned at the reticence in his face. "What is it, love?"
"What happened to you while you were with Cancerman?" When her face darkened with impatience and...something else, Mulder rushed onward. "I'm not trying to beat myself up about this, Scully, I swear I'm not! I just... Scully, nothing could be worse than the images I've come up with in my own mind. I would really like to know the truth."
She sighed, anger draining out of her expression to leave a tension around her mouth that spoke of weariness and memories best left buried.
"What do you want me to say, Mulder? That it was horrible? It was. That they drugged me just enough so I knew what they were doing to me but couldn't stop them? They did. Poking and prodding and strange machines and needles until I didn't think I could stand anymore."
Scully stopped herself, trembling. Mulder's face was granite, impassive, but his eyes bled. He nodded, then tried to speak, but at first his voice failed him. Scully braced herself for guilt, for self-recrimination.
Not just an expression of gratitude for her honesty, but an acknowledgement of her gift to him. His simple reply astonished her. Healed a wound she hadn't realized she bore.
"You want to know the worst part of my time with Spender, Mulder?" she asked softly, leaning more strongly into the comfort of his body until her face rested only inches from his own.
A tiny jerk of his head, teeth tormenting his lower lip.
"Not being able to see you, to touch you. Wondering if I'd be too late, and terrified that you could slip away without allowing me the chance to say goodbye. To be sure you knew that in spite of the bumps in the road, I've never regretted this journey."
Mulder's eyes shone but he pursed his lips. "Bumps in the road, Scully? There've been a hell of a lot of potholes, I'd say."
Scully grinned and brushed her mouth across his in a feathery kiss. "Especially the flukeman thing."
He bit back a chuckle. "Sculleee! Don't make me laugh." Carefully burrowing his face into the crook of her neck, he drew in a deep breath, then slowly released it. "There's no one else I'd rather make the journey with, babe," he mused drowsily. "'M sorry you got stuck in this particular hole, though."
She pressed another kiss to the crown of his head, wishing for two good arms to hold
him tight. And watched as the last pale threads of light gave way to darkness.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea."
Grey rolled his eyes and bit back ten different wise retorts. He was tired, he smelled,
and he was damn sick of
William Scully, Jr. Blowing out a long breath of air, he lifted his hands, palm up, in a gesture of frustration.
"Then what? We've been over this floor at least five times. Both stairwells are impassable -- as you so eloquently pointed out. We're losing the light, and these pissant little penlights aren't going to be real helpful. We need to do this, or just pack it in and give up."
Bill's brows drew down until it seemed they'd brush his nose and his lips thinned. "I am NOT giving up on my sister, hotshot."
"Then get over here, put your hands together, and stop bellyaching," Grey snapped.
Looking as if he were sucking on a cactus, Bill stomped into the elevator, his footfalls echoing down the shaft. Grey ignored his muttering and stepped into the proffered hand, shoving aside the access panel in the ceiling and hooking his arms over the edge.
"Boost," he grunted, and nearly flew through the air when Bill heaved upward with more force than necessary.
He wriggled over the lip and rolled onto his back, gazing upward. Amazingly, the shaft remained intact for as far as he could see in the dim light. Flipping back onto his stomach he peered through the opening to regard Bill's upturned face.
"Looks good." Scooting farther over the opening he extended his right arm. "Take my hand, I'll pull you up."
Bill snorted, his lip curling in disdain. "Just step back. I'll get there on my own power."
Grey shrugged and did as he was told, reflecting on the sheer mystery that Dana shared genes with this man. He heard Bill's guttural explosion of breath as he launched himself upward, followed by the sight of fingers curled over the sides of the open hatch. Red-faced and dripping sweat, Bill hauled himself up, first securing his elbows and then worming forward.
"Piece of cake," he said, puffing heavily.
Grey lifted an eyebrow. "Right. Well then why don't you head right up that cable, Billy boy? Wouldn't want to waste all that energy."
He didn't wait for Bill's inevitable sour response, just settled the backpack more firmly on his shoulders, swiped his sweaty palms over his denim-clad legs, and wrapped his fingers around the steel. Feeling the weight of Bill's less than supportive stare, he took a deep breath and began shimmying upward, hand over hand.
It was harder than he expected. The cable was slick under his hands and didn't give the way a rope would. He paused once he reached the doors to the third floor, panting and blinking against the perspiration trickling down his forehead to sting his eyes. Carefully tilting his head, he squinted upward.
"Gonna go all the way," he huffed, licking his lips and tasting salt.
"Are you crazy?" Bill's question held incredulity, not anger. "If you fall from that height I'll be scraping you off this thing!"
"Aww! Knew you cared," he called, forcing his tired arms to start pulling again.
Bill uttered a string of curses worthy of a sailor, which he steadfastly ignored. At last double doors bearing the number 4 slid into view. He hung there for a moment, muscles quivering with exhaustion, while he gathered courage to take the next step.
Gripping more tightly with both hands, Grey kicked out, swinging his legs with all his strength. When his toes cleared the lip of the doorway he pushed off with both arms. Both feet connected with solid ground but his weight remained distributed toward the cable and he sensed himself begin to careen backward toward the shaft. Flinging both arms wide he scrabbled frantically for a hold while trying to compensate by lunging forward.
Just when he thought all was lost, his right hand found purchase and he righted himself, blood pounding in his ears and breath hitching in his lungs. He let his head drop down to rest against the closed doors and concentrated on the solidity.
"What's going on? Can we get through?"
"Just extracting my heart from my mouth," he replied sarcastically, the words bouncing and wavering until they reached their destination. "Give me a minute."
When his heartrate approached normal and his legs ceased trembling, he pushed his fingers into the crack between the doors and pulled hard. They resisted at first, then slid slowly open with a creak of protest.
Something large whizzed past his left cheek, and he reflexively jerked backward, nearly losing his balance and tumbling down the passageway. A second later he heard a bang and Bill's shout of alarm.
"What the hell was that?"
Grey stared glumly at the jumble of boards, insulation, and other debris that completely blocked entrance to the fourth floor.
"That was me getting ready to come back down. Fourth floor is completely obstructed."
He eyed the chasm with distaste, aware for the first time that in order to retrace his path to the third floor he would have to jump and catch onto the cable.
"Just how are you planning on getting back down, Einstein?" Bill called. "Did you stop to think about that?"
"No, this was a one-way idiotic plan," Grey muttered under his breath. Aloud he called, "Ready or not, here I come."
The jump was perfect -- not too far so that he overshot his goal but far enough for his hands to connect easily with the cable. Grey had a spit second of exultation before his hands lost traction and he plunged downward, leaving his stomach behind.
Reflex saved him again, prompting his legs and feet to wrap frantically around the metal and his fingers to tighten convulsively. His hurtling decent slowed, then stopped just a few feet below the third floor doors. Squeezing his eyes shut against tears of pain, Grey tried to disregard the streaks of fire licking across his palms, exacerbated by his death-hold on the cable.
"McKenzie? You all right?"
Bill's voice was soft, tentative. Grey zeroed in on it like a lifeline, a reminder of why he was in the present predicament.
"Yeah. Yeah. Just..." He broke of, unable to bite back a small groan of pain.
"I'm coming up."
Grey could hear Bill literally screech to a halt at the panic in his voice, evoking a cartoonish image in his warped brain that caused him to nearly erupt in hysterical laughter. He pictured little puffs of smoke rising from under Bill's heels.
"You'll shake the cable," he said, shoving the thought away and regaining some composure. "I can't... I won't be able to hold on. Wait."
"Fine, fine. I'm waiting. Just don't fall on top of me," Bill growled.
Grey longed to make use of his middle finger, settled for inching deliberately upward.
"You are one crazy son of a bitch, McKenzie," Bill's harsh words concealed a grudging admiration.
This time when he swung his legs across the gap one hand slipped free and he slammed to his knees, pinwheeling his arms furiously. Then, whether from depleted strength or simply because they'd jammed, the doors stubbornly refused to open until he'd peeled back a nail and further injured the screaming flesh of his palms. Yet when he tumbled through the opening onto the chaotic wreckage of the third floor he could have danced for joy.
"Hello! Mind giving the rest of us an update?"
Until Bill's acerbic voice burst the bubble.
Grey cast one hurried glance down the murky, rubble-filled corridor before leaning through the doors and swinging his arm in a welcoming arc.
"C'mon in, the water's fine."
Bill's puckered expression of scorn further lifted his flagging spirits and compensated for the fire in his hands. He'd begun to enjoy this sport of brother-baiting and couldn't seem to scrape up an ounce of remorse for his behavior. Well, maybe an ounce...
"Careful," he warned as Bill curled his fingers around the cable. "It's a lot smoother than a rope, and easier to slip."
"Thanks for the advice," Bill growled, in a voice that meant anything but. "I don't need a backseat climber."
"Whatever," Grey sighed, leaving Bill to his acrobatics and switching attention to his lacerated hands.
A narrow, angry red line of inflammation bisected the tender skin of each palm, oozing small droplets of blood in some places. Grey hooked one finger into the pocket of his jeans to fish out a handkerchief and gingerly wound it around his right hand, the more severely damaged of the two.
After securing it in place, he lifted his eyes to find Bill clinging to the cable directly opposite him.
"Move it or lose it, hotshot, I'm coming through," he cautioned, looking as if he hadn't broken a sweat.
Grey stepped aside with an exaggerated bow and a smirk. "Oh *do* join me, Billy, I thought you'd never get here."
It was destined to become fodder for his occasional bouts of insomnia --wondering whether the needling might have thrown off Bill's timing. Whatever the cause, instead of landing squarely at the mouth of the doorway the way Grey had, Bill released his hold too late and fell short. Grey watched in horrified slow motion as the tips of Bill's sneakers brushed past firm ground and he dropped like a stone toward the elevator car beneath.
"NO!" he screamed, lunging forward to clutch at something, anything. A limb. A swatch of clothing. Even the flimsy excuse for a backpack if it halted the man's plunge. The tips of his fingers skated across a cotton pullover, snagging for a split second before it tugged loose. Bill's momentum slowed a fraction, but he continued to freefall, eyes wide with terror. His hands shot forward, groping for the ledge as he sank past it, and, miraculously, they locked on. With an abrupt and muscle-wrenching jolt he aborted the fall, legs swinging wildly over thin air.
"Hang on!" Grey dropped to his belly, reaching over to clamp his hands around Bill's arms just beneath the elbow. He could only see the carrot top of his head, Bill's gaze trained on the shadowy mass of the elevator car beneath.
"Bill, look at me!" Grey ordered sharply.
Sluggishly, reluctantly, Bill complied, his face pale and sweaty.
"You have to let go of the edge and grab onto my arms," Grey said slowly, recognizing that the man was on the verge of panic.
Bill shook his head wildly, an action that caused his body to sway back and forth until Grey nearly lost his grip. "NO! I can't let go, I'll fall!"
"You'll fall if you don't! You can't hang there indefinitely, you're tiring already," Grey argued, his own arms now singing as loudly as his hands. "BILL. Trust me. I *won't* let you fall."
Bill scrutinized him for a very long moment before ducking his head in a small nod.
