Like a Turtle on its Back by Jo-Ann L

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From: Jo-Ann Lassiter <> Date: Thu, 13 Aug 1998 23:39:03 -0400 Subject: Like a Turtle… (1/7) by Jo-Ann Lassiter

This story is based on characters created by Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen Productions. Characters used without permission. No infringement intended.

TITLE: Like a Turtle on Its Back

AUTHOR: Jo-Ann Lassiter

MAIL ADDRESS: DISTRIBUTION

STATEMENT: Post anywhere. Thanks.

SPOILER WARNING: Slight reference to “Detour”

RATING: R CLASSIFICATION: S, R

KEY WORDS: Mulder/Scully UST/Romance

SUMMARY: After several blows to his male ego, Mulder begins to question the equilibrium of his relationship—both professional and personal—with Scully.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Set in the fifth season, around the same time as “Detour.” This is mainly a character-driven piece, but it’s built around the investigation of an X-File, so there’s a plot and bad guys (sort of) and characters you love to hate. There’s angst, but it’s not extreme enough to earn it the big “A” classification. There’s some MulderTorture, and a little ScullyTorture, and lots of UST. Romance, too. Wait for it.

THANKS: To Gerry, Lauren, Jill and Jackie for beta reading.

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Like a Turtle on Its Back

Concord, New Hampshire Wednesday March 11 3:45 p.m.

“So we stay on 93 until Route 135?” Mulder looked up questioningly at the gray-haired woman behind the desk.

Before the SAC’s assistant could answer him, a voice sounded from an open doorway. “Asking directions, Spooky? I thought you just knew these things.” Agent Bill Massone leaned against the frame, arms folded across his chest.

“Well, I don’t, and I’m driving,” Scully snapped to the smirking agent. She had had enough of the Concord office and its rude agents with their snide remarks. Looking at her partner, Scully saw his lips pressed tightly together and knew that their ‘Spooky’ remarks were beginning to get to him. The comments hadn’t let up the two hours they’d been there, and Scully didn’t know how he managed to keep his cool. She had to admit she was proud of him; if it were her, she didn’t think she would have been able to restrain herself from at the very least telling them to stuff it up their asses.

She still didn’t see why the Concord SAC had insisted that they stop in at the field office instead of proceeding directly to the local police department who’d put in the request for FBI assistance. The SAC was openly hostile to her partner, and he’d let it be known in no uncertain terms that he was dissatisfied with Mulder’s being placed in charge of the investigation.

Earlier, when Mulder had mentioned to Scully that he was acquainted with the SAC, Ralph Freitas, Scully had asked what he was like. She had to agree with Mulder’s assessment: the man was an A-1, first-class asshole. And since the SAC’s attitude set the tone for the office, the rest of the agents were assholes, too—at least to Mulder and, to a lesser extent, her. Only the clerical staff—all one of her—seemed to possess a mind and opinion of her own; Anne Gibbon, Freitas’s administrative assistant, continued to impress Scully with her not-so-subtle put-downs of the surly agents.

“Don’t worry, Agent Massone,” Gibbon intoned now, all professional courtesy, “I’ll get to your request for a map of your neighborhood as soon as I finish with these agents.” It took all of Scully’s concentration to maintain a straight face; she didn’t dare look at her partner. “Shall I lay in a supply of pre-printed instructions for you, or will one be enough?”

Massone’s face flamed bright red, and Scully was pleased to note Mulder’s interest in the other agent’s embarrassment. “It’s a new apartment. I told you that,” Massone mumbled.

“Yes, sir,” Anne said crisply. “I’ll have a hundred sets made up then.” She smiled brightly. “Will that be sufficient?”

Scully didn’t catch whatever Massone murmured before he slithered back into his office and slammed the door. Unable to contain herself any longer, Scully let out her laughter. Mulder turned to the older woman and smiled shyly. “Thanks.”

She nodded and handed the Massachusetts/New Hampshire map to him. “Here you are, Agent Mulder. You were right. Stay on 93 until exit 43 in Littleton, then follow the printed directions.” She gave him a single sheet of paper.

A corner of Mulder’s mouth quirked. “We won’t end up at Massone’s apartment, will we?”

Gibbon laughed. “I wouldn’t do that to either of you. You’re a breath of fresh air in this cesspool of an office.”

Mulder’s eyebrows arched, but he didn’t say anything. “How long have you worked here?” Scully asked.

“Thirty-two years.” Scully was sure her surprise was reflected on her face.

“Frietas has only been here six months,” Mulder said. Then, softer, “It wasn’t a promotion.”

Gibbon nodded, then said in an overly-conspiratorial tone: “He has a little trouble working with women.”

“Really?” Scully said, genuinely surprised. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“That’s because he had bigger fish to fry.” Anne threw a sympathetic gaze at Mulder.

Scully knew immediately to what she was referring—the ‘Spooky-fest’ had been in full swing—and her heart ached for him.

“Just call me a knight in shining armor.” Mulder’s smile was strained.

Scully smiled at him. “Sir Mulder.”

His smile came easily this time. “At your service.” He gave a mock bow, then turned to Gibbon. “I’ve seen the way he treats women. How do you manage?”

“I stay out of his way, and he stays out of mine.” She smiled. “And I have a week and a half to retirement, so I’ve been…” She tossed a look of pure evil at the closed door behind which Massone was hiding. “…indulging myself.”

This time Mulder laughed, and Scully was glad to see it. She laid a hand on his arm. “We’d better get going.”

Mulder nodded, then turned to Anne. “Two hour drive?”

Gibbon nodded. “At least.”

Mulder hesitated. Gibbon pointed to the back of the office. “All the way to the end and around the corner. First door on your right. Ladies room is the door after it,” she told Scully.

“Thanks,” the agents said, heading in the direction she indicated.

Scully breathed a sigh of relief when they were out of sight of the rest of the office. “Wait for me, Mulder?” she asked when they reached the doors.

He nodded, looking back toward the way they’d come. “Not the friendliest of places, is it?”

She shook her head. “No.” Then she pushed the door open and went inside. The rest room was empty, as she knew it would be. Anne Gibbon was the sole female employee in the office, and she was at her desk. After using the toilet, Scully glanced at her reflection in the mirror, deciding that she was presentable enough for the drive north; she didn’t want to keep Mulder waiting too long in, as Anne had so eloquently put it, this cesspool of an office.

“And you be sure to keep me informed every step of the way.” The voice belonged to Freitas. Scully’s hand froze on the partially-opened door. She could see her partner’s rigid posture through the half-inch crack.

Mulder’s voice was stiff. “It was my understanding that we were working independent of your office.”

“We? Oh, you and that girl.”

Special Agent Scully is a woman, Freitas.” Scully could have kissed him, if not for his words, than for the affronted tone of his voice.

“I didn’t think you noticed those things, Spooky.” A new voice that Scully recognized as belonging to Special Agent Ronald Stiles joined the fray.

“Look, this is growing tired. Can we just cut the Spooky crap? My profiling abilities have nothing to do with this case.” Mulder was definitely becoming annoyed.

“Profiling abilities?” Stiles asked.

Mulder spared Stiles an indulgent glance, then faced Freitas. “Looks like your boys didn’t do their homework.” The DC agent shook his head. “Tsk. That’s a reflection on you, Ralph.”

Freitas’s voice fairly crackled. “Weren’t you ever taught to show respect, Mulder?”

“I was,” Mulder answered, nodding. The air was bristling now as Mulder said nothing more.

“You will keep me informed, Mister.”

“I’ll be happy to.” The unsaid, ‘sir’ hung in the air between the men. “Shall I tell my superior that you’re countermanding his order?”

I’ll tell him,” Freitas snarled. He snapped his fingers and Scully could picture Stiles scrambling for a notebook. “Who is he?”

“Walter Skinner.”

Dead silence. Then Freitas’s choked tone. “As in…”

Mulder clasped his hands in front of him and waited.

“On your way, ‘Spooky.’” The SAC’s tone was tight..

“Shall I—”

“No.” Freitas pushed by Mulder, Stiles following not too closely.

Scully opened the door the rest of the way and walked over to her partner. “Ready?” she asked, softly.

Mulder nodded. The anger he’d kept at bay during the confrontation was creeping into his eyes. Scully gave him a look that telegraphed, “I know,” and he let out a sigh. “Let’s blow this pop stand,” he said.

They stopped and said their good-byes to Anne Gibbon, wishing her luck on her retirement, and even more luck on surviving the rest of her time in the Concord office. She laughed and said she was going to make the most of it, then wished them good luck on their case.

Scully shivered as they stepped out into the brisk March wind. Mulder pulled his unbuttoned coat closed, and followed her to their rental car, waiting beside the passenger door until she unlocked it. She was still fighting to adjust the seat forward when he slid in beside her. She had very conscientiously moved the passenger seat back before she’d exited the car after their drive up from Boston. Mulder had left his all the way back, and even though she knew he couldn’t have adjusted it forward without getting trapped inside, she still threw an annoyed glance his way.

“If it’s stuck, I can drive the rest of the way,” he said.

Finally, the handle gave and the seat slid forward. “Got it,” she said, victoriously.

Mulder visibly relaxed, and only then did she realize how very tired he looked. She supposed that being the butt of everyone’s jokes pretty much took it out of you.

“Why don’t you see if you can get a little sleep, Mulder. I won’t be needing your navigational skills until we hit Littleton.” She tried to mask her concern by letting a sparkle of mischief shine in her eyes.

He gave a weary, but appreciative grin, and cranked the seat back until he was almost lying flat.

Scully found her way back to the interstate with no trouble. By the time they left Concord and Freitas behind, Mulder was asleep.

***** 6 p.m. The Puffin Stop Lancaster, New Hampshire

He felt the deceleration when they turned onto the exit ramp. Glancing out the window, he encountered only darkness. His eyes drifted to the sky. No moon, no stars. Heavy cloud cover. “Where are we?”

“Exit 40. A couple of exits before our turnoff.”

It had been two hours from Boston to Concord, and probably another two to wherever they were now; he knew they must be down at least half a tank. “Gas?”

“And food.” She threw a glance his way. “Are you hungry?”

His stomach rumbled. “I guess I am,” he said, a little embarrassed.

“Well, the sign said gas and food. Let’s hope they meant an actual restaurant and not just a convenience store with prepackaged baloney sandwiches.”

They finally found the gas station—about five miles down the road—and Mulder gazed at Scully sympathetically when the only other building in sight was the convenience store.

“I’ll pump, you pay and get the food?” she asked, getting out of the car.

“Okay.” He noticed Scully rubbing her neck and rolling her shoulders. “How about I drive the rest of the way?”

She looked up tiredly, unhooking the nozzle from the pump. “Mm. Yeah. Thanks.” Her eyes drifted to the top of his head. “Mulder, come here.”

A little hesitant, he took a step toward her cautiously. “Something wrong with my hair?”

A tired smile. “You look like an angry rooster.” She reached out and grabbed him by the lapels, pulling him the remaining foot-and-a-half between them. “Come here.” Resigned to his fate, he sighed and lowered his head so that she could reach it with ease. He had to admit that having Scully patting his head wasn’t exactly unpleasant.

“There,” she said, with a final smoothing pat.

“Done?” He straightened and looked at his reflection in the car window.

She nodded, and he started to walk away. Her “Mulder!” pulled him up short.

He sighed. “Yeah?”

She smiled. “Sorry. See if they have a ladies room, will you? And get the key if it needs one?”

“Okay.” He walked the remaining few yards to the entrance and pushed the door open. The two scraggly men behind the counter were laughing over some private joke, and he waited patiently until one of them calmed down enough to acknowledge him.

“Help ya, bud?”

“Do you have a ladies restroom here?”

The men exchanged a glance. One man let out a guffaw, and the other, the one who’d spoken to him, barely maintained his control. “Yeah, we got one. But you’ll need the key to get in there, slim.” His voice was shaking with amusement, and Mulder suddenly had an inkling of their earlier frivolity.

The agent felt his face flush. “It’s not for me.” He glanced out the window at Scully. Standing with one hand on the handle and one hand on her hip, she looked like she was born to pump gas.

“Oh, sure, sure,” the man said, winking at his friend, following Mulder’s gaze and handing him the key. “It’s around the back.”

Mulder took the key and pulled the door open a little more forcefully than was necessary. By the time he reached Scully, he felt like throwing the key at her, but she smiled at him, and he was angry at himself for wanting to blame her for those two ignoramuses inside. “Here’s your key.”

“Thanks, Mulder.” She twisted the gas cap onto the tank and took the key from him. “I’m all set here. You can pay now.” They walked toward the store together, but parted near the entrance. He went inside, pleased to note that Mike and Ike were otherwise engaged in ogling a tourist through the opposite window. Peering closer, he was repulsed to find that the object of their fascination was his partner. Well, he thought, slipping unnoticed to the back of the store, no harm done. So long as all they did was look.

Mulder was studying the contents of the refrigerator cases when Frick and Frack captured his attention again.

“That’s some piece of ass, eh, Ted?”

“You said it. No wonder a tiny thing like that has that tall dude wrapped around her little finger.”

Mulder’s hand, which was reaching into the cold case, froze in mid-stretch.

The as-yet-unnamed man laughed. “You said it. Man, that boy is one whupped puppy.”

Ted chuckled. “Didja see her out there fixin’ his hair like he was mommy’s good little man?”

Frack guffawed. “And she gets out of the car and starts handling that pump like a pro.”

“He pro’bly don’t know how to work it. Bet she don’t want him dirtying up those lily-white hands of his.”

Mulder pulled his arm back and looked down at his hands. True, they weren’t callused, and his fingernails were clean, but lily-white? Something about the phrase rubbed him the wrong way.

“And she sends him to get the key to the john. And he did it!”

“Man, that was too funny. ‘Do you have a ladies restroom here?’” He recited the line as a man would imitate a woman’s voice. Mulder gritted his teeth as the men roared with laughter.

A loud clap of thunder and a flash of brilliant white light lit up the store. Mulder peered from his hiding place and saw the downpour that accompanied them.

“Hey,” Frick said, out of breath from laughter. “I’ll bet he’s on his way to the john now with an umbrella for her highness.”

“Oh, jeez, Rob, cut it out. I’m gettin’ a stitch in my side.”

Mulder felt his face reddening again. He’d been thinking that very thing. Scully was just back to work after having been out a week with the flu, and he was worried about her catching a chill from the cold rain.

But how could he now? Those two buffoons had him pegged as hen-pecked, subservient to Scully. And he wasn’t. He knew he wasn’t.

Another crack of thunder, and Mulder bolted into action. Grabbing plastic-wrapped sandwiches, a couple of bananas, and two iced teas, he headed boldly for the front.

“Shit,” Frick said under his breath, poking Frack in the ribs. “I think he heard us.”

Frack looked at Mulder, then looked back at Frick and smiled. “Yup. I think he did.”

Frick rang up Mulder’s items without glancing at him. “Twenty-three seventy-five, with the gas.” He looked up and met Mulder’s eyes; Frick’s were dancing with amusement. “You are paying for the gas, aren’t you, slim?”

“Yes,” Mulder murmured. He didn’t know which he was more: embarrassed or angry. All he knew was that he wanted out of that store. He threw two tens and four ones onto the counter. “Keep it.” Snatching up his purchases, he stormed out the door.

