I wrote this story, my first X-Files fanfic, in 1997 -- having had the idea brewing in my mind ever since I started watching the show in 1996. The original concept I had was of a villain who took over people's minds and forced them to commit murders on his behalf, but then "Pusher" aired and I didn't want to seem derivative, so I put that idea on a back burner. Then I came up with this alternative story and started working on it, only to discover that "Demons" incorporated at least one of the same central plot elements. *sigh* Seems I can't win. And subsequent seasons of the show have forced at least some of this story's revelations and developments into the realm of AU, as well -- but I hope that readers will enjoy it nonetheless.
Rating: PG (for some violence, mature themes)
AU, Circa Season 5; minor spoilers for "Fire", "Memento Mori", "Small Potatoes"
Assume all usual disclaimers.
Comments and criticisms gratefully accepted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
As he surfaced from the oily darkness, he heard voices, whispering. Close, but elusive; hollow as the sound of a seashell held to the ear. Perhaps it was the pain that made it hard to focus -- that searing, piercing agony like a skewer thrust into one temple and out through the other. He would have groaned if he hadn't been sure it would only make the pain worse.
Light hammered at his eyelids, cold and merciless, demanding entry. He winced and turned his head away in protest.
The voices became agitated. No longer whispering, they called out to him, repeating a word that made no sense. Did they even speak his language? Was it some sort of code? A name?
Of course, why should he think they were speaking to him at all? The message, whatever it was, must be meant for someone else. Someone who understood it. Not for him, whose mind was an echoing gallery, stripped bare of whatever treasures it might once have contained; whose thoughts and memories were a thousand jumbled puzzle pieces, all painted black.
He wanted them to go away, to leave him in peace. He could sleep here, maybe forever, if only they would turn off the light, if only they would stop shouting.
His dry, cracked lips moved, his leaden tongue slurring the words: "Stop it. My head's killing me."
At first the only answer was an incoherent noise. Then the voices spoke again, rapidly, urgently, in unison:
"Mulder, I was just about to check your pulse. The way you went down-- I thought you were dead."
Not voices. One voice. The roaring in his ears had made it hard to tell. If only the pain would subside, he might be able to tell whether it was a man or a woman speaking. But right now even that much was impossible.
Well, at least he now knew that whoever it was, they were talking to him. And they spoke English, so that strange, unfamiliar word, "Mulder", must have some meaning in his language. It sounded like a name.
For the first time since he had awakened, he felt afraid -- worse than afraid. Panic scrabbled beneath his ribcage, clawing at his stomach. How could he not know his own last name? Maybe even his first name -- there was no way to tell. Parents had been known to come up with some crazy ideas, and he did feel certain that there was something he didn't like about--
A small, red-furred canine renowned for stealth and cunning, once widely hunted for sport. He remembered that: he remembered a lot of other things, too, simple things, like the colour of the sky and the boiling temperature of water and the tune of Beethoven's Fifth. But somewhere, somehow, he had lost himself.
He swallowed down the sickness of his terror, forced himself to speak calmly. "Where?"
"Where? What do you mean, where?"
Finally, the pain was beginning to subside. His companion's voice still grated on his too-sensitive ears, but now it was coming into focus. A girl's voice, or a small woman's, husky with anxiety. "Mulder, what are you talking about?"
"I can't see," he told her patiently. "What about a fox?"
There was a long pause. Then she spoke in a whisper: "Mulder, who am I?"
"You don't know either?" The sarcasm came naturally to his lips, a familiar weapon brandished in the face of the unbearable. "Boy, are we in trouble."
He heard a rustle of clothing as she shifted position, then a long indrawn breath, as though she hoped to draw strength from the air around them. He waited for her to speak, but she did not. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
Sunlight stabbed at him, and he winced. But the worst of his headache had gone, and it was really no worse than getting up in the middle of the night and thoughtlessly flicking on a switch. Squinting and blinking, he forced himself to focus on his surroundings, to search for meaning and memory in the objects about him.
An unshaded light fixture, its bulb furred grey with dust, dangled from the cracked plaster ceiling some ten feet above. Instinctively he shifted his body away from it -- the thing looked about to drop on his head any minute. Turning his head to one side, he swept his gaze along the wall to his right, where an enormous, characterless painting of an autumnal landscape teetered drunkenly on its nail. The cracked-gilt frame was warped with age, the wallpaper behind it faded and peeling. A beaded macrame sling, suspended from a hook in the room's far corner, cradled the yellowed skeletons of three spider plants; immediately beneath it squatted a television set at least thirty years old, all its knobs missing.
"You know," he murmured, "I could be wrong, but I was kind of expecting more from the afterlife than this."
"Mulder." Her tone was flat. "You don't seriously--"
"No." He pushed himself up to a sitting position, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes. "Not unless Satan does all his shopping at bad garage sales. So where are we?"
"You really don't remember." There was a tremulous note in her voice. "Mulder, look at me."
The sunlight which had once seemed so cruel was, in reality, barely enough to see by. Heavy with dust motes, it filtered through a pair of semi-sheer yellow curtains, painting the room in sepia tones. He gazed at it a moment, letting his eyes adjust to its scant radiance, then turned to regard his companion.
She was kneeling beside him, a slender figure in a tailored jacket and dress slacks liberally streaked with dust. Hair bright as molten copper curved about delicate yet individual features, a smooth oval face with wide-set eyes and an aquiline curve to the nose.
"Fox Mulder," she said, with deliberate emphasis. "My name is Dana Scully."
"Is it? Well, what do you know. Hello, Dana Scully. I have two ridiculous-sounding names and you only have one. Did my parents actually hate me, or were they just too stoned to know better?"
Even as he said it he knew he was speaking too quickly, his voice riding the ragged edge of hysteria. He clenched his jaw, willing himself calm.
"We are FBI agents," Scully went on, ignoring the quip. "Partners, assigned to investigate cases involving unexplained phenomena. We are currently at 49 Parkland Avenue, Bellemere, New Jersey. The house belongs--"
He would have listened longer, but his gaze had focused on something over her left shoulder. Breath hissing out of him, he struggled to his feet.
Lying on the floor less than four feet away was the motionless form of an enormous woman. She was dressed in a garishly patterned caftan, her greying hair done up in curlers and her feet shoved into dollar-store flip-flops. Her face, relaxed in unconsciousness, looked as vulgar and harmless as the rest of her, except for the blood oozing from her nose, pooling in the lines around her mouth.
Mulder turned an incredulous gaze to his partner. "She's--"
"Suffering from trauma to the occipital lobe, as a result of being assaulted from behind with a blunt instrument. She has lost consciousness and may be slipping into a coma." She spoke calmly, not looking back at the woman. "I've done everything I can for her at the moment; the ambulance is on its way."
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Leta Vicker. She's lived here for the past twenty-five years."
"Who attacked her?"
Scully got to her feet, brushing the dust off her slacks with brisk, economical strokes. "I did." She reached down beside the woman's body, picked up a formidable-looking stoneware jug. Blood and hair matted the rim, and there was a large chip missing from one edge.
Mulder was silent.
"Aren't you going to ask why?" she said. "Or -- do you remember now?"
"No. I don't. But I'm sure--" He hesitated. How was he sure? Why was he sure? Was he sure?
"--I'm sure you had a good reason."
Her jaw tightened, the soft lips firming into a determined line. "Oh, believe me," she said. "I did."
Distantly, he heard the sound of sirens: one ambulance, two or more police. He shut his eyes, suddenly exhausted by knowing so much, and yet so little.
"Enough, Mulder." Scully's hand was on his arm, small and light but surprisingly forceful. She led him to the sofa, made him sit down, sat down beside him, close without touching. He was still stunned by what she had done to the woman Leta Vicker, couldn't help wondering how and why she had struck with such violence; yet he found himself oddly comforted by her nearness, the faint fragrance of her hair. He forced himself to relax, leaning back and closing his eyes.
"It'll come back to you," said Scully. "Within the next twenty-four hours, forty-eight at most."
"Sure," he said.
But he knew neither of them believed it.
* * *
"How long has he been like this?"
The voice was deep, husky, coming from the broad chest of a balding, bespectacled man with an air of military authority. The sign on his desk read WALTER S. SKINNER, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, but as far as Mulder was concerned it might as well have been in Chinese. He'd never seen the man before in his life.
Dana Scully answered after a moment's hesitation. "Since yesterday afternoon, sir. The doctors at the hospital looked him over, but they only confirmed my own findings: there is nothing physically wrong with Agent Mulder. Whatever's caused this amnesia is a purely psychological phenomenon."
"And you think the Vicker woman had something to do with this?"
She drew a long breath. "Yes, sir, I do. She appeared to have some sort of -- hold over Agent Mulder, which I was only able to break by knocking her unconscious. But when I did so, Mulder also lost consciousness, and when he recovered he could remember nothing about himself or me. At first I thought the memory loss to be merely a form of hypnotic suggestion, but attempts at treatment by hypnosis have so far proved unsuccessful."
"Go on," said Skinner, folding his muscular arms and looking at her over the bridge of his glasses.
"Mulder's amnesia appears to be peculiarly selective. He remembers general experiences -- what one might call common sense -- and also retains all the factual knowledge he gained through education and training. I've quizzed him on everything from calculus to Jungian psychology and he's passed the tests with ease. But he doesn't remember anything about his personal identity or history, including the X-Files he's worked on. It's as though everything that made him Fox Mulder has been erased--"
"--resulting," said Mulder dryly, "in an annoying tendency by those around him to refer to him in the third person. But otherwise he feels fine, thanks."
Skinner's mouth twitched. He raised his eyebrows at Scully.
"Well," she admitted, "almost everything."
The Assistant Director leaned back against the desk and regarded them a moment, his blunt face expressionless. At last he said, "Agent Mulder, I am giving you a week's leave of absence."
Mulder looked over at Scully. "Is that good or bad?"
"Depends on how you feel about the X-Files," she replied abstractedly. "But right now I'd say it's good. The more time you can spend in a familiar environment -- your own apartment, with your own belongings -- the more likely it is that you'll regain some of your lost memories."
"I'm also assigning you, Agent Scully, to work with Agent Mulder on this project." Skinner walked around the corner of his desk and sat down in the tall leather-backed chair. "If his memory hasn't returned by the end of the week, I'll consider reassigning you both."
"Sir--" began Scully in protest, but the Assistant Director held up a warning hand.
"That will be all, Agent Scully."
"Yes, sir." She spoke quietly, but the tone was anything but meek. She turned on her heel and walked out of the office. Mulder glanced back at Skinner, but the A.D. had swivelled his chair around dismissively. End of discussion, Agent Mulder. Run along home.
Fine, thought Mulder. I will.
If only he knew where 'home' was.
* * *
"Apartment 42? This is mine?"
"I'm afraid so," said Scully calmly. She unlocked the door and pushed it open, motioning to him to precede her inside. Mulder did so, barely glancing at the clutter of furniture and papers within. After seeing the mess in his office, it was pretty much what he'd expected.
"So..." He stopped in the entryway, turned to look at her, willing her to see nothing in his face but honest puzzlement. "Why do you have a key?"
"Because you gave it to me." An unhelpful answer on the surface, but it told him everything he really needed to know. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully were not, it seemed, romantically involved. But they looked out for each other, and perhaps that was enough.
Suddenly uncomfortable with Dana's steady, blue-eyed gaze, he turned and crossed the room to stand before the bookshelf. Tilting his head for a better view, he read the titles aloud:
"The Great UFO Cover-Up. Aliens Over America. 50 True Abduction Stories. Watchers from the Stars. What the Government Doesn't Want You to Know About Extraterrestrials. Secrets of the Paranormal."
His fingers wandered over the volumes as he spoke. Most of the spines were softened and creased, some even broken: they'd obviously been consulted on a regular basis.
"Anything familiar?" said Scully from behind him.
"Nothing. I don't remember any of this."
She let out a barely audible sigh. "Well, keep trying."
"Scully, doesn't this stuff about aliens and conspiracies strike you as..."
"No." He shook his head. "I was going to say freaky."
The corners of her mouth turned up. She reached past him, pulled From Outer Space off the shelf and handed it to him. "That too," she said. "But you might as well refresh your memory on this one. Then you'll know what kind of 'freaky' things we have to work with-- and at least it's an entertaining read."
He turned the book over in his hands, not looking at it, watching her. "You don't believe in this."
Her expression was resigned. "Mulder, I'm not sure what I believe. I've seen..." She paused, measuring her words. "...a few things I can't explain."
"But you don't believe in these--" He waved a hand at the bookshelf. "Little green men?"
"Gray," corrected Scully automatically, then seemed to realize what they'd both just said. "Mulder, could you really have forgotten even that?"
"What?" He was bemused. "Were we abducted or something?"
"No. At least... no. Just that-- never mind." For a moment her composure was shaken, and he'd have given anything to know why, but he suspected she wouldn't tell him even if he asked. His eyes followed her as she walked about the room, running her fingers across the back of the sofa, pausing by the fish tank to shake a few flakes into the water, not looking at him.
"Take some time, Mulder," she said at last. "Look around. See if anything seems familiar, triggers any associations for you." She turned toward the door, pushing her small hands into the pockets of her trenchcoat. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Where are you going?" His voice cracked on the last word, and he felt a surge of anger at his own weakness. But if anyone knew Fox Mulder, this woman did: he knew that instinctively. And he didn't want her to leave him alone, in this unfamiliar place, a stranger even to himself.
If she sensed his panic, she gave no sign of it. "I've just got a few errands to run." She pulled open the door and walked out into the hall, her movements easy and purposeful, and there was nothing he could do but watch her go.
For all the clutter, the apartment seemed too big and too empty once she had left. Mulder climbed over the back of the sofa and sat down in front of the darkened TV set, pushing his hands through his hair. Any moment, he told himself, the memories would start to come back. Little flashes of recollection: words, images, feelings, the million minor details of thought and impression that make up a human life. Mulder's life.
Whoever Mulder was.
He closed his eyes, forced himself to concentrate. Okay, Fox-- your name is Fox, remember that-- let's play a game. Pick a year, any year. 1968. Day? Christmas. Everybody remembers Christmas, right? So where were you, what were you doing, on December 25th, 1968?
I was with my family?
Good, that's a start.
No, he told himself bitterly, that was a guess. I have no memories of 1968. I don't remember Christmas, any Christmas. And for all I know, I could be an orphan.
Exasperated, he flung himself back to his feet and stalked off to the kitchen. Did he like coffee? He wasn't sure, but there was some in the cupboard, and he at least remembered how to make it.
A cup and a half later he made his way back to the sofa, pushed a stack of papers off the arm, and stretched his long legs out across the cushions. Enough, he told himself, leaning back and closing his eyes. You've been tense all day. Just relax, unwind, let yourself drift. You never know what might come...
What came, eventually, was sleep: but it was a thin, troubled sleep, full of incoherent dreams, and he took no pleasure in it. When he woke, bleary-eyed and yawning, his eyes focused first on Scully, who seemed to have made an eerily noiseless re-entry to his apartment-- or perhaps he'd just slept more deeply than he'd thought. She was seated with her usual cool composure in the chair beside the sofa, sorting through the documents he'd carelessly left lying all over the floor. She cast him only the briefest glance as he swung his legs around and sat up, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand.
"You didn't look at these, I take it," she said.
"No. What are they?"
"As it happens, this file contains what little information we have on this case-- your case, Mulder."
He quirked his eyebrows at her. "Care to give me the details in three thousand words or less?"
