BUT OURSELVES

Classification: Post-ep for "Tithonous."
Author's notes at end.

 

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me -
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

-Emily Dickinson
***

NYU Medical Center
1:42 a.m.

At trauma centers all through the Washington, D.C. area, Fox Mulder was known as "The Flying Fibbie."

His demeanor in New York City was hardly any different.

He skidded down the corridor, heart in his throat. The call had been a quick one: "We're sorry to inform you that your partner was taken to the hospital with a gunshot wound to the abdomen."

Worst place to get shot.

Long, painful death.

Alone.

Oh, Scully, alone.

And she was shot by that damn kid that Kersh assigned to her.

It was an all-too-familiar scene. "I'm looking for a Dana Scully, an FBI agent who was brought here by ambulance."

The clerk looked at him, taking in the days'-old stubble and the wrinkled suit. "Sir, could you wait a moment? There are people here who are also waiting..."

He took out his badge and placed it with ferocious carefulness on the counter. "This is official FBI business."

"Sir..."

"Dammit, tell me what happened to my partner!"

Scully, Scully...

The clerk's fingernails grabbed the edge of her chair. "I'll see if I can find her on the board. Please, sir, try to stay calm."

Mulder was torn between a desire to bark out laughing or to wring the woman's neck. What the hell did she know about calm? Didn't she know, didn't she KNOW...

"Ah, here we are. She's in surgery."

"What floor?"

"The waiting room is..."

"What's the damn FLOOR?!" He knew he was shouting, knew he was frightening the people around him, but he was past caring.

Scully, Scully, Scully, was the pulse that made the veins in his forehead stand out.

"I'll call security if you don't calm..."

Hands in the air, slowly backing away, Mulder took on a less offensive posture.

Scully, Scully...

"Please tell me what floor."

Only two people knew the danger in that whisper. One was no longer allowed contact with him, the other was on...

"The seventh floor."

Mulder's nod was more like a seizure.

His first few steps were measured, then he broke into a full-fledged run. The heel marks in front of the elevator marked his sudden halt, the muddy, pacing footprints on the elevator's floor were a reminder of his impatient journey to where blood and death lay in wait for him.

Scully, Scully...

He did not bother to get his bearings as he barreled down the floor toward the purple sign (purple like blood, like clotted blood, who the hell makes surgical signs that color) that hung over another counter with another anonymous clerk, this one a male who looked as if he had just graduated from high school.

"Where is Dana Scully?"

The enquiry was greeted with a blank stare. "You family? I can't tell you anything if she's not family."

Mulder pulled out his badge, this time showing a flash of gun. "She's my partner."

She's my family, my lifeline, my life.

The clerk seemed unmoved. "I can only release that information to..."

He was cut short by a long, sinewy arm pointing a shaking finger in his face.

"Where. Is. She."

Disregarding the finger would be impossible. It was as if the hand of an avenging angel had picked him out of a lineup to go straight to hell.

Whatever kind of hell this man lived in.

"Let me go look."

The kid's journey was interrupted by a tall, bespectacled man whose scrubs looked like a Pollack painting done in reds. "Sir, the waiting room is..."

"NO! No waiting room! Get me information about Dana Scully."

"Sir, I'm not sure..."

"She came in by ambulance, they said she was in surgery."

"Oh. The gunshot wound."

Mulder took a fistful of the smock, Scully's blood seeping from the fabric onto his hands, and looked the surgeon squarely in the eye. "She is not 'a gunshot wound.' She is Special Agent Dana Scully of the Federal Bureau of fucking INVESTIGATION. Now get your head out of your ass and tell me HOW SHE--oh, shit!"

The silvery flash of the gurney caught his eye; it was almost obscured by the spider's web of tubes and wires making a gauzy (like mummy wrapping...) curtain around the bed's occupant.

Scully, Scully...

They would recall later that it was impossible to hold the man back. The clerk and the surgeon both grasped him, but despair gave him inhuman strength.

"Oh my God, oh my God..."

Beyond white, translucent, awash in betadine and wrapped in gauze...

...blood pooling around her head, no that's her hair, oh my God my God, how did this happen why wasn't it me I'm going to kill that stupid fucking kid...

Scully, Scully...

There was nowhere to hold her hand, nowhere to touch her that wasn't guarded by machines, nurses, or IV lines.

Her face, its stark pallor, was disturbingly familiar.

It was the same face that looked up from her deathbed and offered her good name as a farewell gift to him.

Now she could not even look at him.

Worse than death, this pain, this uncertainty.

No...no...

The bizarre procession stopped in front of the surgical ICU. A nurse, whose name Mulder would never remember but whose hands he would never forget, put her fingertips on his wrist and led him away with a bird's touch, her gentleness doing what force and stubbornness could not accomplish.

"Are you 'Mulder?'"

Mulder blinked twice, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the surgical team as it worked on Scully. It was enough of an answer for the nurse.

"She came to for a few moments in Recovery, and she asked for you." The feather-light touch came again, this time on the side of his neck, surreptitiously checking his pulse. "She needs you."

After swallowing the broken glass in his throat, Mulder spoke. "Is she going to die?"

Scully, Scully, Scully...don't leave me...

"It was tricky surgery; she lost a lot of blood. I won't lie to you - it could go either way."

More broken glass as he slid his eyelids shut.

"I want to see her."

I want to hold her, tell her that I'm here...she'll wake up if she knows I'm here...

"She's going to be asleep for a while. Why don't you come with me, and I'll get you cleaned up."

Blood on my hands, her blood, all I have of her...

"I don't want to get cleaned up."

There was a moment of understanding between them. "You don't have to, then. Come here and sit down and I'll bring you something that may change your mind."

Flecks of iron-red fell like arsenic snow as he flexed his hands. He followed in silence, straining to hear the beep of the machines and the artificial breath that kept Scully alive. The hard red seat was no comfort. He looked down at his shoes with their dusting of flaked blood.

Scully, Scully, Scully.

Cold metal touched his face. He looked up - it was too close to focus on, but he knew the feel, even thought he recognized the smell.

"We had to remove it before the surgery started. Would you like to hang on to it for her?"

It went around his neck as it had been around hers. Trembling fingers brushed the cross.

For the first time Mulder looked up at the face of the middle-aged nurse; he gave her the best smile he could muster. It wasn't much, but it served its purpose.

"You're welcome," she murmured. "Now you can go in and see her for a few minutes. She's going to be sleeping for the rest of the night, though."

"Thank..." He had to clear his throat. "Thank you."

Hold on, Scully...

For such a strong man, his steps into the ICU were faltering and unsure. His emotions churned within him: fear of what he would see warred with the insatiable need to touch his partner's hand. Mulder pulled up a chair and leaned low over the bed.

Scully could do no more than to let her heart beat. A respirator drew breath for her, a tube down her nose fed her, an intravenous line gave her fluids and medicine, from beneath the sheets a clear plastic tube shuttled pink fluid away from her body, demonstrating that even her most personal needs were being taken care of by artificial means. Only her heart, strong and loving, beat on unaided.

Scully, Scully...

A halo formed by the indentations of the surgical cap drew his fingers to it. As soon as he felt the soft surface of Scully's hair, Mulder lost all semblance of control.

It wasn't real until he touched her.

God, God, God...

A swish of fabric against plastic, and he was in a supplicant's posture. Kneeling at her side, he pillowed his face on his arms and watched with half-lidded eyes the rise and fall of her breathing.

Not her breathing, the breathing of a machine.

Hiss. Hiss.

Serpent, the snake in the grass Kersh who sent Scully on this fool's errand, should have known, should have insisted he go with her...

Hot, oily tears formed, but he denied himself their comfort.

Little by little he found her hand, let his fingertips brush hers, careful not to displace the monitor on the middle digit.

Lips followed, a penitential kiss to the base of the thumb.

Scully, Scully...

Before long his body took on the sterile, insistent rhythms of the medical equipment. Hisses and beeps fell into sync with his breathing and pulse, and the faint warmth of Scully's fingers lulled him into an uneasy sleep.

***

4:24 a.m.
 
 

"Agent Mulder."

The gravel of that voice was as unmistakable as it was unwelcome.

Raising a head bound by so many karmic and temporal burdens seemed an impossibility. Mulder used force of will in order to get the satisfaction of seeing the genuine regret on the face of Assistant Director Kersh.

"So nice of you to come," Mulder spat. Weary to the bone, he forced his creaking knees to straighten as he released his grasp on Scully's fingers. With a hand still warm from her touch, Mulder indicated the still, white figure on the bed. "Here's the result of your incompetence." With venom: "Sir."

"I understand that you are suffering from exhaustion and a certain loss of personal objectivity, Agent Mulder, so I choose to disregard your flagrant impertinence."

"Your vocabulary is impressive, given that it's the middle of the night and you're responsible for the critical condition of an agent under your control." He swept a lock of sweat-soaked hair off of Scully's face. "Do you like your handiwork?"

For an instant a flicker of something other than irritation crossed Kersh's stony expression.

"I deeply regret Agent Scully's injuries."

Mulder's lips worked around the words 'deeply regret.'

Kersh cleared his throat. "It is necessary to inform Agent Scully's mother of what has happened."

"You mean you haven't done that yet?"

"I thought it prudent to wait until we had some idea of her condition."