By the time he reached the car, he was soaked. The paper bag broke as he lifted it over the front seat, and the back seat floor was littered with food.

“Great,” he muttered. He was still fuming about those jerks and how accurately they’d pinned his relationship with his partner. Was he carrying this equality thing too far? Did he bend over too far backwards in his attempt to be fair? Did he let her walk all over him?

The umbrella on the back seat caught his eye. That part pissed him off the most. That he’d thought it, and they’d predicted it. He’d be a fool to go after her now. Their jeering laughter would ring in his ears for a long time to come. There was no way in hell he would risk that kind of humiliation. No way, no how. A little water wouldn’t kill her.

He heaved a long, put-upon sigh as he reached for the umbrella.

She was waiting for him. “I was hoping you’d come,” she said, her smile one of gratitude and affection.

“I almost didn’t,” he admitted.

She met his eyes. “The guys in the store giving you a hard time?”

His mouth fell open, then he closed it stubbornly. “No.”

Her hand touched him lightly. “I saw them looking at me when I walked by the window. I also saw you duck into the back.”

He sighed. “Anything else?”

She hesitated. “Well… you were a little upset when you brought me the key.”

He blew out a breath. “Remind me never to play poker with you.” He extended the umbrella toward her and crouched down a few inches so the umbrella was closer to her head.

She stepped close to him, then surprised him by leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. “I know what it took for you to come out here,” she said quietly.

“Come on,” he said, gently, taking note of the slight quiver in her voice. “We’re only getting colder and wetter standing here.”

They made a dash for the car, and she didn’t protest when he opened the door, then waited, holding the umbrella over her while she got in. He started the engine, turned the heater on, then took the ladies room key from her shaking hands. “Be right back.”

When he pushed through the door to the convenience store, a cold, hard stare and an “accidental” glimpse of his weapon stifled any remarks Heckle and Jeckle may have been saving up to use on him. He dropped the key on the counter, then returned to the car and his partner.

*****

Part 2 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Colebrook, New Hampshire Police Station Thursday, March 12 8:30 p.m.

“Hey, Mulder, a bunch of us are going out for a few brews and some darts. Want to come?”

Her partner seemed a little taken aback by the invitation. Even though he appeared to hit it off really well with the locals, social interaction was practically unheard of.

“Uh…” he hesitated and looked at her. She smiled encouragingly, and he turned back to the officer who’d made the offer. “Okay.” He focused back on her. “Scully?”

Immediately, the buzz of friendly conversation died. Mulder seemed not to take any notice as he awaited her answer. “Um, no. I’m kind of tired, Mulder. But you go ahead.”

His look of concern warred with his obvious desire to “belong” for once, and Scully silently entreated with him to go, she was fine, but she didn’t want to accompany them. A slight nod, Mulder’s promise that he wouldn’t be too late, and the relaxed atmosphere returned.

What was this, an epidemic? First Concord, and now this small town near the Vermont/Quebec borders. Scully felt a little sick when she realized that she hadn’t been imagining things after all. These men—fellow law enforcement officers—were not predisposed to associate with women—at least not as equals, in work or in play.

She glanced at her partner. Either he was ignoring it, or it never occurred to him that she would be treated with anything less than the respect he afforded her. She sighed, certain that it was the latter. Mulder could be so blind sometimes.

He walked over and pulled her aside. “You’re sure you won’t come?”

She shook her head. “I’m beat, Mulder. I just want to crawl into bed.”

“Just for a little while? Scully, they want us to come.”

She looked at him and smiled tiredly. “They want you to come.”

He threw her own patented “skeptical” look back at her. “No, they don’t. They want both of us.”

She didn’t know whether she should hit him or hug him. “They don’t. Think back to the conversation. Think back to the whole day. Not all males are as enlightened as you.”

She waited while he re-ran the past few hours; horrified realization settled in his eyes, and he stared at his new “friends” as if they’d sold his best friend down the river—which, in effect, they had.

She knew what was coming next. “Go,” she said, forcefully, pushing him away from her.

“I don’t want to go anymore,” he said very quietly.

“Mulder, I want you to go with them.”

Suspicion flashed in his eyes. “Why?”

“Because you already said you would. I know these types. If you back out now, they’ll needle you relentlessly.” She rubbed his arm affectionately. “You get enough of that already; I wouldn’t want to add to it.”

He seemed about to protest further, but his mouth froze before he could get the words out, and he simply nodded.

“Hey, Mulder, you ready?” Officer Max Randall yelled across the room.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m coming.” He gave Scully a look like he was the one selling his best friend down the river. “I’m sorry, Scully,” he said, softly.

“I’ll see you back at the motel, okay?”

“Okay.” He dug in his pocket and produced the key to their rental car. “You take it. I’ll get a cab back.”

She had to smile. “Mulder, I doubt this town has a cab.”

He blinked. “Oh.”

Randall came up behind her partner and clapped him on the back; Mulder nearly jumped out of his skin. “Hey, easy, Mulder. Man, you’re jumpy. Looks like you could use a little down time.” He glanced at Scully, then returned his gaze to Mulder. “You coming?”

Mulder held the key out. “We were just working out transportation.”

Randall took the key from Mulder’s hand and placed it in Scully’s. “Little lady takes the car. I’ll give you a ride to your motel.” He looked at Scully. “All right?”

Scully felt the blood rushing to her face as she whirled on Randall. “First of all, I am not a ‘little lady.’ I’m a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Second of all, you will not be giving him a ride if you’ve been drinking. And third…” She looked at Mulder and she saw the pride he felt in her reflected on his face. “…have a good time,” she told him.

She needed to meet his eyes, to thank him for supporting her and empathizing with her. Yet she was still livid, and she was afraid he would see it as being directed at him. Since that was the last thing she wanted, she simply turned her back on them and walked out. She knew Mulder would understand.

***** The Dublin Bar Colebrook, NH 11:17 p.m.

“Hey, boy, where’d you learn to shoot like that?”

Mulder whirled around—too quickly—to face the speaker, Chief of Police Bill Dwyer, and nearly landed in the man’s lap. Maybe that third beer was one too many.

As Dwyer caught him and righted him, laughter rang in his ears, yet he didn’t mind. It was the laughter of camaraderie, of being laughed with not at. It was laughter Mulder had heard too few times in his thirty-six years, and he liked it. A lot.

A pang of guilt stabbed at his heart as he realized that he liked these men who behaved so badly toward his partner. Part of him felt like a traitor, while another part reveled in the sheer joy of fitting in. How he’d balance these feelings in the morning he had no idea, but for the moment he was just going to enjoy himself.

He smiled wickedly at Dwyer as he scored his fifth straight bullseye. “Four years at Oxford.” At the chief’s blank look, he elaborated. “England. Where they invented darts.”

The light came into Dwyer’s eyes. “Oho, a ringer! Now I see why you wouldn’t take my bet. You’re an honorable man, Mulder.” The agent caught the wink and was almost prepared for what came next. “Even if you do take orders from a woman.”

The room went quiet with Mulder’s anticipated response, and he certainly wasn’t about to disappoint. “If I appear to be taking orders from Scully, it’s only because I do. When we’re working in her area of expertise, which today’s little foray into forensics was, I defer to her knowledge and experience. If we get into an area in which I excel—profiling, for example, then the roles are reversed. He gazed out over the group of six male officers. “She’s my partner and my friend; that will not change. If that’s going to be a problem, tell me right now and I’ll leave.”

“Hey, easy, Mulder. Chief was just yanking your chain. We all have wives and girlfriends.”

“Do you treat them as demeaning as you’ve treated Scully?”

They looked surprised. Every single solitary male face in that bar wore an expression of bewilderment. “How do you figure that?” Randall asked, and Mulder detected no hostility, just honest curiosity. “We’ve been more than polite to her.”

“That’s exactly it. You’re treating her like a woman, not a law enforcement officer.”

“Well, hell, man, she is a woman.”

Mulder smiled. “I know that. But she’s also an FBI agent.”

“We’re just not used to working with women… y’know?”

Mulder shrugged. “I guess.” But he didn’t.

“Look, from now on we’ll treat her like one of the boys. Will that make you happy?”

He thought about it a minute, and then he nodded. What he really wanted was for them to treat her like Scully, but he supposed that it would have to do.

“Good. Now let’s get back to the game. You’re on my team next, Mulder, right?”

*****

 

Castlenook Inn Colebrook, NH 12:31 a.m.

“Hello,” Scully mumbled into what she hoped was the mouthpiece of her cell phone.

“Hey, Scully.”

At Mulder’s slurred voice, she came fully awake. “Mulder, where are you? Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” he said, and she could hear a cacophony of male voices engaged in song in the background. “I think I’ve had enough male bonding for one night. Can you come get me?”

“Sure,” she said, slipping out of her pajama bottoms and into a pair of pants. “Tell me where you are and how I get there.”

“Down the street from the police station. Four blocks. Great big green shamrock light out front. You can’t miss it.”

She threw her coat on over her pajama top, then slipped into her shoes. “I’m leaving right now, Mulder.”

“Ukay. I’ll be out front.”

“Right.” She disconnected as she pulled the door open.

The sign was visible the second she hit Main Street. It was, without a doubt, the biggest green blob of light she had ever seen. As promised, Mulder was waiting for her on the sidewalk. She stopped at the curb, and he walked unsteadily toward the car, then got in.

“Thanks for coming,” he said quietly. “I didn’t trust myself to find my way back in the dark.”

Surprised to hear him admit that, she looked him over carefully. His eyes were pretty well glazed over, and he looked like he could fall asleep at the drop of a hat. “Are you okay, Mulder?”

He lifted his eyes up to meet hers, and it seemed to her like it was a great effort on his part. “I’m drunk, Scully.”

She smiled sympathetically; she knew he hated being inebriated, hated the loss of control, which is why he so rarely drank. “I know, Mulder. But are you feeling okay? You look a little…”

“Green around the gills?” He swallowed. “I thought I was drinking commercial beer, but I guess they wanted to have a little fun with the city boy.”

All sorts of bells and whistles started going off in Scully’s head. “What did they give you?”

He sighed. “Local stuff. Billy’s Bud. Tastes good, hits you bad about an hour later.” He leaned against the door, and his eyes closed. “I know I’m gonna be sick tonight.”

She felt terrible. She was the one who had encouraged him to participate, and they’d played him for a fool. Those jerks! She had half a mind to march in there and rip what passed for their hearts out through their throats. And that was if she was feeling particularly generous. Which she wasn’t. Maybe she’d just deliver one mass kick to the balls. Or maybe not; one at a time would be a hell of a lot more satisfying.

“Scully, can we go?”

She tore her eyes back to the real world and Mulder. “I’m sorry. Of course.” She put the car in gear and made a U-turn. He moaned at the sudden swerve, and she patted his shoulder. “Sorry. I’ll take it easy on the curves from now on.” He nodded miserably, and her imagination conjured up several tortures that she deemed fitting for Colebrook’s finest.

“Scully?”

Her visions of revenge faded, and she looked over at him, head bowed, staring at his hands in his lap.

“I want you to know that I appreciate this. I also want you to know that I feel rotten, I’m angry, and I probably won’t be a very pleasant person in the morning.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said softly. When he turned his face to her, she removed one hand from the steering wheel and held it out to him.

His hand was cold and clammy when he took hold of hers. She was afraid he was going to be sick later.

If not sooner.

*****

 

Mulder honestly didn’t know what he would have done if Scully hadn’t been there. Probably be lying in a ditch somewhere or, if he’d been stupid—and, he had to admit, he could be incredibly stupid—wrapped his car around a tree.

He was surprised at how much it hurt. Even more because it had come so far out of left field. After he swore he’d never lay himself open like that ever again, he’d allowed himself to be led like a lamb. The sad part was that he never even knew he’d been slaughtered. He’d been on top of the world, enjoying his status as darts player extraordinaire one minute, then wondering why he couldn’t hit the side of a barn the next. The dart in his hand had felt foreign, and he’d been certain that it had been trying to kill him. But he’d killed it first. When he’d looked up in triumph, his little world collapsed in on itself. His “friends” weren’t laughing with him any longer.

His stricken look had only fueled their mirth. Damn him for letting his guard down. Damn them for making him feel that he could.

Looking over at Scully, he decided that it was just as well. There was really only room in his life for one true friend, and Scully already filled that position.

Whether she liked it or not, she was stuck with him. He felt her hand holding onto his, and suddenly that was the only sensation that mattered. Scully’s hand in his, flesh to flesh. Bare skin to bare skin. He squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back. Action and reaction.

Shifting his head on the backrest, he opened his eyes. She filled his entire vision. Another squeeze, and again her hand tightened in response. Encouraging. He smiled.

She looked at him then, and smiled back. “Mulder? You okay?”

For every action, there is an equal and positive reaction. He wondered if he kissed her if she would kiss him back.

Suddenly, her eyes widened, her mouth dropped open, and she eyed him like he was a rotting animal carcass. “What?

He stared at her. What was going on? Why was she looking at him like that? It was almost as if… Oh, God.

“Nothing,” he mumbled. “I was thinking. But my brain’s not working right.”

“No kidding,” he heard her mutter.

All of a sudden he felt trapped. By the car, by her hand still clutching his, by his whole life. The night’s activities spun around in his head until he had to expel them. “Stop,” he rasped. “The car. I need to get out.”

He couldn’t spare her a glance, but her immediate compliance told him she had been waiting for it. They screeched to a halt even before he finished his plea.

The door handle wouldn’t work for him, and he was frantic that he might soil the inside of the car, when Scully pulled it open from the outside. He rushed past her and ran as far away as he could before he fell to his knees, retching helplessly onto the snow-covered grass.

Even as he was puking his guts up, he heard her footsteps crunching in the thin layer of ice. She didn’t say anything, but he felt her warmth as she knelt beside him on the wet ground and laid a comforting hand on his back. He felt shaky and dizzy, yet her presence gave him peace of mind. Worry that his arms would give out and he would fall into his own mess all but evaporated because he knew she wouldn’t let that happen. Even though upset with him for what he’d said, she would still watch out for him.

If he was in control of his faculties, he knew he’d be deathly embarrassed; as it was, he only knew that he felt awful and that she would keep him safe from harm. Even if that harm was from himself. He could feel the beer sloshing around his insides, could taste it as it came up, and it made him all the sicker. Jesus, how many did he have anyway?

He felt Scully’s arm wrapping around his shoulders, and he knew that something had changed; he just didn’t know what. “Come on. Come on, Mulder. Listen to my voice. Concentrate. That’s it. Can you hear me? Deep breath… take a deep breath. Easy now. Easy. That’s it. Breathe.”

He must have been complying because his stomach muscles stopped clenching, and he could take air into his mouth without wanting to gag. His head was spinning, though, and when he leaned into her, he toppled them backwards onto the ground. He could feel her beneath him, but he was powerless to do anything except breathe, and that in itself was quite an effort.

“Mulder!” She tried to squirm out from under him, and he tried to move off her, but he was totally spent, unable to move a muscle.

“I… need a few… seconds… catch my breath…”

Her struggling stopped, and he felt her hand rubbing his arm. “Okay,” she said, in a whisper.