"All right. On three," Grey huffed, sending up a silent prayer. "One. Two. THREE!"
Without hesitation, Bill released his grasp on the edge and clutched at Grey's forearms, transferring his entire weight. For an instant Grey felt himself slide forward, toward the drop-off, and he scrambled desperately to plant his feet against the tile. The rubber of his Nikes finally caught and he gradually, slowly squirmed backwards.
Once Bill snagged an elbow over the edge, he ceased being a dead weight and through kicking, dragging, and slithering, managed to work his way completely to safety.
For a very long time both lay pressed to the beautiful solidity of the floor, Bill on his back and Grey his stomach, gasping like fish. Eventually Grey hauled himself to his knees and pawed through his backpack until he'd extracted a bottle of water. After taking a long, satisfying draught he offered it to Bill, bemused by the way the fluid sloshed wildly in his jittering hand. Obviously in no better shape, Bill succeeded in spilling a good portion of the liquid down his chin as he attempted his own drink. Scowling at his ineptness, he glared at Grey's grin, which rapidly transformed to a snicker.
"You think that was funny?" he blustered, though it came out thready and insincere.
"I think we both almost pissed our pants," Grey answered, little riffs of laughter still escaping. "And I'm glad you're still alive, Billy boy. Who'd a thought?"
Bill stared at him, then smiled. Which became a grin. A chuckle. And then they were both rolling on the ground, roaring like idiots.
Finally Bill sat up and dry washed his face, smearing the sweat and grime. He looked over at Grey, still flat on his back and intermittently snickering, and sobered.
"Thanks, McKenzie. I owe you."
Stunned into his own sobriety, Grey extended a hand and let Bill tug him upright. "You're welcome, Bill. As for owing me... You may want to reconsider. I don't think you'll like how I choose to collect."
Bill's baffled expression melted to understanding and mild annoyance. "Huh. Well if what I just saw in that elevator shaft is any indication, we'll be even before I have to worry about it. You always take risks like that?"
Grey's smile faded. "Only in times of extreme circumstances," he answered grimly. "I think this qualifies."
Bill stood, offering his hand. "Yeah," he said quietly. "I'm with you on
Outside Georgetown Memorial
"Don't give up yet. Please."
Skinner thrust his jaw forward and averted his eyes, staring at the damaged building rather than the frustrated countenance of Joe Adamson, leader of the rescue operation.
"Look, Assistant Director Skinner, it isn't that I don't sympathize," Adamson said wearily, scrubbing his sleeve across the sweat and grit layering his face. "But we've had no success gaining access to the fourth floor, and our attempts to do so haven't uncovered any signs of life. From what we've been able to determine so far, there *isn't* a fourth floor anymore. It's almost as if the fifth floor dropped down to take its place."
"But you haven't been able to explore the entire fifth floor, have you?" Skinner persisted. "You said you'd only managed to break through to a small stretch of it."
Adamson wrinkled his nose and massaged the back of his neck. "That's true. To be honest, our first priority was evacuating the injured on the floors we could reach. Amazingly, there have been relatively few casualties thanks to the early warning and the efficiency of hospital staff.
"Then you have to admit..."
Adamson shook his head, holding up one hand to forestall Skinner's protest. "Just
because I've seen only a portion of that area doesn't mean I can't make some pretty
educated assumptions regarding the chances of those closest to the blast. Frankly,
surviving that kind of a concussion would be a miracle. I understand they're your agents,
sir, and I wish I had better news. But I have my own men and women to think of, and
proceeding in the darkness, despite the floodlights, significantly increases their danger.
Considering the odds against finding anyone still alive,
I'm loath to take the risk."
Skinner trained the full intensity of his gaze on Adamson. "I understand what you're telling me, and I've no doubt it's based on hard-earned experience. But you've got to trust my judgment on this. I'll admit I've got my doubts about Mulder and Scully living through that explosion." Skinner's grim features softened and one corner of his mouth lifted. "But if anyone on this planet could, it would be those two. More than once I've written them off only to have them prove me wrong. I won't make that mistake again."
He sighed heavily. "And as we stand here and debate whether to call a halt to the search for the night, there are two untrained, but extremely stubborn, men in there somewhere, conducting their own little rescue mission. God only knows what kind of a jam they've gotten themselves into by now."
Adamson squinted at him doubtfully. "You're certain about that? I know you said they were already inside, but nobody has seen hide nor hair of them."
Skinner's hand tightened reflexively on the walkie-talkie in his pocket, reproachfully silent despite repeated attempts to contact Grey. "They're in there, all right," he growled. "I can't vouch for Bill, but I know Grey won't give up until he discovers exactly what happened to them. I can't do any less."
Adamson pondered his declaration, then shrugged. "All right. Have it your way -- for now. We'll take another crack at the fifth floor. But until I find some hint of life, I'm playing it conservative, Skinner."
"Of course. I understand."
Skinner worked to contain the influx of relief that left him weak-kneed.
*In the greater scheme of things, this means nothing. The cold hard fact is that Adamson is probably right. How could they have survived?*
He turned to see Maggie Scully, a steaming cup of coffee extended and a questioning expression on her careworn face. Kristen hovered at her elbow.
Skinner accepted the cup, taking a gulp of liquid warmth, which spread throughout his chilled body while he chose his reply carefully. Calling Maggie Scully with bad news was becoming a familiar, though unwelcome, occurrence. Each time his admiration for the woman rose another notch --her grace and fortitude under fire reminiscent of a certain redheaded agent.
"No sign of Dana or Mulder -- or our recalcitrant pair of rescuers, for that matter. But he's agreed to continue the search, at least for now."
Maggie let her eyes slip shut and exhaled. "Thank God for that." She fixed Skinner in the warmth of her gaze. "And thank you, Mr. Skinner. Don't think I don't appreciate your role in that decision."
When he attempted to voice an embarrassed denial, Maggie held up a quelling hand. "We've been through this a few times, you and I. Certainly enough for me to have seen the subtle ways you've supported Dana and Fox." She shook her head ruefully. "I frankly don't know who to be more concerned about. My daughter-in-law tells me there was no love lost between Grey and my son."
Skinner's mouth twitched. "I wouldn't worry," he said, looking at Kristen from the corner of his eye. "I'm sure Grey can take care of himself."
Maggie reached over to give Kristen's arm a gentle pat. "Oh, I'm certain of it. It's Bill I'm worried about. I love my son dearly, Mr. Skinner, but there's times he'd try the patience of a saint."
The startled guffaw burst from Skinner before he could rein it in. Initially horrified by the inappropriateness of his laughter, the twinkle in Maggie's eye told him she hadn't taken offense -- had, in fact, purposely provoked the release of tension.
Allowing an open smile of admiration, Skinner raised an eyebrow. "Please call me Walt, Mrs. Scully. I think we've been here enough times to dispense with the formalities."
"You're right about that. And it's Maggie, Walt." She turned to the shivering Kristen with a critical eye. "We're going to go somewhere warm and get a quick bite to eat. Can we bring you something?"
Skinner could feel his stomach applaud at the mention of a meal. "Please. Anything warm will do."
Maggie nodded, but Kristen was shaking her head vehemently. "I'd rather not leave, what if they find them, what if..."
Maggie linked her arm with Kristen's. "I was a Navy wife for over thirty years, Kristen. I had to sit by while Bill ventured into some dangerous situations, and I learned an important lesson. The next best thing to being with him was to make sure I was prepared to welcome him home. You'll be of no use to Grey if you're half-starved and frozen."
Kristen frowned and opened her mouth to protest, but the steel in Maggie's brown eyes changed her mind. "Well, maybe just a quick meal," she said grudgingly.
Skinner watched Maggie steer her away before turning back to stare at the crumbling
building. Kristen was in good hands. He could only hope Mulder and Scully would fare as
"So... Tell me again why you think the Knicks are going to do so well this year?"
Scully endeavored to keep her voice light, conversational. She didn't want Mulder to sense how troubled she was.
"Scullee! Already 'splained to you. 'S because..."
Mulder's slurred reply trailed off and she knew he wasn't even aware that he'd stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence. His cognizance and coherency had declined sharply over the past hour, causing fear to bubble up inside of her like a pot left unattended over a flame.
Her only reply was an incoherent mumble. Scully desperately wished she could see him, could look into his eyes to assess just how frightened she should be. A barely perceptible trickle of light filtered into their prison, illuminating a vague outline of Mulder's body, but no more. Contenting herself with touch, she ran her fingers over the too warm skin of his brow, down his cheek, and across to his ear.
"Sorry, love," she muttered.
Taking his earlobe between thumb and index finger, she gave the soft flesh a vicious pinch, wincing as if she'd inflicted the discomfort on herself.
Too late, Scully realized that the simple trick for restoring consciousness would also cause Mulder to reflexively jerk away from her hand. His cry of pain modulated into a wail, bringing tears to her eyes and a frantic litany of apology from her lips. Reduced to soft whimpers of pain and gasps for air, Mulder still managed to seize her hand and press it tightly to his cheek, silently communicating forgiveness.
They lay mutely in the darkness for an undetermined time, long enough that Scully began to fear he'd slipped under despite her unwitting torture. Then Mulder spoke, his words a bit garbled but lucid.
"Think Sam's alive?"
Like coming into a play during the second act, Scully scrambled to figure out what just happened and what lay ahead. Mulder's silhouette, dark and indistinct, revealed nothing, but the voice was laced with weariness and resignation.
"Why are you asking me that question now, Mulder?" she asked, hoping to define the terrain of this unfamiliar landscape. "You've always been certain she was out there, somewhere, and that one day you'd find her. Does it really matter what I -- what anyone else -- thinks?"
He was so still, his ragged, uneven breathing her only indication that the shadow beside her didn't belong to a statue carved from stone.
"Useta be sure of a lotta things, Scully. Not anymore."
Ahh. Scully was both relieved and disconcerted to be back on the topic of Bill Mulder's betrayal. Leave it to Mulder to be half out of his head with pain and shock one moment and probing for the answers to life's greatest mysteries the next.
"Mulder. I know that learning of your father's duplicity has shaken you. But it doesn't have to change your beliefs, your convictions."
Mulder's grasp on her fingers tightened. "It does. Changes everything, Scully. 'S like dominoes. Nothin's left standin'."
Scully shook her head, realized he couldn't see the gesture, and pulled their joined hands to her lips instead. "Even dominoes need a solid surface beneath them, love. There are fundamentals that your father's deeds, however treacherous, can't touch."
Scully sucked in a deep breath. "Such as the man you are. You're a good person, Mulder. A little flawed, yes, but no more so than any of the rest of us. And your relationship with Samantha -- love can't be engineered, can't be genetically programmed. What you meant to each other hasn't changed just because your father dealt with the devil. You've dedicated your life to finding her and bringing her home. Has anything you've learned really changed that?"
Silence, and she could practically feel him thinking. The fingers woven between her own trembled and his breathing hitched, first speeding up and then slowing down as he fought for restraint.