He knew he was breathing too quickly. The room spun at a crazy angle; he reached for the foot of Scully's bed to steady himself.

"Her condition? Look at her! Look at the machines!" With a wild gesture he snatched up the chart at the foot of her bed. "Gunshot wound to the right upper abdomen with shrapnel damage to the liver, gallbladder, ascending colon, and small intestine." It took all of his self-control to keep from hurling the metal clipboard at his boss.

"I'm sorry, Agent Mulder." There was strain in the voice.

Mulder noticed that Kersh kept his eyes forward, away from the hospital bed. "You owe it to her to face up to what you've done."

Kersh's eyes turned cold. "What did I do, Agent Mulder? I assigned her to an interesting case with a partner whose credentials and unblemished record..."

He was interrupted by Mulder's disbelieving snort. "Unblemished record? Ritter SHOT her!"

"The details are still unclear. In any event, Agent Mulder, I only did what I thought was in the best interest of Agent Scully's career."

Kersh's eyes turned toward the monitors without focusing on them. "I really thought I was doing her a favor by offering her a chance at something more within the Bureau mainstream. She's been with us for almost ten years now. A brilliant woman like Scully, with more education and field experience than some agents twenty years older - she deserves something else."

"You mean that she deserves something better than being demoted *from* the basement."

"Don't you?"

As Mulder's mind turned the question over, his body sagged bonelessly into the bedside chair.

Scully, Scully, Scully...

He felt the air clear as Kersh backed out of the room after his parting shot, leaving him with his rage dissipating in a deluge of grief and recrimination. His voice cut through the metallic whir of machinery, adding a human dimension to the scientific monitors of suffering.

"What do you deserve, Scully? A normal life, free from pain, free from the weight of knowing the sins committed in the name of Government? A chance to hold your head up high when you say what you do for a living? A day without grief?"

He choked on his next words, spoken in a whisper at the pale apple of her cheek.

"Is there anything you deserve that I can possibly give you?"

Darkness whirled around him, a vortex of spinning nothingness that left holes in his lungs. Fumbling, almost falling, he dragged himself out of the room and leaned his forehead against the wall in the corridor, gulping ineffectively for air.

A floor nurse took advantage of the lull to check Scully's vital signs; when she emerged she gave Mulder a small smile and a pat on the arm, and he tried to relax. Something caught his peripheral vision and he frowned, squinting.

Death approached.

Black robe, black robe flowing ever faster toward Scully's room...he had to stop him, had to keep him away from her, beat him back, beat him back...

His body surged forward and threw itself in front of the door, seeing nothing but the blackness of the robe...the robe...

...the trenchcoat.

Skinner.

They hadn't seen one another since that horrible evening when Skinner told his former subordinates that he was unwilling to allow them to continue investigating the man who had tried so hard to kill him. Mulder remembered the blank stone stare on Skinner's face, almost like an antique statue on which the sculptor chose not to carve the iris. Cold white eyes.

Tonight, however, Skinner's eyes were anything but blank. They were filled with worry, with compassion both for Scully's plight and for Mulder's.

"What's happened?" Skinner asked in a rough voice as he took in Mulder's demeanor and wild appearance. "I saw A.D. Kersh on the way out and he said she was stable...has something..."

"No." Mulder lowered his aching head and swiped ineffectually at his eyes with the edge of his sleeve. "She's still unconscious. It's just been a long night, that's all."

"Thank God," was the responsorial whisper.

Mulder was aware on some subconscious level of Skinner leading him to a chair outside of the ICU and pushing him gently down into it. Both men craned their necks for a view of Scully.

Déja vu.

Skinner, the less tired of the two men, made the connection first. He leaned into Mulder's range of vision and commanded him to look into his eyes. "We've played out this scenario before, haven't we?"

Nodding because it seemed to be the expected response, Mulder managed a wan smile. "Are you going to kick my ass again?"

"Not this time." Skinner sat back, casting a worried glance at the dejected posture of the man at his side. "Hell, Mulder, even *you* couldn't blame yourself for this one. Though I'm sure you tried."

That drew a laugh, an alien sound in the businesslike susurrence of the hospital corridor. "You got me on that one, sir."

"You can't do this to yourself. It's not right. It's not what she'd want." He gestured over his shoulder to the motionless figure in the window. "You have to pull yourself together for her. She can't wake up and find you like this."

Like this.

Mulder considered the meaning of that statement, then put his head down in his hands. In a voice muffled by his fingers, he asked: "Has someone called Mrs. Scully yet?"

"Not at this time. I think Kersh was hoping you'd do it." He didn't need to look to know that Mulder was staring at him in horror; he just waved a hand in Mulder's direction and kept talking. "I told him to go to Hell."

The dry laugh coming from Mulder sounded more like a cough. "I'd have paid money to see that."

"Sorry you missed the show."

"So, is he going to do it?"

"No."

With a shaking hand Mulder reached for his cel phone, only to be stopped by Skinner's restraining grasp.

"I don't want you to have to do this, Agent Mulder. I'll take care of it. What I need you to do is to go back in there and be with her so that I can tell her mother that she's safe. Will you do that?"

Mulder's face crumpled and for a moment it looked as if he would weep. Instead he rose and went back into the room where Scully was waiting for him, needing him. He left the door open slightly and in a few minutes he could hear Skinner's voice trying to find the words to soothe an anxious mother.

"...No, he was on another assignment when it happened, but as soon as he was notified he came to New York to stay with her..."

I came for you, Scully, Mulder thought as he took his place at her bedside. I'm here. I'm right here. I hope you know that.

"...The doctors have upgraded her condition to stable...yes, I understand that you want to come as soon as possible, anyway..."

Your mother will be here soon, Scully. You'll want to see her, you'll want to be awake so you can tell her yourself that you're fine.

Fine. Your favorite word, Scully.

"...I'll tell him...Yes, I'll be here..."

He's going to tell me to go to a hotel and sleep. I bet that's what he'll do. Wake up and tell him it's not gonna happen, okay?

Mulder ran the back of his fingers along Scully's jaw line, repeating the motion over and over as he heard Skinner give the last of the details to a woman who'd been called to a hospital one time too many. After a moment he felt the strength of Skinner's presence hovering in the doorway.

"May I come in?"

The voice of authority became hesitant, as if he feared he would be unwelcome.

"Of course," Mulder said quickly, although he did not take his eyes from Scully's face. Through hazy peripheral vision he saw his former superior take a spot on the other side of the sleeping woman and reach for her fingers.

"Her hand's cold." Skinner chafed the thin fingers in his own for a moment, staring at their joined hands as if he were trying to think clearly and needed the sight to gain focus.

"How's Mrs. Scully?" Mulder asked, still not looking Skinner in the eye.

"Upset, naturally. She's taking the first shuttle out in the morning. I told her I'd meet up with her here. I also promised to make you..."

"...get some sleep."

Their eyes met at last over those expected but useless words.

"I at least had to try, Agent Mulder."

Nodding, Mulder glanced over at him, and then back at Scully. "I'd rather stay here. I have to make sure she's safe."

"I understand." Skinner let go of Scully's fingers, then walked over to Mulder and pulled a chair up behind him. "If you're camping out here tonight, at least sit down."

"Thanks." The sound of the other chair being dragged toward the door made him turn around. "You're not staying?"

"I'll be..." he gestured toward the hallway. "I don't want to intrude."

Intrude. This was the man who'd risked life and limb for them both so many times that Mulder lost count, and he thought he could intrude.

"Please stay, sir. I think she'd feel better with you here. God knows I will."

Whatever had made Skinner tell them to back off from investigating his attempted murder was forgotten as the two men kept watch through the night.

***

NYU Hospital

7:38 a.m.
 
 

Movement.

Mulder snapped awake, senses on hyper-alert, when he felt a slight twitch of the fingers he was holding.

The first thing he noticed was the trembling of Scully's blue-veined eyelids.

Then he registered that, during the night, someone had removed the respirator and hooked Scully up to a simple nasal canula, and had done it so quietly that he did not awaken.

His eyes took in the semi-reclining form of Walter Skinner, head thrown back against the wall, sleeping soundly.

The last thing he noticed was that it hurt to smile after so many hours of worry.

But he didn't care.

Any strain in his face was ameliorated by the joy of placing the lightest kiss on his partner's wrist. "Scully?" he whispered.

Her eyes almost opened in response, then the long lashes drooped once more. A tiny sound came from her parched throat, a whimper that could have been a question or a prayer.

"Scully, it's me. I'm right here, and you're going to be okay."

Even the hushed, reverent tone of his voice was enough to wake Skinner, who leapt to his feet immediately. "I'll get the nurse," he said around the smile that threatened to dismantle his gruff facade.

Mulder could not hear the words above the ocean-rush of blood in his ears.

Scully, Scully, you're coming back...

"Mu...where..."

He leaned over and brushed his fingertip across her lips. "Don't try to talk yet. You were shot and you've had surgery, but you're going to be fine. Your mother should be here soon."

It seemed to be enough to comfort her, because she sighed softly and relaxed into the pillow. Within seconds she was asleep: the true, deep sleep of exhaustion rather than the drugged half-coma of the previous night.

The rush of Mulder's blood suddenly changed course, beating in waves against his eyes, and he found hot, oily tears running down his face so fast that they felt like a summer storm. A low moan erupted from his soul and he clamped his teeth down hard on his lip to stifle it.