He was so exhausted, and Scully was so soft and warm beneath him that he could have fallen asleep right there on the side of the road, were it not for a little niggling voice that kept telling him that Scully was getting soaked lying in the snow. So as soon as he had some motor control, he rolled off her to lie face down on the wet ground.

It actually felt kind of good, the cold, revitalizing his lethargic thought processes, but not enough, he knew, to make him sober. He’d need a few hours in deep freeze for that. He shivered when he remembered that he’d been there, done that, got the frostbite.

“Mulder?”

Her voice was laced with concern, and he made a gargantuan effort to raise his head. “Yeah?” His voice hurt.

“Mulder, we have to get back in the car.” Her voice was quivering. “Do you still feel sick?”

Truth to tell, he felt like he could—and probably would—puke all night, but he gathered up what little reserves he had and put them toward his goal of getting Scully out of the cold.

“Yeah,” he answered, “but I can make it back to the motel.”

“Good, because I’m freezing.”

He knew she was, and that was why he pushed himself up to his hands and knees. Yet beyond that, he was stumped. How did one go about becoming vertical when one could not feel one’s extremities? They were there; he could see they were there. But how to maneuver them? “Um, Scully, I, uh… I need a hand up.”

She wrapped an arm around him, pulling him upright. His knees buckled, and she quickly snared him around the middle, preventing him from falling. The pressure of her arm against his stomach became too much, and he cursed himself when he felt his control slipping. Breaking out of her grip, he stumbled a few feet before dropping to his knees and tainting the pristine snow again.

“Oh, Mulder…” She was kneeling down next to him. “I’m so sorry. I should have known better than to grab you there.”

He thought it was probably his good fortune that he was unable to respond, because she would have flattened him for sure if he gave the comeback he had for that remark.

Like before, she stayed quietly beside him, her palm on his back, until he was done. Then she gently eased him through the dry heaves, wiping his face, softly encouraging him to breathe deeply. She nudged him away from the foul-smelling ground, and he showed his gratitude by not falling on top of her when he collapsed.

“Hey.” Her hands were on his cheeks, and he opened his eyes.

He felt like the world’s biggest heel. All that worry and all that concern for an affliction he’d caused himself. And caused her: she was shivering in earnest now. “I’m okay. Get in the car and turn the heat on. I’ll be there in a few seconds.”

A shake of her head. “You need my help.”

“I’m fine. Now get in the car before you get sick again.”

“And leave you lying in the snow? No.”

Damn, she was stubborn! Nowhere near ready, he nonetheless hauled himself to his feet. “There. I’m not lying in the snow anymore.” She eyed him for a moment, daring him to fall. His anger began to resurface, and misdirected though he knew it was, he still focused it all on her. “Get in the fucking car, Scully.”

His outburst didn’t faze her in the least. She stood her ground for a good ten seconds before turning around, striding to the car and getting in. She didn’t even slam the goddamned door.

Mulder followed slowly. He was shaking with fury, and he didn’t know why. She’d done nothing. She certainly didn’t deserve what he was feeling toward her. Yet he felt it anyway and it scared him.

He couldn’t get in the car. He’d say something hateful. He knew precisely how and where to turn the knife for maximum effect with minimum effort. Sometimes their closeness worked against them; he knew what she liked, he knew what she feared. He knew what would hurt her.

So he walked to the car and past it. The cold air felt good, and the longer he walked, the more his head cleared. After about twenty minutes, he looked around. For the first time it occurred to him that although treading down an unlit highway, he could see the road beneath his feet. Taking a deep breath, he pivoted to look behind him.

The car stopped, her door opened, and she stepped out. Their eyes met for a second, but it was enough. By the time he reached the car he felt ashamed of his behavior. If he had a tail, it would be securely tucked between his legs. His hand pulled on the handle, and he slid in. He didn’t look at her.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. I was… I just had to walk it off.”

Out the corner of his eye, he saw her nod of understanding. Lifting his head, he looked at her and smiled. She met his eyes and smiled back.

He would not hurt her for the world.

*****

Part 3 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Castlenook Inn Parking Lot Colebrook, NH 1:12 a.m.

Scully reached over to tap Mulder, but stopped short. “Oh! I thought you were asleep.”

He shook his head. “No, just repentant.”

They got out of the car, and she followed Mulder to his door. She waited while he opened it. “Mulder, let me have your key.”

He looked at the open door, then back at her, confusion plain on his features. Gradually, understanding replaced puzzlement. “I feel a lot better, Scully.” He handed her the key anyway.

“I know you do—now.”

He sighed. “You’re not going to camp out in my room all night, are you?”

“That depends on you.” The glossiness was gone from his eyes, as well as the slurred speech. “You seem lucid enough, but I don’t think Billy’s Bud is through with you yet.”

A hand covered his stomach protectively, and he grimaced. “I’m afraid you may be right.”

She smiled sympathetically. “Ten minutes?” That was more than enough time for him to change out of his wet clothes and even take a quick shower. It was also, gauging by his appearance, about when she judged the next bout would hit him.

“Scully, you don’t—”

“Mulder, do you know how many people die from choking on their own vomit every year?” Without waiting for his response she continued. “I do, and I’m not going to let you become one of them.” She stabbed him with her eyes, then gently grasped his arm. “Okay?”

He didn’t shy away from her gaze even though she could read the embarrassment in his eyes. “Okay,” he said, very softly.

She gave him a quick squeeze before letting him go. A shiver ran up her spine, and she hurried into her own room, shedding wet shoes and clothes almost before the door was closed. Glad she brought sweats—she’d rather not parade around in front of Mulder wearing pajamas—she pulled them on, sighing in ecstasy when the warm fleece caressed her skin. Checking the time—seven minutes—she picked up her medical bag and her key and headed next door.

Even before she slid the key in the slot she heard him. The bathroom door was closed, so she knocked before opening it a crack. “Mulder? Are you okay in there?”

“Scully?” His tone held a plaintive appeal, so she pushed the door in carefully.

She gasped when she caught sight of him, naked and wet, still in the tub, leaning over the rim, retching into the toilet. He was shaking like a leaf. Rushing over to him, she tossed her bag in a corner and picked up the towel from where he’d dropped it. She dried him as best she could, then took a clean towel and draped it across his back.

His hand was blindly searching for the toilet paper; she gently guided it to its goal, then helped him tear off a generous piece. Averting her eyes while he ran the tissue over his nose and mouth, she filled a glass with water and held it out to him. He took it without looking at her, rinsing a few times before taking a careful sip. She glanced at his unclothed body. “Do you want me to wait outside while you get dressed?”

“Yeah, but…” He finally met her eyes, and she was shocked by the fear in his. “Not yet?”

“Hey…” She brushed the hair out of his eyes. “I only wanted to give you some privacy. I’ll stay as long as you want.”

He swallowed hard, then nodded. Straightening to his knees, he grabbed hold of the towel covering his lower regions, pulling it closed, fumbling to tuck it in place. She reached up and touched his fingers, and he immediately relinquished the task to her. The towel rode low on his hips, and as she struggled to gather in the cloth, her arm bumped the tip of his penis; she felt Mulder stiffen. “Sorry,” she muttered, feeling her temperature rising a few degrees.

“It’s all right,” he said, very softly. “I’m too sick to fully appreciate it anyway.”

She patted his towel-covered hip. “I know. Poor Mulder.”

His hand pressed into her shoulder, and she looked up. Mulder’s eyes held gratitude, love, desire—and most of all, regret. She loved him more in that moment than she ever had in all their five years.

“Come on,” she said, gently, helping him out of the tub. His sweat pants and underwear were still intact on the toilet tank, and she reached for them. “Do you feel steady enough to dress yourself?” He nodded, and as she handed the clothes to him, a giant yawn overtook her; she covered her mouth in surprise. “Sorry.”

He brushed the back of his hand against her cheek, very tenderly. “Why don’t you lie down? If I need you, I’ll call you.”

She felt her lids beginning to droop. “Yeah. I think I will.” Her eyes ran over him. “What about you?”

He gave her a sickly smile. “I think I’ll stay in here for awhile. Things… still haven’t settled down.”

She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. It was unlikely that he’d get much sleep tonight. Her hand reached out and squeezed his arm in sympathy. “Leave the door open so I can hear you.”

His face screwed up into a grimace.

“I’ll sleep better, Mulder.”

He shook his head. “Only you, Scully, would find solace in hearing me being sick.”

“And only you, Mulder, would take comfort from my ‘singing.’”

He laughed. “Point taken.” With a gentle hand on her back, he pushed her toward the door. “Now get some sleep.” His hand stayed with her until she was beyond his reach; she thought if he wasn’t committed to spending the night on the bathroom floor he’d have followed her right into bed. Poor guy. She should probably leave the—

She turned around quickly—and stopped short. Mulder was staring after her, dreamy look on his face, arm still outstretched. He blinked in surprise and pulled his arm close against himself protectively. He looked embarrassed, worried, confused—and hurt.

She didn’t know which unnerved her more: his expression before she caught him, or the kicked-puppy one he wore now. “I forgot my bag,” she mumbled, brushing by him into the bathroom. Picking up the satchel, she searched inside until her hand closed around a bottle of AKA Seltzer. “I wanted… This might help you.” She held out the container like a peace offering; that longing in his eyes was something she was never meant to see.

“Thanks,” he said, taking the medicine from her hand.

She could tell he was upset, but she was too tired, and he was too sick, to deal with unsettling emotions right now. “Good night, Mulder,” she said, stepping around him.

His soft “Good night, Scully” was cut off when she closed the door.

Sometime during the night, when she tucked a pillow under his head and wrapped a blanket around him, he mumbled in his sleep, but this time his words didn’t shock her. She brushed the hair out of his eyes and pressed her lips to his forehead.

It wasn’t exactly an answer, but it would have to do. For now.

*****

 

Crime Scene Quabbin Marsh Colebrook, New Hampshire Friday, March 13 8:07 a.m.

After a quick glance at the body, Mulder decided that he should explore the surrounding terrain. Corpses were Scully’s forte, after all, not his. Even though shivering with cold, Mulder was grateful for the grey, cloudy day. Sunlight glistening on the vast expanse of white would surely have killed him.

When Randall called them this morning at seven, Mulder had just dropped into an armchair, finally free of the bathroom’s allure. The detective asked how he was feeling, then broke the news about the latest victim. In his best I’m-not-dead-yet-but-thanks-for-trying voice, Mulder ignored the health question and asked for directions to the crime scene.

Scully had awakened when the phone rang, and after a little confusion as to who was in whom’s room, she left to get dressed, and he collapsed onto the bed.

It was one of the biggest—and best—mistakes he had ever made in his life.

The bed was soft, and the bed was warm—Scullywarm. Traces of his partner were everywhere, and he wallowed in them like a porker in a mud bath.

Fifteen minutes later, she was standing over him, “scolding” him for falling asleep. She offered him a hand up, and he didn’t refuse; when a man awakes in the middle of a dream to find it hovering over him, he perpetuates it any way he can.

He showered quickly and found her sitting on his unmade bed when he came out. Before they left, he hung the “No maid service” sign on the door.

***** Crime Scene Quabbin Marsh Colebrook, New Hampshire 8:18 a.m.

Scully was in her element, and she knew it. The body held all the clues they’d need. Even Mulder admitted that Dwyer had jumped the gun, assigning paranormal overtones to a case that had none. Her partner had completed his circuit of the grounds and now stood behind her, looking anywhere but at the body.

She knew he still wasn’t up to snuff when he’d asked if she’d mind driving. She hadn’t realized how ill he still felt, though, until he’d laid eyes on the corpse; she hadn’t seen anyone turn that white that fast since Jake Warren fainted dead away her first day of teaching at Quantico. A quick glance at Mulder, his nod that he was okay, and she’d put the incident out of her mind.

Until now.

His hand at her elbow was a welcome courtesy; she’d gotten stiff with cold, crouching by the body for so long in the snow.

“You okay?” he asked, when she grabbed hold of his arms to steady herself on almost-numb legs.

She let him lead her toward the car. “I’m frozen.”

“All through here?” he asked.

“I am.” She met his eyes. “You?”

A nod. “They didn’t need us on this one. A boy scout with a broken magnifying glass could piece the evidence together. Well—and you.” He smiled, and she was glad to see that his color had improved, although not by much.

“How are you holding up?” She smiled gratefully as he opened the driver’s side door for her.

“I’m still a little shaky.” He walked around to the passenger side and got in while she situated herself behind the wheel. “I guess you noticed my Casper impression at the body?”

Shifting the car into gear and pulling out, she nodded.

“They didn’t need us here.” He was repeating himself, and Mulder repeating himself signified that he was angry or embarrassed, probably both. What he really meant was that if they’d never come, he wouldn’t have had to go through last night. And this morning.

She’d noticed that he’d struck out on his own, never making contact with the officers, except for a few terse words with Dwyer. His demeanor now was a sure indication that he hadn’t missed the snickers, furtive glances, the little remarks—digs—that the officers didn’t even try to be subtle about.

“Why don’t we go back to the motel?” she said. “It’ll take them a couple of hours to get me set up.” Until her arrival, the autopsies had been taking place at the nearest equipped hospital—65 miles to the south. “We can get some breakfast.”

She heard him swallow. “I’m not hungry, and frankly Scully, I don’t think I could take the smell of food right now.”

She was afraid of this. “Still? I thought you felt better.”

“I do.” He looked at his hands in his lap. “A little.”

“How much sleep did you get last night?”

“I actually think I got a couple of hours in.” A hand rubbed his lower back. “And I have the aches to prove it.” He glanced over at her, a tentative smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Uh… thanks for the blanket and the pillow.”

She returned the smile. “You’re welcome.” He was shivering when she’d checked on him a couple of hours later, and she had felt guilty about closing him in—after she had just told him to leave the door open—with that drafty window.

He looked back at his hands. “I can probably manage some tea and toast if we eat in the room.”

“I think you’ll feel better, Mulder,” she said softly.

He didn’t look up, and if she hadn’t turned to him that very second she would have missed it, because the smile was gone almost as quickly as it had come. But there was no denying it: Mulder had felt loved, and he had attributed it to her.

And he had every right to feel that way.

*****

Castlenook Inn Friday, March 13 9:42 a.m.

There were times when Mulder felt like he didn’t have a friend in the world. Then there were times like this.

As lousy as he felt, he was remarkably euphoric. In his lifetime, there hadn’t been a whole lot of people who’d cared what happened to him one way or the other. Even during his VCS days, when he was at the top of his game, no one gave a damn if he was ill. What mattered was if he was able to work. And he always worked.

Scully gave a damn. He still worked when he didn’t feel well—so did she—but they looked out for each other, one never allowing the other to push himself or herself beyond their limits. Where Scully had been loved all her life, if not by her friends then by her family, he had been scorned and ridiculed. He didn’t think she had any idea how deeply her devotion affected him.

Even though he’d been blessed with her love for years now, every time it made its presence known he still got the proverbial lump in his throat. The truth was, he was still getting used to it. Sometimes he couldn’t get enough of it. Sometimes it scared him to death.

“Mulder?”

He looked over at her.

“Eat your toast before it gets cold.”

He nodded and took a bite.

He wondered if she could see the smile in his heart.