Dana arched one of her brows in reply, a gesture so elegant as to be almost condescending-- as though she were showing him how it was done. It ought to have annoyed him, but instead he felt a rush of warmth through his body, a tide of amusement and affection that surprised him with its intensity. "Come on, Scully," he said. "Tell me a story. I'd rather listen to you than read."
Something flickered across her face, and was gone: surprise, or pleasure, or pain, he couldn't tell. "All right," she said at last. "We started this case two weeks ago, with the sudden and unexplained death of a man named Gregory Hatchett..."
* * *
"Let me be sure I've got this straight," said Mulder. "Eleven deaths over the course of twenty-five years, all of them linked only by general geographical area and the state of the victims when found-- brain-dead but otherwise in perfect or near-perfect physical health. Death attributable to no evident external cause; poison or viral infection ruled out. Victims apparently unconnected to each other, or to the suspect, by acquaintance or any detail of appearance, age, or background. So how, exactly, did we settle on Leta Vicker as our suspect?"
"We hadn't settled on anything, Mulder. In fact, I didn't agree that the deaths were necessarily connected. However, you insisted you had a lead and were going to check it out. You left me just after breakfast this morning and went to interview a possible witness you'd just learned about, a woman whose twin sister had died under similar mysterious circumstances a long time ago. You'd been warned that she was an eccentric and a recluse, but you thought she might know something useful, so you went to her house."
"So what were you doing during all this?"
"I was over at the county hospital. I looked up the data from Ilona Vicker's postmortem, and found out that she had been in excellent physical health but was found brain-dead like the others; I also found out that a police report had been filed regarding her death, so I went over to the station to look through their archives. Apparently Leta had been found sobbing over her sister's dead body and repeating, 'I killed her, I killed her,' but since there was no evidence of foul play and Leta refused to elaborate on how she had supposedly murdered her twin, she was merely sent for a brief period of psychiatric treatment before being released."
"And that sent you rushing off to save me from the Evil Brain-Eating Woman?" said Mulder, with a mixture of admiration and skepticism.
"No, I tried to call you on your cell phone and you didn't answer. That was what made me decide to track you down and see what was going on."
"And when you reached the house--"
"You know the rest." She gave a little shrug. "Which is more than I can say, to be quite honest. I still don't understand what she did-- was doing-- to you. Or why."
Mulder nodded slowly, letting his gaze drop from hers to the hands that lay loosely folded in her lap. Small, slender fingers, smooth nails glimmering with faint pearlescence; there was a delicate, understated beauty to the shape of those hands, a subtle grace that suited Dana Scully perfectly. Michaelangelo might have carved them from alabaster-- might have carved her entire, with her classical profile and her luminous skin. He had seen a statue of Athena once with that serenity in her face, those level eyes...
"The Metropolitan Museum!" he burst out, and Scully's brows shot up.
"Mulder, I thought I was getting used to your leaps in logic, but that's the most bizarre nonsequitur--"
"No, no, listen." Excitement surging through him, he sat forward on the couch, leaned toward her, willing her to pay attention. "I went on a school trip, when I was eleven, and we toured the Museum. I was fascinated by the statues: I kept wanting to touch them, feel what the sculptor felt, the form within the stone. I remember the room, I remember the statues, I remember waiting until the guard's back was turned and reaching out-- Scully, I remember."
Light sparked in the blue eyes that met his, and he could tell that she, too, shared his exhilaration. "Mulder, think. What else do you remember about that trip? Your schoolmates? The teacher?"
"I--" For a moment his face was alive with memory and hope: then the light died, and he sank back against the cushions. "It's gone, Da-- Scully. I've lost it." He clenched his fists in frustration. "Where did it come from? Where did it go?"
"Mulder--" she began, but whatever she had been about to say was cut off by the shrilling of her cell phone. She pulled the slim receiver from her pocket, held it to her ear: "Scully."
A pause. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" Another pause. "I see. And how is she now? Good. What? No, not at all. Keep me posted if there's anything more. Thank you. Goodbye."
"Leta Vicker, I take it," said Mulder.
"Yes." Scully flicked the phone closed, returned it to its place. "Her heart stopped for a minute. They thought they'd lost her. But she's recovering now-- though she still hasn't come out of her coma."
His eyes went wide. "Scully..."
"I know what you're going to say, Mulder. Don't say it. There's no reason to believe--"
"Isn't there? Look at the evidence. Are you really going to tell me it's pure chance that my flash of recollection-- the first I've had all day-- would coincide exactly with Leta Vicker's heart failure? You saw what happened in that house, Scully: you know better than I do. That woman has my memories. That woman has me." He started to his feet, his mouth hardening in determination. "I'm going to see her."
"Mulder, don't do this. You're in no condition--" Abruptly she stopped, closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "If you're going, I'm coming with you."
"Well, sure," said Mulder, surprised. "Why shouldn't you?" He held out his hand to her.
Scully looked at him a moment, evidently taken aback by the gesture; then her face cleared, and she reached out in return. She squeezed his hand briefly, reassuringly, before letting it drop.
"All right, then," she said. "Let's go."
* * *
"I had no idea," said Mulder with mingled interest and revulsion, "that hospital gowns came in extra-extra-large."
They stood by Leta Vicker's bedside, gazing down at the enormous, shapeless mass of her body, so still within its tangle of tubes and wires. Her eyes were closed, the slack features void of expression: only the blip of her heart monitor and the slow rise and fall of her broad chest beneath the blankets gave any sign that she was alive at all.
"Mulder," said Scully. "She may be able to hear you."
"I certainly hope so." He moved around to the other side of the bed, his eyes still fixed on Leta's face. "I wouldn't have come here otherwise." Slowly he reached behind him, pulled up a chair, sat down by the bedside.
"Good evening, Ms. Vicker," he said.
Silence. He licked his lips, wondering what to say next, feeling suddenly foolish to be talking to someone who couldn't possibly respond. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw Dana slip back through the curtains, heading silently for the door. Yeah, you're right, he thought. Good call, Scully. Once more the feeling of gratitude, of admiration, ran through him; he wondered if the other Fox Mulder-- the real one-- had ever felt that way about his partner. If he had, he probably hadn't told her. Everything he'd learned about the man so far suggested that he liked to play his emotional cards very close to his chest.
Maybe too close.
Mulder's hand closed hard around the bed rail. He leaned forward in the seat, spoke in a low voice: "I know you can hear me, Ms. Vicker. And I'm fairly sure you can guess why I'm here."
Beep, said the heart monitor. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"I don't know what you saw in me when I walked into your house. I don't know if you were afraid or angry or just curious. All I know is that you grabbed my mind and you wouldn't let go. Was that how you killed the others, Ms. Vicker? Did you peel away their thoughts, their memories, layer by layer, until there was nothing left?"
Beep-- beep-- beep-- beep-- beep--
Mulder gave her a grim twist of a smile. "So we're communicating. All right, then, listen to me. I don't know why you took my memories or what you planned to do with them, but they're no good to you now. I'm alive, and your little secret is out. We even know about Ilona--"
The door banged open and two nurses rushed in, one young and plump, the other tall and grey-haired, and both quite obviously furious. "What are you doing here? How did you get in?"
Automatically he reached for his badge, flipped it open to show them. The movement was so smooth, so unconscious, it had to be sheer reflex: he couldn't remember ever having done it before. "Agent Fox Mulder, FBI. This woman is a suspect in a case we're investigating."
"This woman," said the taller nurse with barely concealed irritation, "is in critical condition, and has nothing to say to you, Agent Mulder. I suggest you leave the room now."
He rose to his feet, opened his mouth to retort-- and a wave of pain smashed through his temples. A tidal surge of jumbled emotions and impressions, of agony and confusion and fear and betrayal and loss, flooded into his mind, leaving him blank-faced and gasping. He spun toward the bed, staring at the woman lying there: at that moment, he could have sworn, her mouth twitched in a little, malicious smile.
"This guy's wacked out," he heard the young nurse exclaim from her place beside the bed. "How'd he get in here?"
All at once Scully was beside him, her hands gripping his forearms, her face alive with concern. "Mulder, what happened?"
"Who are you?" demanded the older nurse.
"Agent Dana Scully with the Federal Bureau of Investigations. We had special clearance to visit the suspect-- apparently you weren't informed. However, it seems my partner has been taken ill, so we'll be leaving now." Expertly, and with surprising strength for a woman so small, she guided Mulder toward the door. "Good night."
They were in the elevator, halfway to the ground floor, before the pain in Mulder's mind began to clear and he was able to speak again. "Leta Vicker," he rasped, pinching the bridge of his nose where the last of the headache still lingered. "She did this to me, the--"
"Mulder, what did she do?"
He swallowed back the sickness in his throat, forced himself to look at her, though the light still made him wince. "Metaphorically speaking, she punched me in the head. I've got about a hundred nasty images running around my brain at the moment, and I don't think any of them belong to me. Unless I've had ovarian cysts, or watched my wife sneaking out of my fortieth birthday party with my best friend--"
"No." She frowned. "But if these memories aren't yours--"
"The woman's a vampire, Scully." He spoke with deliberate emphasis. "She feeds off of other people's memories. Other people's lives. And I just got served the bone and gristle from Leta Vicker's eleven-course meal."
"Twelve," said Scully.
He gave a short laugh. "No. I don't count. She didn't even give me that."
"I meant Ilona."
"You..." He looked down at her, surprised. "So you believe me?"
She shook her head. "I don't know what to believe. But it's the only hypothesis we've got at the moment, and frankly, I'm too tired to try and come up with anything better."
It was an admission, and an important one: he could sense that much, even if he couldn't quite tell why. It seemed only natural, only right, that he should put an arm around her, a wordless gesture of appreciation for giving him the benefit of her scientific doubt. He felt her stiffen as his fingers closed around her shoulder, and realized belatedly that Fox Mulder was probably not in the habit of hugging his partner-- or at least not very often. But before he could pull away, she relaxed and leaned against him, and everything was all right again.
"Sleep on it, Mulder," she said, slipping out of his grasp as the elevator doors opened on the lobby. "I'll see you in the morning."
* * *
He was exhausted, but he couldn't sleep. Lying on an unfamiliar bed, staring into the shadows of a room as empty as his mind, he wondered if Fox Mulder usually had trouble with insomnia, and if so, what he did about it. At last, in frustration, he flung the covers aside, pulled on a pair of worn grey track pants, and padded barefoot out into the living room. Switching on the desk lamp, he gazed around him at the dimly lit apartment, cluttered with books and papers and badly in need of a dusting. Well, he thought, if you can't sleep, you can at least do something useful. Methodically he began sorting through the papers on the desk, stacking them into neat piles.
"Mulder," he said to himself a short time later, "you are a man in serious need of a life." The news clippings and articles that littered the desk ranged from the latest analysis of the Zapruder film to a photograph of a mutilated cow, but all of them were either bizarre or paranoid or some combination of both. This was not normal: he was sure of it. What could make a healthy, young, not entirely unattractive Oxford graduate, with a master's degree in psychology and a successful FBI career, obsessed with this sort of tabloid insanity? Even granted that there were people in the world like Leta Vicker, it was a long leap from a guarded belief in certain paranormal phenomena here on Earth to a wholesale acceptance of little green men-- or grey ones, for that matter-- from outer space.
And then there was Scully. For all her reserved and efficient manner, he'd sensed a warmth in her today, a concern and a care for his welfare that had touched him deeply. There was no pity in her manner, no condescension, and yet it was clear that she was accustomed to looking out for her partner's welfare in an infinite variety of ways. It was equally obvious, to his self-disgust, that she was accustomed to being taken for granted.
Was the man blind, or stupid, or just an insensitive jerk? It hadn't taken him long to see that Dana Scully was a remarkable woman. Beautiful, intelligent, compassionate yet firmly in control of her emotions, there were depths to her character that put most other women to shame. Even without his memories of the time they had worked together, he could tell that much. Had Fox Mulder never noticed, never tried to explore those depths? From Dana's reactions to his few small gestures of kindness and appreciation-- surprise followed by ready acceptance-- it seemed that he had not. For whatever reason, the "real" Mulder was keeping his distance.
He had to be an idealist, he decided. Too busy tilting at windmills and dreaming of Dulcinea to appreciate a real woman when he met her. Or maybe he was threatened by Dana's resourcefulness and intellect-- preferred a woman who would gaze at him in cow-eyed admiration and never threaten his ego.
If so, he was more of a fool than he'd thought.
By the time he finished tidying the desk, his limbs felt heavy, and he could feel his eyelids beginning to droop. He straightened the framed picture beside the desk lamp-- a photograph of a little girl he didn't recognize, but he presumed she must be a relative, with that dark hair and those soulful eyes-- and flopped onto the couch, grabbing a blanket from the floor and pulling it over him. For some reason the sofa felt better than his bed had done, the pillows more comfortable and familiar. Within a few minutes he was asleep.
* * *
"Mulder, it's me."
The voice on the other end of the line was Scully's. Cradling the phone receiver against his ear, Mulder managed to raise his head and uncross his eyes long enough to look at the clock on the desk. To his surprise, the glowing letters read 10:13. He must have been more tired than he realized.
"Hey there," he drawled sleepily. "Sorry I didn't catch you on the first ring. Just call me Little Mulder in Slumberland. How's it going? You okay?"
"I'm fine," she replied after a fractional pause, sounding faintly perplexed. Somehow he'd managed to surprise her again, although he couldn't think how or why. "I just called to make sure everything was all right with you. I'm afraid something's come up with Charles, and I've--"
Mulder was instantly and unpleasantly awake, as though someone had thrown a bucket of ice water over his head. "Charles?"
"Oh, sorry. My brother."
The relief was intense, but he managed to keep it out of his voice. "Right. What's the problem?"
"Well, his wife's mother just fell and broke her hip-- they've got to go with her to the hospital. And I seem to be the only babysitter they could get on short notice, so I'll be looking after my nephew for a few hours. I know we'd planned to go over those case files today, but--"
"Don't worry about it." He spoke with all the reassurance and affirmation he could muster, determined not to betray the disappointment he really felt. "I'll be fine. Go ahead and be with your nephew."
She made a little noise in her throat, halfway between a chuckle and a groan. "And wind up watching Babe for the thirty-eighth time, no doubt."
The remark sounded cynical, but the fondness in her voice gave her away, and Mulder found himself grinning into the phone. "You love the kid, Scully. Confess."
Another startled pause. Then, her voice husky: "Yeah. Yeah, Mulder, I do." She drew a deep breath. "Thanks for understanding. I'll see you later. 'Bye."
"Bye," he said, and hung up.
For a long time after the conversation ended he simply sat there, staring at nothing. Part of him wished he'd volunteered to go with Scully, keep her company. Meet the kid, even-- if Dana liked her nephew that much, he couldn't be too bad. But the more sensible part of him felt sure that this was not the sort of thing a professional partner would normally do, and definitely not something that would have occurred to Fox Mulder.
Of course, cleaning his apartment didn't seem to have occurred to Fox Mulder either, and yet that was exactly how he intended to spend the day. Poking through old belongings might trigger some of his lost memories, as Scully had suggested: and even if it didn't work in quite that way, the exercise would tell him more about the man he once had been. At the very least, tidying up would make him feel as though he'd achieved something, instead of sitting around brooding over--
No, he wasn't going to think about that. An unpleasant (well, okay, maybe it wasn't that unpleasant, just potentially embarrassing) realization was stealing up on him, ready to sneak into his awareness at any unguarded moment, and he was determined to keep those treacherous thoughts at bay. What he was going to think about now was breakfast, and then he'd roll up his sleeves-- as soon as he had some sleeves to roll-- and get to work.