Nothing could stop the tears. He rained grief on the sheets, poured his agony out in salty drops that shimmered under the harsh fluorescent lights. The duty nurse who raced in with Skinner had to peel Mulder's fingers away from Scully's hand long enough to take her vital signs.

All the while, Mulder wept.

Even when the nurse gave him an encouraging smile and patted his arm, he wept.

Even when he heard the sweet words, "She's resting comfortably," he wept.

Even with the assurance the doctor gave moments later that Scully's condition was improving by leaps and bounds and that she was to be moved into a regular room, he wept.

Skinner dragged him bodily from the room by the FBI equivalent of the scruff of the neck: the collar of his untidy dress shirt. A nurse made an utterly unhelpful comment about delayed shock, for which Skinner rewarded her with a glare and a growled, "I know all about delayed fucking shock."

Loping, hard-shod steps took them to the utility closet, where Skinner locked the door, flicked the switch, and prepared to show his wayward protege some metaphorical light.

Mulder still sobbed, harsh breaths sucking in oxygen that had a stinging effect rather than a soothing one.

"Agent Mulder, you have to stop this. Now," he said in his brook-no-denial voice. He'd watched the nurses flutter ineffectually around Mulder, cooing at him and reassuring him, and seen the inevitable result of more tears, more self-pity, more recrimination.

With that in mind, he took Mulder by the shoulders and pushed him into the closed door. "Mrs. Scully is going to be here within an hour and she does NOT need two children to take care of. If you can't control yourself, I won't hesitate to throw your sorry ass out of this building and refuse to let you have even one MINUTE with Scully."

The anguished, streaming gaze flashed its accusation. He doesn't know, can't know what I feel doesn't care that she almost died only worried about his ass if Mrs. Scully decides to sue...

Skinner reeled from the sheer force of the glare and Mulder's words took all the wind out of him.

"I remember in the Antarctic, when I found her...she was so cold, they left her naked and covered in goo with that THING down her throat so she couldn't even breathe for herself and her eyes, her EYES..." Mulder's hands drew pictures in the air of an impossible, frozen hell. "Her eyes were staring at me through the glass, accusing me..."

The tears were at last dried up, leaving his voice cracked and raw.

"And when I finally got her out of there, finally got her to breathe, I could feel the life draining away from her...you don't know what that was like..."

"The hell I don't!" Exasperated and angry, Skinner towered over Mulder and spoke in machine-gun tones. "That last day with the cancer, when we thought you were dead and she was about to expose the FBI's involvement, she began to bleed." He put a thick finger under Mulder's nose to make his point. "Then she fell, Mulder - Scully collapsed in my arms and even worse than that was the look in her eyes when she said just ONE word to me, a word that I hear every night in my nightmares."

"'You.'

"I was holding her, feeling her slip away from me, and as she struggled for one more breath she accused ME of taking her life with that single word."

He had to stop to regain his composure, wiping off his glasses with a shaking hand. When he was finished, he stood an inch away from Mulder and hissed into his face.

"Don't you DARE have the balls to tell me that I don't know what you're feeling!"

Breathing hard, trying to rein in their fear and pain, Skinner and Mulder stared at one another.

Someone knocked on the closet door; from within, two angry voices shouted in concert: "Go away!"

They looked at each other in shock. Then they started to laugh.

"At least we agree on something," Mulder deadpanned. He fished around in his pocket and came up with his handkerchief, small spatters of Scully's blood still visible in its crinkled folds. He wiped his eyes with the corner that was still relatively white, not wanting to diminish her hard-shed blood with his tears.

"Okay, Mulder, you're back with me, right?" Skinner waited for the confirming nod and his face softened. "There's going to be a time and place for you to process this, but that time isn't now and the place isn't here."

"You trying to tell me that Scully women aren't tough?"

Skinner's mouth quirked. "Hell, no."

"Good. Otherwise I'd have to call the psych ward and request a room with a view."

Once upon a time, Margaret Scully put herself between her daughter's gun and my worthless hide...

Skinner could see the anguish growing in Mulder's red-rimmed, exhausted eyes. He rooted around on the shelves for a moment and came up with a box of baby wipes, which he tossed to Mulder. Amused, Mulder took one, sniffed at it, and made an attempt to clean his face.

"Don't go off on me again, Mulder," Skinner warned as he reached for the door handle. "I meant what I said. I'll take you away from her if you so much as snivel."

"I know. And sir..."

Skinner's large hand went up, a flesh and blood wall between himself and gratitude.

Mulder looked at the hand, at the strength of it. God, he's done so much for her, for us both, and I treat him like dirt...

To his credit, Mulder remained silent and let Skinner lead them back toward the ICU. The screeching of wheels told them that Scully was on a gurney, being moved away, before they ever saw her. "Sixth floor, room 617," the orderly said over his shoulder. "There'll be room for one more in the elevator."

Skinner pushed Mulder forward. "You go; I'll wait for her mother here."

It took only a few seconds for Mulder to catch up with the procession, and one second more for him to pick up Scully's hand and hold it tightly between both of his. The orderly smiled at him. "Your wife?"

There was a fraction of hesitation while Mulder considered the question. "My life," he said as much to himself as to the orderly, his eyes never leaving Scully's peaceful face.

You hear me, Scully?

My life.

He held her hand all the way to the new room, even when the orderly and the two nurses shifted her into her new bed, softer and wider than the one in the ICU. There was a time of arranging tubes and monitors, but Mulder held fast and made them do their work around him. One nurse started to raise the railing, but stopped and asked in a conspiratorial whisper, "Are you going to want to sit with her on the bed, or in a chair?"

Can you believe that, Scully? What does she think, I'm going to leave the room and play canasta?

He knew that he had to remain calm, to keep his poise, or he'd be made to leave. With his most engaging smile, the one he used when he wanted to wheedle Scully into giving him his way, he looked up at the nurse through his eyelashes.

"I'd like to sit by her, please. I won't let her fall."

It worked; she left the railing down and let Mulder be the protector.

I won't let anything happen to you, Scully.

He perched on the side of the bed and let her pulse determine the speed of his own.

***

9:42 a.m.
 
 

Mulder heard the door open, followed by the familiar sound of Skinner's footfall and the lighter tapping of a woman's shoes.

"Hello, Mrs. Scully," he said as he rose, still holding on to Scully's hand.

"Fox." Although her eyes were dark and anguished, her posture was utterly erect, a Navy wife even when afraid. She released his hand and patted him on the arm. "Assistant Director Skinner tells me that you sat up with her during the night. I want to thank you for that..."

"Mrs. Scully, I wouldn't have left her..."

"Please, let me finish." She took a deep breath. "I'm very grateful for what you've done, and I know that what happened to Dana is in no way your fault. But I need some time with her."

Mulder's face went ashen and his legs began to tremble when he saw the drawn, set expression on Margaret's face.

"I need to be alone with my daughter, Fox."

Air, there's no air in this room and I'm going to pass out, please don't let me keel over in front of her she's throwing me out it hurts...

He felt Margaret's arms go up over his shoulders and he started to hug her.

Then he realized what she was doing.

She was not only hugging him, but also unfastening the cross, taking it away from him.

"She'll want this on when she wakes up." Margaret took Mulder's arm for a moment, squeezing it hard. "I'm not trying to hurt you or push you away. But right now, I just don't have the strength for anyone but Dana."

Skinner took hold of Mulder's shoulders. "We'll be down in the cafeteria. You have my cel phone number if you need us." He nudged Mulder's arm. "Mulder, let's go."

Unable to speak, Mulder put his hand on the door frame for support as he cast a glance over his shoulder just in time to see Margaret Scully kiss her daughter's forehead lovingly. It was as it should be, mother and child, and he knew in his mind that he was overreacting, but his heart constricted nevertheless and it became painful to breathe.

He would later remember nothing about the ride in the elevator or the way Skinner guided him to a table in the cafeteria. All he would recall of the experience was the bitterness of the coffee, more bitter than the bile that rose in his throat and made his face distort into a mask of disgust.

"It's not just you, Mulder. It really DOES taste like poison." Skinner poured two packets of sugar into his cup and set the red plastic stirrer into motion. He took a second, more cautious sip. "Nope. Didn't help."

Mulder drank deeply of the acrid, black liquid. It was what he deserved, to be burned from within, to have acid etchings in his body to match the ones in his mind.

"Put that down before you get sick. Eat this." Skinner shoved a biscuit and gravy in Mulder's direction. "You look like shit, Mulder. If she wakes up and sees you, she'll shoot you."

"She's seen worse," was the mumbled reply around a mouthful of food. "How the hell can they make such disgusting coffee and such great biscuits in the same kitchen?"

"Sounds like something you'd investigate."

Mulder's face fell and he put his hands in his lap, staring directly at Skinner. "I wouldn't know about that any more, would I?"

Skinner found it difficult to meet the keen intelligence of the green gaze opposite him. "I probably deserve that hit, Mulder. I haven't exactly been generous with what I know." He adjusted his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and leaned forward over the table.

"There are things that I can't tell you, Agent. Not because I don't want to, not because I don't trust you, but because I don't want to get you killed."