***** Castlenook Inn Friday, March 13 11:16 a.m.

Scully started awake when the chirping of a cell phone blasted right next to her ear. She fumbled around in Mulder’s jacket until she came up with the offending instrument.

“Scully.”

The male voice on the other end sounded surprised. “Ah… Agent Scully? I was expecting Agent Mulder on this number.”

“Yeah, it’s his phone,” she murmured, sitting up, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of the jacket she’d been using as a pillow. “Do you want to speak to him?”

“Ah… no. That’s not necessary. I just wanted to tell him that everything’s been delivered for the autopsy.”

Scully felt her hackles raise. “Oh? I was unaware that Agent Mulder was performing the autopsy.”

The voice chuckled. “The way he looked last night, I didn’t think he’d be up to performing anything.” After a slight pause, the voice continued. “I could be wrong, of course.”

Suddenly tumbling to the man’s meaning and the reason he reached that meaning, Scully stabbed her partner with a glare. For no reason other than he was sleeping peacefully on the other side of his own bed while she was turning all shades of red, Scully wanted to grind him into fine powder.

“I’ll tell him you called,” she said, not bothering to ask who it was. Punching the “End” button, she leaned across the bed and gave Mulder a shove.

“Hunh?” Opening his eyes, he looked up at her. “Time to go?”

“One of your friends called.” She met his eyes briefly, but was too angry to maintain contact.

“My friends?”

“One of your buddies from the police station called with a message for you.”

“Huh?” He was rubbing his eyes and forehead, and she knew he had a headache by the way he was peering at her through half-closed eyes. “What message?”

“Your autopsy bay is ready.”

He sat up straight. “What do you mean my autopsy bay?”

“He said to tell you, so what else am I to assume but that you’ll be doing the autopsy?”

She heard him curse under his breath. “Way to go, assholes.” Then he looked up at her. “I’m sorry, Scully. They should have called you, not me.”

“No shit, Sherlock.”

Expecting him to be defensive or to respond just as shrewishly, she was surprised when he merely sighed. “You’ve every reason to be upset.”

She heaved a sigh of her own. “You know it’s not you I’m angry with, Mulder. You’re just the most readily-available target. And you’re the same gender as those…” She bit off the very unladylike expletive she was about to utter.

What she was sure was meant to be a comforting hand was placed on her shoulder, and she swatted it off as though it were an annoying insect. Mulder’s eyes furrowed in concern. “What else did he say?”

She was torn between affection for him because he was Mulder, and anger at him because he was male. “He called on your phone. It woke me up. I answered it.”

It took less than a second for the light to blink on in Mulder’s eyes, and she resented the male mentality which allowed him to reach that conclusion without any thought whatsoever. “Oh,” he said. A sadness deeper than any she had seen before settled into his eyes. “Does the thought bother you so much?” he asked very quietly.

The idea itself didn’t, not in the least; she couldn’t honestly say that it had never occurred to her. But, God help her, it bothered her a good deal that those apes should think that she and Mulder were sleeping together.

“I’m going to take a shower,” she muttered, walking swiftly through the connecting doors into her room. She was being very unfair to him, she knew, but she was still seeing red. Her avoidance of the question had hurt him, but it was nothing compared to the damage she might have wrought had she given tongue to the unflattering thoughts rattling around in her head.

She had had it with men in general. If the manager came by with the extra towels she’d requested she’d probably shoot him. No, Mulder was better off the way she’d left him. Bruised, but alive.

It bothered her, though, that he looked grateful she’d left him with at least that much.

*****

 

Colebrook, New Hampshire Police Station Friday, March 13 1:00 p.m.

Mulder had to admit that the officers were as good as their word: whatever Scully had asked for, she’d gotten. As he’d expected, they’d gone overboard with their “treating her like one of the boys,” though. Once the equipment had been delivered, men who once would have tripped over their feet in an attempt to assist a “helpless” woman, left her alone to carry down and set up everything in the building’s basement.

He could tell that Scully was baffled by the turnabout in behavior, but she didn’t ask, content, he suspected, to prove her—and his—mettle, as they spent an hour hauling tables and trays and more torture devices than Mulder had ever wanted to see, down the narrow stairway into the bowels of the police station. When they’d finished and Scully went to see about the body, Mulder collapsed onto the spare table. Maybe Scully had mettle, but he sure didn’t. She was still running up and down the stairs while the most strenuous activity he was suited for was falling asleep.

He awoke with a gasp, to find Scully waving smelling salts under his nose. “What the hell are you doing?” He pushed her hand away, then rolled off the table and onto his feet.

She looked as shocked as he, as she stumbled backwards. “I thought… You looked pretty out of it toward the end. And the way you were sprawled—”

“I fell asleep, for Chrissakes! If you’d tried to wake me the conventional way before resorting to…” His nose scrunched up at the mere remembrance. “…that,” he spat out, “then—”

“I did.”

Her words brought him up short. “What?”

“I did try to wake you the conventional way. You were out, Mulder. Cold.”

He felt his face scowl in distaste. “Did it ever occur to you that I just might be tired? I had a bad night, and then you made me carry down all your damned equipment…”

She recoiled as though slapped. While he hadn’t intended to sound so harsh, he felt a certain satisfaction at her reaction. He was still reeling from their earlier “conversation,” and he was only too glad he’d been able to return the favor. He’d taken a risk, let his heart out of its prison, and she’d responded by shoving it back in, locking the door, throwing away the key. Hell, she’d even managed to get in a kick or twenty after she left. Poor, lovesick Mulder. Stupid, blind Mulder. Her silence had supplied him with all the answer he’d needed.

“I’m going to see Dwyer. Turn in my report.”

“Okay,” she said softly, her arms stiff at her sides.

As he walked away, he could feel her remorse, yet he wasn’t quite ready to pretend it hadn’t happened. He’d gotten nothing but grief this entire case, and the one person he’d counted on, who he’d reached out to, had chopped him off at the knees, then left him alone and bleeding. He thought he understood her motivation, but understanding didn’t lessen the pain and it sure as hell didn’t make it right.

Mulder took a breath before walking through the door into the squad room. The detectives were huddled over a desk, passing around and chuckling at a collection of snapshots. Relieved that they were otherwise occupied, Mulder continued on to Dwyer’s office at the rear of the room.

Raucous laughter reached his ears, and Mulder forced himself to continue walking until he reached his destination. Recalling the photos, he told himself that they, and not he, were the source of the glee. Through the door’s window, Dwyer looked up at him, the chief’s expression part anger, part apology. A curious combination, Mulder thought, pulling open the door.

Striding to the man’s desk, Mulder dropped the manila folder he was carrying onto the chief’s desk. “There’s your case, all wrapped up. As soon as Scully finishes the autopsy we’ll be on our way.”

He turned to leave, but Dwyer’s, “Just a minute, Mulder,” stopped him.

Sighing, he moved back around to face the man.

“Sit down, please? I’d like to explain what happened last night.”

Only because the chief’s mannerisms were devoid of any form of gloating did Mulder accept, lowering himself into the chair in front of Dwyer’s desk.

“Look, Mulder, we didn’t know Jimmy was giving you Billy’s until after you’d left.”

“Jimmy?”

“The bartender.”

Mulder nodded.

“You asked for a Bud, and around here when anyone asks for a Bud, they get a Billy’s. Jimmy never even gave it a second thought.” Dwyer looked distressed. “Jesus, Mulder, you must have had five of those. I would never have let you leave alone if I’d known that.”

“Scully picked me up,” Mulder said quietly.

Dwyer’s face relaxed in relief, and he blew out a breath. “At least you had enough sense of mind to call her. You were…” The chief coughed uncomfortably. “Before you left for the men’s room that last time, you demolished one of the darts.” He smiled uncertainly. “Said you killed it before it could kill you.” The grin widened. “It was pretty damned funny.”

Mulder felt his face grow hot. “Yeah, I got that impression.”

“Look, we weren’t jerking you around, if that’s what you think. We had no way of knowing you were drinking Billy’s; we thought you were just a little under the influence, like the rest of us.” Dwyer’s voice softened. “Did you get sick?”

Mulder nodded stiffly.

“If I wasted your time on this case, I’m sorry, but it didn’t look like anything done by any human or animal.” The chief picked up the folder. “Thanks for all your work. I’ll read this through, and if I’m not satisfied after I see the autopsy results I’ll get in touch with you. Fair enough?”

“All right,” Mulder agreed, standing, beginning to feel less persecuted.

“Why don’t you go back to your motel and lie down? I know from firsthand experience the effects of Billy’s Bud on the human digestive system.” He studied Mulder’s face. “It doesn’t look like it’s let go of you yet.”

All this talk of his health made Mulder uneasy. “I’m all right,” he said brusquely. “Besides, Scully’s downstairs. She might need my help.”

“Oh,” the chief said, coughing, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile.

Mulder frowned. He’d forgotten about the behind-the-back whispers at the crime scene. Naturally, he’d assumed they were directed at him, but it appeared that he’d misconstrued their true meaning. “Do you have a problem with that?” he asked.

“No, no,” Dwyer was quick to deny.

“Then what’s the joke?”

Dwyer cleared his throat. “Your partner seems a little…” He looked up at Mulder. “I’ve never encountered a male/female partnership before. I guess that aspect of law enforcement hasn’t made its way up here to the boonies yet.” He shrugged. “Is it a requirement that the female be the dominant one in the partnership?”

Mulder was beyond appalled. “What?

“Um…” The chief was starting to look uncomfortable. “She seems very ‘in charge’ of this investigation.”

“In what way?”

“Well, you hanging around in case she needs something, for instance.”

Mulder frowned. “She’s working; I’m not. When the roles are reversed, she’s there for me if I need her. The give and take goes both ways.”

Dwyer smiled affably. “It appears that I was wrong, then.”

His flippant tone of voice bothered Mulder, but the agent merely nodded. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me to go over anything in there.” He nodded toward the folder.

“Right.” Again, the not-quite-hidden smile. “Downstairs.”

Mulder met the chief’s eyes for a second, then turned on his heel and left.

“Hey, Mulder! How you doin’?” Randall’s voice came from off to his left, and the agent’s head swiveled in that direction. Th e tall, baby-faced detective was sitting at a desk, crime scene photos covering its entire surface. Carefully extracting himself from the collection, he made his way over to the agent.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Mulder answered. “You?”

“Oh, I’m right as rain. Then I knew enough not to drink Billy’s on a work night.” The detective grinned, his eye twinkling mischievously.

Mulder was none too pleased to be the source of Randall’s amusement. “Yeah, well no one thought to mention that little detail to me.”

Randall sighed, the gleeful attitude fading away. “We sure as hell weren’t expecting you to know about it, let alone be drinking it.” The detective’s brows furrowed. “Really, though. How are you? Even the most seasoned of us can’t drink more than four, and you must have had at least that many.”

“Five,” Mulder sighed.

Randall’s eyebrows shot up into his forehead, and he let out a long whistle. “And you can walk?”

Either these people were still yanking his chain or last night was truly a major misunderstanding. Mulder decided to play it careful, holding to the adage, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ “Barely,” he said, letting the hint of a smile play about his lips. Gauging Randall’s reaction.

Sympathy was not at all what he expected. “I know what you mean. The first time I drank Billy’s…” Randall’s face soured. “Some joker slipped them to me at my bachelor party. I was as sick as a dog all night. I couldn’t even stand at my own wedding the next day. I took my vows sitting on a chair, leaning into my wife, trying not to groan.”

Mulder pursed his lips and let out a silent whistle. “That’s rough.”

Randall beamed. “But she married me anyway. It’ll be fourteen years this July. Hey!” He started toward his desk, motioning Mulder to follow. “Do you like kids?”

Mulder nodded.

“My son’s 6th birthday party last Sunday.” Opening his desk drawer, he drew out a packet of photos. “Phil’s an amateur magician, and he gave the kids a show.” Mulder assumed that ‘Phil’ was Detective Phil Costin. “Did you ever see anything more funny than the looks on their faces when he sawed my wife in half?” As Randall handed Mulder the pictures, the agent relaxed and even had to admit that the officers’ earlier laughter was justified. The looks of wonder and horror on the juvenile audience’s faces were a scream.

“These are great,” Mulder laughed, handing them back.

“Thanks,” Randall said, placing them back in the drawer. “Say, I’m gonna grab a bite. Do you want to come, or can I pick you up something?”

“Uh, no, thanks.” Just the thought made Mulder’s stomach flip-flop. “But if you can wait a minute, I’ll see if Scully wants something.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Mulder headed for the doorway to the stairs, then turned back around to ask Randall what type of food he was going for. The words died on his lips when he saw the expression of amused pity on the detective’s face.

This was just too much of a coincidence for his tastes. Could the entire male population of New Hampshire be that wrong? Maybe after all this time he’d slipped into the role of passive male without his ever being aware of it. Scully did have a strong personality, but did it overshadow his?

He thought about the concessions he’d made over the years, how she’d chipped away at him, piece by piece, until there was nothing of the original Mulder left. Yet he’d always thought that these changes had been for the better. Oh, God, maybe he was domesticated.

“Hey, Randall, you know, on second thought, I will join you.” Scully could handle the autopsy just fine by herself. She’d certainly made it clear that his attentions were unwanted. And she was more than capable of getting her own lunch.

As he walked through the door with Randall, for the first time in a long while he felt free. It was beginning to look like this trip to New Hampshire wasn’t a total waste after all. He discovered that once he quit worrying about Scully’s well-being, Scully’s feelings, Scully’s opinions, he was back. The Mulder of five years ago. The one who required no one and nothing. A man in his own right, able to stand on his own two feet and who didn’t need anyone watching his back. This Mulder was self-made, self-contained, and self-confident. This Mulder was a winner.

Why, then, did he feel like he’d lost something?

*****

Part 4 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Colebrook, New Hampshire Police Station Basement Friday, March 13 6:13 p.m.

The room shimmered, and Scully grabbed onto the edge of the table when she felt her knees buckling. Jesus, where the hell had that come from? One minute she was probing a soft patch on the victim’s back, and the next she was lightheaded and weak.

Glancing up at the clock she saw the reason: it had been nine hours since she’d last eaten. Where was Mulder? On these cases with no X-File to hold his attention, he usually stuck to her like glue, dogging her heels like an obedient Labrador, and generally driving her to distraction. If nothing else, he’d always made certain that she’d eaten proper meals at the proper times.

She had to admit that she missed his company. As annoying and obsessive as he could be, he was never boring. And his strength and height came in handy on many an occasion, as she’d found today when she’d had to turn the six foot, 240-lb body from back to stomach by herself. She’d been trembling with exhaustion when she’d finished, not even having the energy to walk to the lone chair against the wall. She’d sunk to the cold concrete floor, shaking and sweating and freezing, praying that no one would find her like that.

No one had. As she’d hoisted herself to her feet fifteen minutes later, she imagined she could feel Mulder’s gentle touch on her elbows, soft voice whispering in her ear that she pushed herself too hard and that he was taking her back to the motel. She’d actually turned to respond to him that she was fine, and felt a little foolish that she couldn’t even be truthful with imaginary Mulders. Had he been here she would have snapped at him, berated him for treating her like a member of the “weaker sex.”

Is it any wonder he hadn’t returned? But where the hell was he? Should she be worried about him? Had he gone and gotten himself hurt again? She stiffened. That had to be it. He was lying somewhere, bleeding, calling her name, waiting for her to come and find him.