Half an hour later he was on his hands and knees in the hall closet, discovering just how many pairs of old, broken-down athletic shoes one man could own. Mulder seemed to be into running (go fast, go hard, test your limits, feel the adrenalin surge) and basketball (compete, outmaneuver, leap high, grab the glory). He had a stack of old LP's ranging from Elvis to Joy Division and, judging from the seductive scrawl across the back of one dusty Fleetwood Mac album, an ex-girlfriend named Phoebe Green. There was a box of back issues of something called The Lone Gunman which, when he flipped idly through the most recent copy, merely confirmed the paranoia and cynicism he'd sensed in Fox Mulder while clearing up his desk last night. He also found a few copies of Omni, containing articles by one M. F. Luder.
Very cute, he thought wryly. He gave the "Luder" articles his full attention, and found them both articulately worded and intelligently reasoned, which was reassuring. Still, something about the logic eluded him, and he couldn't understand the passion behind the arguments. Maybe there was extraterrestrial life and maybe there wasn't-- was it really that important? No wonder Scully kept a firm grip on her skepticism: without it, her partner could spend his whole life with his head in the clouds-- or, perhaps more accurately, the stars.
By eleven-thirty he'd finished the closet and moved on to the kitchen. There wasn't a lot in the cupboards or the refrigerator: it seemed he wasn't into gourmet cooking. In fact, the wrappers and cartons stuffed into the overflowing garbage can argued convincingly that Mulder's four major food groups were subs, pizza, McDonald's and Chinese. He looked in the freezer and discovered only a bag of ice, a half-eaten container of Rocky Road and...
Frowning, he reached into the back of the freezer and pulled out a slim tube of frosted glass, so cold it burned his palm. The vial was tightly stoppered: he couldn't tell what substance it contained. A chemical compound of some sort, perhaps, or a biological sample from some long-forgotten case. It was dated 10/94.
He held it in his hand for some time, puzzling over its significance, when he realized that the warmth of his skin would thaw the sample, probably ruin it. He was about to replace it in the freezer when he realized that the tube was just as cold as it had been when he first touched it. Bringing it up to eye level for a closer examination, he observed with surprise that the stopper itself seemed to be a miniature refrigeration unit. Whoever had put this sample together wasn't taking any chances of it going to waste-- but that still didn't tell him what was in it.
In the end, no wiser than he had been in the beginning, he put the vial back in the freezer, made himself a generous sandwich and wandered back out to the living room. Idly he switched on the TV, found out that the Knicks were playing the Raptors, and sat down to watch. He wasn't expecting to feel much enthusiasm-- after all, he couldn't even remember the last game he'd seen, or the current stats, or even what teams he liked. But within minutes his reservations were forgotten, and he found himself on the edge of his seat, leaning forward, urging the players on. By the end of the game he was on his feet with the television crowd, punching a victorious fist into the air as the Knicks nailed an effortless three-pointer with two seconds to go and the Raptors limped off the court, defeated.
Maybe Fox Mulder wasn't such a bad guy after all.
Switching off the TV, he headed into the bedroom, considerably cheered. Okay, so he was a bit eccentric, but so were a lot of people. Maybe chasing flying saucers was just a geeky kind of hobby, like trainspotting or going to Star Trek conventions. It didn't make you dangerous, it didn't mean you were completely out of touch with reality, it just meant that you had a bit more imagination than you knew what to do with. Humming the "Twilight Zone" theme to himself, he crouched down and stuck an arm under the bed, bracing himself for the inevitable fistful of dust bunnies, old socks, and chocolate bar wrappers.
He found all of those things, but he also found something more. A sliding drift of magazines, their glossy paper crinkling beneath his fingertips. Sports Illustrated? Starlog? Fangoria?
It absolutely can't be, tell me it isn't, there's no way any man with Dana Scully for a partner could, please don't let it--
He closed his hand around a fistful of magazines and pulled them into the light. "Celebrity Skin," he read aloud, woodenly. "Adult Video News." Sweet mercy, there wasn't even a copy of Playboy in the lot: nothing that would let him believe he'd bought it for the articles. He flipped through a few issues in a sort of horrified fascination, feeling his stomach roil, the blood pound through his body, at the mindless exposure of so much female flesh.
He pushed the magazines away from him violently, feeling like a traitor. Worse than that: an adulterer. And he wasn't even married. He glanced back down at the heap of magazines, his mouth twisting in revulsion. Well, he knew what to do with these--
He pushed himself up to his feet, stalked out into the living room, and crouched down beside the entertainment unit. Pulling open the drawer below the TV, he gazed with loathing at the provocatively labelled spines of nearly thirty bought-and-paid-for movies. Beside them were a row of unmarked tapes, probably recordings off some "adult" channel.
"Fox Mulder," he breathed, "you are slime."
Even so, for just a moment, his hand wavered over the videos: part of him could feel the pull, the curiosity. But at the same time, he couldn't shake the feeling that Dana Scully was in the room with him, standing just out of sight, watching him. Not saying anything, either to encourage or rebuke: just quietly, patiently, waiting.
He clenched his teeth and started pulling the tapes out of the drawer.
* * *
The fire hissed and licked at the inside of the garbage can, eager for more. Mulder stood over it, methodically feeding it page after page, issue after issue. Languid eyes and parted lips curled and twisted in the heat, forms and features shading irrevocably into blackness. Every cruel month of the past five years, gone forever.
Like the rest of his life.
Only this felt good.
He flung his arms wide over the flaming can, relinquishing the last few magazines. They fluttered into the blaze, opening to its heat like so many pink roses. For a moment they were beautiful, their pages limned with glory. Then they were gone.
"Mulder, what are you doing?"
He turned. The fire, as though grateful, stroked his back, kneaded warmth into his chilled and cramping muscles. He didn't resist it. "It's all right. Go on inside. I'll be up in a minute."
Scully shook her head, a little frown creasing her brows. Wrapping her arms about herself to hold in what little heat her trench coat had to give, she walked up to him, glanced into the trash can. The last of the firelight reached out to her with trembling golden fingers, touched her hair, her face. Then it collapsed and died, leaving them to the mercy of the shadows and the bitter November wind.
At the bottom of the can, beneath a drift of black ash, lay a pile of warped and shattered videotapes. She gazed down at them, her face expressionless.
"Well," she said finally. "This is a change."
"Scully, how do you stand him?"
Her head jerked up. Her eyes searched his face, incredulous. "You mean-- Mulder?"
"I can't think of him as me," he said. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat, hunched his shoulders. "I mean, I know he is, but... the more I know about him the more I wish I'd been somebody else."
"He's my partner," said Scully quietly. "We've been through a lot together."
"You're a very loyal person, Dana Scully."
"He doesn't deserve you."
A smile touched one corner of her mouth. "Mulder, this is the FBI. Not the Lonely Hearts Dating Service."
He felt blood warming his face, like the memory of fire. "No. But I thought-- you were friends."
"Of course we are." The pale oval of her face waned to a crescent as she turned her head away from him, toward the lighted street. "Mulder, it's cold. Are you finished?"
"Yeah." He took the empty matchbook out of his pocket, tossed it in the can. "Come on up. I'll make us some coffee."
They walked up the stairs to his apartment in silence. He took her coat, shrugged off his own, hung them up together in a closet now scrupulously clean. When he turned to look at Scully, her face was blank with wonder.
"Mulder, you-- I don't even recognize this place."
"Good," he said shortly, and went to put on the coffee. Dana walked slowly about the room, running her hands up and down her arms to ward off the last of the chill. She was dressed more casually than he had ever seen her before, in jeans and a sage-green cashmere sweater. He glanced at her surreptitiously as he worked, stealing glimpses of that serene, yet somehow incredibly vital, beauty.
"I'm just-- amazed," she said at last, turning toward him with a half-smile.
"Yeah, well, there's a lot to be said for boredom." Mulder flashed a grin at her, was glad to see her smile broaden in return. "Hey, how'd it go with the nephew?"
Her face relaxed into wistfulness. "He's such a sweet kid. Bright, imaginative--"
"And cute as all-get-out, I'll bet."
"Yeah, that too." She shook her head ruefully. "I let him get away with far too much. No wonder he's always asking when Auntie Dana's going to come back."
Mulder feigned astonishment. "Dana Scully, are you telling me you're a soft touch?"
She gave a little, embarrassed laugh. "Well, I try not to be, but--"
"I'm so disillusioned."
"Hey," she said, with mock indignation. "I keep you in line, don't I?"
He gave her the Groucho eyebrows, waved an imaginary cigar. "And I love every minute of it."
Her laughter was all the reward he needed. He brought her her coffee, motioned her to a seat, and sat down on the opposite end of the couch, close but not too close. He didn't want her to feel threatened; he suspected she had a strong concept of personal space, and he respected that.
"This is good coffee," said Scully after a moment. "Thanks."
"Yeah, well, apparently the ability to make coffee isn't intimately linked to my persona, so I got away with that much. I can tell you, though, I'm having absolutely no luck with the violin."
"To the best of my knowledge, Mulder, you don't even own a violin."
"You see the problem."
She smiled again. "Leta Vicker may have walked off with your memories, Mulder, but it's obvious not even she could cope with your sense of humor."
He clapped a hand to his heart. "Ouch."
"Seriously, though--" She shifted around to look at him, her gaze intent-- "you went like a tornado through this whole apartment: did you discover anything?"
"Aside from the fact that I'm a lousy housekeeper and have no taste in entertainment, you mean?" he began lightly, then caught the look in her eye and relented. "No," he said more quietly. "The things that belonged to Fox Mulder mean nothing to me. I haven't experienced any more memory flashes since last night: nothing seems to trigger any associations. There's still so much missing, so much I don't understand--" He shook his head, looked down into the black depths of his coffee. "I don't even know where to begin."
For a moment Scully was silent, her expression pensive. At last she began, softly, to speak:
"Your full name is Fox William Mulder. You were born on October 13, 1961 in Chilmark, Massachusetts..."
* * *
"Well," said Mulder when she had finished. His voice sounded rough: self-consciously he cleared his throat before going on. "That's... more than I expected."
Scully arched an eyebrow at him. "What did you expect?"
"I don't know. I can understand now, a little, why he turned out that way... where the obsessions come from. But to be honest, Dana, I don't share them." He shifted a little closer to her on the couch, wanting her to sense his earnestness. "Don't get me wrong-- if I believed Samantha was still alive somewhere, waiting to be found, I'd go after her in a second. But from everything you've told me, it doesn't sound that likely. It's one thing to chase down a genuine lead: another to pull leads out of thin air, which if you ask me is more like what Mulder was doing."
"Why do you do that?" asked Scully flatly.
He was taken aback. "What?"
"You're talking about yourself, Mulder. The person you are. Not some other person. If you insist on divorcing yourself from--"
"But I do insist." He shook his head. "Dana, I feel sorry for the man. I really do. But the more I think about what Leta Vicker took from me, the more inclined I am to let her keep it."
He had barely finished the sentence before he saw her shifting back on the couch, folding her arms and crossing one leg over the other. Defensive posture, he thought with a flash of irritation. Don't do this to me, Scully. You haven't heard me out. Still, she made no attempt to interrupt, so he went on with renewed urgency:
"What you've told me about your work together over the past four years-- I know you're onto something here, something important. The truth is worth searching for, worth any risk: I still believe that. But without Fox Mulder's memories, I can't share his... bizarre obsessions." He raised his head, meeting her gaze. "I can't help that, Dana. I'm sorry."
"No," she said. "No, I... appreciate your honesty." She looked away from him, toward the darkened window. "But you'll have to forgive me if I'm not inclined to give up on my partner so readily."
"You wouldn't be his friend if you were," he said gently. "Don't apologize."
She was silent a moment, gazing down at the pillow she'd pulled onto her lap: then she gave a short, mirthless laugh. "I can't get used to this," she said.
"This. Just... I don't know." With an abrupt motion she pushed herself off the couch, walked over to stand by the fish tank, letting her hand trail lightly over the surface of the water. Drawn to the rippling movement, one bold guppy drifted to the top of the tank, mouth moving in eager anticipation, all but kissing her fingertips.
Yeah, thought Mulder. You and me both.
Scully spoke again, her voice distant: "You probably don't realize it, but you've just called me 'Dana' more times in five minutes than you have in the last three years."
Mulder's eyebrows shot up. "You're serious?"
"I see." He paused cautiously. "Does it bother you?"
"No. It's just... different."
Still, he could sense her discomfort. "Call me Fox, then," he said. "Make it even."
She turned toward him, incredulous. "The one time I tried to do that, you told me you made even your parents call you 'Mulder'."
"Maybe he felt that way. I don't." He shrugged. "There are worse names. And frankly, the more I hear about this 'Mulder' guy..." He let the sentence trail off, looked down at his hands. "Not that it matters. It's up to you."
Dana gazed at him a moment. Then she walked over to him, deliberately pulled the pillow he'd been clutching out of his grasp. "No offense," she said, "but I was starting to get flashbacks to Eddie Van Blundht."
He looked at her blankly.
"Never mind." She wrapped her own arms around the pillow, sat down once more at the far end of the couch, tucking her legs beneath her with a catlike economy of movement. Mulder was almost certain she'd been teasing him: but when she raised her blue eyes to his, they were serious. "We will get through this, Mulder," she said softly.
"I want to believe that," he replied with equal quietness.
They looked at each other, steadily, without speaking; the silence between them seemed somehow louder and more potent than words. In the end it was Scully who looked away, a tinge of colour creeping into her cheeks. "I'd better go," she said. "We're both too tired to get any real work done tonight anyway." Without waiting for his reply she uncurled herself from the couch, moved briskly toward the closet where he had hung her coat.
He followed her, reaching the door a stride before she did, taking the trenchcoat off the hanger and holding it for her. It occurred to him belatedly that she might find the gesture chauvinistic, even condescending; but before he could even complete that thought, she had slipped into the coat, turned back to look up at him. There was a question in her eyes, but he couldn't be quite sure what that question was, let alone how to answer it.
"Good night, Scully," he said.
"Good night--" she began, then stopped short, her lips half-parted, obviously troubled by whatever she had been about to say. "Good night," she repeated at last, gave him a thin smile and slipped out the door, closing it gently behind her.
Mulder stood motionless, listening to her footsteps until they died away. Then, slowly, almost automatically, he walked back over to the couch where she had been sitting and lowered himself down. The cushions were still warm from her body, and the merest whisper of her delicate, elusive scent seemed to hover in the air. He leaned back, breathing in deeply, closing his eyes.
But he didn't let himself think about what he was doing.
* * *
"I've brought the case files," said Scully crisply when he opened the door the next morning. She was dressed in a sombre shade of blue, the lines of her blouse and slacks clean and precise, almost as though she were on duty. Before he could even wish her good morning, she had brushed past him-- not quite rudely, but purposefully-- and sat down at his kitchen table, spreading a series of manila folders out across the glossy surface. If she had stamped BUSINESS NOT PLEASURE across her forehead her intentions could not have been more obvious.
"Good morning to you too," muttered Mulder, pushing his hand through the sleeve of the sweatshirt he'd just donned and walking resignedly over to join her.
"Don't let me stop you from having breakfast," Scully told him, not looking up as she sorted through papers and photographs, organizing them into neat piles.
Silently Mulder poured himself a bowl of Rice Chex, put the coffee on, and sat down, gazing down the length of the table at his partner. She still refused to look directly at him, he noticed: something about last night had troubled her, put her on her guard.