"Used to waver b'tween wanting his attention 'n dreading it," he said softly. "Only emotion he showed me was anger, disappointment. Thought it was 'cause of Sam. Thought he blamed me." A pause and more rapid pants for air. "He *knew*, Scully. He *knew* why they took her but he left me to bleed. How could he live with himself?"
Scully walked the tightrope, each footstep tentative and meticulously placed. "From what you've told me, love, he didn't -- at least, not very well. He became an alcoholic, his marriage broke apart, and he alienated his son. I don't think you were the only recipient of his guilt."
A tissue paper thin sigh. "Mulders're quite the all- American family, huh, babe?"
Scully bit her lip. "I'll admit your family life was pretty dysfunctional, Mulder. But nobody's is perfect."
"Yours was pretty close."
Inside, she flinched at his wistfullness. She knew she'd allowed Mulder to bare his soul concerning his family without ever really sharing much about her own. Yes, on the surface, and in comparison to Mulder's, her formative years appeared smooth sailing. But Mulder considered her family life a small step away from "Father Knows Best," and she was guilty of perpetuating that myth.
"Mulder." It was hard to say the words, her lips and tongue felt heavy and uncooperative. "My family was not... We had our own problems. My father was away at sea for long periods of time, and every time he came home we had to adjust to having him around again. He was much stricter than Mom, so it felt like the rules changed in the middle of the game. He'd try so hard to "whip us into shape" that he wound up overreacting. Melissa, in particular, found his restrictions stifling and she'd rebel just for the sake of defying him. She dyed her hair green, dabbled in drugs, ran away from home... And as if that weren't enough, Bill started trying to fill Dad's shoes when he was gone, lording it over the rest of us and insisting he was the man of the house. He and Charlie barely even speak to each other now, which is part of the reason you've never met Charlie. And me..."
"The good girl," Mulder whispered.
Scully's lips turned up in the suggestion of a smile.
"Yeah. That was me. Daddy's girl, the one always trying her hardest to please, to live up to his standards, his expectations. I loved and admired him so much, I was willing to do whatever was necessary to make him proud."
"But you went into pathology. The FBI..." Mulder's voice fell off but she clearly heard what remained unspoken.
She explored the memory of her father's disappointment the way a child's tongue probes the hole from a missing tooth, cautiously testing for pain. To her intense relief, she found only a dull ache.
"That's the danger of raising your child to be her own person," Scully mused. "Eventually she is."
Mulder's thumb traced the lines on her palm. "He'd be proud, babe."
"I hope so. But what's more important, is that *I'm* proud. You've given me that gift, Mulder. Together we do good work, important work." She squeezed his hand. "Another fundamental. Don't ever doubt it."
Mulder released a puff of breath that might have been laughter, then sighed. "Thanks, babe. 'M glad you're your own person."
Scully grinned. "I'm going to hold you to that, love. Count on it."
"I don't get it. Mom told me that Mulder didn't know about you until recently. Why not?"
Grey didn't actually turn his head, just allowed it to loll to the right so that Bill came into view. "His...our parents gave me up for adoption. They never told Fox and Samantha I existed -- or anyone else for that matter."
Bill's forehead creased. "I repeat -- why?"
Grey pressed his shoulders more firmly against the wall and grit his teeth. Finding Fox had helped him come to terms with his parents' actions, but they still stung. "That is a very long, very complex, and extremely unbelievable story. Suffice it to say that they felt they were protecting me."
Bill silently absorbed this while Grey took another swig of his water and gazed at the pile of rubble bisecting the hallway. A pile he and Bill had systematically reduced over the last several hours, finally breaking through just a few minutes earlier. Eyes bloodshot with fatigue and muscles quivering from exertion, both had sunk to the ground in unspoken agreement to rest.
"Why just you?"
Sliding down the silence into a slight stupor, Bill's question jerked Grey back like a dog on a leash. How to answer that one? Bill lived a black and white, two-dimensional existence not so different from the one he himself had inhabited up until about six months ago. Shattering that worldview was not a responsibility Grey cared to shoulder -- not that Bill would be receptive if he tried.
"By the time Fox was born, I don't think my parents' lives were their own,"
he said carefully. "Deception was no longer an option." After a pause, he added,
"You feel contempt for my brother's quest, for the choices he's made. But the simple
truth is that Fox never really had a choice.
There were those who manipulated his future even before his birth. Yet somehow he's managed to retain his integrity, the purity of his purpose."
"You sound as if you *admire* him," Bill muttered, incredulity dripping from his words and twisting his features.
"Damn right," Grey retorted softly, vehemently.
Bill snorted and shook his head. "Look, McKenzie. You seem to be a decent guy, though occasionally a pain in the ass. But your brother..." His lip curled. "You think I didn't check up on him when I found out Dana was assigned a partner? I've got friends with connections; I put my ear to the ground! Spooky, they call him. Had an amazing capacity for catching serial killers -- most likely because he shares many of their personality traits. Cracked up after mind-melding with one too many psychos and wound up in the basement, investigating aliens, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. Couldn't hold onto a partner, a lone wolf with complete disregard for rules or procedures. That's what they told me my little sister was paired with. And you know what? I've seen nothing to dispute that assessment!"
The inability to summon anger defined Grey's exhaustion more clearly than his burning muscles. He released a long puff of breath and pursed his lips.
"I've got news for you, Bill. I've asked a few discreet questions of my own, and I've little doubt that my source is a bit more reliable than yours."
"Yeah, they call him Spooky. The name originated right about the time his solve rate exceeded that of any profiler in the Bureau's history, coined by those jealous of his talent. And yes, his acquisition of the X-Files occurred after a breakdown caused by an outrageously heavy caseload and too much empathy for victims. And as far as not keeping a partner, well, he and Dana have been together six years. A lot of marriages don't last that long!"
"You think you dislike my brother, Bill, but the truth is that you don't even know him. You let rumor and innuendo taint your perception of him before you ever saw his face, and now nothing can sway you from that preconceived opinion. And I guess the saddest thing of all is that you trust the judgement of a few acquaintances above that of your own sister."
Grey expected a smart retort or come back of some kind, so Bill's expressionless mask and stony silence unnerved him. Heaving a sigh, he hauled his throbbing body upright and resumed clearing away pieces of rubble to widen the passageway.
"Don't know why I wasted my breath," he grumbled to himself.
Grey tugged at a particularly heavy board that abruptly came free and sent him staggering backward. Cursing softly under his breath, he let it drop to the floor and inspected the now shredded skin around a large blister in the center of his palm.
The gruffly spoken word was followed by a white handkerchief thrust into his view. Grey's gaze trailed from the hand, up the arm, until it met Bill's scowling face.
"Better wrap that."
Grey accepted the square of cloth, fumbling awkwardly as he attempted to wind it around
the injured area with only one hand. After watching impatiently for several moments,
Bill uttered a grunt of annoyance and snatched the handkerchief, though he accomplished the bandaging with a surprisingly gentle touch.
Grey flexed his fingers, then stooped to pick up a slab of drywall. "Thanks. That really helps."
"Just didn't want you so incapacitated that I'd have to do the rest myself," Bill replied stiffly, avoiding Grey's eyes by reaching for a section of pipe.
Grey suppressed a sharp rejoinder and merely shrugged, throwing himself back into the task at hand. After less than ten minutes they'd created an opening large enough to wriggle through on hands and knees.
The corridor before them looked like a nightmarish obstacle course. Mounds of beams,
girders and piping were interspersed with overturned carts and smashed equipment.
In some areas the ceiling had cracked and sagged downward, in others the linoleum buckled and surged upward -- a surreal parody of stalactites and stalacmites. Grey added the weak beam from his flashlight to the faint glow from what he could only assume were external floodlights. What he saw made his heart sink like a stone in deep water.
The hallway was passable for perhaps thirty feet before the ceiling caved in completely, sealing off the remainder in an impenetrable wall. He felt Bill move up behind him, heard the sharp catch of breath as he took in the destruction.
"That's it, then," Bill said, his voice not soft enough to hide the despair. "End of the line."
Grey's temper ignited, the culmination of too much worry, overwhelming physical exhaustion, and the forced companionship of a man he strongly disliked. "It is *not* the end! I haven't sweat blood over the last nine hours just to give up now! There's got to be another way!"
Bill planted himself in front of Grey, deliberately invading his space. "Where? Have you been paying attention? We only made it this far by nearly killing ourselves in that elevator shaft! This was the only direction we could pass down the corridor, and that's a hell of a dead end! I want to find them as much as you do, but we've just run out of options!" Bill's explosive tirade cut off abruptly, and he dropped his head, massaging his temples with shaking fingers. "Look at this place, McKenzie. This is only the third floor. If it's this bad down here..."
"NO! I refuse to accept that until I see it with my own eyes! I *won't* give up on them, so either start looking for an alternative or stay the hell out of my way!"
Bill simply folded his arms in unspoken challenge, refusing to step aside.
Something deep inside Grey snapped. He connected with
Bill's jaw before he could consciously register that his fingers had formed a fist. The force of the blow drove Bill backward, an almost comical look of astonishment on his face. He recovered quickly, however, surprise transforming almost instantly to anger. A quick lunge forward, the blur of his arm, and Grey found himself sprawled on the floor, a warm trickle spreading across his upper lip. Bill loomed over him, cradling his jaw and glowering.
Grey let his head drop back to the floor with a small moan, swiping at the blood beneath his nose with the back of his hand. "I can't believe I did that. I must have a death wish."
Bill stared at him blankly, then broke into a shark's grin. "Actually, you've got a pretty mean right hook."
"Easy for you to say," Grey griped, groping for his flashlight, which had rolled several inches away. "You're the one standing."
"And you're the one who started this dance," Bill reminded him, still probing his jaw. But he leaned over and extended a hand. "Here. Get up."
When Grey remained motionless, ignoring his offer of assistance in favor of examining the ceiling, Bill huffed in irritation. "Oh come on! I didn't hit you *that* hard!"
Grey, oblivious to his aggravation, trained the beam from his flashlight upward and scrambled to his feet. He continued absently to blot the blood from his nose as he turned in a small circle, head cranked back as far as possible.
"McKenzie!" Bill snarled.
Grey didn't bother to look at Bill, but his clipped command seethed with excitement. "Look up."
Thoroughly exasperated, Bill threw up both hands and glanced impatiently in the direction indicated. "Why? What in the..."
An opening. Nearly two feet in diameter, its edges were absurdly smooth and regular, as if fashioned by a paper punch. And through the hole, dimly, an open expanse that hinted at accessibility.
Grey's head swiveled slowly, revealing a bloodstained face and eyes that glittered with manic glee.
"I think we just found our option, Billy."
Scully was alone. Mulder was reduced to a mere physical presence, a warm body. He'd become increasingly difficult to rouse, finally completely unresponsive even to painful stimulus. She didn't realize how much strength she derived from just hearing his voice until he fell silent. While he was conscious, she could focus on *his* pain, *his* needs. Now her arm throbbed and she burned with thirst. Her only measure of comfort was that Mulder, at least, had escaped his torment.
So she pressed tightly against his fevered body and tried not to think of ice water in a tall glass beaded with moisture. Of lying in Mulder's arms in the safety and comfort of their bed, piled high with soft pillows and thick blankets. Of sun and sand and blue, blue water -- all that should have been but now might never come to pass. Scully buried her face in the crook of her own arm and wept.