That had to be it. Otherwise, he’d be here. He’d have been here, risking life and limb bringing her a burger, fries and a shake, telling her to live a little, Agent Scully, just this once won’t kill you. He’d be here now, when she felt so faint, to lean on and let her draw on his strength, even to the point of dangerously depleting himself. He’d be here to catch her and keep her from landing on the floor, from feeling the icy fingers penetrating her skin right through to her bones, from finally giving in to the darkness.

He’d be here.

*****

 

Colebrook, New Hampshire Police Station Friday, March 13 6:36 p.m.

Mulder had had a very fulfilling afternoon. After forcing down a bowl of chicken broth and some saltines at the Moosehead Restaurant, he’d almost felt like a human being again. Some of the other detectives were already there, and they’d all expressed concern for his well-being. Although the attention made him uneasy, it also afforded him the rare opportunity to bask in the afterglow of concern from someone other than Scully. He’d never been one for male camaraderie, mostly because he was never included in it, but he’d begun to see the attraction.

He’d felt a part of a group, but more than that he’d also felt welcome, like these officers were actually enjoying his presence, not merely tolerating it. More than once he’d wondered why, then gave up and decided to ride the wave while it lasted.

Once they’d eaten, talk naturally drifted to the case and Mulder’s findings. They’d been genuinely interested not only in his conclusions, but the methods he used to reach those conclusions. The latter part of the afternoon had been spent with his conducting an impromptu sermon on the finer points of profiling. The detectives had been a rapt audience, and not once did Mulder’s thoughts stray to his partner’s whereabouts.

The detectives had long since gone home, and for the last hour he’d been debating with himself the best way to approach Scully. He knew she was still working because their rental was parked outside. Now that he’d duly impressed the officers with his abilities, both professional and personal, he no longer felt the need to prove to them—and to himself—that he was any less a man because he so readily accepted Scully as his equal. The unspoken jeers were still there; he felt them every time he made a reference to Scully’s forensic talents or her burgeoning skills at regular police work.

By the time he’d wrapped up his little lesson, although the detectives had come away with a dollop more knowledge about the workings of the serial killer’s mind, they remained uneducated—by choice—in the merits of professional women, and especially his partner. Mulder sighed. As much as he liked these men and as readily as they’d accepted him, he felt rather uncomfortable in their presence because of their attitude toward his partner.

He grimaced when he thought of his own recent behavior toward her. Granted, she hadn’t treated him very kindly, but then he hadn’t been the one on the receiving end of the officers’ disdain. Having been the recipient of his fellow agents’ taunts all too often, he should have been more understanding of her anger, and why it had been directed toward him. And he definitely should not have allowed it to be taken so personally.

Even with his years of experience at being a target, he occasionally lashed out at her when the frustration got to him. And what had she done at those times? Had she stalked away like a petulant child? Had she abandoned him in favor of other, more socially appealing company?

He stood up. What an asshole he was.

Grabbing his suit jacket off the back of a chair, he pulled it on and bounded toward the door to the basement. Finding it no longer necessary to rehearse his speech—after all this time he had “I’m sorry” down pat—he hurried down the stairs and through the maze of rooms to where they’d situated Scully.

The door was closed, so he pushed it open slowly, carefully. “Scully?”

There was no sign of her, but the body was there, and from the looks of it she was still working on it. Assuming she must have stepped out to use the ladies room or grab some fresh air, Mulder stepped closer to the corpse.

“Jesus! Scully!” He rushed over to where she lay crumpled on the floor, and didn’t start breathing again until he felt her pulse, strong and steady. Her hand wasn’t hot with fever, as he’d feared; as a matter of fact, if anything, she was cold from lying on the concrete. Shrugging out of his jacket, he slid it beneath her, pulling it closed until it swallowed her.

“Hey…” He tapped her face lightly and was rewarded with a fluttering of her eyelids. “Come on, Doctor Scully. Time to wake up.”

“Mulder?” she mumbled, eyes still closed. She didn’t seem to be asking if it was him, but rather for reassurance that he was with her.

“Right here,” he said, tenderly, rubbing his palm over the back of her hand.

“What happened? Where are we?”

“In the basement of the police station. You were doing the autopsy—”

“Right; right. I felt dizzy.” Her eyes opened, and she gazed up at him. “I passed out.”

He nodded. “That’s what it looks like.” She shivered and clutched at his jacket, drawing it closer around herself. “How long ago?” he asked, very quietly.

“What time is it?”

“6:45,” he told her, after a glance at his watch.

“About half an hour.” A shudder ran through her, and it was killing Mulder not to offer the warmth of his comfort. Scully Rule Number One, though, was: the first move had to come from her. She was becoming more awake by the second. As she struggled to rise, he pulled her up gently, then let her go. “How do you feel?”

She leaned into him and he risked snaking first one, then the other, arm around her. “Like I could use a good meal.”

Mulder closed his eyes. That was his job. To see to it that she ate something every few hours. Just as she’d taken it upon herself to make sure he ate while all caught up in a case, he’d made it his job to do the same for her when she got carried away with an autopsy. Except for when he felt slighted or put out, of course. God, he was a selfish bastard.

“Do you want me to go get you something?” he asked, softly.

He felt her head shake against his chest. “I would like you to secure this area, though, while I…” He actually felt the heat of her embarrassment through his shirt. “…while I sit on that chair.” She began moving toward the single straight-backed chair against the wall.

“No problem.” Following her lead, he walked her very slowly to the seat. “Okay?” he asked, when she was settled in, reluctant to release his hold on her.

Her answer was a grateful smile, and he felt like the scum that floated to the top of his fish tank every morning. Giving her a weak smile in return, he set about covering the corpse and taking care of her tools. She was sitting with her elbows on her knees, one hand covering her eyes. His nerves were on edge; he kept expecting her to topple over at any minute.

When he was finished, he stood in front of her. “Done,” he said, drying his hands on his pant legs. “Scully?” he asked, when she gave no hint that she’d heard him. Lowering himself to one knee, he very gently touched a finger to her hand. “Scully.”

“Hm?” Her hand fell away, and she looked up at him. “All done?” she asked.

“Yup.” He stood up.

She started to rise, then blanched and sat back down; she pulled away when he laid a hand on her arm. “I’m fine, Mulder.”

“Scully?” He lowered himself again until they were eye to eye. A fine sheen of perspiration covered her face, confirming that she was anything but fine. “Will you listen to me a minute?”

Her slight nod indicated that she would.

“One of the things I admire about you is your fierce independence. It’s also the thing I find the most infuriating.” One eyebrow raised in surprised amusement. “Scully…” He covered the hand resting on her knee with both of his. “Last night I was in one of the most embarrassing situations a man can be in in front of a woman. Do you think less of me because of it?”

“What?” Bless her, she actually looked pissed that he had the audacity to even ask. “Of course not.”

“At the time, though, you were repulsed by my actions, by my dependence upon you, weren’t you? You thought I should have been able to take care of myself without any help from you. Isn’t that right?”

She stared at him, betrayal written all over her face. “Is that what you really think?”

He allowed a few seconds to pass before he shook his head. His hands slid off her knee to droop by his sides. “It’s what you think.”

A slight twitch and a minuscule tilt of her head told him he’d hit the nail right on the head. Shock was written all over her face, but was rapidly being replaced by shame.

“You’re my partner and I love you, Scully. Not only do I want to help you, I need to help you.” He cupped her cheek in his hand. “Can’t you let me help you just this once?”

“But I’m—”

“Maybe you are, but I’m not. I feel guilty as hell for leaving you here by yourself all day long.”

“Mulder, you’re not my baby-sitter.”

“No, but I am your partner, and I should have stayed to assist you. I knew you’d get no help from the ‘men’ upstairs.” He looked at the body. When he’d left her it had been on its back; the corpse he’d just covered was face down. “Do I want to know how you got the body onto its stomach?”

She shook her head slowly. “Probably not.”

“You did this by yourself?”

“Yes, I did.”

His eyes scanned her for any signs of injury. “Are you all right? Did you hurt yourself?”

Smiling, she shook her head. “Not in the way you would have… no.”

He winced at what she implied, then started at what she said. “In what way then?”

If he wasn’t staring at her so intently he would have missed her eyes darting away from his for a millisecond before her, “In no way, Mulder. I was trying to make a joke.” She laughed, then looked at him expectantly.

He was truly sorry he couldn’t oblige, but joking was the last thing on his mind. “How long were you out that time?” he asked.

“I wasn’t. I was just exhausted. I rested, and I was fine.”

He wouldn’t push it. He was as much, if not more, to blame than she was. “Let’s get you something to eat.” Holding out an arm, he looked into her eyes. “Let me help?”

He saw she had been about to refuse until he’d worded it so that she was the one granting the favors. She placed her hand in his. “Thanks.”

Pulling her to her feet, he smiled guiltily. “It’s the least I can do.”

As soon as she was upright, she swayed and threw both hands around his middle. “Mulder…”

His arms encircled her almost as a reflex action. “I won’t let you fall, Scully.”

“Mm… thanks.” He could barely make out her words, her voice was so soft.

“Can you walk?” he asked, trying to see her face.

“In a minute,” she mumbled. “Just let me get my bearings.”

Very tenderly, he brushed a hand through her hair. “Take as long as you need.”

After thirty seconds where she was so still Mulder was afraid she’d passed out again, he felt her pull away a little. “Mulder?”

“Yeah?”

“I know you weren’t here before, but I’m glad you’re here now.”

He rubbed a hand along her back. “Me, too.”

When she removed one arm from him, he followed her cue and did the same. “I’m ready,” she said.

“You sure?” He knew how she could push herself.

She surprised him by smiling up at him. “Yeah. I’m okay now. I’d even make you let go if it didn’t feel so good.”

To say he was almost knocked flat on his ass would be an understatement. He stared down at her, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment when Scully realized what she had said and for her expression of contentment to change to one of complete and utter horror.

It never happened. Confused and wary and even a little scared, Mulder continued to gaze into her eyes. Her countenance remained the same, except for a hint of smugness and a tinge of fear around the edges. He allowed a careful smile to break through. “Come on,” he said, starting to walk. “We’d better get you some food. You’re becoming delirious.”

That had to be it. Lack of food, lack of oxygen to the brain. She would never come on to him otherwise. Yes, that was it. She mistook him for someone else. Someone from her past, someone she could love, someone who could love her back.

He swallowed hard. He could love her. He did.

“Why do you do that?” Her voice cut into his musings.

“What?” Oh, God, how had he responded after her bombshell? “Do what? What did I do?”

“You didn’t do anything, Mulder. Except put yourself down. Why do you do that?”

He looked at her. She was serious. Oh, God, she was deadly serious. “I wasn’t,” he protested. “You do need food. It could very well be delirium.” He stopped walking and cupped her face in both his hands. “I wouldn’t want to hold you to that later.”

“What? That after lying on that cold floor, it feels good to be pressed against a warm body? Even if it is your warm body.” Twisting out of his grip, she walked swiftly toward the stairs.

He felt like she’d whacked him in the gut with a steel beam. He was infinitely relieved that he hadn’t reacted more positively to her statement, although he was certain his devastation couldn’t be more complete. “Hey, any warm body in a storm, Scully,” he called after her. He prayed his voice wasn’t shaking. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

He heard her sigh. “That’s what I hear.”

Halfway up the stairs, she slowed, then came to a stop, breathing heavily. “I’m sorry, Scully,” he said, gently, coming up behind her and slipping an arm around her waist.

They made it the rest of the way up, and he helped her into the car, without uttering a word. When they pulled up to the motel, Scully looked at him accusingly. “I thought you were taking me to get something to eat.”

He didn’t look at her. “I thought you might want to lie down while I went out and got you something.” It hadn’t escaped his notice how she was practically melted into the seat.

She took a deep sigh, and he knew he’d made another major miscalculation.

“Scully, I didn’t mean… You just don’t look like you’d last too long sitting up in a restaurant. If you want—”

“You’re right.” Her hand found his where it was lying on the seat; he felt faint from relief when she intertwined her fingers with his. “I think walking to my room is going to take all the strength I have.”

Surprise, shock and awe. He was certain they were all clearly visible on his face as he stared at her.

She chuckled, then closed her eyes. “I’m all right. Just really, really tired.” She squeezed his hand, and he swallowed. “Mulder?”

He squeezed back. “Yeah?”

“About this afternoon… What I said… what I didn’t say. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” he whispered, and in his heart, he did know. But it had hurt nonetheless. It still hurt.

“All this time, all these years, I thought I knew how you felt. All those ‘Spooky’ comments, I thought they hurt me as much as they hurt you.” Opening her eyes, she turned her head and gazed at him. “I didn’t even come close.”

He reached over and brushed her hair with his hand. “I’m sorry you had to experience that firsthand,” he said softly.

Suddenly, he was very ashamed of himself for associating with the men who’d tormented her. How could he have abandoned her to fraternize with people who so openly scorned someone he loved? Yet that was precisely the reason he’d done it. She’d hurt him, and he’d wanted to hurt her.

He looked at her now and felt absolutely no gratification to know that he’d succeeded.

*****

Castlenook Inn Friday, March 13 8:01 p.m.

“Feeling better?”

“Mm,” she said, nodding, wiping her mouth with a paper napkin. “That was so good.”

Scully had to admit, when Mulder had mentioned the destination he had in mind for her meal, she’d had her doubts. But he’d given her the old “Trust me” line, so what else could she do?

After allowing him to assist her to her room, he’d called their order in, then left for something called “The Moosehead,” and she’d wished she’d paid closer attention to what he’d ordered.

He’d returned with chicken salad on toasted wheat for both of them, and a quarter of the best dill pickle she’d ever eaten. “Mulder, you have to find out what brand of pickle this is,” she said, downing the last bite.

He gave her an amused smile, then rummaged around in his sandwich wrappings until he came up with another spear. “I took a bite but you can—”

She snatched it out of his hand. “Don’t be silly,” she said, taking a healthy bite. “I trust you, remember? Your germs are my germs.”

A slow smile spread over his face. “I know a better way to spread germs.”

“I doubt that,” she said, around a mouthful. “Mulder, are you sure you don’t want this? It’s absolutely heavenly. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Oh, I know, Scully. Believe me, I know.”

Such a wistful tone for a pickle? She looked up. “Mulder? What is it?”

Despite his smile, her partner looked like he wanted to cry. Mulder shook his head. “It’s nothing.” His eyes said otherwise.

Pickle suddenly forgotten, she covered his hand with hers. “Talk to me, Mulder.”

“It’s nothing, Scully. Really. I just have this bad habit of seeing something where there’s nothing.” He forced a smile and shrugged. “You know how I am.”

She nodded. She knew exactly how he was. Yet this time she sensed that the something wasn’t related to a case or even the all-important conspiracy. It was her. What had he seen that had transformed his tender, gently-smiling face into the self-deprecating, anguish-filled one before her now? What could she have said to cause this reaction in him? They were talking about pickles, for cripes sakes!

“Um… what were you looking for on the back?” The change of subject was so abrupt that she could only stare at him, confused. Her mind had replayed their last few minutes of conversation and just when she thought she’d hit upon what had shaken him, he came at her out of left field.