It was Mulder's turn to lean forward, interest beginning to override his self-loathing. "Is there anything you CAN tell me, Sir?"

"Nothing concrete. But I do know that there are forces at work here, forces that want you and Agent Scully left out in the cold because they know that you won't quit until you have the answers they're trying to hide. I'm going to do anything and everything I can to ensure that they don't get their way.

"But you have to trust me, Mulder. Can you do that?"

He looked down at his hands, then back up again. "It's hard for me to trust anyone but Scully."

Skinner swallowed in silence, nodding. "I know that."

"I want to trust you. I know what you've risked for us in the past, and I can't believe that you'd ever turn on us. But...you have to give me some time."

"I don't know how much time we have. Look at what happened last night - an event so random that even you can't attribute it to a conspiracy. I need you on this, Mulder. I need you both."

Mulder pushed his chair away from the table, rising with more steadiness than he had shown since he arrived in New York. "I'll talk it over with Scully. I think - I know - that she'll want to be in on this. She's lost so much; it's even more personal for her than it is for me."

"Okay. That's what I needed to hear."

He was on his feet in an instant, taking the coffee cups by the rims as if they were toxic waste and depositing them in the trash can with an annoyed grunt. "I'll get Mrs. Scully a Coke - we don't want both of them incapacitated at once."

Just as he was about to put coins in the vending machine, his phone rang. "Skinner."

Mulder's eyes were imploring; his long body rocked back and forth on his heels.

"Thank you." Skinner replaced the phone. He said nothing.

"Sir?"

Finally, Skinner let himself smile. "She's awake, Mulder, and she wants to see you."

Mulder's face opened on a smile. Oh thank you God, thank you she's awake and she doesn't hate me...

"Mulder!" Skinner had to run to catch up, for Mulder had bounded off like a greyhound primed for the race, long legs carrying him forward to the elevator.

Too slow, too SLOW...

"Stairs," was all Mulder said as he sprinted for the opposite doorway. Taking the steps two at a time, he hit the sixth floor at a dangerous pace, his dress shoes sliding down the waxed corridor. He swung around the door, holding to the jamb with his palm.

Mrs. Scully stood up and went toward him, touching his face with her fingers as she gave him the privacy he craved.

Breathless, gleaming with sweat, his eyes unnaturally bright, he found his waking nightmare come to an end.

"Mulder," Scully whispered, her voice rough from intubation. She tilted her head toward him and he dropped to his knees beside her, pressing his face in the crook of her elbow. He kissed the soft skin, then rested his chin on the mattress so that he could look at her.

"Scully."

It was a prayer, a declaration, a caress.

"Just wanted to make sure...you didn't leave..."

"Well, there *is* a nurse on the fourth floor who's kind of cute..."

Scully's palm moved from Mulder's hair to the bandage on her abdomen. "Don't make me...laugh...hurts..."

"I'm sorry." He took her hand and stroked it, being careful not to disturb the IV line. "I'll be right here for you."

"Shower." Her nose wrinkled and she tried to smile. "You smell."

Grinning, Mulder stood up and pressed his lips to her forehead. "Sorry - it hasn't been an Irish Spring kind of day. Get some sleep; I'll send your mom back in."

"Okay." Her eyes closed and her breathing became deep and even.

His hand swept just above her hair, a benediction

She's alive, she's alive...

He tiptoed out of the room.

His smile melted when he saw the anger on Skinner's countenance and the sorrow in Mrs. Scully's eyes.

Breathless with fear, Mulder bent forward at the waist precisely in time to hear Skinner say, "I just got a call. Peyton Ritter is scheduled for a hearing this afternoon. Word is that he will not be censured for what happened last night."

Not censured.

Of course. All he did was inflict a mortal wound on Mrs. Spooky. What's to censure?

If he'd killed her, he'd be an A.D. by now. If he'd killed *me*, they'd make him the fucking Director.

He's not going to be punished, not censured.

Not censured, maybe, but he'll pay.

He'll pay.

***

4:45 p.m.
 
 

Vengeance.

Such an elegant word for such an ignoble concept, Mulder thought as he let the hot water sluice over his exhausted, grimy body.

Scully's wrinkled nose had done what all the cajoling in the world could not - persuaded him to get to a hotel and clean himself up.

The notion of revenge was grating at him; Ritter was scheduled to make a return trip to New York that night, at the conclusion of his meeting in D.C. For a fleeting instant Mulder considered shooting the little weasel in the gut.

He closed his eyes and imagined Ritter laid out on the floor at his feet, writhing in agony as his blood pooled thickly on the floor.

How do you like being on the business end of a bullet, you son of a bitch? Does it hurt? Does it hurt the way you hurt her?

He started to laugh then, a wild, haunted sound. How ironic could a situation be? If he exacted revenge on Ritter for what happened to Scully, Scully would never forgive him.

Shit.

He'd need to save another bullet for himself, and he wasn't that reliable a shot.

Mulder soaped his hair a final time, rinsed it in the stream of steaming water, and realized that he was only clean on the outside.

Inside, he was filled with the dank smell of malevolence, the oily soot of retribution that could never be.

He stepped out of the shower and toweled himself dry slowly, looking at the bullet wounds on his shoulder - from where Scully had shot him to save himself - and thigh. God, that had hurt, being hit in the leg, the pain somewhere between a vise and a roaring fire.

Wounds to the abdomen, though, were said to be the worst.

He couldn't imagine Scully's pain, or her fear. He couldn't allow himself to think about it, or the impotent rage would drive him insane.

Instead he shook out his clean underwear and began to dress, to cover his scars the only way he knew how, from the outside.

His spare suit was a bit crumpled, but it was serviceable. The clothes he'd worn for the last three days were set on the bed along with a note to have them dry-cleaned.

Except the handkerchief. For some reason he couldn't bear to part with anything of Scully's, not even her blood.

As he dressed he tried not to think about what that might mean.

***

6:15 p.m.

The evening shift was coming on as Mulder re-entered the hospital. A few of the faces looked familiar; the faces that had rebuffed him last night now looked at him with more than a little leeriness. Another crazy guy haunting the halls. Wonderful.

Without meeting their eyes, Mulder approached the elevator with practiced remoteness. It took only a moment for the door to open; he took his place in the cold privacy within.

Looking at the numbers makes it take longer, don't look, just smile and look cheerful for her, show her what you brought...

He cradled a dozen red roses in his arms, like a baby.

Bad analogy, Mulder, he told himself.

Whatever the analogy, he had them with him to make sure that her room smelled sweet enough to dispel the stench of medicine and suffering. The air Scully breathed should be rarefied, perfect. His offering, wrapped in delicate green paper, had an aroma of sanctity, like incense in a church, like a whispered invocation.

This trip down the corridor was made in marked contrast to his entrance in the middle of the night. He actually took in his surroundings, seeing the neatly-organized nurses' station and hearing the padded footfall of caregivers in their well-worn sneakers.

The door to Scully's room was open and Margaret was there, holding her daughter's hand and listening to the doctor make his pronouncement.

Mulder froze in the doorway, trying to hear.

They found cancer in her bloodstream, there's more internal bleeding...

They're *laughing*...

Scully's eyes locked with Mulder's and she gestured for him to enter. He mimed asking Mrs. Scully for her permission, which was granted with a warm smile.

"You must be Mulder," said the gray-haired doctor, peering up at him over his reading glasses. "I'm Barry Loughlin; I headed the surgical team that worked on Dana this morning."

"Yes...thank you for..." He had to swallow before he could speak clearly. "How's she doing?"

"It's remarkable, really. Considering the level of damage, it's amazing that she's awake and coherent."

"Not too coherent," Scully said, her voice slightly slurred. "Gave me morphine..."

"Doctors make the worst patients. Anyway, as I was telling Dana and Margaret, we're going to keep her here for about ten days to watch out for complications and keep an eye out for infection, and of course she'll need some physical therapy. But I have every reason to believe that she'll make a full recovery." Smiling, he leaned over and touched Scully's forehead. "I'll check in with you tomorrow, and we'll see about taking you off the oxygen."

As the doctor turned to leave, he saw the color suddenly return to Mulder's pale, haggard face. On his way out, he patted Mulder's arm. "She's going to be all right, son."

Margaret's dark head bowed and her lips moved in a quiet prayer.

Scully's eyes, glittering with analgesics and joy, never left Mulder's face.

"You brought...roses..." She shifted slightly, still unable to sit upright but wanting a better look. "Mom, they're so pretty."

"I'll get them in some water. Excuse me." Margaret took the floral tribute and made a quick exit, yet her daughter could not miss the sign of tears on her face.

"Poor Mom. This is...hard on her."

"Don't worry, Scully. She'll be okay; we'll look after her." He leaned against the wall, gazing at her with his troubled eyes. "We'll look after you."

"I know you will." She patted the bed with her fingers. "Sit."

Slow and shy, Mulder perched on the edge of the mattress and let his fingers thread through hers.

"Mulder?"

"Mmm?" He sensed a tremor, something in her soul that agitated her and made her uneasy. "What is it, Scully?"

"Fellig. He said something to me..."

Scully coughed a little and moaned at the pain in her abdomen. In an instant Mulder brought the cup of water to her lips and let her take a small sip. "Scully, you shouldn't be talking..."

"Have to tell you."

He leaned over, letting his forehead touch hers. "It'll keep."