Or maybe-- just maybe-- it was something else. Not everything was about him, after all...
"Did you hear anything from your brother?" he asked quietly.
Dana's head snapped up, startled blue eyes focusing on his. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, you seemed a little distracted. I thought perhaps you'd had some bad news."
"No. No, it's... nothing like that." She looked down at her files again, paused, and added more softly, "But thanks for asking."
He gave an uncomfortable shrug. "Just wondered. So, what have we got here?"
"I was looking over these cases again last night after I got home, and I think I've noticed a pattern." She pushed a set of folders across the table toward him. "See if you come to the same conclusion."
For several minutes he did not reply, his eyes fixed on the documents he was reading, the photographs that accompanied them: the stories and pictures of twelve people of varying ages, genders and social backgrounds, seemingly unconnected by any details. Except...
He looked up. "I've got it, Scully. This one--" He held up the picture of Marcia Dexter, a smiling blonde woman in her mid-thirties-- "was married with three children. And this man--" He pulled out a second picture, an elderly man with a lined but pleasant face-- "had spent his life travelling around the world."
Dana nodded. "Go on."
"Relationships, successful careers, popularity, money, talent, beauty--" Mulder slapped the pictures down onto the table. "All these people had at least one thing in their lives that Leta Vicker didn't."
"It began with Ilona," said Scully quietly. "The girl everybody liked. Bright, popular, active in her school and community, while Leta was overweight, withdrawn, and struggling for a C average. The jealousy must have become too much for her--"
"So she killed her sister? And she's been killing people she was jealous of ever since?" He shook his head. "Pardon my embarkation on one of the legendary Fox Mulder flights of fancy, but there's more to this case than that."
"Well, yes. For one thing, we're still missing a murder weapon."
"You've got to be kidding." He shook his head in reproach. "Scully, two nights ago you were too tired to argue with my theories. For your sake I'm glad you've been catching up on your sleep since then, but frankly, I like you better exhausted." Ignoring the sharp look she cast him, he went on patiently, "Leta Vicker didn't need a murder weapon: all she needed was her mind. She sucked these people dry, Scully."
He cut her off, not brusquely, but firmly. "Admittedly I can't explain what unique physiological or biochemical properties allowed her to pull this little stunt: that's your department, and I'm more than willing for you to pursue that avenue of investigation if and when we have opportunity. But in the meantime, I'm telling you what I know. And I do know, Scully. I'm part of this case too, don't forget. If you hadn't come through that door when you did, I've no doubt that you'd be looking at my autopsy report right now. Caucasian male, 36 years of age, in excellent physical health-- and inexplicably brain-dead."
That last remark hit home, if nothing else did: her hands whitened where they gripped the files, and an almost imperceptible shudder ran through her body. "All right, Mulder," she said at last. "But if the theory holds, why did she choose you?"
He pushed back his chair abruptly. "That was a low blow, Scully."
"Mulder, you know that's not what I meant."
He knew, but it still rankled. Because deep down, he'd wondered the same thing-- and was no closer to an answer. "Fear," he hazarded at last. "The others were deliberate, premeditated attacks motivated by her own greed, but this was self-protection-- she was afraid I'd find out the truth."
"Why? She must have known you couldn't have any evidence against her, and when you went to interview her you weren't even thinking of her as a suspect-- at least not yet. What would have made her feel threatened enough to attack you?"
"I don't know." He leaned forward, elbows on the table, pushing his hands across his face. "Don't you think I want to remember? But I can't, Scully. I've tried and I can't. It's no good."
"We have to solve this case, Mulder." Her voice was flat.
"Why? Professional pride?"
It was a nasty crack and he knew it, and he instantly regretted his words when, after a moment of frozen silence, he looked up and saw that the light had gone out of her eyes.
"No, Mulder," she said at last, her voice thin with some barely restrained emotion-- sorrow or anger, he couldn't tell which. "Because if we can't make progress on this investigation, and your memory hasn't returned by tomorrow, Skinner may very well reassign us both. And if that happens, you can say goodbye to the X-Files, and goodbye to the truth."
"You forgot something."
"What?" She was almost snapping now, her patience gone.
"Goodbye to us."
He'd kept his voice sober, looked at her with as much gentleness as he could muster, wanting her to see the apology in his face: but if she noticed it, she paid it no heed. She shoved her chair back, rose to her feet.
"What 'us', Mulder? There is no 'us'. We had four years of partnership, but you don't remember any of it. And as far as I can tell from what you've said, you don't want to remember it." With brusque movements she gathered up the files she'd brought, shoved them back into her briefcase and snapped it closed. "Well, maybe you're right."
He was on his feet as she turned to walk away; in two strides he had closed the distance between them, caught her wrist. "Dana, don't."
"Let me go, Mulder." She pulled against his grasp. "And stop calling me that."
For a moment he gazed into her furious, beautiful face; then, moved by a dangerous but irresistable impulse, he reached out and let his fingers trace the curve of her cheek. "Scully. I need you to listen to me. Please."
She had stopped struggling at the touch, her eyes widening. But she made no reply. Quietly Mulder went on:
"I won't lie to you, Scully. It's true I'm not sure I want Fox Mulder's memories back. I can live without his obsessions, his vices, his... emptiness. But one of the main reasons I find that old self so hard to bear is because of the way he treated you." He stroked her hair back from her face, letting the soft strands run between his fingers. "If I could keep his memories of the time you spent together, the moments of friendship and trust that you shared, and throw everything else away, I would. But I don't think I have that option."
"The way... he treated me?" Her reply was barely more than a whisper. "You think he..."
"How else am I supposed to read you, Dana? You always seem so surprised to be treated like a human being, instead of an accessory. You react as though Sir Galahad just postponed the quest for the Holy Grail to have a beer and talk shop with his squire."
"It's not like that." Her voice shook. "Mulder and I... we just don't talk... about personal things that often. It's not his way. But I know he... I know he trusts me. And I... I've relied on him so much--" Unexpectedly her eyes filled up, and he felt a hot tear sliding across his fingers. "I don't want to lose him."
He bowed his head closer, let his forehead rest against hers. With his thumb he gently brushed the moisture from her cheek. "I didn't realize. I'm sorry."
She gave a shaky laugh. "You've apologized more in the past three days--"
"Yeah, well, that Mulder guy left me a mother of an I.O.U."
A smile pulled at her mouth: he watched her fight it, then let it go. "Just when I think he's gone, you make one of those jokes--"
"I want to keep everything you valued in him," he said softly. "I just want to get rid of the part that couldn't appreciate you as you are."
That did it. Something broke in him then: he slid a hand around the back of her neck, tilted her head up and kissed her. It was a gentle kiss, brief, in fact almost fraternal: he didn't dare ask her, or himself, for more. But he could feel the shock of what he had just done travel through her whole body, and when he released her she stumbled back like a woman drunk, or dazed.
"Go home, Dana," he told her very gently. "Take some time for yourself. I'll call you tonight."
She stared at him a moment, unwilling or unable to speak. Then she turned, picked up her briefcase, and walked out of the apartment. As he watched the door close behind her, he silently blessed her for not looking back: if she'd hesitated, even for a moment, he had no idea what he would have done.
It occurred to him belatedly that what he'd already done might well have been just as foolish, and no less disastrous, than the other: but there was no turning back now. A line had been crossed between them, and there was no telling what might happen next.
He could only hope that whatever damage he'd done wasn't permanent.
* * *
"So what you're telling me," said Skinner dryly, "is that you have no good reason to believe that Agent Mulder will ever recover his lost memories."
Mulder watched the Assistant Director through the crack in the half-open office door, his eyes narrowed in speculation. How sympathetic was this man to what the X-Files-- or perhaps more importantly, to what Mulder and Scully themselves-- represented? Could he be trusted to make a fair decision?
"Sir," Scully's voice protested from the other side of the door, out of Mulder's line of sight, "that was not the point I came here to make."
"Maybe not, Agent Scully, but that's what it amounts to." He gave her a level look. "Isn't it?"
A brief, fragile pause. Then: "There is a possibility that Leta Vicker will recover. She may be persuaded to--"
"What I want to know," said Mulder, pushing through the half-open door, "is why any of it matters." Ignoring the astonished stares of both his co-workers, he walked over to the chair where Scully sat, touched her shoulder briefly in greeting.
She stiffened, leaning away from him. Uh-oh, thought Mulder. He let his hand drop, turned to face Skinner instead. "Agent Scully has already attested," he said, willing his voice and expression to communicate more confidence than he felt, "that I haven't forgotten any of my academic or professional training. I know what the X-Files are, and I am quite capable of pursuing the investigations I started before my loss of memory occurred. And unless you order me not to, I will pursue those lines of investigation. Wherever they may lead."
"Unless I order you not to?" Skinner's mouth quirked: not a smile, but the shadow of one. "That's a first."
"Yeah, well, meet the new improved Mulder with lemon-fresh scent." He paused fractionally, wondering if he had pushed too far, but Skinner's expression had not changed. "Sir, might I have a word with my partner?"
"I'll give you better than that," the A.D. told him. "Both of you-- this meeting is over. You are still assigned to the X-Files division until further notice. Agent Mulder, your leave of absence is over as of Monday. Now get out."
"Sir?" Scully frowned, obviously nonplussed.
"I have work to do, Agent Scully. We'll continue this discussion some other time." Skinner put his pen down on the desk with an audible click, reached for a stack of manila folders on the filing cabinet beside him. "Until then, good day."
Scully rose from her chair, turned toward the door, her face expressionless. Mulder stepped aside to let her pass, then followed her out. As if by some unspoken agreement, they turned in the same direction, walking down the long hallway to the elevator that would take them to their basement office. But not until they were in the elevator and the doors had closed did she speak:
"You are not supposed to be here." Her voice was low with contained fury. "I arranged a private meeting with Assistant Director Skinner, and you--"
"I know what you were trying to do, Scully. But that was my battle, not yours. You could have spent the whole day presenting brilliant arguments in my defense, and Skinner still wouldn't have been convinced. He had to hear it from me."
Scully's lips tightened mutinously, but she said nothing, only stared straight ahead. The doors opened with a chime and she stalked out into the hall, heels clicking on the tiled floor. When they reached the office door, she sidestepped away from it, leaned against the doorframe, looking up at him with aloof expectation.
"What?" asked Mulder.
"We locked it when we left on Monday," she told him. "You've got the key."
"And you don't?"
"Mulder, I don't even have a desk. It's your office. Remember?"
No, Scully, I don't, he thought bitterly. And you know that as well as I do. He dug into his pocket, brought out a jingling ring of keys, stuck one in the lock at random and twisted. Nothing happened. Gritting his teeth, he tried another. Still no luck. He could feel the blood rising in his face, his frustration building, and most of all Dana's gaze on the back of his neck as he bent to fit yet another key to the lock-- and failed.
A barely audible oath escaped his lips; he pressed his forehead against the door, closed his eyes, said thickly, "All right. So I pushed my way in where I wasn't wanted. Again. But you could have told me what you were doing, Scully. Do you know what it was like, walking past Skinner's door and hearing your voice?" His hand closed hard around the ring of keys, feeling the metal bite into his palm. "I thought we were going to do this together."
"Mulder, why are you here?" There was no anger in her voice, not any more: there was no emotion at all. The question was naked, giving him no clues, and he couldn't tell what she thought the right answer would be-- or even if there was one.
"I called your apartment this morning and you didn't pick up. Then I tried your cell phone and you didn't answer that either. Call me crazy, Scully-- I'm sure it wouldn't be the first time-- but my Mulder-sense started tingling. There were only a couple of places I could think of where you might go and not want me to know about it. I came here first."
She was silent.
"Is that what he always did to you, Scully? Took off at a moment's notice, without telling you where he was going or why-- even when it was your interests he had in mind?"
"That wasn't why I came here." Her voice was flat. "I needed to talk to Skinner alone. I knew you wouldn't let me. I didn't want to argue with you. I didn't want to be--"
"No." She paused, not moving, barely even breathing. He waited for her to finish the sentence, but she did not; after a moment he began to wonder if he should give up. But then he heard her shift against the doorframe, and her answer came out in a whisper:
A shiver ran through his body, hot, electric: with sudden certainty he knew what she meant. He pushed himself back from the door, turned to look at her.
"What are you afraid of, Dana?" he asked softly. Their faces were close together, their shadows meeting, intertwining on the floor between their feet.
Her throat moved convulsively. "Losing my objectivity."
"Is it that important to you?"
"It's important to Mulder." She closed her eyes. "He needs it to stay sane. He needs it to stay alive."
"I know," he said. "But you're forgetting something."
"What?" Her lips barely shaped the word.
"I'm not Mulder."
She lowered her head. "I know. That's... what I'm afraid of."
He wanted to reach out to her, take her hand; but he could feel her tension, her reserve, and he was loath to make another mistake. "You're still waiting for him to come back," he said.
"You know how to deal with him."
"He's not a threat."
"Dana, he's--" He made a vague, frustrated gesture. "The man is messed up. You know that."
"I said it before-- he doesn't deserve you."
Her head snapped up, anger flaring once more in the depths of her eyes. "How do you know? You don't even know him. You don't even know yourself. All you know is what you've seen on the surface-- what everybody else sees. 'Spooky' Mulder, the psychologist turned patient, obsessed with the irrational and the bizarre." She took a deep breath. "Well, you're wrong."
"If you could look in the mirror and see beyond the nose on your face, if you could get your mind past the last few days of playing the long-lost offspring of Prince Charming and Molly Maid, you'd know that I have a bit more intelligence and better judgment than to waste my professional and personal time on some pathetic loser. Yes, Mulder has his problems; yes, our partnership is what you might call high-maintenance. But there are things you don't know. Things you haven't seen. Things that words can barely begin to describe, like integrity, and understanding, and commitment, and trust. I shot you once, Mulder. Right there--" and she poked him in the shoulder, so hard it rocked him back on his heels-- "and yet, once the crisis was over, you understood, and you forgave me for it.
"We've fought together for things we both believed in. You've saved my life, and I yours, more times than I can count. In the darkness, when there seemed no hope, we've found strength in each other, brought each other back from the edge. You drive me absolutely up the wall with your wild theories and sometimes I'd like to strangle you with one of your own repulsive ties-- but I wouldn't want to work with anyone else. I don't want to work with anyone else." She bent her head, hands clenching and unclenching around her arms. "Not even you."
"I see." His voice sounded very strange, thin and far away. Something in it made Scully look up, her face softening to penitence.
"I don't mean it the way it sounds. You're-- you have a lot of good qualities now. Perhaps you're what Fox Mulder could, or should, have been all along. But you put me off-balance. Part of me is sure that I know you as well as I ever did, and the rest of me thinks I don't know you at all. You've been... thoughtful, and shown attention to me in unexpected ways, and I admit I've responded to that. It's flattering, and yes, it's exciting. But--" She gave an uncomfortable shrug. "It's not real. You don't know me. Not really."
He wasn't going to say it. He didn't dare say it. So help him, he was saying it, the words were forming on his lips and it was already too late to stop them--
"--I'm in love with you."
Her eyes widened, her lips parting in amazement at the words. For a moment he thought she would strike him, or rush into his embrace, or both: but then she smiled, and shook her head. "No, you're not. You just think you are." She touched his arm, lightly, comforting. "But I'm honored, just the same."