His soft, unintelligible moans and whimpers of pain shook her from the indulgence of tears and she concentrated on smoothing his sweaty hair from his brow and rubbing small concentric circles across his back. The sound of her voice calmed him so she rambled on, a surrogate television to soothe his restive spirit.
"Did I ever tell you about the time Charlie and I redecorated the Christmas tree? I guess I must have been four and he was three. Melissa was in first grade, Bill was in kindergarten, and Charlie and I were supposed to be napping. Poor Mom was lying down in her bedroom -- worn out from dealing with the four of us since Dad was still away at sea. I remember Charlie and I had our noses out of joint because we hadn't been allowed much participation in decorating the tree. Mom let us hang a few unbreakable ornaments, but only Missy and Bill got to handle the really special ones."
"It was my idea, I'll admit. Charlie would pretty much follow any suggestion I made at that age, so when I concocted my brilliant plan he tagged right along. I figured if the two of us took all the ornaments off the tree, then we could have the fun of putting them all back on again. We were too small to reach the ones at the top, but I dragged a couple of kitchen chairs over so that we could get most of them." Scully nuzzled his shoulder with a small grin. "You know how resourceful I can be, Mulder. I guess we had nearly three-quarters of the ornaments stripped off the tree by the time Mom woke up and caught us in the act. She shrieked so loud Charlie nearly fell off his chair -- it's a wonder neither of us broke our necks!"
She chuffed quiet laughter at the memory, but it sounded hollow and lonely without accompaniment. Scully blinked back a rush of tears and soldiered onward. "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that Charlie and I did *not* get to hang any of the ornaments we so industriously removed! We also had to stay in our rooms rather than play outside in the snow after Missy and Bill got home from school. But those punishments were nothing compared to the agony of having our little escapade recounted in excruciating detail every single Christmas." She sighed. "I just hope we get out of here so that Mom can embarrass me by dredging it all up again this year."
Mulder made a small sound in the back of his throat, shifting restively. His hand twitched restlessly until it tangled with hers, and his eyes fluttered open to half-mast. He regarded her solemnly in silence, until his tongue crept out to moisten chapped lips.
"So thirsty." The words were as dry as the parched tissues of his throat, as insubstantial as a current of air.
"Me too, love."
His fingers tightened painfully and she felt a shudder ripple through his body. "Hurts."
One word, a single syllable, but from a man who could redefine the meaning of "stoic" it spoke volumes. Scully bit down hard on her trembling lips and shut her eyes firmly against the tide of emotion. All she could do was share his vulnerability.
"I know. Me too, love."
He fell silent, though the occasional glitter of his eyes catching the meager light
told Scully he was still awake.
Another, smaller spasm and he drew a ragged breath.
"Not coming, babe."
His quiet declaration affected her on so many levels -- she wanted to comfort, she wanted to berate, she wanted to deny. In the end, she simply pressed a kiss to his palm.
Because deep down inside, she feared Mulder was right.
Grey paused, panting and clinging to the angled beam like an oversized tree squirrel. Bill's face poked from the hole above his head, a pale moon in the semi-darkness. One large hand wrapped around the high end of the board in a stabilizing grip, the other directed a flashlight so that Grey could see as he shimmied upward.
"You all right?"
*This guy deserves an award for asking stupid questions.*
"Yeah. Having the time of my life," Grey growled, mopping the perspiration from his brow as best he could without loosening his death hold on the wood.
"You can make it, McKenzie, you're almost there," Bill called.
It was supposed to be encouragement, but it set Grey's teeth on edge. True, he'd covered three quarters the distance from the floor to the hole in the ceiling, but the difficulty of ascent also increased exponentially along with the angle. When he and Bill were lugging the heavy beam across piles of rubble and then hefting it into place, he'd thought climbing up would be the easy part.
Bill had gone first, scooting up the makeshift ladder with relative ease while Grey anchored the bottom end. Unfortunately, when Bill attempted to return the favor it rapidly became clear that providing the same steadying influence from above was impossible. The further Grey's weight moved upward, the more the beam rocked, until he feared losing his grip and tumbling to the floor.
Pulling in a long, slow, breath of air, Grey slid both hands several inches up the beam and dragged his body after, assisting the process with a push from his feet. The wood beneath him bucked and shifted, prompting Bill to drop the flashlight and grab on with both hands. Grey, thrown off balance by the absence of light, fought to regain equilibrium.
Feeling himself tilt to the right, he leaned hard to the left. Too hard. The near darkness impaired his spatial perception, abruptly removing cues he needed to orient himself. The sensation of teetering on the edge of an abyss caused him to clutch instinctively at the board beneath him, but its wobbling only served to further confuse him.
Bill's shout of alarm coincided with the terrifying disappearance of the beam from beneath him, followed by a loud clatter. Grey flung both arms upward, with a low cry. Something like a vise clamped onto his wrist, halting his plunge with a teeth-rattling jerk. He screamed involuntarily as pain burst along the length of his arm, a giant wishbone about to be separated at his shoulder. His feet kicked wildly, a bizarre dance over thin air.
"Stop kicking, you moron, I'm gonna drop you!" Bill grunted through clenched teeth. "Put your other hand up!"
Biting his lip hard against the pain, Grey did as ordered and nearly wept with relief when Bill caught his left arm and eased the tension on his right. Peering upward he could now make out Bill's tense face by the weak glow of his discarded light. He refused to look into the blackness beneath his dangling feet.
"Haven't we been here before?" he panted blearily.
Bill bared his teeth, the cords on his neck standing out as he slowly hauled Grey upward. "Not exactly."
"Liked it better...the first time through."
Grey's legs cleared the rim of the hole and he dropped onto the floor. He rolled to his back and cradled his aching arm, looking around carefully. They were in a tunnel formed by fallen supports and debris, the roof barely four feet above his head. Bill puffed wearily and retrieved his flashlight.
Wincing, Grey sat up and flexed the limb experimentally.
"Hurts like a sonuvabitch, but I'll be fine." He searched Bill's expressionless face. "Thanks."
Half Bill's mouth turned up in a wry smirk. "Told ya I wouldn't owe you for long."
Grey started to retort, only to snap his mouth shut and struggle to his knees.
Grey made a cutting motion with his good arm and cocked his head, listening intently. A moment later he was rewarded by a faint cry.
"Is someone there? We need help!"
His heart swelled almost painfully in his chest and his eyes darted to Bill. With something akin to awe, he watched the man's face transform, a brilliant smile replacing the sullen glare.
"Dana? Dana, is that you?"
Shocked silence, then Dana's voice, muffled and quavering with emotion, replied.
"It's me, Short Stuff," he called tenderly. "Where are you?"
Grey, who had fumbled his own flashlight from his pack with shaking fingers, hastened to add its illumination to Bill's. They began moving slowly down the narrow passageway toward Dana's voice, crawling on hands and knees.
"Don't know. There are boards and other rubble all around and I can't move. Bill, what are you doing here?" She sounded so small and lost, the words rough like sandpaper.
"Mom sent me to bring you a hat," Bill replied dryly, carefully navigating
over several jagged hunks of steel.
"And who should I run into but..."
"Dana? Dana, where's Fox?" Grey interrupted frantically.
He struggled to keep Bill's pace, hampered by his sore arm. Scrambling awkwardly over the chunks of metal, he snagged his ankle and hissed in pain and frustration. Bill skidded to a halt and Grey nearly barreled into him.
"He's here, Grey. But he's hurt. You need to hurry."
What Dana left unsaid came through clearly in the inflection of her voice -- fear,
despair, and something
Grey couldn't quite put a name to. Something like dread.
"Why are you stopping?" he snapped impatiently, sitting up to peer over Bill's bulk.
"Found 'em," Bill said tersely. "Would you like to propose how we reach them?"
Grey stared in dismay at the wreckage cocooning a bright flash of auburn hair. Creeping around Bill he shined his flashlight between two boards to reveal Dana's blood- streaked face and haunted eyes. Panning the beam to the right he could dimly make out the sprawled form of his brother, motionless.
The name began as a cry, but emerged as little more than a whisper. He dragged his eyes back to Dana, silently asking for a shred of reassurance. Instead, she gave a sharp shake of her head and repeated her previous plea.
Grey turned on Bill, who had been studying the pile of debris with an almost detached air, now and then reaching out to warily touch a section of pipe or slab of plywood.
"You heard her, we've got to get them out of there!" Grey said shortly.
He'd actually stretched out a hand to tug at a loose board when Bill elbowed him sharply in the chest, knocking him backward.
Grey scrambled to get up, white with fury. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Bill held him down, hand to chest, his face impassive. "Preventing you from killing my sister -- *and* your brother!"
Grey knocked the hand away, lunging forward and burying his fists in Bill's shirt. "You heard what she said, you bastard! He's going to die if we don't get him out of there! But that wouldn't really bother you, would it?"
Bill tried to twist free, then settled for copying Grey's hold. "Listen, you self-righteous little jerk, I want my sister out of there just as badly! But that's like a house of cards -- you pull out the wrong piece and the whole thing could come down on top of them! And have you stopped to think what in the hell you're going to do once you get him out of there? We can't exactly take them down the elevator shaft, you know!"
The truth in his words pricked the bubble of Grey's indignation, effectively deflating it. "I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," he said weakly. "We can't just sit here, we have to try..."
"You touch anything and so help me God, I'll..."
Dana's angry command yanked them from their bickering. Grey flushed in shame and Bill dropped his eyes guiltily to the floor.
"I don't know how you two Neanderthals made it this far," she rasped. "But you'd better stop arguing and work together or none of us will get out of here. This whole area is unstable, and you two are carrying on like a couple of brawling little boys!"
She took a shuddering breath and winced, exhausted from her tirade. "Grey, you can't move him," she went on quietly. "He's pinned to the floor by a piece of metal pipe through his left side. We need help."
Grey slumped down, dropping his head to his hands. "Okay," he muttered. "I get the picture."
Bill's hand on his shoulder startled him. "I didn't mean we'd do nothing," he said gruffly. "But we have to take it very slow."
Grey nodded, then gasped. "I can't believe I forgot! I've still got the walkie-talkie!" He dug through the pack and located the transmitter. "I'll contact Walt. You see if you can find a way through that mess."
"Sure, give me the fun job," Bill grumbled, but his face held determination
and not resentment.
Outside Georgetown Memorial
"Thought I'd return the favor."
Skinner handed Maggie a cup of coffee, tendrils of steam seeping from beneath the lid. She was seated on a chair in the makeshift "command center," an island of serenity amidst the turmoil. She smiled appreciatively and inclined her head to indicate an empty chair.
"Agent Harding?" Skinner asked, sinking down and barely containing a grunt of relief.
"She's been keeping Grey's family informed," Maggie explained, popping the lid from the Styrofoam cup and taking a sip. "His parents were ready to fly up immediately, but Kristen convinced them to wait -- in exchange for regular updates."