"No." Her breath was a breeze from heaven, so close, so close.

"Scully..."

"I'll be quick."

He could not deny her. Sitting up again, he gave her one more drink of water, set the cup aside, and waited, taking hold of her hands.

"He let them die...all of them...but he saved me."

"I don't understand..."

"Had to see...the face..."

He drew nearer, trying to understand Scully's cracked, whispered words. "What face?"

"Death. It was the only way...he could be released..."

Mulder's eyes widened. "That's why he took the pictures. Not to commemorate *a* death, but to capture Death itself."

Relieved at being understood, Scully sank back into the pillow. "He died...for me."

Suddenly it was hard for him to get a breath. Her survival had been so random, so reliant on the whim of that pathetic man. Death had brushed her face with its cold hand.

Too close, too close to losing her forever.

Oh God, oh God, he died for her died in her place died so that she could have life and she's here and I can touch her she's alive my Scully is alive...

He stared at her, blinking quickly, taking in the pallor of her skin and the fevered brightness of her eyes. Before he could say anything, he saw someone coming into the room.

Margaret arrived with the roses in a vase, her visage less careworn than it had been that morning. "They're gorgeous, Fox," she said as she placed them on a table where her daughter could both admire the rich, velvety petals and breathe in their perfume. Scully smiled and gave one hand to her mother, then looked up and saw Skinner hovering in the doorway.

"Sir?"

Like a favor from royalty, that word brought a joy to Skinner's face, lighting it from within. He looked over at his fallen comrade with an expression of allegiance and respect that he hoarded, for use only when he was deeply moved. He took a place at Mulder's side and smiled when Scully offered him her hand.

"I'm so glad you came, sir. "

"I'm sorry, Agent Scully. About all this." His hand unconsciously touched the place where an assassin's bullet had sliced through him.

"Not your fault. No one's fault." She sighed, the strain of speaking taking its toll on the fresh wounds. "Want to see my chart."

"Not now, honey," Margaret chided, tucking the sheets around her daughter. "In the morning. We'll all be here."

"Okay. I'll be here, too. I'll always be here. He died for me..."

As her eyes slid closed, those who gathered at her bedside stared at one another.

"What was that?" Skinner asked, receiving a puzzled shrug from Mrs. Scully.

"I don't know that I'd take her too seriously, Mr. Skinner. After all, she's been thorough surgery and has all those painkillers in her."

She stroked her daughter's hair, straightening it as she spoke. "I'm going to check in to the hotel and get some dinner. Would you two care to join me?"

Mulder was gazing at Scully, mulling over her words about Fellig, his mind miles away from the conversation, so Skinner answered. "I'm going to stay here, thanks. Assistant Director Kersh is coming back with Agent Ritter, and I think Agent Mulder and I should be here when they arrive."

"I think I shouldn't be here, then." She took a deep breath, her arms folded across her chest. "I know that what happened was an accident. That it could have happened to anyone. But it happened to Dana...I need some time to find forgiveness. It'll come, but I need time. Will you tell him that?"

"Of course." He helped Margaret into her dark coat and escorted her toward the elevator. "Mulder? Mrs. Scully's leaving."

Slowly, as if underwater, Mulder turned away from Scully's sleeping face. He managed a thin smile that didn't reach his eyes.

When Skinner returned, Mulder began to speak without looking at him. "She said something, once, about Clyde Bruckman, that she'd given in to her curiosity and asked him how she would die. He said two words to her: 'You don't.'"

"Mulder." Skinner put his hand on Mulder's shoulder. "You can't believe..."

"Fellig was a hundred and fifty years old, give or take a decade. He survived a knifing at the hands of a seasoned killer. What's your take on it?"

"I don't know. But I don't believe that he turned Scully into a...a..." He was lost for the right word. "Damn it, Mulder, *everyone* dies."

"I'm not so sure." He stood in silence, watching the subtle rise and fall of Scully's breathing. He would have stayed there indefinitely had a nurse not come in and touched his arm.

"Sir, we need to..." She indicated the catheter bag and Mulder nodded.

"We'll come back."

His melancholy figure haunted the hall, wandering wraithlike past the rooms of the healing and the dying. The word "chapel" caught his eye and he went inside. It was old, the wood of the altar cracked and the leaden stained glass dim with years and dust. The cushion echoed his sigh as he draped himself across a pew.

Skinner was right behind, glancing right and left as he entered. He saw Mulder's feet sticking out of the end of his row and took a place in the pew behind.

"I'm serious, Mulder. She's not really herself right now - pumped full of morphine and hung over from anesthesia. Whatever she said to you in there, it's not the truth."

With tremendous effort Mulder dragged himself up, turning backwards and resting his chin on his folded arms like a schoolboy. "God, I want to believe she will live forever. She just...should."

"Yeah." Skinner's mouth twitched at the corners for a moment. "In a way, though, she will. We all will."

Mulder's senses came alive. "What do YOU believe? Do you think that we'll all meet again at the sound of the trumpet? Or that we'll come back as another form of life?"

"Forget it." Skinner twisted around in his seat, taking a measured interest in the architecture of the very plain room.

Mulder was fascinated. "No, I don't want to forget it. Really. What do you think happens to us? Where will Walter Skinner be in a hundred years, or a thousand years?"

He looked at the altar, at the cross and pulpit. "I don't believe in Heaven. I don't think anything actually happens to us when we die. But I think I am immortal in one way." Swallowing, he made himself look Mulder in the eye.

"I think God will always remember me."

Wordless, immeasurably moved, Mulder felt the rush of air between his lips as he blew out a surprised breath. His heart raced, his mind full of rushing images as it always was when he found himself using the astonishing imagination with which he had been blessed.

His mouth worked without consulting his brain, and he could not help the words that came bubbling out.

"You think God keeps a scrapbook?"

Skinner shot him an evil glare. "Like your personnel file, Agent Mulder?"

"Ow, no, I hope not. All sorts of things could be in there." He sat up straighter. "I'm sorry; I don't know where that came from. You startled me."

"You weren't expecting philosophy from someone like me."

"Yeah. Something like that."

Nodding, Skinner let his head tilt back so that he could look at the crown molding atop the walls. "Some of us found our philosophy in the jungles of Vietnam. Not me - I was too busy trying not to get my ass blown off by a land mine.

"Some of the guys found Jesus. Others turned to Buddha. Most, though, were kids just like me, and they turned to Yvonne's House of the Orient and gave in to the...the...."

"Lure of the flesh?" Mulder finished in a smoothly helpful tone.

"In a way, but really there was something more to it. More like a chance to leave your body, just for those few moments. Not your standard spiritual existence, but our options were limited. And our time." He looked through Mulder into a miasma of jungle haze that never left the edges of his memory.

"Christ, Mulder, we were kids, most of us not even old enough to drink. But we were expected to kill without question."

"I can't imagine that," Mulder said quietly. "I've never stopped questioning myself over every man I've ever shot."

"Then I hope you won't have to ask yourself that question for a long, long time."

The gravel-voiced observation sent a frisson of guilt up Mulder's spine.

He knows, he's pinning me with his eyes, he knows...

"Agent Mulder, do you understand me?"

Mulder's nod was short, his eyes distant and cool.

Breaking into the silence, Skinner spoke again, more softly. "I know what you want to do, and part of me wouldn't blame you for trying. Look at me, Agent Mulder."

It was impossible to disobey that voice. Mulder raised his head, his expression impassive even though guilt and anger radiated a corona around him.

"Agent Mulder, you may not believe this, but I think that God will always remember you, and He would not want to remember a senseless act of pointless revenge. And even if you don't believe that, I want you to think about something else."

"What's that, Sir?"

He leaned closer. "Even if you don't think that God will remember, you can be sure that Dana Scully *will*. Make your decision wisely."

In spite of the sharp words, the touch on Mulder's arm was compassionate. "I'm going to get some food and some REAL coffee - a couple of interns told me about a diner around the corner. You coming?"

The dark head drooped. "I'm going to stay here for a while."

"Mulder."

"I'm fine." His smile was rueful. "I never knew how good those words could feel."

With a short chuckle and a brief squeze of the shoulder, Skinner withdrew from the little chapel in silence.

Alone in the small, dusty room, Mulder fidgeted in his seat for a moment until he could let the shudders run their course through his over-tired body. He dropped to his knees, expensive wool trousers connecting with the shabby velvet of the long-used kneeler, and folded his hands in prayer.

"I don't believe," he began, then shook his head. "I believe in You, but only because Scully does. And if she believes, who am I to say she's wrong?

"So this isn't for me. It's for her, the one who goes to mass on Sundays and lights all those candles. The one who sets aside her daily religion, her science, and dresses herself in the finery of faith.

"Please, make this easy on her. Help the people who are trying to heal her. Take away her pain. You can give it to me, if You want. I deserve it.

"I think I need it."

He stayed like that for a long time, clearing his mind, trying to concentrate all of his energies on his partner.

Only when the custodian came in to mop the floor did he rise, stretch his aching muscles, and go back to the bustle of evening rounds at the hospital.

***

8:52 p.m.
 
 

Scully was asleep, her breathing regulated by her own body instead of the will of a machine. The skin on her nostrils was raw, a darker pink than her parted lips.