Was he going mad? Five minutes ago there had been no doubt in his mind that Dana Scully felt everything for him that he was feeling for her, and that she, too, was struggling to hold herself back. But now that he had gone and blurted out his emotions at the worst possible moment, she seemed perfectly at ease.
"Mulder would never have said that," he said at last, slowly. "Would he."
"No." Another smile, more genuine than before. "At least not in so many words."
He looked at her sidelong. "I burned his video collection."
"More than okay."
"Yeah, well, I just hope he agrees with you when he comes back. Otherwise I'm in for some serious trouble."
Her head came up sharply. "Is he coming back?"
There was no lying to those clear, searching eyes. "For a while, I'd thought he wasn't. But now..." He looked down at the ring of keys he still held. "I might not like Fox Mulder very much, but let's just say I'm willing to give him another chance."
Scully was silent a moment. Then she reached up and touched his face, her fingers tracing the line of his jaw, brushing across his lips. "So am I," she said. Her voice sounded husky: she cleared her throat, let her hand drop, continued in a brisker tone, "Now give me the keys. We've got work to do."
* * *
The phone beside Mulder's bed rang shrilly at 6:37 a.m., jolting him out of REM sleep, making his stomach lurch with nausea. He fumbled for the receiver, pulled it off the hook and groaned, "Who-- what?"
"It's me, Mulder. The hospital just called, and I thought you should know--"
"Don't tell me." He pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing. "She's dead."
"No. Quite the opposite, in fact. Around one o'clock last night, she came out of the coma and asked for a drink of water."
He was instantly awake, the blood thumping through his ears. "How soon can I-- can we see her?"
"I don't think they'll allow any visitors for the next couple of days at least. Her heart rate's still erratic: they've got her under close observation."
A sigh escaped him; he turned over, dragging his forearm across his eyes. "Scully, I have to talk to her. I have to know."
"I know, Mulder. But she's not going anywhere, and neither are you. Take the weekend off, try to relax. I'm going to be at my mother's place until Sunday afternoon; I'll keep you posted if I hear anything more from the hospital, and you can always call my cell phone if anything comes up. Okay?"
"Okay." He paused. "Thanks, Mom."
"Mulder," she said, her tone half amusement, half warning. "I think Freud would have a few things to say about you."
"Yeah, well, I can think of a few things I'd like to say to him as well. Have a good weekend, Scully."
Mulder lay unmoving for several minutes, the phone still cradled between neck and shoulder, staring at a crack in the ceiling. Then, with sudden determination, he slammed the receiver back onto the hook and sat up, reaching for his clothes.
"Sorry, Scully," he muttered as he pulled on his socks, "but your Prince wanna-be Charming just ran out of patience."
* * *
This is crazy, thought Mulder as he pulled the baggy trousers up around his waist, pulled the drawstring tight. Raiding the hospital laundry had all the dubious wit of a frat-house prank, and medical green was definitely not his colour. Scully would have kittens if she knew what he was doing, and if he were caught--
He decided not to think about that part. He tugged the cap down over his dark hair, slung the mask casually around his neck. Just another intern on his way to, or from, the emergency room. It was a big hospital. No worries.
Heart pounding at his ribcage, he walked to the laundry room door, pulled it open, and cast a quick glance both ways down the hall. All clear.
"Paging Dr. Fox Mulder," he muttered. "Please report to Amateur Lobotomy."
It was a long ride up to the eighth floor-- especially because there were two giggling fourteen-year-olds in the elevator with him, looking at him through their eyelashes and stage-whispering to each other whenever they thought he wasn't listening. Exasperated, he pushed his way through the doors as soon as they opened and strode off down the hall.
To his relief, no one challenged him: he must have looked like a man who knew where he was going and, more importantly, had the right to be there. He made his way to Room 816, listened a moment, then slipped through the door and closed it silently behind him.
The first time he'd been in this room, he'd had the strangest impression that something was wrong, or missing. He hadn't been able to place it at the time, but now he realized what it was: there was nothing in the room that hadn't already been there when Leta Vicker arrived. No cards, no flowers, not even a solitary balloon. Whatever scant happiness this woman had in life, she had to steal from others. There were no relatives, no friends, not even a few acquaintances, that she could call her own.
He felt a sudden surge of pity for her. Had she ever meant to kill? Or was there still a frightened young girl within that enormous frame, driven by a desperate thirst for meaning and fulfillment that only the exercise of her unique mental powers could abate? Did she regret the fatal consequences of her actions, yet find herself helpless to resist the temptation to sample a happiness otherwise forever beyond her reach?
"Good morning, Ms. Vicker," he said.
She didn't answer, or even turn her head. But her eyelashes flickered, and the dark, deep-set eyes shifted over to meet his. He continued quietly, "You know who I am, don't you?"
"I beg your pardon?" Thin and quavering, almost childlike in its pitch, her voice shocked him with its unexpected weakness: it was like hearing Michael Jackson's voice coming out of James Earl Jones. "I don't believe we've met, Dr.--?"
She didn't remember him. Her face was blank, innocent of either fear or malice, and when he stared at her all she did was blink. The heart monitor beside her bed described a ragged pattern, and the pallor of her skin was undeniably real: his enemy was nothing more than a sick, aging woman struggling to recover from a blow that could have killed her.
He could hear Scully's voice in his mind, as clearly as if she were standing beside him: Mulder, have you considered the possibility that this might not be what you think? You've had seizures before, experienced missing time-- minutes, hours, even days. What if this woman didn't have anything to do with your loss of memory? What if we both misinterpreted what happened in Leta Vicker's house, and it was only shock and fear that kept her staring at you when you froze mid-conversation and went into a catatonic state? Isn't it possible that we've both been looking in the wrong place, and the person or agency responsible for those twelve deaths is still out there?
It was possible, he realized, a sick feeling uncoiling in his stomach. It was even plausible. He must have worked for weeks investigating this case, formed his own theories about how and why the murders had been committed-- what if Leta Vicker's profile just happened to fit the bill? What if he'd been a victim not of her malevolent mental powers, but of his own presuppositions? What if the power of suggestion had triggered in him a reaction so powerful it seemed-- but only seemed-- to prove her guilt?
If so, then the only one to blame for his missing memory was himself. His earlier, violent experience of inheriting the bad memories of twelve dead people-- imagined, fabricated. Or the hallucinary by-product of another mental seizure, a recurring and potentially serious problem he'd better start looking into.
Why was he even here? Surely that in itself was evidence enough that he wasn't thinking straight-- if Leta Vicker really did have power to crawl into people's minds and steal their most cherished and intimate memories, the last place on earth he should want to be would be here, alone and defenseless in her hospital room, unable even to call for help for fear of giving himself away.
"Fox Mulder," he whispered to himself, "you are a basket case."
"Do you have anything to give me, doctor?" asked Leta faintly. "My back aches. These pillows are so thin..." She shifted a little in the bed, plucking at the covers. "It's hard to sleep."
Guilt, or curiosity, made him approach her, bend to crank the bed down a notch. "Is that better?" he asked.
She sighed. "A little. But I'd like another pillow."
"I'll see what I can do," he lied, giving her a halfhearted smile. "Tell me, do you remember what happened to you?" With a gesture he indicated the bandages that swathed her head, all but covering the mousy, grey-threaded hair. "Did you fall?"
"I don't know." She sounded troubled. "I can't remember. They told me some people-- from the IRS, I think-- came to talk to me, and they found me lying on the floor. Someone must have broken into the house and attacked me. I hope they didn't take anything."
He remembered that pathetic, tumbledown place she called home, with its peeling paint and crippled furniture, containing nothing of value to anyone but herself-- and possibly not even that. Having wrenched her back working on an assembly line some twenty-five years ago, she lived on her disability pension and a pitifully small trust from her parents' estate. Her groceries were delivered to her door; she bought her clothes from Goodwill. Her biggest monthly expenditure was on calls to Madam Maria's Psychic Hotline, and every Friday night she played Bingo in the basement of a Catholic church less than one block away, where she sat alone in the corner, dabbing laboriously at her card, until somebody else won.
"I'm sorry to have disturbed you," he said, meaning those words more deeply than she could ever have guessed. "I'll be going now." He turned toward the door.
He looked back, saw her wide mouth bending into an insipid, childlike smile. "Thank you for coming to see me," she said.
Their eyes met, locked--
And Mulder's brain exploded. He doubled over and dropped to his knees, shoving his fingers into his mouth to suppress a scream. Memories flashed across his mind, too many, too jumbled, too vividly horrible to be borne. Monstrous eyes in the darkness, glowing with bloodlust; Samantha's small, flailing body floating away from him, surrounded by eerie light; the stench of cigarette smoke and a rasping, malicious laugh; Scully lying pale and unmoving in a hospital bed; a bullet burrowing hotly into his flesh; fire leaping up around him, crackling, insatiable; crawling through a black, slimy tunnel with a snarling mutant five feet behind him; Scully's voice, quiet, emotionless, telling him she was dying of cancer...
And there was more, less shocking and yet, in their own way, almost worse: the memories of his own failure. Paralyzed by the light, too afraid to run after his sister, to save her before it was too late. Harbouring bitterness against his father for years after those grievances had ceased to matter, letting the old man die uncomforted, unforgiven. Accusing his own mother of adultery, watching her face whiten in horror and rage before she slapped him across the face and fled the room in tears. Abandoning Scully time and time again, too consumed with his own obsessions to recognize her needs. Taking for granted everyone who had ever loved him, and yet forever demanding that they give him more.
Four years spent chasing freaks and mutants, vanquishing terrors the ordinary American citizen could not bear to face. Yet how could any of his enemies be worse than the monster he had made of himself?
When the darkness receded he found himself curled into a fetal position beside the bed, shaking uncontrollably, his breath coming in choking gasps.
"Have a nice day, doctor," said Leta sweetly.
* * *
I'm writing you this letter and I'm not sure why. It may be a confession; it may be an exorcism; it may even be a suicide note. Though if it's the latter, it's probably going to set a new world record for verbosity. I don't think I'm going to kill myself tonight-- even though part of me wants to, more passionately than you can begin to imagine.
You see, as soon as I came home I put my gun in the desk drawer and locked it, but even then I could feel its weight, its shape, in my hand, and it was three hours before my index finger stopped twitching. When I went into the kitchen and pulled open the cutlery drawer, the knives sang to me, their voices tremulous and piercingly sweet. I took out the sharpest knife and laid it lengthwise against my wrist, feeling the cool edge of the metal on my skin, my eyes closed in something disturbingly close to ecstasy. I must have stood there for five minutes before I put it down and closed the drawer again.
I wish I could tell you that my commitment to the truth, my zeal for fulfilling my high and lonely destiny (if you'll forgive the sarcasm) makes me feel responsible to finish what I've started, and choosing my own death would betray those principles. That's true, I suppose, but it's not the reason I'm sitting here with a pen in my hand instead of a gun. I wish I could say that it's compassion that keeps me alive, the thought of the pain that my suicide would cause to those who, like yourself, have chosen to care for me. But it isn't.
Truth be told, Scully, it's cowardice. "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause..." And it does give me pause-- more than I've ever allowed you to believe. I'd like to be able to view death, as some do, as the passage into another state of being, a challenge to be met, a great and fascinating mystery to be explored. Perhaps even more than that, I'd like to think that life just stops: the credits roll, the curtain comes down, and that's the end of it. But if I've learned anything over the last few years, it's that very little in this life turns out as we would like, no matter how hard we wish-- or even sincerely believe. So in the end I can't help but feel, with a strange, cold conviction, that ultimately my death would not be a solution or a relief to anybody, least of all me.
It's a lousy excuse for living, I know. But for tonight at least, it's enough.
I do have to thank you for one thing, Scully. If it weren't for the friendship you've shown me over this past week, the loyalty, the support, I wouldn't be writing these words right now: I'd be huddled in a nice soft corner someplace, wearing a jacket with no sleeves. Thinking of you, reminding myself that there is at least one person in the world who trusts me, cares about me, believes in me, is about the only thing keeping me sane.
It's the memories I can't stand: they won't let me sleep. I've been pacing all day, unable to relax for more than a minute at a time. Thirty-eight years' worth of recollections, and every one of them is bad. I remember reading a science fiction novel once in which it was said that telepaths have only two emotions: love and hate. You can't be noncommittal about a person once you've looked into their soul. So I don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to guess-- or rather, deduce-- how Leta Vicker feels about me. Nor do I need to ask why.
If you were reading this, you'd argue with me, I know. You'd tell me I'm not seeing clearly, that my reaction is unbalanced. If I could have the positive memories along with the negative ones, if Leta hadn't chosen to keep the best parts for herself, I'd realize I'm not so terrible a person after all: that I have a lot to offer, a lot to live for. Well, maybe you're right. Or maybe you're just more sympathetic, more loyal, more committed to my welfare, than I've ever deserved, and in the end your perspective is just as biased as mine.
Did I do this to you, Scully? Have I manipulated you without realizing it, maneuvered you into co-dependency? Are we now so inextricably linked by our shared experiences and traumas that you could no more abandon me than you could cut off your own right arm? Time and again I've given you every reason to walk out on me, and yet you keep coming back. The selfish part of me would like to believe there's something I give you that you can't get from anyone else-- but the rational part knows better. So why are you so stubbornly determined to stand by me? Is it just that the guilt of stepping back and watching me crumble without you would be too great?
It scares me to think that I might have that kind of power over you-- that somehow, without realizing it, I've kidnapped your soul and held you for emotional ransom. If that's what I'm guilty of, Scully, I want you to know it stops here. You have a right to choose what you really want, what you truly believe in, not to be a slave to my expectations or live at the mercy of my every whim. I know you have a powerful sense of duty, and your loyalties run deep: when you make a pledge, even to yourself, you'll honor it. I don't think you realize how rare, how precious, such integrity really is-- how much I admire, and envy, that quality in you. And yet it's that very loyalty that can make you a victim of someone like me.
I disliked myself before when I learned how I'd treated you over the years-- not that you ever accused me of callousness or neglect, but it was all too easy to read between the lines. Now, witnessing all those moments firsthand, recalling them with the clarity of yesterday, I realize more than ever that I was right. I'm sure there have been times when I supported you, comforted you-- there must have been, if you're still here. But those moments of compassion and understanding don't erase, don't even make up for, the times when I failed.
I'm not asking for your forgiveness, Scully, or even just your pity. I'm not fishing for consolation or reassurance. I'm simply being honest with you-- I owe you that much. And I'm telling you that when I've finally come to terms with who I am, which I trust won't be long now, things between us are going to change.
You don't need to worry about what I might mean by that. You were right yesterday, when you said that the "real" Fox Mulder wouldn't have said he was in love with you, and that the Mulder who did say those words didn't really know you-- or himself. I'm not "in love" with you, Scully, any more than you are with me. What we have, or at least what I have with you, goes far beyond that.
Why am I not infatuated with you? Let me count the ways. Firstly, no offense, but you're not my type. I've always been partial to tall, smoky-eyed brunettes with a touch of vulnerability. A self-contained 5'3" redhead with a penchant for challenging my theories wouldn't ordinarily be on my romantic agenda. Secondly, you know me far too well. My faults are an open book to you, even if you may choose to be charitable about them. I can't dazzle you with my charms or surprise you with hidden depths of character-- the most I can do is add a few minor details to your store of information. As such, our relationship is not exactly the stuff of which romantic dreams are made, although you could probably get a fairly decent novel out of it: one of those sober, insightful reflections on character that get nominated for the Booker Prize but only a few people actually bother to read.