He stiffened, feeling Maggie's curious gaze as he turned to face the speaker. Mike Fenton crossed to his side, dodging police, FBI, and rescue workers with barely concealed impatience. Skinner had managed to avoid the SWAT leader until now, but his anger had not cooled. Though he'd not spoken to the man in fifteen years, he deliberately kept his hands clasped behind his back, a silent indication of his disapproval.
"We're heading out now," Fenton announced, gesturing at his team members piling into the van. "Most of the gapers have lost interest, and Chuck assigned a fresh batch of patrolmen to keep the press in check. My men are beat, it's been a hell of a day."
Skinner's jaw tightened with the effort of withholding his true feelings. "Fine."
Fenton, his hair now a uniform silver and his face deeply lined, frowned. "You got a problem, Skinner?"
*Yeah, I got a problem. You.*
"Nothing I want to discuss here or now," he said aloud, the words clipped.
Fenton's eyes narrowed. "Oh please. Don't worry about my delicate sensibilities," he said sarcastically.
It proved to be too much. Skinner's grip on his temper had always been a bit tenuous, so grief, worry, and bone-deep fatigue merely served to loosen his fingers.
"All right. If you insist." Skinner's voice was deceptively soft, deadly calm. "We shouldn't be here right now. My agent had the situation under control, five more minutes and we all would've headed back for a late lunch. You overstepped your bounds, and Mulder and Scully may very well pay for your rashness with their lives."
Fenton's brows angled downward. "Jackson acted on his own recognizance! You can't blame me for..."
"You once told me that the men in your unit were taught to follow your orders, and to do so without question," Skinner interrupted. "Are you slipping, Mike?"
Fenton's face flushed red and his hands curled into fists. "I oughtta... You'd better think carefully about that accusation, Skinner. Easy enough to take pot shots here, but unless you want to repeat it in front of a review board..."
"Oh, I intend to, Fenton," Skinner said dangerously. "You can count on it."
Clamping his mouth shut and spinning on his heel, Fenton stomped off to the van, plowing through a young EMT and nearly sending him to the ground. Skinner sighed, running a hand across the top of his head and cupping the back of his neck. He turned to find himself the object of Maggie's amused stare.
"I thought Fox was supposed to be the one who didn't play well with others," she said quietly, lifting an eyebrow.
"Sorry," Skinner muttered, the oddest feeling of déjà vu washing over him.
Then he understood. How many times had he observed the same scene played out between his two agents -- Scully dryly disapproving, Mulder sheepishly repentant? Finding himself cast in Mulder's role was too strange to contemplate.
"Anger is wasted effort," Maggie was saying sadly. "What matters now is finding Dana and Fox and getting them out of there." She sighed, eyes far away. "Fox was already so weak."
Skinner searched her face, then shook his head. "You're just as worried about him as you are Dana," he reflected, obviously amazed by the epiphany.
"Why should that surprise you?" Maggie's tone was honestly puzzled.
"Well...she's your daughter. Granted, Mulder is now much more than just her partner, but..."
Maggie chuckled, though her eyes were still shadowed. "Oh, Walt, he's been much more than just her partner for a very long time!" When Skinner's face screwed up in confusion, she continued.
"I was drawn to him over the months Dana was missing. He was so kind, so attentive
to me, keeping me abreast of the investigation into her disappearance. I saw the guilt
devouring him, recognized that he blamed himself for not being there when she needed him.
But I sensed there was more -- deeper, older hurts that had never quite healed.
Maybe it takes one mother to perceive the void left by another." She smiled affectionately. "If ever there was a young man that cried out for some mothering, Fox is one."
"You love him like one of your own," Skinner observed, his respect evident. "In spite of the pain the X-Files have brought Scully."
Maggie's smile widened. "Of course. Walt, you've seen them, seen the way he looks at her. I have no doubt that Fox would throw himself in front of a moving train if it meant sparing Dana pain. How could a mother not love a man who'd put her daughter's life above his own?"
Skinner looked up to see a young D.C. cop, one of Draper's men, fidgeting nervously beside him. Gratified he could still strike terror in others, if not his two agents, Skinner stood.
"An Agent Hastings asked me to deliver a message to you," the officer stammered. "He said that someone has been trying to reach you on the walkie-talkie. Channel three."
Frowning, Skinner reached into his jacket pocket to retrieve the device. The knob had been turned all the way to the off position, something he vaguely remembered doing in a fit of pique when Grey refused to answer. Cursing under his breath, he waved the kid away and flicked the unit back on.
"Walt? Walt, I repeat, this is Grey! Do you hear me?"
Skinner's throat suddenly transformed into the Sahara Desert. He cleared it apprehensively.
"About time you decided to let us join the party," he growled. "What's the situation in there?"
Grey's next words, both triumphant and distraught, brought Maggie immediately to his side.
"They're alive, Walt. But you have to hurry, we don't have much time."
Under Bill's direction they cautiously, methodically cleared an opening to reach Dana and Fox, shoring up the weak areas with extra pieces of wood to add stability. Grey wriggled through first, nearly knocked on his backside when Dana launched herself into his arms. Swallowing hard, he enthusiastically returned the embrace. Dana hissed at the pressure on her injury, and he pulled back as if scalded.
"Sorry. Is it broken?"
"More than once, I'm afraid." She ran her tongue over her lips and greedily eyed the pack on his back. "Don't suppose you have any water, do you?"
Grey mentally smacked himself on the head. "What a couple of idiots! Of course I do! Here."
He fished out a bottle and twisted off the cap, holding it steady until her shaking fingers could find purchase. She took several rapid swallows, eyes slipping shut in bliss, then came up for air.
"Don't have to tell you to go easy, do I darlin'?" Grey asked.
Dana barely heard him, her eyes darting to the sprawled form lying several feet away. "He's badly dehydrated from the blood loss," she said, voice quavering. "He needs this more than I do."
"Plenty to go around," Grey replied easily, feigning a calm he didn't feel. "I'll take care of him. You just relax."
"He's been in and out, Grey. I'm not sure..."
Bill crawled through the opening with a grace that belied his large stature. He scrutinized his sister from head to toe, face a mixture of joy and concern, before gently pulling her into a hug.
"Thought I'd lost you, Short Stuff," he murmured, the words cracking with emotion.
Dana buried her face in his shoulder, snuffling and clinging with a white-knuckled grip. Grey tore his gaze from the reunion and crawled over to his brother. Tears flooded his eyes, blurring his vision and muting the gruesome sight. He scrubbed at them impatiently with the back of his hand, then reached out tentatively to stroke a lock of dark hair from his brother's ashen face.
"Fox," he choked.
Grey swept his flashlight slowly down the length of Fox's body, following the beam with a feathery touch of his hand. He examined the pipe violating his brother's body and pressed his lips tightly together. Brow furrowed, he abruptly leaned over, curled his fingers around the metal, and tensed in preparation.
Dana's weak but vehement cry frightened him and he automatically lifted his hands defensively. Scooting closer she placed her hand on his arm and turned her face up to his.
"You can't do that, Grey. It's the only thing keeping him alive."
Grey's face twisted with confusion. "What? Dana, are you out of your mind? Can you imagine how much pain he must be in? We have to get that thing out of him right away before infection..."
"He'll bleed out," she replied forcefully. "Of course I understand the danger of infection, but that pipe is responsible for minimizing his blood loss!"
Grey stared down at the large, sticky puddle of crimson before his eyes slid back to her. "You call *that* minimal? It looks like pretty damn much to me!"
Bill scowled at his belligerent tone. "Look, McKenzie, if
"Oh shut up, Bill," Dana snapped impatiently. "You'll only make it worse. I can handle this." She tightened her fingers on Grey's arm. "I'm not trivializing it, Grey, he's lost a lot of blood. But it could be worse, much worse. He could be hemorrhaging, but he's not. God knows, I'm aware of his pain -- I've endured it with him. We have no choice."
Grey squeezed his eyes shut, but nodded. Rummaging in his pack he produced another bottle of water, a box of gauze pads, and several sample packets of ibuprofen.
"Here," he said huskily, tossing her two blister packs. "Sorry it's not the good stuff but they keep that locked up."
"You've heard the expression 'Beggars can't be choosers?'" she returned, grimacing while attempting to open the pills one-handed.
Bill took the package from her and extracted the pills, which she washed down with gulps of water. He watched as Grey moistened a gauze pad and tenderly bathed the dried blood and sweat from Mulder's pale face. Averting his eyes, he grappled with an empathy he didn't want to feel.
"I warned you he brings you only grief, Dana," he muttered softly, mustering anger instead. "Can't you see it?"
Dana's mouth dropped open in consternation and her eyes darted to Grey. Seeing that he was too occupied with his task to overhear, she purposely turned her back and confronted Bill.
"You bastard!" she hissed, torn between slugging him and bursting into tears. "Brings me *grief*? Have you stopped to wonder why his injuries are more severe than mine? Have you?"
Bill's nostrils flared but he jerked his head sharply.
"He threw himself on top of me, you ass! Mulder figured out what was happening a split second before the bomb detonated, and he reacted by protecting me with his own body. He saved my life!"
Bill squirmed, aware he'd gone too far. He desperately wracked his brain for a reply, but a guttural moan saved him.
"Fox? C'mon, little brother, I didn't join this party just to watch you sleep," Grey coaxed.
Fox's lids slid open a crack, just enough to reveal a glint of hazel. Grey dribbled some water onto his cracked lips, delighted when his brother first licked them, and then pulled them into his mouth and sucked frantically to extract the fluid.
"Easy. A little at a time," Grey soothed, repeating the action several times before Fox signaled he'd had enough.
The edge off his thirst, Fox seemed to register Grey's presence. He struggled to turn his head, but Grey quickly stilled his movements with a firm hand on his neck.
"Fox, don't. You'll hurt yourself."
He crouched down so that his brother could see him without effort and tried to paste on a confident expression.
"If you didn't want to go to Cancun, you should've just said so, little brother," he gibed gently. "I'd have taken Dana."
Fox blinked sluggishly. "How...get here?"
"You might say we took the low road," Grey replied, stroking back the same stubborn piece of hair he'd touched earlier. "Walt's people are taking the high road, and should get here soon."
Fox's eyes lost focus, rolling back in his head before wandering back to Grey's face. "Tired," he whispered, the word little more than a puff of air. "Really tired."
Grey tried to reply, but grief and fear filled his throat and tied his tongue. To his astonishment, Bill leaned over his shoulder and answered for him.
"Tired?" he chided, but his tone held no malice. "You think *you're* tired? While you were lying there resting, your brother had me climbing up elevator shafts and excavating tunnels! He refused to give up, Mulder, so you damn well better make the same effort. Your boss is already pissed at us, so you'd better not bail on us now."
Mulder's eyes had widened when Bill began speaking, but now his mouth turned up in a faint grin. "Skinner...kick ass."
Bill cocked an eyebrow and glanced sideways at Grey. "He can try."
As if summoned, Grey's walkie-talkie squawked to life.
"Grey? You read this?"
Grey pulled it from his pocket and moved off to the side. "I hear you, Walt. What's the hold up?"
