TITLE: Stranger Than Fiction (1/1)
AUTHOR: Dawn
EMAIL: sunrise83@comcast.net
WEB SITE: http://members.tripod.com/~dawnsunrise/index.html ARCHIVE: After the Fact, Gossamer--others are fine, just let me know.
SPOILERS: Brand X
CLASSIFICATION: Post-ep
KEYWORDS: M/S UST, 3rd person POV
RATING: PG
SUMMARY: You know the old expression, "Truth is stranger than fiction"? It could be my job description.
DISCLAIMER: These characters belong to Chris Carter and 1013 Productions. No copyright infringement is intended. AUTHOR'S NOTES: This story was written for the After the Fact Brand X challenge. Many thanks to Michelle and Suzanne for beta.
FEEDBACK: I'd love to hear from you.

Stranger Than Fiction
By Dawn

I thought I'd seen it all.

In my ten years as an emergency medical technician I've encountered the gamut of humanity, all the flavors in God's cosmic ice cream parlor. I've treated bodies inflicted with every conceivable form of damage--from the most bizarre to the most heartbreaking. In the beginning I'd stumble home after a shift, barely making it through the door before dissolving into tears.

Eventually, though, the tears dried up. You could say I've developed a thick skin, accuse me of becoming jaded, but the truth is nothing shocks me any more. Not the women allowing us to treat broken bodies and battered faces over and over again, staunchly maintaining they fell down the stairs. Ran into a door. Tripped.

Not the children, too young even to operate a motor vehicle, selling their souls in the pursuit of an elusive "high"; killing each other in a futile quest for self-respect.

Not the men pouring their lives into their work, driving themselves toward success on stress and caffeine, until a crushing pain reminds them that they already had everything that mattered waiting for them back home.

I've seen the heights of compassion and the depths of cruelty, and frankly, neither surprises me. You know the old expression "Truth is stranger than fiction"? It could be my job description.

Maybe that explains why I barely blinked when my husband ran out on me two years ago. Along with his bimbo secretary and the contents of our savings account.

I'd resigned myself to the predictable nature of man's unpredictability.

And then I met Fox Mulder.

The call came in a little before midnight on an unseasonably cool spring evening. Though we'd enjoyed plenty of warmth and sunshine during the day, a front had settled over the area just after sundown, causing temperatures to tumble. I pulled on a warmer jacket before climbing into the rig, content to let my partner drive.

Jesse navigated the streets in uncharacteristic silence, a condition that both relieved and shamed me. He's a good kid, but he could carry on a conversation with a rock, and that night I wasn't in the mood. I hate the graveyard shift. Katie is fourteen now, and perfectly able to take care of herself. Yet I'm plagued by guilt and nightmarish "what if?" scenarios at the thought of her alone in our less-than-stellar neighborhood after dark. Before Houdini made his great escape we lived uptown and I had the luxury of picking and choosing my shifts, only working daylight hours. Now I'm the sole breadwinner, and I take what I can get.

Bastard.

My guilt and frustration had spilled over onto Jesse one too many times that evening, and he'd evidently chosen the prudent course of remaining mute. Time for some damage control.

"The guy is experiencing respiratory distress?"

Jesse nodded, his guarded expression intensifying my regret.

"And it's an Alexandria address?"

"An apartment building on Hegal Place."

"But you said the call came from Georgetown. A relative?"

Jesse shook his head again, and I was pleased to see a spark ignite in his brown eyes. "Nope. His partner. Get this--they're FBI agents."

"FBI? Wait a minute--we're not walking into trouble, are we?"

"Nah. According to his partner, he's recovering from some kind of respiratory infection. She called from her car; said she'd explain when she gets there."

"His partner's a woman?" My interest was piqued in spite of my sour mood. It's not every day we treat a G-man, and I was dying to see what a lady FBI agent looked like. Probably one of those buttoned-down, straight-laced types with a body like a tank and the face of a horse.

Yeah, you'd think I'd've known better, being a woman in another testosterone-dominated field. I'm no Cameron Diaz, but I've earned my share of wolf-whistles and turned a few heads.

Not that it matters, since I've completely given up all interest in the male of the species. Fool me twice...

"A woman and a doctor, to boot. According to dispatch she not only called for help, she started telling them exactly how to treat the guy."

Great. Just what we needed--some pushy bitch who couldn't wait to tell us how to do our job.

"Here it is."

Jesse pulled to the curb in front of the building. We grabbed our equipment and jogged up the steps, our breath puffs of vapor in the frigid air. Agent Mulder didn't answer, so we had to wake the landlord to buzz us into the building. Her voice, gritty with sleep, oozed irritation rather than concern.

"Again? What is it this time?"

Jesse arched an eyebrow as we rode the elevator up to the fourth floor. "You get the idea Agent Mulder isn't her favorite tenant?"

"What was your first clue?"

Down a dark, dingy hallway that smelled faintly of varnish and garlic to a battered door bearing the number 4 and the faint outline of a two. What were they paying FBI agents these days, anyway?

I rapped on the door, the crack of my knuckles like gunshots in the middle-of-the-night quiet. "Agent Mulder?"