What I've begun to realize, however, is that those things are superficial: no, more than that, they're irrelevant. I know all too well that sex has nothing to do with intimacy-- my video collection alone could prove that. (Sorry, make that 'could have proved,' past tense. Frohike's going to kill me when he finds out-- I hate to lower your elevated opinion of him, but some of those tapes were his.) Desire, or even need, is not love. Neither is romance, for all its dizzying power. What I have for you is something bigger, something deeper, than any of those things, and the only word that comes close to describing it is respect.
Even that sounds lame. But I think you understand what I mean. There's nothing I need to say to you, Scully, or you to me, about how we "really" feel. You are part of me, an integral element of my world, my life: for all our disagreements, sometimes I could swear our hearts beat the same rhythm, and we breathe in unison even when we're apart. No one understands me as you do. No one believes in me the way you do. There is no one else who could take your place in my life, and if anyone tried, believe me, they'd be sorry. Krycek, in his own twisted way, is evidence of that.
There's a void in me, Scully, a gaping hole I've struggled with all my life. And I'd be lying to you if I said that your friendship, or even your love, is enough to fill that chasm. Frankly, I don't know what it would take to make me complete, or if what I need even exists in this world. For all I know every other human being alive might feel the same way, and simply be more skilled at hiding it-- wasn't it Thoreau who said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation? But since you came into my life, and we began working together, I've felt closer to being whole than ever before. It frightens me to realize how much I've come to need you, and yet it's incredibly freeing at the same time, to know that I don't have to search for the truth alone. And I'm profoundly grateful for it.
I've spent three hours writing this letter, and as I look back over what I've written, it strikes me as a lot of incoherent rambling, not good for much more than stoking the fireplace. Only thing is, I'd have to go over to your apartment to burn the thing, and then you might actually get a chance to read it. Part of me is tempted; but the greater part is simply exhausted. It's been a long day, Scully, and talking to you-- even knowing you can't hear these words and perhaps never will-- has been the one thing that made it bearable. But now I can feel a measure of calmness, of equilibrium, return; and I realize this letter was written not for you, but for myself. I'll fold it up and put it in a drawer, and maybe, one day, you'll get to read it. But not today.
One more thing before I go. As I was leaving the hospital this morning, still half-crazed with what Leta Vicker had just done to me, I saw a young woman standing on the corner, handing out leaflets. At first, from a distance, I thought she might be you, with her pale skin and coppery hair. But then she turned her head to speak to a passer-by and I realized that her hair was long, nearly to her waist. And she was far too tall, although built so lightly she seemed fragile, almost unearthly. By that time I was nearly beside her, and she must have seen me out of the corner of her eye, because she looked over at me. And then she did remind me of you, Scully, because her eyes were pale blue and her gaze so clear, so level, it was as though she could see right through me. I'm describing her in all this detail because the incident is still weirdly vivid in my mind, more so than even my eidetic memory can explain. She didn't say anything, just looked at me seriously and held out a piece of paper. And I was so dazed that I took the thing, shoved it in my pocket and kept going.
It was a few hours before I actually looked at what she'd given me. It was a religious tract, just a few simple verses on a page. Since I don't believe in God, there seemed no point in reading it, and I started crumpling it up to throw out. But then one line caught my eye:
"What good is it to a man, if he gains the whole world, yet loses his own soul?"
It's a fair question-- and almost painfully appropriate under the circumstances. I'm not sure how to answer it. I'm not even sure I understand it. But it got me thinking about what really matters to me. And what doesn't.
I know it may not always seem this way, Scully, but you're pretty close to number one on my list of Things That Matter. And soon, I hope, I'll get a chance to prove it.
* * *
"Mulder, wake up."
He stirred, mumbling a protest, and buried his head deeper into the pillow. Then the realization seeped into his mind that Dana Scully was sitting on the edge of his bed, her hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. At once the fog dissipated: he bolted upright, staring at her. "Scully. What? What's wrong?"
She let go of him and sat back, looking sober and, for the first time he could remember, a little self-conscious. "You turned off your phone, Mulder. I couldn't get through to you. I--" A delicate pause. "I thought you might be in trouble."
He knew she deserved an explanation, but an honest answer would have been less than reassuring: Oh, no trouble at all, Scully. I just cut my communication to the outside world so nobody would interrupt me until I'd finished deciding whether or not to kill myself. And after that he'd simply forgotten to plug the phone back in.
"I'm okay," he said. "I'm fine. I just didn't realize you'd be calling. Weren't you supposed to be at your mother's until--" The words trailed off as he saw, over her shoulder, the luminous numbers of the clock: 4:28 p.m. He'd been up so late, and the emotional struggle had exhausted him so completely, that he'd slept for nearly thirteen hours.
"I just needed to know you were okay, Mulder," she said quietly. "I'll go now."
Her face was averted, her fingers curling and uncurling the belt of her trenchcoat as she spoke. She shifted away from him as though to rise, to leave, but he stopped her with a touch. "Scully. Talk to me."
For just a second, her lips trembled: then she drew in a breath, and regained control. "It's okay, Mulder. Just-- a family thing, that's all. I won't bore you with the details."
"Details, Scully." He let his hand slide down to hers. "I'm here. I'm listening. I want to know."
She heaved a sigh, of resignation or relief. "It's Charles's mother-in-law. My nephew's grandmother. Her health was so frail, the trauma of her accident took such a toll on her strength-- she didn't make it through surgery."
"I'm sorry," he said. "Did you know her well?"
"No. Not at all, in fact. We met each other once, at Thanksgiving. She seemed like a fine person, very gentle, very understanding; but that's all I could say. It's just--" She looked down at their linked hands. "My nephew. He was very close to her, and she's the first person he's ever really known who--"
"Yeah," said Mulder softly. "That's really hard on a kid."
"It's his first experience with death, with that kind of irrevocable loss. I wanted to comfort him, we all did. I tried everything I could think of to help him take his mind off the pain-- stories, games, his favorite videos-- but nothing worked." She closed her eyes. "He was so scared. Just a little boy facing a terrible black unknown, desperate for reassurance. He asked me to tell him if what the priest said was really true-- that his grandma was in heaven, that she was happy, that he'd see her again some day. So of course I said yes, it was true. But then he turned to me with those huge, haunted eyes, and asked me if I was sure. And I opened my mouth, but the words would not come out. Because I'm not sure, Mulder, for all that I've been taught, for all that I want to believe--"
Silently he reached out with his free hand, pulled her toward him. For a few heartbeats she sat stiff and unyielding in his embrace; then the resistance went out of her and she turned to him, burying her face against his chest. He stroked her hair, rested his chin lightly on the top of her head, feeling her breath warming his skin through the fabric of his t-shirt as he held her close.
"I know, Scully," he murmured. "I know."
"All day I've needed this," he heard her whisper. "All day sitting in that house, with this dark cloud of grief and confusion hanging over everyone. My mother was exhausted trying to comfort Charles and his family; I couldn't bring myself to add to her burden, even for a moment. But there was no one else I could talk to. And when I couldn't get through to you on the phone-- I know it was illogical, but I felt so sick inside, so suddenly convinced that something terrible had happened to you--"
"Shhh." He moved his lips against her hair. "Scully. Dana. It's all right."
"I know." She drew back from the loosening circle of his arms, gave him a shaky smile. "I'll be fine. Just-- thank you."
He shook his head. "Don't. I'm the one who should be grateful-- before you showed up, all I had to look forward to was the sound of my alarm going off. Believe me, when it comes to wake-up calls, I'll take a Scully-hug any day of the week."
One eyebrow arched. "Is that a request, Mulder?"
"Is that an offer, Scully?"
He spoke lightly, teasing her, inviting the usual scathing rebuke, or deft change of subject. To his surprise, she gave him neither. A troubled line formed between her brows, and she dropped her gaze from his. "Don't," she said softly, almost pleading. "Not now."
He relented. "Hey, listen. I'm famished, and I'll bet you haven't eaten much today either. So here's my idea: why don't we go out and get something to eat, and then we can come back here and just--" He gestured vaguely. "Hang out."
"Hang out?" She shot him a quizzical look. "Mulder, we don't 'just hang out'."
"So you're not interested?"
"No! I mean yes, it sounds fine, but--" She flushed, shifting uncomfortably on the bed. "What would we do?"
"Scully, have we never discovered any kind of middle ground between professional detachment and crying on each other's shoulders?" He shook his head reproachfully. "Look, I'd rather not go into it now, but I didn't exactly have the best weekend myself, and I think we could both use a chance to unwind. Let's go grab a pizza, to start: then we can rent a movie if you want-- your pick-- and eat off paper towels and get grease all over my sofa, which, if you ask me, can only improve the leather. And then, I don't know, we can talk, or you can devastate me with your skill at verbal tennis. Whatever."
She regarded him a moment in silence, clearly amazed by the offer. At last she said, slowly, "That sounds... nice, Mulder. I'd like that."
"Good! It's a--" He paused fractionally, chose a less dangerous word-- "deal. Now, if you'll pardon my rudeness, Scully, could you get off my bed and out of my room before you're forced to look at me in a somewhat less than professional state?"
He had barely finished the sentence before she was up and moving. Her parting quip floated back to him through the fast-closing crack in the door: "It wouldn't be the first time, Mulder."
"Or the last," he murmured, pushing the covers aside.
* * *
"...so I look up, ready to snap at you for interrupting my research, and there you are, kneeling on your desk with a pencil up each nostril, singing 'I am the Walrus, goo goo ga joob--'"
"You're not serious," breathed Mulder.
"Believe me, I am. And just as I'm trying to decide whether to have hysterics or throw a paperweight at your head, the office door opens--"
"Scully, don't tell me..."
"--and Skinner walks in."
Mulder collapsed into the armchair, his hand over his eyes. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yes." Scully's eyes were sparkling, her face alive with merriment. "And I never told you this, Mulder, because I was afraid you'd start behaving like an idiot every time I was in a bad mood, but it was one of the most utterly wonderful moments of my entire life."
He looked at her through his fingers. "What did Skinner do?"
"He stood there for about fifteen seconds, just staring. Then he cleared his throat, walked out of the office and walked back in, and by that time you were back in your chair looking like a poster boy for young urban professionalism, and the pencils were nowhere in sight. I do not know how I managed to keep a straight face for the next ten minutes, but I did. And Skinner never said a word."
Mulder shook his head, disbelieving. "The man's a saint. Scully, do you want this last piece? It's cold and rubbery and kind of disgusting."
"Sounds like my last autopsy," said Scully. "No, go ahead."
"Thanks," he said, reaching for the pizza box.
The movie they'd rented sat forgotten on the kitchen table, still in its plastic bag; the hands of the clock they were both studiously ignoring had long ago passed midnight. He'd asked Scully to tell him all the good memories she had of their partnership, and she'd responded reluctantly at first, then with growing enthusiasm and finally, to his amazement, an almost childlike delight. It was as though his ignorance of their shared past had freed her to relive, and savour, all those moments in a way she had never done before. And watching her, listening to her voice, he found himself comforted, reassured that for all his faults and flaws-- grievous as some of them might be-- Fox Mulder had not always been oblivious to his partner's emotional needs, nor wholly ignorant of what it took to be a friend.
Still, he had to wonder at his own inconsistency. Was it caution or mere self-centredness that had kept him from opening up to Dana Scully, or giving her the chance to do the same to him? Leta Vicker might have given him back a few hundred pieces of the puzzle, but by no means all of them. All the memories that might help him understand, or sympathize with, his former self were still missing: as long as the old woman stayed alive, the key to Fox Mulder's soul would remain in her gloating, malicious possession.
His only revenge, if it could be called one, was to go on living. Scully knew the truth: he could depend on her to tell him what he needed to know. Let Leta keep her dubious treasure-- there were plenty of new memories to be made, as the past week alone had proved. He would start his life over again, beginning with tonight.
"Scully," he said.
"I have a confession to make."
She gave him a pained look. "Mulder, nothing good ever begins with those words."
"I know. But I think you should know about this. I went to see Leta Vicker yesterday."
That got her attention: she sat up sharply. "What? How did you get in?"
"Trust me, that part isn't important. What happened in that hospital room was. Scully, she looked so old, so frail-- you would have been proud of how quickly I managed to convince myself that this whole crazy business was a figment of my tortured imagination, or worse, a symptom of some dire neurological disease. Didn't you tell me my mother once said I used to have seizures?"
"Well, in a matter of about thirty seconds I came up with a neat little scientific explanation to cover all those things and more. Leta wasn't alarmed to see me-- didn't even seem to know who I was. There was nothing in our conversation to which any court of law could not have listened with pleasure. I was just about to leave-- and that's when she hit me. Nearly every painful, terrifying, or just plain unflattering memory I'd ever had, all at once, wham."
Dana sucked in her breath, eyes widening. But she didn't interrupt-- for which he was profoundly grateful. He went on:
"I know all that could be rationalized away as well; believe me, for about three hours afterward I tried to do just that. It was very tempting to convince myself that none of those memories were actually mine, or at least that they were unreliable. But all along I knew the things I had seen, was seeing, from my past were true. And that Leta Vicker knew exactly what she was doing."
"You unplugged your phone." Her voice was a whisper. For a moment he was puzzled by the apparent nonsequitur: then he realized how very well she knew him, and what her words had meant. He nodded.
"I wanted to do it, Scully. I came close-- not as close as I've ever been, but close enough. But then... I thought about you. Every good thing that you'd told me, done for me, that I could remember from the past week. And that helped, more than anything else, to give me the strength I needed to live."
She watched him for a long moment, expressionless. Then she said, in an equally neutral tone, "Come here, Mulder."
Unhesitatingly he rose from the chair and walked over to where she sat, knelt down beside her so that their faces were level. She reached out, stroked his hair back from his forehead. Then she put her arms around his shoulders and hugged him.
"I take it," he said, muffled against her sweater, "you're glad I'm alive."
She jerked back, and now he could see the spark of anger in her eyes. "Mulder, if I'd known before today that you'd sneaked into Leta Vicker's room without me, I'd have killed you myself."
He gave her a wry, sheepish smile. "All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time."
Fiercely she pulled him once more into her embrace. "Mulder, you're an idiot."
"And you're right. You don't deserve me."
Helplessly, he started to laugh. He wrapped his arms around her waist, buried his face against her neck, his hilarity shaking them both until she, too, surrendered and laughed with him. They ended on a simultaneous whoop of breath, let go of each other and sat back side by side, wiping away tears of mirth.
"That was really good," said Mulder, when he could speak. "I needed that."
"Mulder." Her voice was suddenly serious, making him look over at her. "Will you do something for me?"
"Tell me you're not in love with me."
"I'm not in love with you."
"Is it true?"
"Technically, as I understand it, yes."
"Good. Then you won't misunderstand this." She leaned forward, brushed her lips across his cheek. He gazed back at her in blank astonishment, feeling his nerves tingling with the awareness of where she had kissed him, and said, "What was that for?"
"For being a friend." She unfolded herself from the couch, stood up, not looking at him. "It's late. If we're going to get any work done tomorrow, I'd better go."
"Yeah," he said, reluctant to see her go, but knowing she was right. "Good night, Scully."
"Good night, Mulder. See you at eight."
He groaned. "That early?"
She gave him a quirk of a smile. "Welcome to the FBI, Agent Mulder."
"Yeah, well, if you're passing Skinner's office, drop off my resignation."
"Not a chance," she told him, and walked out the door.