"About a ton of concrete and steel," Skinner replied dryly. "Adamson just contacted me. He's fairly certain that he's in close proximity to your location. He said there are weak spots in the rubble beneath them and he's going to attempt breaking through. Just sit tight and don't get spooked by the noise."
Grey glanced at the others, saw that they understood. "We hear you, Walt."
Skinner hesitated. "How's Mulder?"
Grey looked up, but at this distance Fox was barely discernable in the muted lighting. "Hanging in there."
"Keep in touch," Skinner said quietly.
Grey pocketed the transmitter and moved back toward the others. Bill, who had removed his jacket, astonished him by spreading it over Fox, not Dana. His brother's eyes were closed and he was shivering. Grey quickly stripped off his own coat and added it to Bill's.
"Shock," Dana murmured. "That and the fact that the floor is freezing."
Bill tugged her back against his chest and curled his arms around her small frame. Dana settled into his warmth with a sigh like a sob.
"He wouldn't let me give him my coat," she said, her lip trembling. She used the pad of her thumb to swipe a few errant tears from beneath her lashes. "He was so adamant I gave in -- figured the stress was worse than the cold."
The faint roar of heavy equipment caused the three of them to jump, in spite of Skinner's warning. Grey glanced at the ceiling uneasily, then settled back down next to his brother with his hands clasped around his knees. Fox continued to shiver, oblivious to the noise.
"Was what you said true?" Scully asked after several minutes of strained silence. She tilted her head to see her brother's face. "Did you really get here by climbing up an elevator shaft?"
Bill hitched a shoulder in Grey's direction. "He drove," he said, grinning. "I just came along for the ride."
"He asked so nicely, I just couldn't refuse," Grey confirmed dryly.
Scully's eyes leap-frogged between the two men, her lips parted in surprise. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say you two were actually beginning to get along with one another!"
Bill eyed Grey as he replied. "You know the old saying about politics making for strange bedfellows? Guess the same could be said for a bomb."
"I'll say one thing for your brother," Grey remarked grudgingly. "He's got a great catch."
Bill smirked. "Yeah, but my high wire act could use some work."
Scully rolled her eyes. "I'm guessing I'd rather not know what you two are talking about."
The racket from the rescue equipment sharply increased in pitch, followed by the clatter of heavy objects striking the floor. The machine cut off, followed by a brief silence.
"Hello? Agent Mulder? Agent Scully? Can you hear me?"
"Over here!" Scully called frantically, leaning forward as if to crawl toward the voice.
Bill's large hand on her arm restrained her. "I'll find them," he said gruffly. "You stay with Mulder."
Scully gaped at his retreating back, then turned slowly to regard Grey with an arched brow. He simply shrugged.
"Been campaigning for your cause, darlin', but I didn't think I was getting anywhere. Now sit down before you fall down, you look terrible."
"You sure know how to sweet talk a girl," Scully grumbled, but she complied anyway.
Grey placed a reassuring hand on his brother's shoulder and they waited in tense silence until Bill reappeared. Close on his heels was a middle-aged man in coveralls and an EMT dragging a box of first aid paraphernalia. Scully waved the young man off with an impatient flick of her hand.
"I'm all right. My partner needs you now."
Before she could continue with an assessment of Mulder's condition, the older man spoke.
"Agent Scully, I'm Joe Adamson. I can't tell you how happy we are to find you -- you and Agent Mulder have been our needles in the proverbial haystack!"
"We're equally happy to be found, Mr. Adamson," Scully replied, her eyes glued to the paramedic as he checked Mulder's pupils and wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his upper arm.
Seeing her preoccupation, Adamson lightly touched her arm to gain her attention. "I've got another medic coming with a basket. As soon as Olsen there has your partner ready to travel, we'll get him out of here."
"It's not that easy," Scully said sharply. "If I'm correct, once that pipe is removed from his side the bleeding will escalate. He'll need a trauma team and a surgeon ASAP."
Olsen, who had been examining Mulder's injuries while Grey held a high powered flashlight, raised his head and nodded grimly. "She's right, Joe. This has to be choreographed down to the smallest detail or he could bleed out before we've cleared the building. As it is, it's much too risky to transport to another hospital. Can they take him downstairs?"
Scully flashed him a grateful look while Adamson frowned and pulled a radio from his belt. Scully scooted closer to Mulder while Adamson conferred with someone on the outside, voice low and terse.
"How's he doing?" she asked, watching as Olsen efficiently started an I.V. in Mulder's hand.
Olsen brushed blond bangs from his eyes and grimaced. "He's not good. Are you a doctor?" When Scully nodded, he continued. "He's pretty dehydrated -- but the saline will help with that. His BP is low and his pulse is thready. There's early signs of infection, but nothing like I would expect in a situation like this."
"He just got out of the hospital a week ago after suffering from pneumonia," Scully murmured. "They've got him on some heavy duty antibiotics."
Olsen winced. "Poor guy can't catch a break, huh? Don't worry, we'll get him through this. Once my partner gets here -- there she is."
A young woman, her bobbed hair as dark as Olsen was fair, squeezed into the now crowded enclosure, pulling the long, wire basket that would eventually transport Mulder to freedom.
"Glad you could join the party, Brandmeier" Olsen said smoothly. "Our patient here is Agent Mulder. This is his partner, Agent Scully, and his brother."
Mulder's hand twitched and his eyelids fluttered. Olsen sprang quickly to prevent him
from dislodging the I.V.
Further disturbed by the restriction, Mulder whimpered and began to struggle.
"Take it easy, Agent Mulder, we're trying to help you," Olsen said, leaning into his grip. "You have to stop fighting me or you're going to mess up the I.V. and I'll have to start another. You don't want that, right?"
Mulder went limp, but his eyes opened and flitted anxiously about. "Scully?"
"Shhh. I'm right here, Mulder. Just lie still, we're going to get you out of here."
Scully worked her way around to his head, where she could rest her hand without interfering with the EMTs. She tried to block out Olsen and Brandmeier's concerned expressions as they quietly conferred, petting Mulder's hair and drawing what strength she could from Grey's solid presence. Adamson put away his radio and cleared his throat.
"Everything's set on the outside. The ER was barely affected by the blast and though they're closed to public admittance they've been treating patients internally who incurred injuries from the explosion. They'll have a team standing by. We'll take him up and out the fifth floor and around the building to the ER. Proceed whenever you're ready."
Olsen and Brandmeier consulted each other with their eyes, reached an agreement. Olsen beckoned to Bill, who reluctantly crawled to his side.
"First things first," he said briskly. "Mr..."
"Bill. Bill Scully," Bill replied uneasily.
"Bill. I need you to help me lift this beam so that Brandy can slip Agent Mulder's arm out from under it. Once that's done, we'll extract that section of pipe and get him the hell out of here."
Bill hesitated only momentarily, then nodded. Following Olsen's lead, he seized the heavy plank of wood.
"On three," Olsen said. "One, two, THREE!"
Scully and Grey looked on anxiously as Bill and the EMT carefully hauled the beam
upward, tendons standing out on their necks and perspiration dotting their foreheads.
Surrounding boards creaked ominously, but Brandmeier drew Mulder's arm from the niche slowly and deliberately.
The beam settled back in place with a soft thump, Bill and Olsen huffing from the exertion. Mulder squirmed a bit as Brandmeier poked and prodded the limb.
"Scullee. Make 'em stop," he moaned.
Scully shushed him, relieved when Brandmeier flashed her a brilliant smile.
"Looks good. Circulation wasn't affected but the wrist is sprained --possibly broken. It can wait until later."
Scully leaned over to press a kiss to Mulder's temple. "Hear that, love?" she whispered. "Gonna have matching casts too."
"Okay, let's take this act on the road," Olsen said briskly. "Brandy, did you give him some morphine?"
"Just enough to take the edge off," she answered, adjusting the drip on the I.V. "I'm concerned about the head injury and he's awfully shocky."
Olsen nodded, then addressed his observers. "I need everyone but Agent Mulder's brother to move back. Once I get rid of this pipe we're going to break speed records to get him out of here. Every second counts. Joe will help the rest of you out once we're gone."
Bill moved to a corner, surreptitiously touching Scully's shoulder as he passed. She brushed her lips against Mulder's forehead, then his cheek, blinking hard against stinging eyes. Mulder's lids kept slipping shut and his gaze was vague and unfocused. Knowing that he couldn't grasp what was about to happen added to her distress.
"I have to leave you for a few minutes, love," she murmured, the words catching in her constricted throat. "I'll just be a few steps behind you. Wait for me, okay? No ditching or I'll kick your ass."
His only response was a string of consonants. Weeping inside, Scully tipped her chin up and gave Olsen a firm nod.
Licking his lips, he curled his fingers around the pipe and gave an experimental tug. Mulder whimpered, and Scully's eyes slammed shut reflexively. Warmth encompassed her shivering body, along with a familiar and comforting scent. She leaned back into Bill's arms, appreciative of the support and that he offered it silently. She turned her face into his shoulder, for the first time unwilling to face Mulder's pain head on. Olsen's voice was tense but steady.
"One. Two. THREE!"
Mulder shrieked. The cry was raw, primal, and Scully felt it throughout her entire body like an electrical charge. A flurry of motion and a volley of terse, hasty words drew her from her sanctuary just in time to see Mulder strapped into the basket and whisked out the narrow opening, Olsen pulling and Brandmeier pushing.
One snapshot image of his deathly pale face and shuttered eyes, a sparkle of moisture on his cheeks.
And then he was gone.
Scully listened dully as the scrape of the basket, shouted instructions, and hurried footfalls faded and utter stillness rushed in to take their place.
She felt split, torn in two, as if Mulder had been ripped from her the way Olsen had ripped the pipe from Mulder's body. Involuntarily, her eyes strayed to the discarded piece of metal stained with his blood.
He was gone. Just that quickly. Just that simply.
Something large and solid blocked her view, ending her contemplation. Grey crouched down, glancing warily at Bill before taking her face between his hands.
"Just a few minutes behind, Dana. You promised him, remember?"
She stared into his eyes, Mulder's eyes, and felt the split begin to heal. She'd promised. And Mulder always held her to her promises.
Sensing something from her expression, Grey dropped his hands and stepped back. Scully turned to Adamson, straightening her shoulders despite the throb in her arm.
"Let's go. I've got somewhere I need to be."
An annoying hum, like a mosquito buzzing in his ear, drew Mulder reluctantly up from the depths of velvet darkness. Somewhere there was pain, sharp teeth gnawing the flesh of his side with avid intensity. Fortunately, a thick gray cloud cocooned him, encasing his limbs in lead and leaving his brain cells the consistency of slush. The pain was there, somewhere. He just didn't care.
The quiet drone began fragmenting into pieces -- words, his torpid mind finally concluded. They danced like butterflies just beyond his reach, and he was tempted to ignore them and sink back into the comfort of the darkness when a single syllable dropped into his grasp and he latched on, following its thread.
"...Dana was very lucky. Both breaks were clean and she won't need surgery."
"Still can't believe she wouldn't let them admit her for observation. Sometimes she can be as hard-headed as your brother."
"I'm just grateful she sat still long enough for them to set the breaks and give her some fluids," Grey answered dryly. "She wouldn't let anyone touch her until he got out of surgery."