“Back?” Her mind was stuck on the thought that Mulder had just intimated that he wanted to kiss her—again—and from his reaction to her non-reaction he’d been quite serious about it.

“Of the corpse.”

Scully stared at him. There was nary a trace of the insecure Mulder of a minute ago. The man before her was wholly focused on the subject at hand, and Scully found herself peeved that he’d given up so easily.

“Scully? The corpse? The case? Remember?”

“Uh… yeah. Of course.” Well, if he could brush it aside so quickly, there was no reason her mind should linger on the myriad of ways she and Mulder could share germs. She focused on him intensely, even angrily. “Of course, I remember.”

“And…?” he prompted. She wanted to hit him.

“There was a discoloration on the back.” She paused. She’d just begun to examine the area when the dizziness struck her. “Mulder, you didn’t touch his back when you were covering him, did you?”

“No. I didn’t touch the body anywhere.” He held up his hands. “No latex.” His brows furrowed. “Why?”

“Wait, wait, wait.” An idea was taking hold, and she didn’t want to let it go to explain it to him. She thought about the other bodies. None of the reports made mention of this discoloration. But the other bodies had been shipped south an hour and placed in cold storage until a coroner could be located. This body had been “warm” from the get-go. Could the other bodies’ early exposure to the cold somehow have inhibited this effect? Could it have arrested it altogether? She looked quickly at her watch. While they hadn’t been able to get the body into true refrigeration, Dwyer had assured them that the basement air conditioning, when cranked to maximum, would keep the body plenty cool. Not cool enough, though, Scully thought grimly. “We need to get back there, Mulder.” Picking up her jacket, she headed for the door.

Mulder, bless him, didn’t say a word. Just grabbed up his coat and followed her out. Handed her the car keys when she held a hand out for them. Stayed silent until she calmed down enough to remember he was with her.

“It’s inside him,” she said. “Whatever killed him started on the inside and is still making its way out.”

She glanced over briefly to gauge his reaction. A hint of amusement lit up his eyes. “So the fact that his head was nearly severed had nothing to do with it.”

She shook her head. “It was how he died, but it wasn’t what killed him.”

Mulder opened his mouth, then just as quickly closed it. His eyebrow raised while his mind set to the task of matching current situation with past x-files. After driving a few seconds, she saw his eyes blink. “Whatever is inside him induced someone to slit his throat?” He paled noticeably. “Jesus.” His hand slapped against the dashboard. “It’s another fucking experiment.”

Scully nodded. “It’s dissipating, and the decomposition is what caused me to black out, I think.”

His face turned even whiter. “What?”

“I was fine until I started to probe that area.”

He wore the same face as when she’d told him about her cancer. “Then you—”

“I don’t think so,” she said quickly. “The fact that I’m still here and you don’t have the urge to kill me would seem to indicate that that effect, at least, has worn off.” She slanted a look at him. “You don’t have the urge to kill me, do you?”

His face took on that dreamlike quality that he’d worn earlier—except this time he didn’t try to hide it. “Far from it.” Then his face lost its playfulness. “Are you sure, though? For all we know, that could be how they were infected.”

“No.” She shook her head. “There were needle marks on the victims. I don’t know from what, but now I’m pretty sure whatever it was, was injected directly into the bloodstream.

“Let’s hope you’re right,” he mumbled in a tone so openly scared that she glanced over at him. He was wearing his ‘I want to believe that so badly but I’m afraid I’ll be wrong’ face.

She’d seen this particular face only once before, several months ago when he’d proposed his “cure” for her cancer. She’d been under a death sentence and had no comfort to offer him then. She couldn’t bear to see him suffer now, though, when there was no cause. “I’m sure I’m fine, Mulder. If it was spread from victim to attacker, we’d have more victims than the four we have. Except for this last one, they were all found in fairly-populated areas.”

Mulder stared at her a moment, processing. Then he nodded. “Sounds logical.” He pulled out his cell phone, dialed, and listened. “Shit,” he said, punching the ‘end’ button. “No answer at the police station.”

They exchanged a glance, and Scully pressed down a little harder on the accelerator.

*****

Part 5 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Police Station 8:22 p.m.

As the car screeched to a halt in front of the building, Mulder leaped out, slogged through the mounds of shoveled snow blocking his way, and ran up the flight of stairs. He heard Scully behind him and paused with his hand on the door handle.

“What are you doing?” She tried to push by him. “We’ve got to get in there!”

“I think just I should go in,” Mulder said.

“What? Mulder, those people may be sick, dying—”

“And that’s why one of us should stay out here. To call for backup and give a report on the situation.”

“Fine. You stay, and I’ll go in.”

“No can do, Scully.” Removing his hand from the door, he blocked the doorway with his back.

“All right, that’s it! I’ve put up with this macho shit from those pinheads. I’m not going to put up with it from you.”

“I’m not being macho, Scully. Actually, I’m being selfish.”

“So what else is new?”

As true as he knew it was, it still hurt to hear it uttered so off-handedly. He worked very hard to keep his emotions out of his eyes. “I want you out here because you’re better able to describe the situation than I am. And I want you out here because when they haul my unconscious ass out on a stretcher, they’ll let you in the ambulance with me because you’re a doctor. If they took you, I’d have to get there on my own, and right now…” His eyes gazed into hers. “I don’t think I could do that.”

At Scully’s look of confusion, Mulder began to hope the fumes were toxic so he wouldn’t have to face her after it was all over. It was his own fault, though. He’d thrown out so many sexual innuendoes over the years that Scully couldn’t distinguish an honest sentiment from an innuendo. He turned away and grabbed hold of the door handle again.

“Mulder, wait. You can’t go rushing headlong into the building like this.”

“Why not? A second ago, you were ready to.”

“I know, I know, but I wasn’t thinking. We need to get some kind of protection.”

“Scully, you said it yourself: those people may be dying in there.”

“Oh, and what? You have this burning desire to join them?” She said this with such vehemence that he actually flinched.

“Of course not. But I can get in, assess the situation, and get them out if they need help.”

“And who’s going to help you? Mulder, you might be overcome before you can go two feet.”

“I can hold my breath long enough to see if everyone’s okay.”

She still didn’t release him, as she considered his words. “Okay, you go in as far as the front desk. See if they’re still alive, and then get the hell out of there.” The look she gave him melted the glacier that had formed around his heart. “No heroics, Mulder. You can’t help them if you’re overcome yourself.”

“Okay,” he said, softly. He tried to pull away, but she held fast.

“Mulder…”

“I’ll be careful.”

“I don’t want to ride back in an ambulance with you.”

For a moment he misunderstood, and was crushed at the thought that she’d leave him alone when she had the option of accompanying him. Then he tumbled to her true meaning: she didn’t want him in an ambulance, period. She didn’t want him hurt at all. He smiled. “I’d like to avoid that trip, too.”

“Good.” She released him. Their eyes met one more time, then he drew in a breath and opened the door.

*****

 

Police Station 8:28 p.m.

Scully ended her call, glanced at her watch, then focused on the door in alarm. Where the hell was he? It had been four minutes. Even Mulder couldn’t hold his breath that long. Unless everything was all right and he was just making conversation, in which case if he wasn’t hurt she’d kill him.

She considered her options. If there was no danger and he was just talking to the officers, then she’d stroll up and shoot him. If not and he was in danger… she sucked in a breath and yanked the door open.

Two steps in she knew he was in trouble. The station was eerily quiet—and pitch black. She felt terribly frustrated. She couldn’t even call out to him. Inching her way along, she nearly lost her balance—and her breath—when her toe struck a soft, immovable object. Kneeling down, she felt it and immediately recognized the contours of her partner’s body. There was another body beneath him, and she shook her head as she pictured him falling and succumbing to the fumes.

Her lungs felt about to burst, but she knew if she left him now it would take her just as long to find him again. Feeling somewhat guilty about leaving the other man, she started pulling Mulder toward the exit. After only a few feet, though, she had to drop him and sprint for the door. She burst through, falling to her knees, gulping down air until the lightheadedness that had hit her lessened. Waiting impatiently until her breathing slowed to normal, she held her breath and plowed back through the doorway.

Cursing at the precious time she wasted in locating Mulder again, she grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him unceremoniously toward the exit. She thanked heaven for the glass double doors as she homed in on the light they admitted from the streetlamps outside. As she shouldered the doors open, she debated the merits of leaving the door propped open. In the end, she decided not to risk spreading the contaminant any more than they already had by the opening and closing of the door. Letting the door close, Scully pulled Mulder a few more feet beyond and dropped to her knees, panting.

After a few seconds, Mulder began coughing and retching. Alarmed, Scully hastily rolled him onto his side, not even flinching when his dinner came up all over her coat.

His eyes opened, and he gazed at her blearily, his face reddening when he caught sight of what he’d done. “Sorry,” he whispered.

Very carefully, Scully unbuttoned her coat and tossed it to one side. “It’s all right, Mulder,” she said softly, trying to suppress a shudder as the cold night air hit her. Laying a hand on his shoulder, she looked into his eyes. “Will you be all right? I want to go in and check on the man you tripped over.”

“I’ll be fine. Go get him.” She started away but halted at his, “Hey.” Mulder struggled to a sitting position.

“What?” she asked.

“Didn’t you call for backup?”

She nodded. “I reached Chief Dwyer. He said he’d take care of it.”

“Okay,” he said, falling back down, his eyes closing. “I’ll wait here.” His voice was becoming faint, and Scully bit her lip. She hated to leave him, but if Mulder was in this condition from ten minutes’ exposure, what must the others be like? And where the hell was the ambulance?

“Mulder?” She took a step toward him.

“I’m okay, Scully.”

His assurance, rather than encourage her, stopped her dead in her tracks. His voice was shaking, and he was gasping for air. She ran back and knelt by him. He looked up at her. His eyes filled with water, then they closed and he stopped breathing.

“Jesus! Mulder!” She began CPR, and after the longest forty-five seconds of her life, he sputtered and coughed and threw up on her again.

Once his coughing subsided, he groaned and regarded her through heavy-lidded eyes. Overcome with relief, Scully wound her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly.

“If I knew… that’s what turned you on…” Mulder began, and she found herself actually looking forward to one of his sorry sexual innuendoes. Then she heard him gasping again. “Can’t… breathe…”

Grabbing him by the lapels, she quickly pulled him upright and rubbed his back vigorously. “Come on, Mulder. Breathe.” He was trying hard, she could tell; his wheezing sounded painful, and she had to blink back tears at the thought that she could actually lose him. She looked around frantically. Where the fuck was that ambulance?

“Scully… Scully!” Mulder’s voice was desperate as he tried to pull away. “Let me go; I’m gonna puke!”

“Okay. Okay.” She released him, and he almost toppled over. Grasping his shoulders, she held him up while he expelled the poison from his system. Scully didn’t mind that she was getting splattered; so long as Mulder was breathing, she didn’t care what she looked like.

After several minutes, he sat back on his heels, then fell backwards against her. Wrapping her arms around his shaking form, she rubbed his chest, trying to stimulate his breathing, afraid that if she didn’t he would forget to breathe and die on her.

“Hey.”

Was that Mulder’s voice? Was he speaking? Was he breathing? “Mulder?”

“Yeah.” His voice was still quivering, but it had lost that winded quality.

“How’re you doing?”

“Okay.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “The stuff’s gone from my system, I think.” He sniffed. “Uh… do you have a tissue?”

She nodded. “Yeah. In…” She patted her pockets then discovered that she wasn’t wearing them; her sight landed on the wadded up ball of cloth a few feet away. “…my coat.”

Mulder grimaced, then wiped his nose and mouth on his sleeve. “It needs to be cleaned anyway,” he said, his tone clearly embarrassed. He shrugged out of the coat, and it sailed across the sidewalk to land next to Scully’s.

“Mulder, you shouldn’t have done that. We’re still not sure what other effects the toxin has. You should keep warm.”

“I’m warm.” He swiped a hand across his brow and looked surprised when it came away wet. “I’m actually kind of hot.” He started pulling at his jacket. “My skin… Oh, God, Scully, it’s burning!”

She would have thought he was being overly melodramatic were it not for the sheer terror she heard in his voice. As she watched in horror, blisters popped out and burst on his face and hands. Jumping to her feet, she hauled Mulder up and pulled him toward the snow piled at the curb. “Lie on top,” she directed him, and he dove in face down. She piled more snow on him, all the while uttering, “I know; I know it hurts,” in response to his quiet whimpers.

Her own skin was starting to feel hot, and she plunged her hands into the snowbank. She resisted as long as she could, but finally had to bury her face, too, in the soothing snow.

She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she felt Mulder’s hand gently rubbing up and down her back. “Hey,” he said softly. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” she said, pushing herself up out of the snow. She staggered back, dizzy.

“Easy,” he said, placing an arm around her.

She heard the sounds of activity around them. “Help finally arrive?” she asked, still feeling groggy.

“A few minutes ago. Considering what happened to us, I told them not to go in there without some sort of protection.”

“The men inside?”

When there was no response forthcoming, she forced her eyes open and gazed up at him. The sadness in his eyes was profound as he shook his head. “I don’t know.” He glanced over at the group of men. “That idiot, Dwyer, sent one patrol car. No ambulance. No paramedics.”

“What?” She couldn’t believe it. “I specifically asked him to roll an ambulance and a hazmat team.”

His attention returned to her. “Well, guess what, Scully? He’s a bull-headed, obsolescent male chauvinist pig who can’t take direction from a woman.” Her partner was shaking with anger. “I tried, dammit, but they just can’t see past their… maleness.”

She had to laugh at that, coming from a male. “Oh, Mulder,” she started, then Mulder’s face blurred and she felt herself going boneless.

“Whoa, there, G-Woman.” She felt Mulder’s hands holding onto her shoulders.

When her head cleared, the significance of his action finally hit her. “Mulder! Your hands!”

He held them out in front of him. “I don’t know how, but they’re fine.” Reaching for her, he halted just short of touching her hand. “What about you?” he asked.

Until he mentioned it, she’d forgotten that just a few minutes ago she’d been calculating how many years of skin grafts she’d have to endure before her hands and face returned to anything even resembling “normal.” She quickly gave her attention to her hands, turning them over and over; there was no trace of the angry red burns she’d caught a glimpse of before burying herself up to her elbows.

The sight of Mulder’s beautiful face becoming disfigured struck her suddenly, and Scully looked up at him quickly. Relieved and reassured that it was unmarred, she reached out, taking his face in her hands. Except for his evening stubble, it was smooth, the skin unbroken. She ran her hands over his face, her fingertips cataloguing every dip, bump and wrinkle.

“Hey, Mulder, is she all right?” Scully dropped her hands quickly at the chief’s inquiry, and Mulder heaved a sigh before swiveling around to face Dwyer.

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“Your partner. I saw you pulling her out of the snowbank. Is she okay?” Dwyer was focused wholly on Mulder, not even glancing Scully’s way.

Mulder shook his head sadly. “No, she’s not.”

Scully started at his words, and Dwyer’s eyes alit on her.

“She’s dead,” Mulder said.

“What do you mean, ‘She’s dead?’ She’s standing right there!” the chief sputtered.

Scully had to suppress a smile when Mulder followed Dwyer’s gaze and her partner’s mouth dropped open. “You can see her?” he asked.