* * *
Mulder sat alone, staring down at the photographs and documents scattered across his desk. He'd dealt with murder cases before: in fact the lurid details of his past investigations for the Violent Crimes division were chief among the memories Leta Vicker had seen fit to return to him. But there was something especially grotesque about this one. For the past three weeks he and his partner had been investigating the case of a killer who dispatched his victims-- invariably young, white, upper-class males-- in a manner so precise, systematic, and tortuous that even Scully, who had done thousands of autopsies, was nauseated.
What had made the case an X-File was the eerily complete absence of any fingerprints, hair, skin samples, bodily fluids or any other clues that might pinpoint the murderer's identity-- except for the word "Nemesis" mysteriously etched into the right femur of each victim. That, plus the testimony of one hysterical young woman who claimed to have been watching a movie with one of the victims at his apartment when he was attacked, and swore that the killer had been totally invisible to her even as the gruesome murder was taking place.
Mulder saw no reason not to believe the girl, and since then he had been wondering whether the criminal they were hunting would turn out to be spectral, alien, or just a human with unusually formidable telekinetic abilities. In order to retain some semblance of credibility, he'd been concentrating on the latter, building up a rough psychological profile of the murderer and interviewing the families and friends of the deceased to see if they had any acquaintances who might fit the description.
True to form, Scully had not been impressed by any of Mulder's hypotheses. He still remembered the acid skepticism in her voice as she pointed out that at the time of Josh Madden's murder, his girlfriend had been so spaced out on cocaine that to call her testimony suspect would be a gesture of extravagant charity. When challenged to present an alternative, her retort was that the murderer was just uncommonly skilled at cleaning up the scene of the crime, possibly as the result of a background in criminal investigation; and that he must have injected his victims with some muscle-paralyzing agent to ensure their silence and immobility as he worked. The fact that six autopsies had failed to yield any trace of this mysterious chemical did not seem to have undermined her confidence. If Mulder ever met anyone with half as much faith in God as Dana Scully placed in science, he suspected he'd be tempted to convert.
He bent his head closer to the photographs, studying the elegant script in which the word "Nemesis" had been written in each case. Where was Scully, anyway? Just when he finally had something new and potentially useful to tell her...
As though on cue, the door opened and Scully walked in, cradling an overstuffed paper bag in the crook of each arm, like a mother with six-month twins. She dropped one of the bags down on the desk in front of Mulder and let out an exasperated sigh. "What I'd really like to know is, what's the point of phoning ahead if they're going to make you wait in line for ten minutes when you get there?"
Curious to see what she'd brought, Mulder opened the top of the bag and stuck his head in. Even through the layers of cardboard and styrofoam, the exotic fragrance of Indian food undulated provocatively about his nostrils, and he drew a blissful inhalation. "Scully, have I told you lately that you're wonderful?" He pulled a piece of Nan out of the bag, tore a piece off the soft bread and popped it into his mouth. "It's been ages since I ate this stuff." Retrieving a container, he popped the top off and looked inside with growing admiration. "Onion bhaji. Wow."
"I didn't know you liked it so much," she said, sitting down at the other desk and plopping her own bag down just behind the gleaming brass sign engraved Dana Scully, MD. "I didn't even know whether I'd like it. I just thought it was time to try something different."
"Feeling adventurous, Scully?" He grinned. "I could think of a few other suggestions."
"I'll bet," she said, but without rancor. "So, did that graphic designer ever get back to you?"
"Oh-- yeah!" He leaped to his feet, snatching up a handful of photographs, and moved quickly to stand behind her, spreading the photos out across her desk. "Look at the word 'Nemesis'."
"Mulder, I've been looking at that word for two weeks," she said patiently. "So what?"
He shook his head in mock reproach. "You see, Watson, but you do not observe." Leaning over her shoulder, he reached around her to trace the familiar letters with his finger. "That's no handwriting: it's perfectly regular in every case, and the flourishes are far too elaborate. As it happens, the typeface is called Nuptial, and if you'll pardon me for stating the obvious, it's most commonly used on wedding invitations."
"That's interesting," admitted Scully. "But hardly conclusive."
"Ah, but it gets better. The letters are kerned."
"Manually spaced to give the most aesthetically pleasing effect. Professionally spaced."
"So our murderer used to typeset wedding invitations?" She paused. "Or, perhaps... still does?"
"It's a possibility."
"I'm also hungry, Mulder, so if you've quite finished breathing in my ear--"
"You're lucky I'm not nibbling it. I was already starving before you got here, and the smell of tandoori chicken is driving me wild."
"Then go eat your own. Because this--" She ripped open the bag with a theatrical flourish-- "is mine."
Feigning a wounded look, he backed away. "Didn't your mommy teach you to share?"
"No. But I'm sure you'll get over it."
Mulder walked back to his desk, pushed the case files aside, and began pulling cartons out of the bag, eyes gleaming with anticipatory relish. "Believe me, I intend to."
The telephone rang, startling them both. They traded glances across the aisle as Scully picked it up, said, "X-Files Division. Dana Scully speaking."
A pause. "She has? When is she being discharged? ... Oh, really? Alone? ... I see. No, that's fine. I appreciate your letting me know. Good night."
She put down the receiver quietly, turned to look at Mulder, her eyes serious. "Leta Vicker is out of the hospital. They've sent her back home."
"Without pressing any charges, I take it."
"What is there to charge her with? I'm lucky not to have been slapped with an assault charge myself." She shook her head. "I can't tell you how many times I've asked myself whether I was really sure what I was doing when I brought that jug down on her head. But I always come back to the feeling I had that there was something wrong with the way she was staring at you, and you at her, when I came in." Sighing, she picked up her fork, peeled open another container. "I know what you believe, Mulder-- and this once, I can't find it in myself to contradict you. Leta Vicker is our murderer, and chances are good she'll kill again. But at this point, there's nothing we can do to stop her."
"Except," said Mulder, "to catch her in the act."
She dropped the fork and swivelled around in the chair, her eyes narrowed dangerously. "Mulder, I don't care what else we have to do, but you are not going to play sacrificial lamb."
"No! And anyway, you couldn't get away with it. She's got a home care nurse coming in daily for the next two weeks."
"Well, then," said Mulder tightly, "we'd better hope that Ms. Florence Nightingale doesn't have anything that Leta might decide she wants. Because otherwise, Scully, I don't give much for her chances."
That shook her: he could see it. But she pretended not to have heard him, and reached for a piece of bread.
* * *
"Come on, Scully," muttered Mulder, jabbing at the buttons on his desk phone. "Don't do this to me. I know you're smarter than this. Just pick up, say something-- anything-- and all is forgiven."
"I told you to pick up, Scully."
He tapped his foot impatiently. "You aren't listening to me."
"Scully, where are you? Answer the phone!"
"This is Dana Scully. I can't come to the phone right now, but if you'll leave your name and number at the--"
Mulder swore bitterly, and slammed down the receiver.
It was 9:15 on a Thursday morning, and Scully still hadn't come into the office. That would have been unusual for him; for her, it was virtually unthinkable. Over the past half hour he'd thought of every reasonable excuse for her lateness-- her alarm hadn't gone off, traffic was slow, she'd had to pick something up on the way. Unfortunately, those theories weren't at all persuasive. If the reason for her absence was that mundane, she'd have called to let him know. And if she had nothing to hide, she'd be answering her phone, either at home or on the road.
Which could mean only one thing: she'd gone to visit Leta Vicker.
Of course she'd known he'd guess where she was. Probably she'd counted on it, in case anything went wrong with the interview. But by now she must have at least a forty-five-minute lead, and she knew the highways as well as he did. He hadn't a hope of catching up to her before she reached Leta's house.
Grabbing his jacket and coat, he raced out of the office, his keys rattling furiously in his hand. He might not be able to stop Scully from walking off this particular cliff, but he prayed he'd at least be there to catch her before she hit.
* * *
His hands were aching where they gripped the steering wheel; his eyes itched and burned from three and a half hours of staring at the road. To his frustration, a thin but unyielding layer of ice had coated the highways overnight; he was driving as fast as he could without losing even more time on a messy accident, but it wasn't nearly fast enough.
How could Scully have been so stupid? Did she really think that it was only his memories Leta Vicker was interested in? Had she never stopped to think that seeing her through Mulder's eyes could only have whetted Leta's appetite for the other half of the story?
Maybe she did realize the danger, but with her usual misplaced nobility, had determined to ignore it-- chosen instead to plead with Leta, woman to woman, to give back what she had stolen. Although that would demand a degree of naivete on Scully's part that he couldn't quite believe she still possessed. Not after all the things they'd seen, the horrors faced, the shocks and the betrayals; not now that she'd learned, as he had done before her, to trust no one.
No, Scully must have a plan. Her mind was too systematic, her judgment too sound, to act on the kind of foolish impulse that so often drove him into danger. The thought made him relax a little, the tension in his shoulders loosening as he turned at last onto Parkland Avenue and stopped the car beneath an old maple tree silvered with frost.
A chill wind snatched at his coat, stung his face and hands as he slammed the door shut, crossed the road and hurried down the sidewalk toward number 49. Dead leaves crackled beneath his feet as he ran, and his footprints showed dark against the snow. Crossing Leta's lawn, he leaped the railing onto her front step, chanting silently: Scully. Scully. Scully...
The front door, unlocked, creaked open at his touch. Fighting a sudden, atavistic desire to tear it off its hinges and throw it down the hall, he pushed his way through, kicked it shut behind him. "Scully?"
There was no answer, only the thick, musty silence. He slipped his gun out of the holster beneath his jacket, curled his finger around the trigger, and moved forward.
"I'm here, Scully," he called as he paced down the hall, glancing first into the washroom, then the kitchen. "Talk to me."
Still no reply. He doubled back into the living room. Like the rest of the house's ground floor, it appeared to be empty, but the olive-drab polyester sofa bore the signs of recent occupation, and the rim of the half-full coffee cup on the end table was marked with a small, feathery crescent of lipstick. He touched the cup, found it still warm, and a flutter of hope beat against his ribcage.
Dashing back into the front hall, he grabbed the railing, took the stairs two at a time, and arrived, breathing hard, on the house's top level. The corridor before him was a web of shadows and dust, the passage half-blocked on one side by a set of shelves filled with broken-backed Harlequins and Reader's Digest Condensed Books. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, edged his way around Leta's pathetic excuse for a library, and set off down the hall.
The first door he found opened onto another washroom, with a rusty claw-footed bathtub and tiles black with mildew. A little further down, on the left, he discovered an impenetrable maze of boxes, old clothes, and broken appliances that had once been a guest room. Which meant--
He broke into a run, hurled himself at the last, closed door. The doorknob would not turn, and the keyhole appeared to be blocked from the inside, probably by the key. He hammered at the unyielding wood, yelling:
"Federal agent! Open up!"
Silence. He gritted his teeth, backed up a couple of steps, and lashed out at the door with his best karate kick. It groaned, but did not yield. Again, and now the paint was cracking, a few splinters of wood falling to the floor. Three kicks. Four--
The door flew open.
Leta Vicker was sitting up in bed, surrounded by pillows, the picture of domestic comfort. She did not even spare him a glance as he burst into her room: her gaze was fixed on the woman who stood unmoving at the foot of the bed, her pistol dangling from limp fingers, mesmerized.
"Scully," whispered Mulder.
Leta giggled. "Well, hello there. I thought you might turn up sooner or later-- Fox."
Swallowing back his revulsion, he released the safety, levelled the gun at her. "Let her go. Now."
"Oh, but I'm having far too much fun to do that. So many lovely secrets..." She bared her teeth in an insipid mockery of a smile. "If only you knew."
"I'm going to count to three, Leta."
"Don't bore me with cliches, Agent Mulder. If you shoot me, what happens to your partner? Maybe she lives and maybe she doesn't. Maybe she gets her mind back, and maybe--" One meaty hand curled into a fist, clutching the blankets closer-- "I take her with me."
"I'll take that chance," said Mulder grimly, and fired.
The bullet whizzed past Leta's ear, plowed into the opposite wall. Her head snapped around toward him, her eyes wide, startled-- and Scully crumpled, the connection broken. Mulder shoved his gun back into the holster and flung himself down beside his partner, gathering her up into his arms.
"Come on, Scully," he breathed. "Fight her. You're strong, you can do it--"
"Yeah." He ran the back of his hand down her cheek, caressing, feeling the coldness in his stomach beginning to melt. "Yeah, Scully, it's me."
Her eyelids fluttered, opened: she gazed up at him blankly. "Mulder, I remember you, I remember who I am, but-- I can't remember how I got here."
"I called you, stupid," snapped Leta, flinging the covers aside and heaving herself out of the bed. "All it took was one of your partner's memories, so sweet, so tempting, slipped into your mind as you were drinking your coffee-- and you surrendered without a struggle, came crawling up here to beg for more. I knew it wouldn't be hard to bait you, but I'd no idea it would be that easy."
Scully put a hand to her forehead, wincing. "No. No, that's not true... I came to talk to you... came to ask you to give Mulder back his memories... I..."
"Do you know what memory it was, Fox?" Leta inched her way toward them, leaning heavily on the mattress, panting with the effort of movement. "Wouldn't you like to know? Look at me."
He closed his eyes. "Forget it. You've got nothing I want."
"You think that will help? You think you can just turn away?" She chuckled mirthlessly. "Maybe once, but not now. You might find it hard to believe, but Agent Scully actually did me a favor when she brought Aunt Elsie's milk-jug down on my head: I can do things now that I never could before. Like this--"
Mulder gasped, back arching in shock and ecstasy as a vivid, unfamiliar recollection leaped into his mind: being enfolded by a welcome pair of arms, cradled close; feeling two strong hands cupping his face, turning it upward; listening to a deep, husky voice speaking words of comfort and reassurance; feeling lips brushing his forehead, so tenderly, sending a thrill through him in spite of his weariness...
And the face he looked at, the face that smiled down at him from what seemed a weirdly great height, was his own.
"I gave her your half of that memory, Agent Mulder," said Leta with relish, looming over him. "Is it any wonder she wanted more? Would have done anything to know how it felt to be you, how you felt when you looked at her? No more guessing, no more confusion; no more games of verbal hide-and-seek. Of course you want that too. Who wouldn't?"
"Yeah, and knowing everything about me has sure made you a sympathetic, caring friend, hasn't it?" Mulder snapped back. "You don't fool me, Leta. You hated the people you killed-- every one of them. First you hated them for being happy, so you tried to steal their happiness. And afterward you hated them for being so ordinary, so tragically flawed. Sharing my memories must have been your biggest letdown in years-- so you'll have to pardon me if I don't buy into the Fairy Godmother act." With his free hand-- which happened to be his left, unfortunately-- he snatched up Scully's fallen pistol. "Now back off."
"You're a terrible shot, Agent Mulder," said Leta with contempt. "We both know that."
"He is," agreed Scully, her voice husky. She leaned against Mulder, slipped a hand inside his jacket. Then with a single swift movement she pulled his gun out of its holster, levelled it at Leta. "But I'm not."
Leta straightened up, raising her hands in mock surrender. "Ooh, another gun. Is this where you read me my rights? I'll look forward to hearing them-- once you tell me what you plan to charge me with." Her mouth curled in a sneer. "And who you think will believe you."
Mulder looked down at Scully, still half-cradled in his arms. "She does appear to have a point."
"True-- but you know what they say about appearances," said Scully. She put down her gun, reached into the pocket of her trenchcoat. "And besides, there's at least one thing in this room that can't possibly lie." And she held up a slim microcassette recorder.