Skinner snorted. "If they were smart, they didn't push the issue. I've been on the receiving end when she's distraught over Mulder and believe me, you don't want to go there."
A soft chuckle. "I hear you."
"You all right? Playing Keanu Reeves in an elevator shaft can't have been good for your back."
Mulder sensed the shrug. "It's pretty tight right now but the doc said I didn't add any damage, just set back my recovery a bit. Funny thing is, I never felt it until after we got Fox out of the building. Adrenaline, I guess."
"Where's Agent Harding? I was looking forward to watching her kick your butt. She was pretty worried, you know."
A chuff of laughter, then Grey's voice softened. "She already did. I was suitably repentant. She was dead on her feet, so I sent her home to get some sleep."
"Wouldn't hurt to take your own advice."
"Yes sir, Assistant Director Skinner." Quiet laughter. "I swore to Dana that I wouldn't leave him until she gets back. It was the only way to get her to lie down for a while."
The teeth were gnawing a bit more vigorously now, harder to ignore, and Mulder wanted to see his brother's condition for himself. Concentrating mightily, he levered heavy eyelids to half-mast and tried to focus. He must have made a sound because when the blurred images finally resolved both Grey and Skinner were bracketing the bed and watching him intently.
"Hey, little brother," Grey said, eyes shadowed but warm. "How do you like the new accommodations I got you?"
"'S hoping for...suite at...Hilton."
His throat had that ground glass quality consistent with intubation and Mulder screwed up his face in displeasure.
"Here. I'll be Scully this time," Skinner said wryly, holding a straw to his lips.
Cool, slick, wetness. Mulder drank and drank, vowing to never take water for granted again. He finished the entire cup, then eyed Skinner as he replaced it on the bedside table.
"Scully kisses me. Feel free...skip that part."
Grey chortled and his boss rolled his eyes. "Must be feeling better. His smartass sense of humor is back."
Mulder let his head loll to the right. "How 'bout...damage report?"
Grey clasped his hand, and Mulder was surprised by how good the simple physical contact felt. His brother sank into a chair but left their hands linked. Skinner walked around to carefully perch on the foot of the bed.
"Minor concussion. Sprained wrist. A set of bruises that would do a prizefighter justice. And a half-inch hole in your side that somehow managed to avoid every major organ. You were beyond lucky, Fox. You'd better rethink your religious stance, 'cause someone was looking out for you yesterday, and it wouldn't do to piss Him off."
Mulder's eyes wandered over the twin bags of blood and I.V. solutions, then locked onto Grey's. "Scully?"
"Concussion and a couple of broken bones in her arm. She's lying down on a cot in the nurses' lounge, thanks to Elena. They wanted to admit her but she politely told them what they could do with their forms," Grey smirked.
Mulder's lips curved. "Tha's my Scully," he slurred.
His side beginning to burn with a vengeance, Mulder tried to shift to his right. The resulting explosion of pain rivaled Rynne's bomb. The world receded to a pinpoint and his ears buzzed loudly for several minutes. He didn't even realize he'd been moaning until he noticed his sore throat had returned.
Grey was standing again, his face tight. "Guess I forgot to mention that you shouldn't try to move right now."
Mulder tried valiantly to grin but it felt like a failure. "Don't suppose...time for more good stuff?" he asked hopefully.
"I'll get Elena," Skinner said, jumping at the opportunity to be useful.
Mulder watched him duck out the door, managed a wry twist of his lips. "Gonna get
'em together...'f I don' kill
Grey dropped back into his chair, shaking his head. "You do have a way about you," he mused.
"I'm getting the strongest sense of déjà vu," Elena said, pausing in the doorway and offering Mulder a sassy grin. "Must be related to a past life."
"Ha, ha," Mulder said weakly. "Should be...comedienne."
"After yesterday, I just may give that some serious thought," she replied, crossing to the bed and setting down a small, stainless steel tray.
She proceeded to slip a thermometer in his mouth and appropriated his good wrist, eyeing the clock as she checked his pulse. The blood pressure cuff went on and she retrieved the thermometer, nodding in approval.
"Lookin' mighty good, Mulder. Temperature just a little above normal and BP is climbing back up to a reasonable range. Good thing, too, since Dr. Brewer was pretty ticked off that you messed up his hard work."
Mulder gave her a longsuffering glare. "Sorry. Apologize...when see him."
Elena examined him with a critical eye, taking in the lines of pain around his eyes. She touched his cheek gently, the skin cool and clammy under her fingertips.
"Pain's bad?" she asked, all flippancy gone.
His eyes slid away to study the frayed edge of the blanket, but he nodded. Fully aware this man tended to minimize his hurts, not exaggerate them, she laid her hand briefly on his forehead and then picked up a syringe from the tray.
"I've got just what you need," she murmured.
Within five minutes he was sleeping deeply, fingers slack in Grey's grasp. "You must have given him some good stuff," he said, cocking his head at Elena.
"He earned it," she replied, eyes soft with compassion. "A lot of people owe him and Dana their lives." She smiled up at Skinner and Grey. "And the two of you, as well."
Skinner actually grinned at her, some of the weariness falling from his features. "You didn't do so bad yourself. The rest of us are trained for this sort of thing, but you... You kept a cool head, Elena. You told us what we needed to know, and you helped evacuate those most at risk. They owe you too."
Elena gave a mocking little bow, but her eyes were pleased. "Well, thank you. I'm on my way out of here -- can I buy you two a cup of coffee?"
Grey held up a hand. "Thanks. I'll take a rain check."
"He's just going to sleep, you know. I hit him with enough morphine to stop a tank."
One corner of Grey's mouth lifted at her description. "I know. But I promised Dana I'd stick with him until she gets back, and I value my life."
Skinner's smile widened. "Smart man."
Grey listened to their banter as they walked out the door, glad that Elena seemed to bring out Walt's lighter side. The man certainly needed to loosen up now and then.
He squirmed around in the uncomfortable chair, finally propping his legs on the end of Fox's mattress with a little hiss of relief. His brother could have been made of stone, but for the gentle rise and fall of his chest. Grey let his head drop to the seatback and closed his eyes.
"She said I had to stay, but she didn't say I had to be awake," he mumbled wearily. "I won't tell if you don't."
Despite sore muscles and the hard chair, sleep found Grey easily.
Room 217 NE
This time when he swam up to consciousness Mulder knew she was there. He could smell her -- the distinct blend of soap, shampoo, and Scully that lingered on their sheets and gave him a warm feeling of contentment. His lips curved before he opened his eyes, his reward a blinding smile from his favorite redhead.
"Hey, sleeping beauty. It's about time you decided to join the land of the living."
The straw appeared before he could open his mouth, and he chuckled a little to himself as he sipped. When she pulled it away he gave her a loopy smile. "You're a lot prettier than Skinner, babe."
Scully laughed, an all out expression of mirth that he'd rarely been privileged to witness. Her palm cupped his cheek and her thumb brushed across his lower lip. "You are so stoned," she said, little riffs still escaping.
Mulder wasn't sure what he'd said that was so funny -- the narcotics racing through his system left him too fuzzy- headed to puzzle it out. It didn't really matter anyway. He'd make an idiot of himself on a routine basis if he could generate laughter like that.
"How do you feel?" Scully asked him, her fingers automatically slipping to the pulse point on his wrist.
He opened his mouth to reply but a yawn slipped out first. "Better. Side just aches a little."
"I'll bet," she replied, eyes still dancing.
Mulder slipped his wrist from her grasp and clumsily twined their fingers. "You?"
"Pretty good, actually. I caught up on some sleep since you were down for the count. And I'm on drugs myself -- though hardly of the same caliber as what's dripping through that I.V. of yours!"
Mulder squinted a little, struggling to focus his wandering concentration long enough to assess her appearance. To his relief, her words seemed to be sincere. A cast encased her arm from wrist to shoulder, and there was a livid bruise on her cheek, but her eyes were bright and her posture relaxed.
"Look good," he said, attempting a lecherous wink but only succeeding in provoking more gales of laughter.
He was still tired, so tired, and his eyes involuntarily began to drift closed when an important question cut through his muzzy brain.
"Go home tomorrow?"
Well. Obviously he'd discovered how to make the laughter vanish too. Scully sobered and her thumb caressed the tender skin around his I.V.
"Mulder, you've been through a severe trauma, and right on the heels of a terrible illness. You need time to recoup, to build up your strength..."
"Grey said no major organs. An' no infection."
"You lost a lot of blood, love. And you're on intravenous painkillers. You're going to be hurting when you try to get up," she chided gently.
"Be fine," he insisted, wincing but doggedly shifting himself forward as if to prove the point. "I'll rest."
"Mulderrr," she groaned helplessly. "Maybe by Friday -- *if* you keep improving, okay?"
He shook his head adamantly, and to her bewilderment seemed on the verge of tears. "NO, Scully. Tomorrow. Please?" He turned his head to stare at the wall, blinking hard. "Don't wanna spend Thanksgiving in the hospital, Scully. Please."
His ragged plea, delivered barely above a whisper, cut through her confusion and splintered her heart in the process. Of course, tomorrow was Thanksgiving. A day rife with unhappy memories for Mulder. The first without his mother's presence -- such as it was -- in his life. No wonder he was willing to endure anything not to spend it here.
"I forgot, love," she admitted, nudging his leg so she could sit beside him. "I can't believe I could actually forget about Thanksgiving, but I've been a little preoccupied."
"'S okay. I just can't..."
"Mulder, my man! How's the incredible human Timex tonight? Dude, you are one for the record books, that's for sure."
Dr. Brewer breezed into the room with impeccable timing, sporting an incredibly gaudy tie and a wide grin. Oblivious to the scene he'd interrupted, he continued to converse as he pulled Mulder's chart from the pocket at the end of the bed and flipped through the pages.
"Yesterday was crazy, huh? You guys do that for a living? This job doesn't look half-bad after all! I gotta say, though, you are one lucky son of a bitch, Mulder. Considering what your body's been through the last few weeks, you're doing great -- no, make that amazing. You..."
Their silence finally seeped through his chatter and he trailed off, eyes darting back and forth between their faces.
"Nick," Scully said, squeezing Mulder's leg reassuringly. "We have to
Room 217 NE
"More pie, sweetheart?"
Mulder waved a hand, while he swallowed a mouthful of whipped cream, gazing pleadingly
into Mrs. Scully's eyes.
"Maggie, have pity! I'm stuffed."
"Small wonder, you ate like a pig," Grey pointed out, standing up and stacking his brother's now empty paper plate on top of his own.
"Like you have room to talk," Mulder retorted.
"He's right, Grey!" Kristen admonished, laughing. "People who live in glass houses..."
Grey adopted a wounded expression. "Et tu, Kristen? Siding with my brother against me?"
"Just keeping you honest," she replied, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth and appropriating the plates. "It's hardly fair to pick on an injured man."
"In other words, the answer is yes," he called after her as she scooped up an empty cup and headed for the trash can.
"I want to thank you again, Maggie," Mulder said, ignoring his brother's theatrics. "I never intended..."