The door gave, swinging slightly inward. I nudged it open all the way and stepped inside, Jesse right on my heels. The interior of the apartment was just as gloomy as the hallway. I heard the harsh gasps for air before my eyes picked out the slumped figure on the floor near the couch.

Jesse moved past me. "Agent Mulder?"

The man lifted his head slowly, as if the motion took great effort. His pale face and sunken eyes told me not just that he was in a great deal of distress, but that the illness his partner mentioned had been more than a bout of pneumonia or bronchitis. Agent Mulder had the thin, stretched aura I've come to associate with someone recently back from the edge of the abyss.

"Yeah." A wispy rasp, barely audible. "Scully...they're here...you can...hang up."

He was sitting with his back propped against the couch, long legs drawn up and arms resting on his knees. For the first time I realized he had a phone cradled between his ear and his shoulder.

Jesse shoved the coffee table out of the way and we crouched down on either side of Agent Mulder. He didn't protest when I plucked the phone from his grasp and set it aside.

"Your partner tells us you're having some trouble." Jesse was pulling out a stethoscope, so he didn't see Agent Mulder's elaborately rolled eyes.

Okay, it was just supposed to be an icebreaker, but I'll admit it sounded ridiculous. The kid's twenty-six years old--he'll learn.

"Only when...I breathe."

The wisecrack was forced, his lips and nailbeds tinted an alarming shade of blue. While Jesse checked pulse, BP, and respiration, I got Agent Mulder started on O2 by mask.

"Diminished breath sounds on both sides, Clem. BP is 140 over 100, pulse 98, respiration 30. Wheezing." Jesse slung the stethoscope around his neck, brow furrowed. "Sounds a lot like a bad asthma attack, actually."

Agent Mulder's eyebrows soared. "Clem?"

"Don't ask." I glanced around the apartment. "Agent Mulder, are you still on any medication for that respiratory infection?"

He snorted a laugh that immediately transformed into a long series of coughs. By the time they tapered off his head had flopped back onto the couch and his eyes were reduced to slits.

"'S that...what she...told you? Infection?"

Jesse leaned in. "Yes. Is that incorrect?"

Mulder's mouth twisted into a sardonic little smile. "Not exactly." The grin faded. "Inhaler...bathroom."

"I'll get it." Jesse popped up and headed down the hallway.

Another, shorter round of coughs. I winced at the obvious agony they provoked, stroking tangled hair off Agent Mulder's clammy forehead. When they stopped, he grabbed my sleeve.

"Why...Clem?"

My turn to snort. I usually don't reveal something so personal to a patient, but those hazel eyes, pained and vulnerable, broke down my defenses.

"My parents were sadists." When he stared at me, I sighed. "It's short for my full name--Clementine. Please, no jokes, and don't you dare try to sing that damn song."

Under the mask, one corner of his mouth turned up. "Gotcha beat."

"I doubt that."

He cocked an index finger at his own chest. "Fox."

"Fox? You aren't serious."

He flashed the Boy Scout salute and I choked back a laugh. It occurred to me then that even while gasping like a fish, Agent Fox Mulder was aptly named. Beautiful eyes, long legs, slim, athletic build... It all combined to make a very attractive package if you hadn't sworn off men. Which I have.

"Got it, Clem. It's..."

Jesse words cut off when a red-haired tornado burst through the door.

"Mulder? Are you all right?"

His head came up and he mustered a smile as she crossed the room. I watched, fascinated, as he lit up from inside. Had I said attractive? He was gorgeous.

"M' okay...Scully."

Scully? I caught myself staring, open-mouthed, and snapped my jaw shut. This was Agent Scully?

Petite and porcelain-skinned, with the kind of luminous auburn hair you can't buy in a bottle. This woman made her living catching killers, kidnappers, and terrorists? In blue jeans and little white sneakers she looked like a stiff breeze could blow her away.

Then she opened her mouth.

"I'm Special Agent Dana Scully. I'm Agent Mulder's partner and I'm also a medical doctor. I see you have him on oxygen; what are his vitals?"

Jesse looked at me, eyes like saucers, the inhaler clutched in one limp hand. I pursed my lips and inclined my head.

"He...uh...his pulse was..."

I tuned out Jesse's stammer, more interested in watching Agent Mulder. The oxygen had helped ease his frantic gulps for air, but he was still working hard to fill his lungs. Nevertheless, a sense of...peace had settled over him the moment his partner charged through the door. Eyes followed her every movement, ears tuned to every word that left her lips, but his rigid posture became relaxed, his demeanor less edgy.

And Agent Scully, despite pumping Jesse for information, was just as narrowly focused on her partner. I'd treated my share of law enforcement officers, seen the intense bond between partners, but this...this...connection transcended anything I'd ever witnessed. Was the relationship more than platonic? Could they be sleeping together? Somehow I didn't think it mattered.

Agent Scully had taken the inhaler from Jesse. She slipped the mask under her partner's chin, helped him take two puffs, and replaced it. Within seconds his respiration slowed and deepened and a little bit of color returned to his cheeks. Like magic, I watched her deep concern transform into anger.

"What brought this on, Mulder? You were fine when I left." She brandished the inhaler at his sweatpants and track shoes. "You went running, didn't you?"