On her bedside table was a half-consumed bowl of clear broth and a napkin liberally splashed with its contents. Mulder was eying the damage when a nurse popped her head in.

"She wouldn't let me feed her," she explained, as if apologizing for the mess.

"I'm not surprised." Mulder handed the tray to the nurse with a grin. "I bet she told you exactly what she thought of THAT."

"Thanks, I'll get rid of this. And yes she did, in no uncertain terms." Seeing the crestfallen look on Mulder's face, she added, "People aren't themselves when they're in this kind of shape. I wouldn't take anything she said too seriously."

"I know. Thanks." Mulder watched the white-soled shoes as she exited, following their path until his line of vision was blocked.

People aren't themselves...

Scully isn't Scully...

Oh, but she is, strong and stubborn and not taking any crap off of anybody. Even with a hole in her stomach, cooped up in a hospital, she won't let anyone patronize her.

"You tell 'em, Scully," he chuckled, taking a seat on the side of the bed and touching her forehead so gently that he felt heat rather than flesh. Hating the silence, he began a one-sided conversation in a whisper that moved the hair at Scully's temple.

"Hey, I hear that the pimp you busted is filing a complaint against you, saying you slapped him. Damn, Scully, how come you never let me see that side of your law enforcement skills?"

He could swear that the corners of Scully's lips turned up in a smile, but her breathing remained calm and even.

"Kersh is gonna want me to head back to D.C. on the double. He's probably got some incredibly stimulating assignment waiting for me, like making sure that all the staplers in the Hoover building were made between 1992 and 1995."

Mulder's fingers ran through the soft, fine hair at the nape of Scully's neck. "He's gonna have to drag me out of here kicking and screaming. I'm not leaving without a good fight. You need me here, Scully. Right?"

Please need me.

Suddenly exhausted, he slumped into a nearby chair and folded himself at the waist so that his head lay next to Scully's wrist. Within moments his muscles relaxed and he fell into a dreamless sleep.

***

9:24 p.m.
 
 

Someone was shaking him, not roughly, but enough to rouse him from his nap.

"Mulder. They're on their way up."

"Hmm." He rubbed the grains out of his eyes, breathing quickly as he struggled to focus on Skinner's anxious face. "Who?"

"Kersh. He has Ritter with him."

Mulder cast an anxious glance at Scully. "She's asleep, I don't think she should be disturbed."

"Let them look, Mulder. They won't bother her."

Mulder hadn't seen Skinner's shoulders so squared in ages.

Yeah, I bet they won't bother her, because they'd have to get through you first.

"Okay. Okay."

He rose, giving Scully's hand a last little caress, and picked his jacket up from the floor. Adding the jacket gave him bulk, enough mass to withstand the contemptuous look that Kersh was going to give him and enough breadth to dwarf Ritter.

The sounding of the elevator's chime made him think of the bell at the start of a round of boxing.

Don't start there, don't look at him with violence in your mind.

It was like a standoff in an old Western, Skinner and Mulder waiting for the Enemy, side by side, feet apart, hands on hips.

Kersh emerged first. His expression was unreadable, his eyes cold and masked. He held a florist's box that smelled of daisies and preservatives. Behind him, head down, was Ritter, empty-handed and sullen.

"Walter. Agent Mulder. I see that Agent Scully is doing well."

"We've been checking on her throughout the day," Skinner said in even, meaningful tones, "and making certain that her mother is taken care of."

Mulder resisted the impulse to smirk.

"That's good. Good. So she's going to be all right."

"Well, of course there's a great deal of pain associated with an abdominal gunshot wound." Mulder was enjoying the disdain that dripped from Skinner's voice. "Not to mention the disfiguring surgical scar and the scar from the exit wound."

He said it directly to the top of Ritter's head.

"And the emotional distress, the trauma to her family, and the drain on her finances," Mulder chimed in. "She's out of sick leave due to the cancer that nearly killed her just over a year ago."

Touché. Ritter's shoulders slumped.

Mulder almost felt sorry for him.

Almost.

Kersh's mouth was in a thin, tight line, and he was trying to avoid being stared down by Skinner. "I'm sure that the Bureau will consider this a worker's compensation case, Agent Mulder, and there will be no deduction from Agent Scully's sick leave. As for her salary...I'm sure something can be done."

"Hotel rooms in New York City are expensive," Skinner intoned.

"And I'm certain that an...arrangement can be made to ensure Mrs. Scully's comfort during her stay." Kersh looked over his shoulder at Ritter, who made a small movement with his head.

"I'm glad to hear that some compassion will be shown to an agent who fell in the line of duty, aren't you, Agent Mulder?"

"Extremely."

Neither man was smiling.

The chilly silence continued for a couple of beats, then Kersh took a step forward. "I'd like to visit Agent Scully and offer my best wishes."

"She's sleeping," Mulder told him, full of subdued malevolence. "She shouldn't be disturbed."

"I'll just step inside and leave her these." He indicated the flowers.

Skinner intervened. "You can leave those at the nurse's station and they'll take them in the next time she's awake."

"Walter, don't make this any harder than it has to be."

"I'd say that things went pretty easily for you and your department, actually. Isn't that right, Agent Ritter? You're still 'Agent' Ritter, are you not?"

He spoke for the first time, his eyes defiant and his voice almost free of tremors. "It was an accident, and that's how the OPC saw it. Either of you have a problem with that?"

In two quick strides Skinner was inches away from the young man, towering over him and forcing him to look up, far up, to meet his eyes. "I suggest you modify your tone, boy, when you talk to your superiors."

"I'm no one's 'boy,' Assistant Director Skinner," he said with false bravado. "My mother is a United States Senator and my father is the CEO of the Rausch Corporation."

Skinner raised an eyebrow at Mulder, who was agape at this piece of information.

Unaware of the exchange, Ritter continued. "I graduated at the top of my class at Quantico."

"So did I," was Mulder's dry response. "I guess that gives us something in common."

Ritter's face turned scarlet. "But I didn't piss away my life the way you did. I'm making something of myself. A career that I can be proud of."

"Oh, you must be so very proud of yourself today, Agent Ritter. You falsely accused a man of murder, then you killed him while being threatened by what, a camera? And in the process, you nearly caused the death of *that* man's partner." Skinner pinned the young man to the wall with the force of his words. "If you were an agent under my supervision, there wouldn't be any power on earth that could save your ass."

"I've had enough of this," Kersh interjected. He stalked over to Ritter and pulled him toward Scully's room. "We're going to pay our respects and then we'll leave. And Agent Mulder, I expect to see you at work tomorrow morning."

"Like hell," Mulder hissed.

Ritter accompanied Kersh into the room, Mulder and Skinner on their heels.

If he touches her I'll tear his fucking arms off...if he wakes her, I'll stuff them down his throat.

As if on cue, Scully moaned in her sleep, a frown creasing her brow. Kersh had the grace to look sorrowful; Ritter simply looked frightened.

"How'd it feel when you saw her lying there in her own blood?" Mulder whispered. "Did she cry out? Did she ask you to help her? What did you DO?"

He gulped for air. "I tried to stop the bleeding, but it was bubbling out over my hands...I went to call 911...when I came back, Fellig was dead and Dana was unconscious."

"Why'd you shoot, Ritter?"

"I thought he was a killer. I thought he had a gun. Not a...not a camera."

"A camera. You caused THIS over a camera." Mulder's tone was scornful. "And you think I've disgraced myself."

"Let's take this outside," Skinner warned, watching Scully's eyelids flicker. "I don't want to wake her."

The cool air of the corridor did not ease Kersh's disposition. "Agent Mulder, this conversation has gone on long enough. Agent Ritter has gone before the OPC and stated his case. It's over. Let it go."

Skinner saw the warning signs: Mulder's jaw muscles clenched and his eyes narrowed to catlike slits. He put a restraining hand on Mulder's arm, but it was not heeded.

"I will not let this go. He shot my partner. He shot her for no reason and she almost died as a result of his stupendous incompetence."

He spat his words at the hapless agent. "I don't care who your parents are, who they know, or how deeply their hands had to go into their pockets to keep your nose clean. All I care about is HER. If she suffers, you suffer. And if she dies..."

He shook his head, trying to clear it, but the rush of blood was starting again.

"And if she dies, you don't want to be in the same zip code as me, do you understand me? DO YOU?"

The echo of his words was electric.

Kersh looked over at Skinner. "Gain control over your agent, please."

His expression registering his disgust, Skinner replied between his teeth, "He's your agent, not mine. And I don't think I care to interfere at this point in time."

Ritter pulled free of Mulder's confining stance and walked toward the elevator. Once there, once he'd pushed the button pushed and the car was on its way, once Kersh was standing at his side, he turned back to Mulder.

"If she's stuck with you, then she'd have been better off dead."

The roaring crescendo of his blood robbed him of reason. Veins popping, the objects in his vision awash in a sea of red, he let an animal growl escape him as he ran up to the elevator, shoved Kersh aside, and brought Ritter to the ground with a single blow of his fist.

Ritter's head hit the polished floor with the sound of someone bludgeoning a desk with a large hammer.

Mulder stood over him, breathing heavily, too enraged to take pleasure in the grimace of pain that his blow had produced in his opponent. "Get the fuck up, you son of a bitch," he hissed. "I'm not through with you."