"Doesn't matter what you intended, Fox," Maggie said firmly. "You're a part of this family now -- don't you realize that? I'd never let one of my children spend a holiday in the hospital, alone."
He stared at her mutely for a moment, then looked quickly away eyelids flickering rapidly. He sensed Grey make himself scarce, felt Maggie's hand run affectionately through his hair.
"I'm sure you miss her, sweetheart. Holidays just seem to intensify it. I must admit I find myself thinking of Bill and Missy more this time of year."
It took him a moment to process that she was speaking of his mom and not Samantha. Mulder swallowed the tears and met her gaze.
"In some ways you've been more of a mother to me than she ever was," he confessed softly. "But I think... I *think* she regretted that."
Scully, chatting with Tara near the doorway, drifted over, gaze shifting between their faces, her expression tentative. Mulder smiled reassuringly, touched by the mixture of relief and love that crossed her face.
"Is she done stuffing you, Mulder?" she asked, slipping her hand into his.
Maggie looped an arm around her daughter's waist in a hug. "You know me better than that, sweetie. I haven't even begun! Now if you two will excuse me, I haven't had a chance to wish Walt and Elena a Happy Thanksgiving." She headed across the room to where Skinner and Elena were conversing with Grey.
Scully turned to Mulder, her eyes doing a quick inventory from the top of his head to the tip of his toes.
"See anything you like?" Mulder asked, producing a respectable leer, thanks to the reduction of morphine in his bloodstream.
"Mmm. Let's just say I'm *very* thankful this year," Scully responded, giving him a smoldering look of her own. "How are you holding up under all the festivity?"
"I'm a little tired and sore," he admitted.
"You can have another shot, Mulder. You had them cut back the dosage pretty drastically."
"Your mother went to an awful lot of trouble to pull this off, Scully. I didn't want to be too high to appreciate it. I'll be all right for a little bit longer."
Scully eyed him shrewdly, but whatever she saw seemed to satisfy her. "Mom wanted to do this, Mulder. When she heard it was impossible for Dr. Brewer to release you, she felt terrible. She insisted that if you couldn't come to Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving would come to you."
"I'm sure Bill loved that," Mulder said under his breath.
Bill was currently seated in the corner near the door, arms folded across his chest, watching the activity with a jaundiced eye.
"He was less than enthusiastic," Scully admitted, pursing her lips in a useless attempt to hide her smirk. "Mom told him to feel free to spend the day at home, alone. She's adopted you now, Mulder. There's no escape."
Mulder tore his gaze from Bill, a smile creeping back onto his wan face. "Yeah. She told me. I'm grateful, and I'm sorry I hared out on you yesterday. I just..." He sucked in a long breath, blew it out slowly. "It was too much like the holidays when I was a child, after Samantha was gone. I tried, year after year, to concoct a way to bring our family back together. To make it special and maybe recapture just a little of the good times we used to have. But no matter what I did, how creative I was, it was always a bust."
He looked down at their joined hands wistfully. "I wanted this year to be different. When Mom died, the last vestiges of my old life died with her. I don't mean to sound as if I've given up on finding Sam -- I'll never stop looking. But I'm also not that lonely little kid anymore, desperate to belong. I have Grey, and I have you. That trip to Mexico was more than just a vacation to me. It was a sign, proof that this year I'm not on the outside looking in. When it all went to hell like that, when I realized that I would wind up stuck in here..."
"It felt like old times," Scully murmured.
"In the worst sense of the word," Mulder agreed.
She gently disengaged her fingers from his and reached up to brush a lock of hair from his eyes. "Even if my mother hadn't turned into the Martha Stewart of the surgical wing, you wouldn't have been on the outside, love." She ducked her head and grinned into his eyes. "Or at least you would have had someone out there with you. And believe me, I'm just as disappointed about the vacation as you are. But I consider it postponed, not cancelled. Once you're up to it, I expect to be lying on the beach in that skimpy bikini you bought me, while you rub suntan lotion on my back and bring me a cold drink."
Mulder raised an eyebrow. "I'm beginning to understand my place in the grand scheme of things," he said sardonically. His eyes dropped and he shifted uncomfortably. "Might be a while before I'm ready to wear a swim suit, babe. Got a glimpse of the damage when they changed the dressing today, and my left side is not a pretty sight."
Suddenly his patented leer was wearing Scully's face. "Mulder, when you wear that suit, it's not your *side* they look at."
He gawked at her in shock, then embarrassed amusement.
"Am I interrupting something?"
Skinner's voice startled them both, and Mulder shot Scully a quelling glare. "Not at all, sir. Scully and I were just mourning the loss of our vacation."
"Only you could find a way to be injured in a hospital, Mulder," Skinner said ruefully, shaking his head.
Scully half-heartedly attempted to conceal her grin behind her hand, and he barely
resisted the impulse to stick out his tongue. There was obviously still too much morphine
in his system, since no snappy retort would come to mind.
Skinner spared him further deliberation by turning serious.
"Mulder, I wanted to let you know that I checked on Theresa Rynne. She was evacuated before the explosion and she's still alive, though in critical condition. The shock of her husband's death, and the circumstances surrounding it, understandably put a further strain on her already weakened condition."
"What's her prognosis?" Mulder asked quietly. "Did you speak to a doctor?"
"Her new cardiologist," Skinner replied grimly. "She was transferred to George Washington and assigned a new physician, since Dr. Lawrence... Anyway, he was less than hopeful. Said she'd probably survive another couple weeks, a month at most. All they can do at this point is make her comfortable. They don't expect her to leave the hospital. She has a sister that's assuming guardianship of the children."
Mulder absorbed this information, his face impassive. "Did you take care of the other matter?" He sensed Scully's sharp gaze, maintained eye contact with Skinner.
Skinner averted his eyes, jaw tight. "It's a highly unorthodox request, Mulder. I don't even want to *think* about all the articles of protocol I'm helping you violate," he said sotto voice.
"Then you did it?"
Skinner's eyes were back on his, piercing. "Yes. My lawyer had a trusted colleague who's handling it. The trust fund will be set up so that Rynne's son can only access the money for his education. There's a second one for the daughter if she decides to go to college when the time comes. They're anonymous, and won't be traced back to you."
The tension left Mulder's body and he leaned back farther into the pillows, wincing. "Thank you, sir. I understand your reservations, but this was something I needed to do."
Skinner acknowledged his words with a slight dip of his head. "You have nothing to feel badly about, Agent Mulder. Your handling of Rynne was above reproach, and if not for outside intervention, I have no doubt that you would have resolved the situation peacefully." He appeared to mentally push aside irritation that his own statement engendered. "Now I think I'll have that second piece of pie that Maggie has been offering."
Mulder stared after Skinner's retreating back, a thoughtful expression on his face. Scully cleared her throat, giving him a narrow look.
"Something you forgot to share with me, Mulder?"
He flushed guiltily, tugging her closer to the bed. "I was going to tell you eventually, Scully. I just wasn't sure how you'd react."
His expression was contrite, but she also sensed a deeper sorrow lurking under the surface. Slipping off her shoes, she nudged him over and carefully joined him on the bed. Her arm still ached, and it felt good to lean into the warmth of his body and the softness of the pillows.
"Scully, not now. Your mother is here and there's a minor present," Mulder teased, indicating Matthew, who was busily driving cars on the windowsill.
"You're deflecting, Mulder," she said, quieting his fidgeting hand by snagging it with her own. "Tell me about this trust fund."
He went very still, his voice dropping to a murmur. "I'm not blaming myself, Scully. I know there's nothing I could have done to stop what happened. But I couldn't forget how proud Daniel looked when he talked about his son. The first Rynne to go to college."
"So you decided to make sure he'd be able to graduate, in spite of his father's death," Scully said.
"His kids were the reason I was finally able to reach him, Scully," Mulder replied defensively. "It meant everything to him that his son might succeed where he hadn't. You know how I feel about the money my parents left me. This puts some of it to an honorable use."
Scully brought his hand to her lips and placed a kiss on the palm. "Mulder. I think it's a wonderful gesture. Did you really think I wouldn't approve?"
A shrug of his shoulder. "Not exactly. Just that you might think I was doing this
out of a sense of guilt. That it was
a way of punishing myself for not being able to save Daniel."
"*I think* that you're someone who feels deeply for other people," she replied affectionately. "It's just one of the reasons I fell in love with you."
He shifted a little to look into her face, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Just one, babe? Care to mention some of the others? Or better yet, let me refresh your memory?"
"My mother and Matthew, Mulder, remember? Not to mention how you your little demonstration would affect Bill."
Mulder leaned back, a beatific smile spreading across his face. "Ahh, Scully. Now *there's* a picture that's worth a thousand words."
She chuckled softly, leaning her head against his shoulder.
Across the room, Bill eyed their cozy position and turned stiffly in his chair, taking another gulp of the drink in his hand.
"You're sure the life of the party, Billy. Better tone it down, we *are* in a hospital, after all."
Bill scowled up into Grey's mild smile, pushing his chair back and standing. "When I find a reason to celebrate, I just might be," he growled.
Grey shook his head, the humor leaving his expression. "It's all staring you in the face, Bill! Two days ago a bomb took out a wing of this hospital, yet we're here, alive and reasonably intact, to tell the tale. You could be standing over your sister's grave right now but instead you're here, a drink in your hand, a wonderful meal in your belly, surrounded by people who, for some reason, love you -- including your sister. What more do you need?"
Bill had the good grace to look ashamed. "She's my little sister, McKenzie, and I love her. I just want what's best for her. This life she leads with your brother -- it's not what I would have chosen for her."
Grey shook his head. "She doesn't need you to choose for her," he said shrewdly. "She needs you to love and support her in the choices *she* makes."
Bill heaved a gusty sigh and glanced back to where his sister and Mulder were lying on the bed, their heads close together as they talked quietly. He clenched his jaw and turned back to Grey.
"Supporting her is a bit much for me right now. But I guess I can stay out of her way."
"Now *that's* something to celebrate," Grey said, clapping him on the back. "How about joining Kristen and me for a piece of pie and you can tell me all about where you learned to catch someone on the fly."
"It's all in the wrists, McKenzie," Bill answered, grinning.
Mulder glanced over just in time to see his brother slap Bill's shoulder, and the answering smile. Squeezing Scully's hand to gain her attention he motioned toward the two men.
"Scully, look at that!"
Scully swiveled her head and watched their brothers for a few moments, a smile spreading slowly across her lips.
"Now *there's* an extreme possibility, Mulder. Must be an X-File."
Author's note: Well, if you've made it to the end, hope you enjoyed the ride! This
story began as just a small piece to follow Legacies and resolve a few loose ends. Then my
cyberbud, Vickie Moseley, had to complicate things by casually tossing out a couple of
terrific ideas. Suddenly, my short little holiday story became a major epic - thanks,
Vickie! <VBG> But I have to say, this story truly would not be what it is without
her input and I am very grateful. Thanks also to Vickie, Laurie, and Donna for their beta
magic. This was a lot of work, and at times I thought I'd never finish, but it was lots of
fun too. To all of you who have sent me wonderful feedback for this series - you keep me
going and make this so rewarding. Thank you!