Leta stared at the machine, her face reddening. Mulder thrust Scully behind him, spread out his arms to block the inevitable attack, but it never came. The old woman took a single step toward them, her powerful arms outstretched; then she choked, staggered, and clutched at her chest. "My--" she gasped. "Can't--"
"Mulder, she's having a heart attack!" Scully leaped to her feet, darted forward to catch the other woman's elbow, her slight frame absurdly dwarfed by Leta's bulk. "Call the ambulance!"
"You--" Leta wheezed, grabbing Scully and pulling her around. With burning eyes she stared into the smaller woman's face, trying, for one last time, to make contact. Furious, desperate, Mulder scrambled to his feet, hit Leta with a flying tackle, and brought them both crashing to the floor.
"Mulder!" shouted Scully.
Leta's hands were around his neck, squeezing inexorably: through blue-tinged lips she spat out a curse, and her eyes locked onto his. He could feel her pulling at his thoughts, fat mental fingers pawing for a hold--
There was a sudden, deafening explosion. From beneath Leta's left shoulder, a dark stain crept out across the floor; blood bubbled up from between her lips, and the hands that clutched Mulder fell lifelessly away.
He could feel the room spinning, blackness fraying the edges of his vision as he staggered upright, then fell sideways against the bed. He was only dimly aware of pulling the covers with him as he slid to the floor, his mind a churning whirlpool of thoughts, emotions...
Samantha, laughing as he pushed her on the playground swing, her dark braids fluttering in the wind. His mother, tender and worried, bending over to give him a goodnight kiss. Professor Challoner commending him for his first-year essay on Jungian archetypes-- "Insightful... remarkable". Phoebe in one of her rare sentimental moments, laughing and dropping a daisy chain around his neck. Skinner telling him the X-Files had been re-opened, the firmness of his handshake confirming his personal commitment to keep it that way. And Scully...
Scully. Walking into his basement office, defusing his resentment with her simple, candid admiration. Her voice in the semi-darkness: "Mulder, I wouldn't put myself on the line for anybody but you." Holding him while he wrestled with his private demons, sharing with him burdens too great for him to bear alone. Standing in the sunlight, half-turned to look back at him, her smile sending an ache through his whole body--
He opened his eyes, saw her bent over him, clutching his hand in both of hers, against her heart. "Hi, Scully," he murmured. "What did I miss?"
Relief suffused her face, bringing colour back into the whiteness of her cheeks. "Nothing, Mulder," she said. "You were only out for about thirty seconds."
"And Leta, is she--"
She bowed her head. "Yes."
"Come here, Scully." He pulled himself into a sitting position. She hesitated, then sat down beside him, letting him drape an arm around her shoulders.
"Now," he continued, "let's go through this one step at a time. You planned the bit with the cassette recorder all along?"
"So you drove here, and-- who made you the coffee? The nurse?"
She nodded. "We chatted for a few minutes, and then she had to leave-- she had another client waiting. She told me just to make myself at home, that Leta knew I was here, and was getting ready to come downstairs and to talk to me."
"But she lured you upstairs instead."
He put a finger to her lips. "Don't explain. And definitely don't apologize. I would have done the same thing you did, and probably for the same reason."
"I don't know about that." Her voice shook. "Mulder, a lot has happened over the past few weeks--"
"--which is why we're not going to talk about it now," he finished, reluctant to cut her off, yet knowing it was for the best. "We're going to call the police, we're going to give our statements, then we're going to go home. Unless you have a better plan."
She smiled wearily. "No... no, Mulder, I don't."
"All right, then." He squeezed her shoulder lightly, then released her and pushed himself back up to his feet. "By the way," he added as an afterthought, "I don't suppose you've got any aspirin?"
"Yeah." He nodded his head toward Leta. "You'll have to pardon my macabre sense of humour, but-- this killer's a headache."
* * *
Mulder sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing out over the icy mirror of the reflecting pool to the familiar obelisk looming on the horizon. Behind the Washington Monument the sky was deep indigo, streaked with sienna; the white-gold coin of the winter sun hung low over the distant trees, stretching shadows out across the withered grass. Couples old and young strolled arm in arm along the walkway, some conversing in low voices, others companionably silent. From behind him came snatches of faint, tinny music from the skating rink, and the sound of children's laughter.
"It's a beautiful night." Scully's voice was soft, meditative. He turned, saw her descending the last few steps toward him, and gave a wry smile.
"Yeah, but I sure could do with a pair of gloves." He rubbed his hands together, blew on them, and stuffed them into his armpits in a fruitless attempt to restore their warmth. "Didn't think Skinner would keep you so long."
She sat down beside him, sighing. "It wasn't a pleasant interview, believe me. I'm beginning to suspect-- just beginning, mind you-- that it doesn't look good for the Bureau when we go around shooting our suspects before they're convicted."
He feigned astonishment. "Wow, really?"
"Hard to believe, I know." She brushed a loose thread from her coat. "And of course, I could have been wrong-- you know how subtle Skinner is about these things."
Mulder chuckled and leaned back against the steps. High above, the evening's first star gleamed against the darkness, inviting a wish-- or a telescope. "Thanks, Scully," he said.
"For coming. I know it's been a long day."
She said nothing. Taking off her gloves finger by finger, she laid them neatly in her lap, looked out across the snow-dusted lawn.
"Scully--" He sat up, leaning into the corner of her vision. "Do I need to say it? We both know why we're here."
"Look, Mulder, you don't have to do this. I'm glad you have your memory back; I'm glad you're back to normal. We've just gone through a very stressful and uncertain time in our partnership, but it's over now. So please, can we both just relax and forget about--"
"As it happens, no, we can't. Forgetting is the last thing I want to do-- now or ever." He reached across to put a hand on her arm, silently pleading for her to listen, to understand. "For nearly a month I saw myself through a stranger's eyes, Scully-- do you realize what that meant, still means, to me? Objectivity doesn't come easily where I'm concerned, never has; I struggle every day to achieve the dispassionate self-appraisal you take for granted. But while Leta had my memories, I had a chance to step back, to re-evaluate. And I did."
"Well--" She shrugged uncomfortably, her eyes still avoiding his. "That's good. I'm glad for you."
He gave her a pained look. "Scully, I'm not telling you I've just made some sort of early New Year's resolution to be a good boy and eat my vegetables. It's more than that."
"No more empty self-possession?"
Now she did turn toward him, her smile a little sheepish. "Sorry. For a minute there I thought I was talking to Neil Finn."
No more empty self-possession / feelings swept under the mat / it's no New Year's resolution / it's more than that...He remembered the tune even as she spoke, and found himself smiling in return. "'Message to My Girl'. You have no idea how apropos that really is, Scully. I wrote you a letter about three weeks ago."
She frowned. "Did you? I never got it."
"I never mailed it."
"Oh." She paused, considering his words. Then she said, "I suppose that is apropos-- except that I'm not your girl, Mulder. And you didn't call me out here to ask on bended knee whether I would be, either. Did you."
"Yes. Well." She picked up her gloves, turned them over in her hands. "I suppose that's my cue to ask what you did call me here for."
For all her attempts at nonchalance, even indifference, she was nervous. He could feel the tension in the arm that lay a little too still beneath his touch; hear the hint of vibrato when she spoke. "Dana," he said, dropping his voice an octave, and watched her close her eyes and swallow in an automatic, unmistakeable response.
He wanted to laugh, to weep, to stand up and shout at the sheer absurdity of the whole situation. So much felt, so much understood between them, and yet still they stood on opposite sides of a wall of impenetrable words. For a while he had watched that facade, so much of it his own careless doing, beginning to crumble; but now the barrier was being rebuilt, stronger than ever. And this time Scully was the one with the bricks and the mortar.
"No," he said, "you don't. And I need to know why. There's something I've done, something I've said--"
"Stop it." Her voice was tight. "We are not having this conversation, Mulder."
"You're scared, Scully. What are you frightened of?"
She shook her head mutely.
Mulder gave an exasperated sigh, turned away to look out into the night. As he did so, a coltish-looking girl walked past the foot of the Memorial, holding the hand of a boy who seemed too old to be her son, yet whose features bore the same ethereal, otherworldly stamp as her own. Her reddish hair, paler and much longer than Scully's, fluttered in the wind, and her clear voice drifted up to them:
"Where did you say it was?"
"Right here," replied the boy, with a confidence weirdly at odds with the treble voice and the red rubber boots. Then he lifted his small face and looked up the steps, straight at Mulder. "See," he said, "I told you."
The young woman raised her head, and he realized with a shock that it was the girl who had handed him the leaflet, out on the street in front of the hospital. But what were the chances of seeing her again, especially here, miles and weeks away from the place they'd first met?
Scully must have noticed his stare: she touched his shoulder. "Mulder, what's the matter?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but the girl didn't give him the chance. She walked up the stairs toward him, stopped about three steps down, and said calmly,
"I came to tell you that the Nemesis case is closed. There will be no more deaths, because the person responsible for them committed suicide five hours ago. You'll find him in his apartment tomorrow morning, along with the evidence you need to link him to the murders. But you will never know how or why those six young men were killed. I'm sorry to have to tell you that, but it's the truth."
"Mulder..." Scully's voice was thick with astonishment. "How does she know--?"
But he was already on his feet, reaching for his badge. "Federal Agent," he said. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to need more of an explanation than that."
The girl gave him a pitying look, turned, and walked back down the stairs. Startled by her indifference, Mulder clattered down after her. "Hey! You can't just--"
She took the little boy's hand, turned to look at him with those pale, tranquil eyes. "Agent Mulder," she said, "I'm only here because you told me I would be. And I'm very sorry, but I won't see you again. So don't make this difficult for both of us. Goodbye."
And with that, she was gone. It wasn't as though she vanished, or even faded slowly away: it was simply that he suddenly couldn't remember where she'd been standing when she last talked to him, and he found himself looking around in confusion.
"Mesmerism," said Scully resignedly from her perch some feet above. "Though I admit not very many people are that good at it."
He shook his head, trudged back up the steps to join her. "Whatever it was, we're not going to find her again, obviously."
"How do you know?"
"I don't. But I do." He sat down, frowning. "Couldn't you hear the truth in her voice? It was like watching a polygraph test. She had nothing to do with the murders-- she was just reporting."
"Well," said Scully after a brief, throat-clearing pause that spoke eloquently of her scepticism, "if she's right, we'll solve the case tomorrow. Anyway, we can always look her, or the boy, up in the federal database--"
"Her accent was Canadian. The boy's was closer to British. I don't think we're going to have much luck there, Scully."
She shivered. "That whole encounter was just-- weird."
"Yeah. That kid's rubber boots especially. I'm not used to my X-Files wearing galoshes: it kind of spoils the whole transcendental cachet of the thing, don't you think?"
Unexpectedly, she began to laugh. He watched her, a little grin bending the corners of his mouth, until she found the breath and strength to gasp out her reply: "Mulder, you may have a graduate degree in psychology, but I swear, sometimes you're the biggest nutcase--"
"I know. But you love me anyway."
Scully wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, chuckled a little, and let out a sigh. "Yeah." Then she seemed to realize what she'd said, and straightened up again. "Look, Mulder," she said, her voice suddenly serious. "I'm sorry about what happened tonight. It's just-- I don't want to ruin a good thing by overanalyzing it."
"A good thing." He bent forward, resting his chin on his knees and gazing out into the darkness. "I want it to be, Scully, but I think we both know that things haven't always worked out that way, for either of us. I can be pretty selfish, and you... well, I like to think of it as determination, but sometimes, I have to admit, you're just plain stubborn. And between us, we seem to have discovered the knack of making each other miserable."
"Yes, but that happens to everybody," said Scully. "The more you know about a person, the closer you are to them, the easier it is to hurt them-- and be hurt by them. Growing up with Missy and Bill and Charlie, I learned that from Day One. The only way to avoid it is to stop caring, and close the door."
"Like Leta." He frowned thoughtfully. "I never considered it in quite this way before, but I think that's what those murders were really all about. She wanted all the benefits of friendship-- that intimacy, that sharing of thoughts and experiences-- without the risk. None of her victims could hurt her, because she didn't give them the chance. They couldn't lie to her, or refuse her, or keep secrets from her."
"And that's what she offered to us."
There was an odd note in her voice. He looked over at her, his eyebrows lifting: she flushed and looked down at her lap.
"Yeah," he said finally. "I was tempted, too. But we both know that would have been cheating. Our friendship-- let's call it that for the time being, although I think both of us know there's more to it than that-- may not always be everything it ought to be, but it's real, and it's strong, and Scully--"
She lifted her head, her eyes questioning. He put his cold hands over both of hers, met her gaze with his own dark, serious one.
"--it's the best thing I've ever had."
Scully was silent a moment. Then she turned her hands over, clasping his in return, and gave him a small but genuine smile. "Thank you," she said. "I needed to hear that."
"I do requests, too, you know."
"You don't believe me. What do you want to hear? Go ahead, try me."
He could see her fighting with temptation, the gleam in her eye warning him she wanted to ask him for something dangerous or embarrassing or both: but then her natural discretion won out, and she said, "Oh, I don't know. Recite a poem."
"Anything you like. Except for limericks. I can't stand those."
Mulder considered this. At last he said, "Have you ever heard of a poet named Thomas Lovell Beddoes?"
"I'm not surprised. He's pretty obscure. But I discovered him at Oxford, and for a while I was fascinated with his poetry. There's an excerpt from one of his poems, or actually a play, and it goes--" He cleared his throat, raised his head toward the glimmering sky, and began.
"...Love? Do I love? I walk
Within the brilliance of another's thought,
As in a glory. I was dark before,
As Venus' chapel in the black of night;
But there was something holy in the darkness,
Softer and not so thick as other where;
And as rich moonlight may be to the blind,
*Unconsciously consoling. Then love came,
Like the outbursting of a trodden star."
He finished the excerpt a little self-consciously, and looked back down at Scully. She sat unmoving, lips parted in wonder. "That was... quite the choice, Mulder," she said finally.
"You liked it?"
"So do I. Except for the last line-- I have a bit of trouble with that one."
"The trodden star? I thought that was the best part."
"So do I. It's just that I haven't stepped on any lately." He lowered his voice. "But the rest is true, Scully: believe me. And I'm not sure it's such a great idea to go around treading on stars anyway. I felt that way about Phoebe, and you know what came-- or rather, didn't-- of that."
She touched his face. "I understand."
"You're not hurt?"
He sighed his relief. "Good."
"Just tell me one thing, Mulder."
"Are you going to replace your... collection?"
"What, you mean all those videos that aren't mine?" He grinned at her. "No. I think I may try something new and radical instead."
"Like what?" she asked, with evident trepidation.
"Oh, I don't know... getting a life. Hanging around with my partner, now and then... if she'd like me to."
She relaxed. "I think," she said, "that might be arranged."
"Glad to hear it." He pushed himself to his feet, turned to pull her up beside him. "So. Walk you to your car?"
"If you like."
He offered her his arm. She stared at it a moment, as though it were some sort of supernatural apparition; then, slowly and somewhat suspiciously, took it.
"Breathe, Scully," said Mulder. "I'm not going to bite you."
She struggled against a smile. "Mulder, that was a straight line if I ever heard one."
He laughed, squeezed her arm, and they walked down the steps together.
A/N: The poem Mulder quotes at the end is from Thomas Lovell Beddoes' poem/play "The Second Brother". My thanks to the late Dorothy L. Sayers for drawing my attention to this lovely bit of poetry by quoting it in her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel Busman's Honeymoon.
"Message to My Girl", also briefly quoted here, is a Split Enz song, lyrics by Neil Finn.