"Agent Mulder!" Kersh shouted as he grabbed Mulder's lapels and dragged him away. "You're under arrest!"

"Let him go!" was Skinner's shout. He separated Kersh and Mulder, taking Mulder's arm and pulling him across the hall to where three floor nurses were standing at their station, their expressions registering their alarm.

Skinner addressed them, hands held in the air. "It's over. I'm sorry."

"It's NOT over!" Ritter exclaimed from the floor. "I'm filing assault charges."

"Why don't you just call your mommy?"

"Mulder, stop it right now." Skinner held him fast, staring him down, willing him to calm himself before something worse could happen.

Kersh helped the shaken Ritter to his feet, feeling the back of his agent's head. "He's got a point about the assault charge, Agent Mulder - there's a lump forming. We need to check to see how serious the concussion is."

The head nurse stepped forward, her irritation tamped down by the obvious need for her professional assistance. "Let me look." She ran her hands gently over the back of Ritter's head. "That's a good bump, turning nice and purple. Is it tender?" She registered Ritter's flinch, then flashed her penlight in each of his eyes. "Pupils are responding normally. Do you feel dizzy? Blurred vision?

"No."

"Do you feel nauseated?"

"Only when I look at HIM," Ritter spat, pointing a finger at the seething Mulder.

"Lower your voice, please," the nurse said in a calm, even tone.

"Lower MY...he decked me!"

She leveled a cold glare at him. "Are you the one who did that?" She indicated Scully's room.

"It was an accident!"

With a sigh, the nurse went to the counter and took something out of a drawer. Slapping it solidly against the counter, she exchanged a look of amused commiseration with Mulder at Ritter's startled expression. "You really have to whack these to get the chemical reaction going," she said mildly as she applied it none too gently to Ritter's head. "Keep this on for the swelling, and come back if you start to develop any dizziness or visual problems."

"I want to see a doctor. Now."

"Young man, this is a post-operative ward and all *I* want is some order. You can find a doctor in the trauma center, which is on the GROUND floor." With a gimlet stare that implied years of dealing with people who mistakenly thought they were her superiors, she walked briskly away.

The four men glared at one another, none willing to back down.

Finally Kersh spoke. "I'm going to suggest that Agent Ritter file those assault charges against you, Mulder."

"Fine. I'll make sure that the media gets wind of the fact that an FBI agent not only shot an unarmed suspect but also his own partner, and that he was let off with a slap on the wrist." Mulder cocked an eyebrow at the horrified Ritter. "My connections may not be as well-heeled as yours, but they're efficient. In the extreme."

"You can't..."

"Don't try me," Mulder warned. "You won't like the result."

Ritter's entire body was a vibrating cylinder of impotent outrage.

Skinner spared him a contemptuous glance before he made his statement. "I suggest that you listen to him, gentlemen. From years of experience, I know exactly what Agent Mulder is capable of."

Kersh stepped forward into Skinner's space, eying him with disdain. "You were a good A.D., Walter. Don't let this piece of shit drag you down with him. Think long and hard about what I'm saying to you."

"What I think," Skinner replied, not missing a beat, "is that you need to step into the elevator and get the hell out of here."

The paces that Kersh and Ritter took to the elevator seemed to take forever. When the elevator doors closed, they approximated the soft swooshing sound of a well-honed guillotine.

Mulder's thoughts, freed of the immediate concerns of danger, bounced against every tangent that he had been holding at bay.

God, get him back up here - I want one more chance, one more chance to wipe that fucking smirk off of his face and knock him on his well-bred ass...he walks away with a bruise on his jaw but his life intact...

His overwound body began to quiver, beads of sweat ringing his pale face.

Skinner was at his side in an instant. "Mulder?"

I can't breathe can't breathe

"Nurse!"

Dark green eyes, pupils dilated like black holes, were all Skinner could see when he looked at Mulder's face.

I can't breathe can't breathe

The quivering turned into violent tremors, so strong that Skinner had trouble holding Mulder upright when his knees buckled. "I need help over here!"

The head nurse returned, taking in the scene with the eagle eye of a long-time practitioner. "Let him down carefully." She knelt at Mulder's side and looked into his eyes. "Okay, it's shock, not a seizure. You can let go of him. Get his feet up higher than his head."

Skinner obeyed without thinking, stripping off his suit jacket and wadding it up under Mulder's heels.

"Can't breathe," Mulder choked, grasping ineffectually at the nurse's arm.

"You can breathe, honey. Just let your head fall back, like that. That's good. Now, watch what I'm doing with your hand." She took his hand and gently stroked it, the back and then the palm, watching as Mulder's face took on more color. "There. See? You can breathe."

The terrifying hitching noises in Mulder's throat abated as quickly as they had begun, and he took in a long, ragged breath.

I'm on the floor. How'd I end up on the floor, how fucking embarrassing can it get...

"Jesus, Mulder, just ask for a chair next time, okay?" Skinner looked down at him, frowning, as the nurse prepared to stand up.

"I'm going to leave you fellows like this for just a moment, but I'll be right back." She touched the side of Mulder's face and smiled at him. "Don't go anywhere."

Mulder let his cheek connect with the cool linoleum on the floor, hoping to soothe the embarrassed burning. He took a couple of experimental deep breaths, then turned his head and looked at Skinner.

"Tell me I didn't land anywhere his sorry ass touched."

"No, you missed by about six feet." Skinner's grin prompted an answering one from Mulder. "I know you're mad at Ritter - God knows I am. But you can't let jerks like that get to you."

"I know," Mulder sighed, searching again for a cool place for his aching head. "They were so smug, so sure that they'd get away with it...Whoa, what's THAT?"

He was looking at an alcohol-soaked cotton ball and a hypodermic, with a strong degree of alarm.

"It's a very mild sedative, not even enough to put you to sleep. But you need to get out of here and get some rest. It's the only thing that'll keep you from having more episodes like this one."

"I don't want that," Mulder insisted, using the wall to drag himself into a sitting position.

Whoops, I didn't know the floor was soft...

When the room stopped tilting, he found both the nurse and Skinner looking at him with grim, determined expressions.

"I'll tell you what. Suppose we skip the shot and I give you something to help you get to sleep, and you promise to take it once you get to the hotel. Maybe then you'll be a little more cooperative."

"Don't bet on it," Skinner grunted as he hoisted Mulder on his feet.

"No. I'll do it. Just let me see her for a minute."

After the nurse draped a blanket over him, he took careful steps into her room, letting Skinner help him perch on the side of Scully's bed. Her breathing was a soft purr in the still night air.

"I'll be back tomorrow," he said into her ear. "And the day after that, and the day after that. Just hold on, Scully."

Not caring that Skinner was watching, he turned his face and kissed Scully on the corner of her half-open mouth.

When he finally stood up and got his bearings, he noticed that Skinner's eyes were moist behind the barrier of his glasses.

***

One week later
3:48 p.m.
 
 

Every day Mulder got up, showered, and stopped at a nearby florist before hailing a cab to get to the hospital.

Routine.

Skinner was called back to D.C. the day after the confrontation with Kersh and Ritter, and "business" detained him there, although he called twice daily for updates.

Routine.

Margaret Scully relaxed her vigilance, taking turns with Mulder in reading to an increasingly bored patient, helping her get to physical therapy, and keeping her mind off of her keen desire to get back to her duties at the FBI.

Routine, and the wish to return to still another routine.

Scully was still in pain, although she had weaned herself from the morphine and later from the demerol, wanting no more holes in her body and no more chemicals in her bloodstream. More than once she had demanded to see her chart and called in her doctor for a rigorous discussion of her treatment options.

The worst was over for her, and she found herself in conversation with Mulder about her forced inactivity.

She looked at him with determined eyes. "I think I could do some background checks if I were able to use my cel phone."

There's so much life in you, you don't want to waste a second of it...

"Come on, Scully, what's the rush? The Library of Congress can do without new employees for a couple of weeks," Mulder chided.

"Besides, the phone would muss your hair." He tweaked a strand between his thumb and forefinger.

"Don't even start on my hair," she muttered. "I wish they'd let me take a shower."

"You know that it's not good for you to stand up unsupported, and besides, you don't want to mess up all that needlework."

Her face fell just a minute amount, so slightly that someone not attuned to her every mood might well have missed it.

Mulder closed his eyes for a moment, gathering strength for what he knew would be Scully's next words.

"Mulder, I want a mirror. No, two mirrors. Please."

Her voice was calm, her eyes light blue and entreating. Mulder grimaced, then pulled himself together and stroked her cheek with his palm. "Don't you want to wait until your mom gets here?"

"No. She'll just get upset."

And I won't? Scully, I can't see this...

But all he said was, "I'll be right back."

A few words exchanged with the head nurse, the one who had been so kind to him, brought her to Scully's room with a pair of hand mirrors. Scully had worked her way upright, even though the discomfort of sitting up was still enough to cause perspiration on her upper lip. She held out her hand.

The nurse did not give her the mirrors right away. "Dana, are you sure you want to see this now? You've been off your meds for a couple of days and that's bound to cause some depression."

"I have to do this. Please."

She took the two mirrors and let out a deep breath. "Okay, here goes."

Mulder turned away.

"No, Mulder. I need you to see, too."