“What the hell are you talking about? Of course, I can.”

“Then address yourself to her! Not to me!” Mulder exploded. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you people! An agent phones in to you for an ambulance and a hazmat team, and just because she happens to be a woman, you totally blow her off, endangering her, me and your own men!” He sucked in an angry breath. “And for the record, I may have helped her out of that snowbank, but she pulled me out of that building.” Her partner’s eyes darted to the front door of the police station, where white-suited men were carrying out two bodies barely recognizable as men.

“Holy Jesus…” Dwyer whispered, getting a look at their faces.

The chief’s expression was horrified enough; Scully didn’t want Mulder adding to it by advising him that he was most likely the reason they were in this state. She caught his eye, and the tiniest shake of her head was enough to halt his tirade against the chief.

The chief, however, wasn’t about to let it drop. “How did this happen? And where the hell were you when this was happening to my men?” Dwyer wheeled on Mulder angrily.

“Where the hell were you?” Scully asked. “I called…” She glanced at her watch. “…a good half hour ago. God damn it, Dwyer, you could have had those men out twenty minutes ago!”

The man looked shell-shocked. He shook his head. “Women just don’t have the head for this kind of work. Always making everything an emergency. You couldn’t expect me to blindly obey without checking it out first.”

“What—” Mulder stepped right into Dwyer’s face. “Are you trying to lay the blame for this on Agent Scully?”

The chief stumbled back a step, and when he glanced at Scully, she saw confusion in his eyes. “No, no, but—” His gaze fell upon Mulder, and Scully swore she saw a plea for understanding from a fellow male. “We have never had a woman in any position of authority here. God forgive us, but we tend to take everything they say with a grain of salt.” Dwyer’s eyes drifted to the bodies of his men. “I was half asleep. It never registered with me that this was an FBI agent calling. All I heard was a woman.”

Dwyer shook his head slowly, his eyes still staring at nothing. His gaze focused on Scully. “You were quite accurate in your description of the situation and its dangers. It’s my bad fortune…” His eyes settled on the now-covered bodies being loaded into the waiting ambulances. “…and theirs, that I chose not to hear a law enforcement officer.” His eyes returned to Scully. “I won’t make that mistake again.” He sighed shakily. “I won’t have the opportunity. This is unforgivable. I’ll be giving up my position as soon as a replacement can be found.” He nodded to them both, then started walking away.

“Chief, wait!” Scully called.

The man shuffled to a stop, then turned back around, a question on his face.

“We don’t know for sure that twenty minutes would have made a difference. We won’t know until the autopsy is performed whether they could have been saved.”

Dwyer shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.” He offered them a sad smile. “I should have done something, and I didn’t. Whether or not they would have died anyway is of no consequence. They died. That’s all that matters.” He turned and walked away.

“But—”

“Let him go, Scully.” Mulder laid a hand on her shoulder. “When a man is that grief-stricken, nothing anyone says will have any effect on him.”

Scully looked at him. The voice of experience. She leaned in and rested her head against his chest; his hands skimmed down her arms to gently hold her. When her arms slid around his waist, he tightened his hold. She felt him shaking.

“Cold?” She pressed her body into his. “Or not cold?”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Both.”

She didn’t know if it was a side effect of the toxin, but every cell of her skin was tingling.

“Me, too.”

*****

Part 6 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Outside the Police Station 8:58 p.m.

Mulder was no fool. Scully was giving him a second chance, and he wasn’t about to blow it this time. He almost laughed at the absurdity of the situation. What better place to express your love for your partner than at a crime scene, amidst dead bodies, police, medical personnel, and the cleanup of the latest deadly government experiment?

He couldn’t think of a one.

Slipping his suit jacket off, Mulder draped it over Scully’s shoulders, somewhat proud of himself for having done so without having had to relinquish his hold on her.

“Mulder…” she started to protest. “You’re already cold enough—”

“I’m being chivalrous, Scully.” He wrapped his arms around her under the jacket. “Of course, if I can be chivalrous and warm at the same time…” He shrugged, closing his eyes, enjoying the feel of her body next to his.

Her laughter into his chest sent a rush of heat straight to his groin, and he felt himself growing embarrassed at this extreme reaction. If this is what happened while standing fully clothed in a crowd of people, he shuddered to think what she could do to him when they were alone and naked.

Oh, Jesus. That was definitely not the thing to think while standing fully clothed in a crowd of people.

Scully pulled away suddenly and looked at him strangely. “Mulder, you’re hot and you’re shaking. I think we’d better let the paramedics check you out.” Raising a hand, she motioned one of the attendants over.

“It’s not that, Scully,” he whispered hastily, feeling himself growing hotter by the second.

“What, then?” she asked gently, caressing his cheek with her hand.

While thoroughly pleasant, her action did not contribute to alleviating his present situation. The paramedic was coming closer and Mulder was even harder than when Scully’d signaled the man. “It’s you,” he blurted. “It’s being close to you.” The man was about twenty feet away now, and Mulder looked at Scully pleadingly. Her brows lifted in enlightenment, her eyes drifted down, and Mulder thought he might faint.

“I do that to you?” she whispered.

“Jesus, yeah.”

Scully’s eyes lit up—actually lit up—before she waved the paramedic off with a, “Never mind. Sorry to have bothered you.” She leaned down, her breath tickling his ear. “I like it.” Then she straightened and smiled at him. “I’ve never known you to let… things… get so ‘out of hand’ before, Mulder.” Her eyes were twinkling now. “At least not while you’re noticing I’m noticing.” Her knuckles brushed against him, and he sucked in a breath. He couldn’t ever remember being this sensitive.

“That’s not helping, Scully,” he whispered through gritted teeth.

“That wasn’t meant to help,” she whispered back, and he wondered why he’d never noticed this sadistic streak of hers before.

She started pulling him toward the car and if he thought just standing still was painful, walking was excruciating. He seriously considered taking a much-needed detour into the snowbank.

“Oh, no, you don’t, G-man.” Very deftly, she steered him to the narrow opening between the piles of snow. “I’m pressing my advantage while I’ve got it.” Scully smiled seductively at him. “So to speak.”

“No pressing, Scully. Please. No pressing,” he entreated, as he slid gingerly into the passenger seat and closed the door.

As she got in and moved toward him, he began shaking, trying to keep himself under control. She leaned across him, then sat back, his seat belt buckle dangling from her hand. “Do you want to insert it, or shall I?”

His eyes closed. “Go ahead,” he croaked. His nerves jumped as it clicked home. He stayed quiet while Scully started the car and pulled away; he swallowed hard when he heard her whistling happily. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“You wouldn’t believe how much,” she said with such glee in her voice that he had to open his eyes.

“I have never been this cruel to you, Scully.” He honestly felt like crying at the torture she was putting him through. “I’m really suffering here, you know.”

Something in his tone must have finally gotten through to her because the smarmy expression she’d been wearing disappeared, to be replaced by one of compassion. “Mulder, I’m sorry. I’m just getting back at you for all those times—”

“I know. I know. I probably deserve it.”

“Probably?”

Oh, Jesus, this was not a time to argue semantics. “I deserve it. All right? I deserve it. Just stop now. Please?”

“Okay. I think you’ve had enough.” And she patted his knee. Just patted his knee the way she’d patted his knee a hundred times before.

“Shit! Fuck!” The orgasm ripped through him so hard he was sure he’d blasted a hole clean through his shorts and pants. His right hand grabbed onto the door handle, and he nearly catapulted through the windshield when she slammed on the brakes. He felt his left hand being taken by his partner. “Oh, God. Oh, shit. Oh, fuck, Scully, I’m so sorry.”

“Mulder, what…” As he peered at her through slitted eyes, he saw the look of amazement cross her face. “Oh… my… God.”

“Oh, Christ, this can’t be happening. This is so embarrassing.” And then he lost his capacity for thought. All he was aware of was that her hand was still holding his, that she hadn’t let go in disgust, that she didn’t open the door and push him out. He closed his eyes and wished he were anywhere but where he was.

When he recovered, he was too mortified to face her, so he just sat silently until they arrived back at the motel.

“Hey…” Scully turned toward him in her seat. “You okay?”

He looked down at the stain on his pants. “I just keep finding newer and better ways to embarrass myself in front of you, don’t I?”

The look she gave him was a curious mixture of sympathy and guilt. “Oh, Mulder, no. I think I know what happened to you.”

He gave a short, bitter laugh. “No, really?” At her flinch, he sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’d like to drop it, please. I’m uncomfortable, and you can’t imagine the level of embarrassment I’m feeling right now.”

Her hand took hold of his and he looked at their hands, surprised. He thought for sure she wouldn’t want to touch him until he’d had a long shower—and maybe not even then.

“Mulder?”

He looked up at her.

“I know you’re feeling ashamed, but you shouldn’t. I… believe the chemical from the corpse may have contributed to what happened. In fact, I can almost say with certainty that it did.”

This was unexpected. “How?”

She broke eye contact and licked her lips nervously. “I… Uh…”

He squeezed her hand. “What is it, Scully?”

She gazed at him squarely. “It happened to me, too.”

“What?” He was struck dumb. “When?”

“Uh, almost immediately after you, uh…”

Was she just trying to make him feel better? “Why didn’t I notice?”

A corner of her mouth twitched. “You were a little preoccupied.” She leaned forward. “Seriously, though, Mulder, you were hit faster and harder because you actually inhaled that stuff whereas I hardly breathed it.”

He looked up in alarm. “You breathed it? When?”

“Outside the door, I suspect, after exiting two times. Not too much, but just enough to have an effect. And I didn’t ‘purge’ it from my system like you did.”

Mulder shuddered. “You can be thankful for that.”

She brought his hand up to her mouth and kissed his fingers. “You’ve had a pretty rotten day, haven’t you?”

His entire body was suddenly super-sensitive. “Oh, Jesus.” He yanked his hand out of her grip; there was no fucking way he wanted a repeat of that earlier scene. He popped the door handle and stumbled out. “I gotta get inside.” Reaching in his pocket for his room key almost sent him over the edge; inserting it into the slot proved to be impossible. When it clattered to the ground, he stared at it in disbelief. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“Mulder, it’s okay,” he heard Scully saying, as she scooped up his key. “It’s the chemical. It’s making you…” There was a tremor in her voice, and he took a moment away from his misery to concentrate on her. A fine sheen of sweat covered her face, and she was holding herself very stiffly. “Making us…” She slid his key home and was rewarded with double green lights when she pulled it out.

He gave a sigh of relief. “Scully, don’t take this the wrong way, but—”

“No problem, Mulder.” She pushed by him into his room, flung his key onto the bureau and headed for the connecting door to her room. Turning the knob, she barreled inside and slammed the door.

Feeling almost as sorry for her as for himself, he made a beeline for the bathroom. Leaping into the shower, not bothering to undress, he turned the cold water on full blast. The chemical would not be deterred, however; he came so hard he was certain he must have ruptured something. He fell to his knees, gasping, holding onto the side of the tub.

Oh, Jesus, he thought, as he felt himself losing consciousness. I hope Scully’s not going through this.

*****

 

Castlenook Inn 9:45 p.m.

It had been twenty-five minutes, and Mulder’s shower was still running. Scully bit her lip and then opened the connecting door slowly, poking her head through carefully. Seeing no sign of her partner, she came the rest of the way in, her eyes sweeping the room before making for the bathroom.

She knocked on the slightly ajar door. “Mulder?” When only silence greeted her, she pushed it open a little further. “Mulder?” Still no sign of life. Not caring anymore whether or not she embarrassed him, she pushed it open until it hit the wall.

“Oh, God…”

He was lying on his back, fully clothed, his face, thank God, out of range of the spray beating down on him.. Scully quickly turned off the shower, then tapped his face lightly. “Mulder.” Another tap. “Come on, Mulder. Time to wake up now.”

She was never so happy to hear a man groan. “Scully?”

“I’m here, Mulder. What happened?”

After a moment of confusion, his face reddened. “I… I fell.”

She wouldn’t push it. Her last experience hadn’t been particularly pleasurable; at least she hadn’t been standing when it had hit. “Are you hurt?” she asked gently.

He held out an arm, and she helped him to his feet. “I don’t think so.”

His body shuddered, and she started unbuttoning his shirt. “Let’s get these wet clothes off you. You’re freezing.”

“R… right.” He was able to shrug out of his shirt and T-shirt, and Scully spread a towel over his shoulders.

He swayed a little when she helped him out of the tub, and she looked at him with concern. “Dizzy?”

His hand rubbed his forehead. “Just a little.”

She pointed to the closed lid on the toilet. “Sit.”

He obeyed, and she pulled his shoes and socks off. Reaching for his pants, she was surprised when he didn’t offer any resistance, even standing without her having to tell him. When she reached for his underwear, however, he stopped her. “I can get the rest. Thanks.”

His hand on hers was ice cold, but she wouldn’t push the issue. She nodded, handed him another towel, and left. The shower turned on again, and she opened the door a crack. “Mulder, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. You said you were dizzy, and—”

“I need a shower, Scully,” he said quietly.

She sighed. “I’ll get you something to wear.” She closed the door and went to his top left drawer, where she knew he always kept his clean underwear. Selecting a sensible flannel plaid, she waited a few minutes until after she heard the shower switch off, then brought them over to the bathroom door. Mulder opened the door a crack, and she handed them in.

A few seconds later, he emerged, goose pimples on every bit of exposed flesh, his hair wild, unruly and dripping onto his chest and back. She pressed her lips closed tightly when she found herself debating whether to lick the drops off him or catch them before they landed. Mulder stopped about six inches in front of her, and she felt her mouth salivating. Catching them as they fell had its merits, but…

She watched, mesmerized, as one landed on his collar bone, trickled down his chest, past his waist, to be absorbed into the soft fabric of his boxers. She moistened her lips and swallowed.

Damned shorts.

It suddenly occurred to her that Mulder was standing there, in his underwear, watching her watching him. Very slowly, she brought her eyes up to meet his.

There was nothing but concern in his. No hunger, no thirst, no need. Something about the pure innocence of his gaze made her want to devour him whole. “Scully? Are you okay?”

She blinked, then froze when his hand settled on her shoulder. “Oh… No.”

*****

 

Castlenook Inn 10:01 p.m.

Mulder was scared.

Something was wrong with Scully, and it frightened him out of his wits. Ever since he’d come from his shower, she’d been staring at him, totally unresponsive to his repeated, “Scully?‘s” and “Are you okay?‘s” Until the last one, and her reply to that was a shakily-uttered, “No.”

“What is it? What’s wrong? Is it the toxin?” Mulder very seriously considered sticking his fingers down her throat, but decided to deploy that method only as a last resort. “Scully?”

She was fixated on his head again, and he wondered what sort of side effect made a person fascinated by wet hair. A drop of water trickled down his face, past his nose, and into his mouth. Annoyed, Mulder flicked his tongue out to lick it away; his eyes opened in shock to find that Scully’s tongue had beaten him to it.

Her hands reached out and grabbed either side of his face, then she ran her tongue over his lips, pulled back and licked her own. He was frozen in place, not daring to move lest she come to her senses and stop.