He gazed up at her, deadpan, one palm pressed to his heart. "Bless me, Scully...for I have sinned." His breathing might be improved, but his voice was still thin and rough.

Her decibel level rose two notches. "Are you crazy?"

"It's...been said."

I've known a few redheads in my time, and that cliché about an Irish temper is rooted in fact. I held my breath, expecting an explosion.

It never came.

Her voice became low and deadly calm. "Do I need to refresh your memory, Mulder? You nearly died two weeks ago."

He was obviously feeling better. His face took on a stubborn, mulish expression. "I was there...Scully. I was the one with...the bugs in his lungs...remember?"

Wait a minute--what did he just say? I sought out Jesse, but he was staring at the two agents with the same incredulous expression I could feel on my own face.

Bugs? He meant bacteria. Germs. Right?

Agent Scully went pale and very still. "I remember, Mulder. Considering your condition, I daresay I remember much more than you do.

"For instance, did you know when things got really bad the nurse had to clean blood from the inside of the oxygen mask after every coughing spell? Or that the sound the larvae made when they were drawn up the tube from your lungs was exactly like the sound a strawberry makes going up the straw in an ice cream soda?"

He grimaced at that, but she leaned in closer, relentless.

"Did you know that after I pushed the plunger on that syringe full of nicotine, you seized for nearly three minutes while beetles poured out of your nose and mouth? It was such a relief when you stopped--until your heart did, too." Her voice cracked and she sucked in a long slow breath. "I remember vividly, Mulder. Do you?"

The silence was deafening. An unspoken conversation crackled in the air between them, and I felt uncomfortably like a peeping Tom. As I said, I've seen a lot in this job, and in a tense situation I'm usually the first to land on her feet. Instead I gawked at the two of them, replaying their bizarre conversation.

Beetles in his lungs? Suctioning out larvae? Injections of nicotine? I wanted to believe they were nutcases or just having fun at our expense. But you only had to look at their faces to disprove either theory, which could only mean they were telling the truth. And that scared the hell out of me.

Jesse cleared his throat and plugged the stethoscope back into his ears. "Uh...I need to take another listen to your lungs, Agent Mulder."

The sound of Jesse's voice jolted them both from the private country they'd inhabited. Agent Scully sat back on her heels, gaze darting between Jesse and I before sliding away, two bright spots of color burning her cheeks.

"The doctor gave him prednisolone and a nebulizer when he left the hospital. I'll go find them."

"Scully..." Agent Mulder pulled off the mask and tried to get his feet under him, but Jesse stopped him with a hand to his chest. He slumped back, too focused on his partner's back to protest when I replaced the mask.

"How does he sound?" I asked Jesse.

"Better, but not 100 percent. Left side seems worse than the right."

"More damage." Mulder tugged aside the mask again, and this time I let him. "I'll be all right now. You two can go."

I shook my head. "I really think we should take you in, let a doctor have a look at you. You were pretty bad off a few minutes ago."

Agent Scully returned with the nebulizer in her hands. She had her game face back on, but didn't make eye contact with her partner.

Agent Mulder looked at her, not me, when he answered. "Not necessary. I've got my personal physician to keep an eye on me." His mouth quirked. "And she's packin' heat."

Not much of an apology, but she must have seen all she needed in those eyes. I got the distinct impression her pursed lips served to hide a smile.

"And not afraid to use it."

Jesse looked at me and I shrugged. From what I could tell, she was probably the only one who could handle him.

We helped Agent Mulder off the floor and onto the couch. His partner switched into full doctor mode, checking his pulse and respiration, positioning him so that he was both comfortable and could breathe easily. From my brief interaction with the man, I got the impression he didn't like to be fussed over, but he submitted to her without complaint.

I couldn't resist straining to hear their quiet conversation as I helped Jesse pack up the drug box and stow away the oxygen.

"Why, Mulder? I just don't understand why you would take such a foolish risk."

"I thought it would be all right, Scully. The doctor did release me to go back to work."

"Desk duty. He didn't restore you to field agent status precisely because he was concerned something like this would happen." A pause. "What aren't you telling me? What possessed you to go running tonight?"

Silence. I could barely make out his mumbled answer. "It was the only way I could distract myself from smoking the cigarettes I bought on the way home from work."

"Oh, Mulder."

Jesse's foot nudged my leg. He was on his feet, waiting for me to get off my ass and pick up my share of the load.

The agents broke off their conversation just long enough to thank us, politely and graciously, before we ceased to exist. As we let ourselves out the door I heard her voice, a seamless blend of reprimand and affection.

"Next time try chewing gum, Mulder. It'll be easier on all of us."

Jesse didn't speak a word until the elevator doors creaked shut.

"Why do I get the feeling that we just made a guest appearance on an episode of The Twilight Zone? Whaddaya say we do a little snooping and see if we can find out what really happened to Agent Fox Mulder?"

I thought about what Agent Scully had said. Remembered the look in their eyes.

"I'd say you're on your own," I replied. "And ask yourself, Jesse. Do you really want to know?"

Me? I don't even have to think about the answer to that question.

End