Swallowing hard, he faced her as she lifted the top of her pajamas high enough to expose the bandage. With the help of the nurse, she pulled away the gauze and got the mirror adjusted to the right angle. Mulder steeled himself and forced his attention on the wound.

God, there are so many stitches...she looks like Samantha's rag doll...

With her features carefully schooled to reveal no hint of emotion, Scully examined the tidy row of stitches and the small holes where drainage tubes had once been placed .

"It's not so bad, honey," the nurse said soothingly.

Scully said nothing, bending forward at the waist with a little moan and motioning for the nurse to hold the second mirror behind her back so she could see its reflection. The angry, puckering scar stood out against the perfect whiteness of her skin.

One crystal tear escaped, but she was silent, her demeanor calm and professional as she examined the handiwork.

Mulder's harsh intake of breath was the only sound in the room.

...every one of those stitches is a decade that Ritter will spend in hell...

With gentle hands the nurse taped the bandages back in place and tiptoed out of the room.

"It could have been worse," Scully commented after what felt like an eternity. Only the slightest tremor of her voice betrayed her sadness at this new violation of her body.

Don't you dare cry in front of her, don't you dare.

His mouth twisted into what he hoped would pass for a smile, and he put the mirrors away in the bathroom. When he returned, Scully was prone in bed once more, her face turned into the pillow.

He knelt at the side of the bed and touched her shoulder, stroking in an irregular rhythm.

I know a million words and I can't find any that will make her stop hurting.

The shrill cry of his cel phone startled them both. With an apologetic shrug, he pulled it out of his pocket and said his name.

"Mulder." He nodded at Scully and mouthed the word, 'Skinner.'

Then, back into the phone, he said, "Yes, she's awake and doing a lot better. They're letting her walk around with a cane." He paused and smiled. "Yeah, she hates it. What did you expect? Are you going to get to town anytime soon?"

He heard the next few words and his face turned to stone.

"What?" Scully asked in a stage whisper.

"Now? I understand, I'll tell her. Yes. Thank you."

He replaced the phone in his pocket and went back to stroking her shoulder. "Ritter turned in his resignation today."

"You're kidding." She sat up a little in bed, curiosity brightening her eyes. "Wasn't he just given some light probationary duty?"

"While you and I are certainly used to that kind of treatment, the disgrace was too much for *him*. I guess he's used to having his mommy and daddy fix things whenever they go wrong. But this...this is different." He gestured to the hospital room, then put his hand on Scully's wrist, squeezing gently.

"There's one more thing, Scully. He's here and he wants to see you."

Scully sighed, looking out of the window at the gray January sky.

Mulder spoke softly, reassuringly. "You don't have to see him if you don't want to. I'll send him..."

"You'll kick his ass, the way you did last week." At Mulder's surprised reaction, she added: "Skinner told Mom, and Mom told me. It was a crazy thing to do, Mulder."

"When has that ever stopped me?" He looked into her eyes. "Are you sure you're up to this right now?"

"I have to let him have his say or he'll never have any peace again. Just let him talk for a few minutes, then he'll be out of the way forever. Okay?"

"Can't I rough him up a little?" he wheedled.

She cuffed him on the arm. "Behave yourself."

No retribution for my Scully, she wants peace for them both.

She puts me to shame.

A knock on the door interrupted their reverie. Mulder let go of Scully's hand with reluctance and answered the knock, finding himself face to face with a man who seemed three inches shorter than the Peyton Ritter he had seen only a week earlier.

"Agent Mulder," Ritter said tonelessly.

"Ritter. We just got a call from Skinner, telling us to expect you."

He avoided eye contact with either Scully or Mulder, choosing to examine his shoes instead. "I got as far as the lobby and decided...I needed to know that this was okay. So I called Skinner."

Didn't call Kersh, his ally.

He's eating himself up with guilt.

Good.

Yet somewhere in the back of Mulder's mind a flickering ember of sympathy began to glow.

"I'll leave you two to talk in private," he said. "Don't keep her up too long."

"No. Of course not."

Mulder slipped out and shut the door behind him, watching through the blinds as Ritter stumbled through what looked like a difficult apology. Scully was listening, trying to be cordial, but he could tell from her eyes that she just wanted to get this over with.

Meanwhile he turned a corner of his attention to perusing the papers that had been faxed to his hotel earlier in the morning.

He didn't have much time to read. True to his word, Ritter stayed only for a few moments, then the door opened and he walked up to Mulder.

"You're a lucky man," Mulder said in a voice like dry ice.

If she were the vengeful type, you'd be in a thousand pieces at the bottom of the Hudson River.

Count your blessings, asshole. Only Scully's nobility is keeping you alive.

Ritter hung his head and turned away, headed for the stairs.

Shaking off his ire, Mulder returned to Scully's bedside, flashing a little smile at her which she returned. Taking her hand in his, he smoothed the IV scars with his thumb, then let her thumb give him an answering caress as he took his familiar seat on the edge of the bed.

Whatever Ritter said to her was a secret she would not share with him.

So he changed the subject.

"The coroner's report came back on Fellig. It says he died of a single gunshot wound." His shrug told her that he still believed that there was some other explanation.

Half facing him, half facing the window, Scully only nodded, her free hand stroking the bandage on her abdomen.

"Doctor says you're doing great," Mulder offered. "Fastest recovery he's seen."

I don't care about the scars, Scully. They don't matter.

She smoothed her cheek against the pillow; Mulder could not tell if the gesture was made to find a cool spot or to seek a hiding place.

When Scully spoke, Mulder found he could scarcely make out the words.

"I don't know how I even entertained the thought...people don't live forever."

So that's where she's been today, wondering whether Fellig's 'gift' passed on to her.

Mulder made a little motion with his head, indicating that he had an opposing thought on the subject. "I think he would have. I think

Death only looks for you once you seek its opposite."

There was no response.

You're so full of life, Scully, you have so much to live for...don't do this to yourself...

After a few moments of pained silence, Scully turned over and brought Mulder's hand to her lips.

Mulder smiled gently at her. "Hey, Scully, I was just wondering - what kind of parents would saddle their son with a name like 'Peyton?'"

The irony forced a smile from her, a tight-lipped one but a smile nonetheless. "I'm serious, Mulder. Fellig told me that it wasn't worth it, that memory fades and love..." She sighed, turning toward the window again. "Even love doesn't last."

"Not for him," Mulder insisted, "because in so many ways he was already dead. Only his body was alive, but his soul - that died long, long ago."

"Hmm." Pondering that idea, Scully let her gaze fall on Mulder's troubled face. "If it were true, Mulder - if you could live forever - what would you do with the time?"

He considered one of a dozen answers ranging from flippant to risqué but abandoned them all.

I'd watch over you every second of the day, I'd throw my body in front of the next bullet...

Scully's voice, growing stronger and clearer with every word, filled the void of silence. "I'd learn more languages. Travel. Try to meet people from places I've never heard of."

"Those are good goals," Mulder agreed. "I think I'd become a hermit, actually. That way I'd never have to deal with losing someone I loved."

"Oh, Mulder." Scully picked up his hand and squeezed it tightly. "Fellig said that love only lasts seventy-five years."

"That must include a hell of a lot of foreplay."

"Mulder!" She rolled her eyes and started laughing, which made her grimace in pain.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." He waited for the spasm to pass, then ducked his head so that his face was level with hers. "You okay?"

"Better than okay, Mulder - I'm immortal," she said so dryly that he was taken aback for a moment before he saw the twinkle in her eyes. "I'd have to look on Death to shake off this mortal coil."

His dark chuckle warmed the air around them. "So, Scully. Would you do that for someone? Look on Death so that they wouldn't have to?"

She considered the question.

"I might. If someone wanted to live badly enough, I might."

Of course you would, Scully. You are Compassion.

Hospital rules be damned, he stretched his long body beside hers and gathered her in his arms.

Surprised but amenable, Scully turned over and let her back rest against Mulder's chest, his gentle heartbeat easing the pain of stitches over her exit wound.

"Would you do it for me, Scully?" he murmured into her hair as she nestled in his embrace.

She could not answer, except to press her lips against the powerful forearm that held her safe.

Mulder's eyes closed and he got an image of her hand brushing over his eyelids just as she turned to the unknown.

For him.

As she had so many times before.

***

END

***

Feedback is kept in a velvet box at marguerite@swbell.net.

Back to post-eps.
 
 

*****

Author's notes: I am not trained in the art of writing. What you see in this story is an expression of the things that flit around in my imagination after an episode airs.

Without the help of jordan and Kelley Walters, whose insightful guidance kept the narrative afloat through choppy seas, there would be no words on these pages. I wish I knew some more adequate way to express what I owe these ladies.

Information about medicine and protocol was provided by Setmedic, who also performed cheers from the sidelines. Thanks also to Emily for pointing out the alarmingly dyslexic error I made in part one, thereby keeping it from being permanently archived. (!)

Jill and Shari and Nancy Floyd-Finch, all the wonderful people on Scullyfic, XAPen, and OBSSE, and everyone else who administered well-timed cries of "get on with it!" when I was panicking, bless you.

And now, for the dedication -

*********************************************************************************************

For Justin Glasser, poet and dancer, writer and friend, the King of Titles.

*********************************************************************************************

1st place, Post-Episode Story
2nd place, Mulder characterization
2nd place, Mid-Length Story

Thanks, everyone!