Feeling a familiar stirring in his groin—no chemical needed this time, thank you very much—Mulder finally realized exactly what was wrong with his partner. Wrong with her? Hell, wrong with him. It wasn’t like him to be so slow on the uptake, especially where Scully was concerned, but he’d been as dense as antimatter. His mouth dropped open in astonishment.

Scully was seducing him.

And doing a damned fine job of it.

*****

 

Castlenook Inn 10:03 p.m.

Scully wondered why in hell she hadn’t done this sooner. Mulder was simply delectable. Once she got around to tasting him, she knew she’d made the right decision. The man was downright yummy.

He’d finally caught on, but that ‘deer in the headlights’ expression still lingered. Even if their… liaison… proved unfruitful, that look on his face was worth the price of admission.

Scully waited for that brilliant mind of his to kick into gear again, for his brain to catch up to his senses. When she finally saw some spark of recognition in his eyes, she was dismayed to see only sadness, not the pure, unadulterated joy she had expected. She laid a hand on his arm.

His eyes met hers for the first time since she’d begun her little indulgence. “We can’t do this,” he said softly, his hand reaching over to cup her cheek.

Her initial response was anger, until she recalled his expression and the other times she’d seen him wearing it. “It’s not the toxin talking, Mulder. This is all me.” She squeezed his arm for emphasis.

He shook his head. “You can’t be sure of that. I can’t be sure of that.”

She removed her hand from his arm and covered his hand where it rested on her face. “I can. I am.”

“No, Scully.” Letting go of her cheek, he took a step back. “We may still be under the influence of the toxin. And I don’t…” He stopped abruptly, as if he’d said too much.

She felt all the blood drain from her face. Dear God, was it all in her mind? Was she the one seeing signs that weren’t there? He’d only admitted his feelings after he’d been affected. Had they truly been there before? Or did she imagine them? Had she only seen what she’d wanted to see?

“Maybe you’re right, Mulder,” she said in a flat voice. “If you don’t feel the same way, that’s okay. Maybe I won’t either once it wears off.”

“Oh, God, no, Scully. That’s not what I was going to say.” He closed the gap between them once again. His hands brushed very delicately through her hair. “I was going to say that I don’t want there to be any doubts that this is what we both want. I don’t want you to doubt me, and I don’t want to wonder if this is what you really feel.” He took a deep breath. “I have no doubt of my love for you. It was there before, and it’ll be there long after the toxin wears off.”

“Mulder…”

She saw the stab of fear in his eyes. “Yeah?” His voice shook.

She cradled his face in her hands, in what she hoped conveyed affection. “It was there before.”

He nodded nervously. “Yeah.”

Silly man. She smiled gently at him. “No, Mulder. Me. It was there before for me, too.”

He stared at her, no expression on his face, yet she could see his brain working. Finally, he blinked. “It was?”

She let her hands drop away from his face and took hold of his hands. “And it’ll be there a long time after.”

He looked so choked up with happiness that she almost cried. He swallowed, then broke out into an uncertain smile. “Um… Where were we when I so rudely interrupted?”

She pulled back to get a better look at him. “Well, I don’t know where you were, but I was about to rip your clothes off you.”

His eyes widened and the tiniest smile touched his lips. He moved a step closer. “Go with it, Scully.”

*****

Part 7 – Like a Turtle on Its Back

Castlenook Inn 10:22 p.m.

Scully clung to Mulder desperately, and Mulder held Scully tenderly until the last of her spasms died away. He waited until she came back to herself, then pulled out of her carefully, his penis still painfully swollen. Flopping onto his back, he closed his eyes.

He tried not to flinch when she laid her arm across his heaving chest. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Perfectly aware of how petulant he sounded, Mulder’s shame increased tenfold.

Bracing himself for Scully’s scientific explanation as to why he was unable to bring himself to climax, Mulder was surprised when she nestled her head beneath his chin and hugged him tightly.

Although he’d yearned for this coupling for such a long time, the closer he’d gotten to orgasm, the more his mind kept flashing back to an hour earlier, and a pain so intense he’d blacked out. As hard as he’d tried, and as much as he wanted it, he was unable to satisfy himself and, he feared, satisfy Scully.

“I’m sorry,” he said, barely loud enough for her to hear.

“I know, Mulder,” she said, just as softly. “And I would tell you that it doesn’t matter, that I love you, but I know that’s not what you want to hear. At least not now.”

He wasn’t so selfish as to not notice that she was hurting, too; he slid his arms around her and pressed gently. “I’ll always want to hear you say you love me.”

She snuggled in a little closer. “That’s good, because… I love you, Mulder.”

His throat closed up, and he had to swallow. “I… keep thinking it’s going to hurt. I know it won’t… I can feel the difference, but I just can’t…”

“You will,” she said, gently. “Just give it a little time.”

You didn’t have to.” He couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“My reaction wasn’t nearly as intense as yours, Mulder. I wasn’t traumatized like you were. And I didn’t have someone watching me.” Her voice reduced to a whisper on the last line. “It should have been a very private moment, and it wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

His face burned as he recalled what was, hands down, the single most embarrassing moment of his life. “It’s not your fault,” he mumbled.

“Yours, either.” Her hand stroked his arm tenderly. “I wish you would remember that.”

“I know,” he said quietly. God, how he loved her.

“Mulder?”

“Mm?”

“If this is all we did for the rest of our lives, I could be happy.”

“Jesus! I hope not, Scully!” He opened his eyes and recoiled in horror; Scully lost her grip, and she fell away from him, onto her side. “I mean, I understand the sentiment, and I appreciate it.” Gathering her again into his arms, he stroked her back. “And if our roles were reversed, I would love you just the same. I know that. I know I would be happy because I’d have you. And I know that’s what you mean.” He sought out her eyes. “You have no idea how much I love you for that.”

She smiled. “I think I do.”

His next words caught in his throat. Christ, how’d he get so lucky as to have Scully fall in love with him? He felt like he could conquer anyone—and anything.

Hugging her, he felt himself reacting. That tight band of fear he’d felt in the back of his mind was thankfully absent this time. “Um, Scully?”

“Yes, Mulder.”

He laughed. He should have known that words weren’t necessary.

They’d already said the most important ones, anyway.

*****

 

Saturday, March 14 Berlin, New Hampshire Berlin University Hospital Autopsy Bay 2 1:42 p.m.

“Scully?”

“Jesus!” She jumped at the hand on her back.

“Sorry,” Mulder apologized, rubbing his hand up and down her aching back.

“Mm… That’s nice.” She leaned into his arms, taking care to keep her soiled gloves away from his clean suit.

“How’s it coming?” he asked, and she wondered how he knew just where to massage her to erase those kinks she’d gotten from three hours bending over a corpse.

She sighed. “I’d say that extra 20 minutes made the difference. The air conditioning cut out at about 7:30…” She looked at Mulder questioningly. “What happened to it anyway?”

“An old building running AC and heat on the same circuit. Blew the fuse.”

She nodded. “Well, that room wasn’t too cold to begin with, but it was cold enough to slow the spread of the chemical the body was producing. I’d say it was maybe another half hour before the body began to really deteriorate—and the contaminant to spread. You went in about 25 minutes later, but I’d guess that it hadn’t spread to upstairs much more than five minutes before that.”

Mulder looked sick; she couldn’t say that she blamed him. “Have you told anyone yet?”

She shook her head. “It’s all conjecture on my part, Mulder. I don’t know if getting those men outside after thirty minutes would have saved them. You were in there ten minutes, and look how it affected you. You were lucky. You were able to get it out of your system before it could do any real damage.”

He grimaced. “I certainly didn’t feel so lucky at the time.”

She smiled sympathetically. “No doubt.” She looked away. “You scared the hell out of me, you know.”

His arms left her back, and came around to encircle her about the waist. “I know,” he said, quietly. Releasing her, he stepped back as she stripped off the gloves.

“Did you get checked out upstairs?” Since there had been no recurrence of any of the aftereffects the remainder of the evening, they had decided that they could wait until morning to get examined.

He nodded. “Clean bill of health. You?”

“The same. Did you know we absorbed that toxin through our skin as well as breathing it?”

He shivered. “I should have guessed. I have never had something that felt so good hurt so bad.” His lips pressed together thoughtfully. “Um… any speculation as to why we were affected in that particular way?”

She nodded slowly. “Apparently it… enhanced whatever feelings were strongest at the time.”

He couldn’t disguise the delight in his voice. “Yeah?”

Suddenly, she was glad she’d removed her gloves because she needed to hold him. She needed to take him in her arms and hug that little boy in him. She needed to crush him to her because she adored him and she needed him to know that. But mostly she needed to hold him because she missed the feel of his body pressed to hers. “Mulder.”

“Yeah?” His reply was hesitant and his expression was wary; could it be the growl in her voice that threw him off-guard?

“You’re too far away.”

His face scrunched in confusion, then he laughed. “So I am.” Yet he made no move to come closer.

“Well?” she rumbled, and his eyebrows shot up into his forehead. “Are you going to do anything about it?”

“Um…” God bless him, he actually looked nervous. “Are you going to ravage me if I do?”

She gave him her best feral smile. “Yes.”

He reached her in one stride.

*****

 

Sunday, March 15 The Puffin Stop Lancaster, New Hampshire 11:06 a.m.

Mulder groaned when Scully turned into the entrance to the gas station/convenience store. “Oh, God, Scully, not this place again.”

She gave him a smile of apology. “It’s hit or miss up here in the mountains, Mulder. I had to go with a sure thing. This place has food, gas, and bathrooms. Everything I need.” Her smile became sultry. “At this moment.”

He felt a stirring in his groin and quickly tamped it down. “Scully, you’ve got to stop doing that.”

“Why?” Her expression was pure innocence. “You’ve been doing it to me for five years.”

“Yeah, but it never… You didn’t have to worry about…” The import of her words finally hit him. “I have?” He felt horrible. The past several months, his remarks had taken on more significance, but up until that point, his innuendoes had been just that: innuendoes. Had he been tormenting her all these years like she was now tormenting him?

“Whoa, G-man. I know where that mind’s going. I meant you’ve been slinging the smut, not that I’ve been taking them the way you’re taking them. Jesus, Mulder, were you always this horny?”

He felt his face heating up, then he wondered what planet she’d been on for the past 34 years. “I’m a guy, Scully.”

“And?”

He broke out in a grin at the realization that she really had no idea. “Guys are always horny.”

At her expression of disgust, Mulder began to worry. Did he just nose-dive below her boundaries of good taste? He’d all but forgotten about her Catholic upbringing. Was she—”

“But were you always this horny?” She gestured to his crotch area. “Or am I just looking more?”

What? He was sure he’d nipped that little problem in the bud; he looked down quickly.

“Made you look,” she laughed softly into his ear.

Turning his head swiftly, he captured her lips with his own. “You make me a lot of things, Scully, the least of which is ‘look.’”

Pulling back, she gazed into his eyes. She didn’t move a muscle, but he could have sworn she was smacking her lips. “Such as?”

He swallowed as he felt his control slipping. “Well, horny, for one.”

She nodded and kissed him. “That goes without saying.” Her hand covered his where it rested on the seat. “What else?”

“Happy. You make me very happy.”

Another kiss. And a smile. “I’m glad.”

“You make me…” As he stared into her eyes, he began to feel flustered. “…tongue-tied. Full of love.” The look in her eyes made his heart quicken; he swallowed. “Loved. You make me feel loved, Scully.” He felt himself tearing up and turned his face away.

“Hey.” Her hand tightened over his.

He felt like an idiot, becoming so maudlin over something so commonplace. People fell in love every day. People loved every day. Why should saying such a simple, ordinary word cause such an upheaval in his emotional makeup?

“Mulder?”

“Yeah?” He sounded like a thirteen-year-old boy on the verge of puberty. Jesus, Scully was about to discover that she’d fallen in love with a squeaky-voiced teenager.

“I love you.”

He faced her, as ever, amazed by the depth of feeling she was able to convey to him with just a look. “You do,” he said, still a bit in awe that she could, and that she did.

Her finger traced his lips. “And you love me.”

He smiled. “I do.”

Scooting closer to him, she kissed his cheek, then trailed her tongue up to his ear. Her breath was warm, and made him shudder right down to his socks. “Mulder?”

His brain had switched off. He was aware only of sensations: the feel of her hands on his chest, the touch of her lips on his ear. Barely able to remember where he was, let alone who he was, he answered, “Yeah?”

“Buy me some food? I’m starving.”

*****

 

His head turned to her, eyes wide in disbelief. “Jesus, Scully, you sure know how to kill a mood.”

She gave him her best apologetic smile. “I’m hungry, Mulder.”

He shook his head, sighing. “You owe me for this.” His hand flipped open the door handle, and he paused half in, half out of the car. “What do you want?”

Thinking a moment, she finally gave up and shrugged. “Whatever you got last time was fine.”

He nodded, then got out, closing the door. She watched him through the back window, then sighed and exited the car. After filling the tank, she ambled toward the store, wondering what scene she’d happen upon this time.

She groaned to herself when she saw the same two men behind the counter. What had they done to poor Mulder this time? Pushing through the door, she began walking toward the refrigerator case at the back of the store.

“If you’re lookin’ for that tall fella, he’s in the john.”

Stopped by the deep voice, Scully turned around and walked to the counter. “Can I have the key to the ladies room, please?”

The stockier of the two men was already holding it out. “He was gonna take it to you when he got back.”

“Thank you.” Scully took the key, all the while wondering about the newfound respect these two morons seemed to have for her partner. A vision of her brother bragging about his latest “conquest” suddenly came to mind, but Scully dismissed the thought almost as quickly as it appeared. Mulder would never stoop so low just to get in good with a pair of dim-witted rednecks.

As she approached the back of the building where the rest rooms were situated, she came upon Mulder exiting the men’s room. “Hey,” she called. “I already got the key.”

He altered his path and came over to her. “You didn’t pay for the gas, did you?”

She shook her head. “Um… Mulder? Promise me you won’t take this the wrong way, but what did you say to your friends in there?” She gestured toward the store. “I noticed a distinct absence of…” How to put this so as not to hurt his feelings? “Er…”

Mulder began to fidget, and she began to worry. “I, uh…” He took a breath. “The last time we were here I ‘accidentally’ let them catch a glimpse of my weapon.”

She laughed, relieved and then ashamed, and then sorry for him. “They really got to you, didn’t they?” she asked, softly.

His eyes met hers for an instant and quickly darted away; he shrugged. “I was having a bad day.”

Edging up beside him, she rubbed a hand up and down his arm. “I remember.”

He stilled her hand by covering it with his. “In retrospect…” Looking thoughtful and somewhat penitent, he continued. “I might have handled it differently.” He looked at her, genuine sorrow in his eyes. “I might have handled a lot of things differently.” He let out a breath. “Hell, they’re lucky I didn’t shoot them.”

“Are you talking about those two in there, or the Concord office?”

His surprise was written clearly all over his face. Staring at her a moment, he sighed. “I’m in big trouble, aren’t I?”

He’d made the connections so quickly that she had to smile. “You know it, lover boy.”

A slow smile crept over his face; he looked like he’d swallowed three million canaries. His arms pulled her to him and she felt the whole length of his body along the whole length of hers. She felt herself responding to him, and then she really started to worry.

He wasn’t the only one in trouble.

*****

 

The End

End Part 7/7

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