Title: The Rusted Wheel of Things
Author: Ellie (windblownellie@yahoo.com)
Rating: R
Category: SRA
Timeline: Post-"Requiem", AU
Disclaimer: The X-Files belong to 1013. I'm just borrowing them, and everything else in this story.
Warning: Contains some descriptions of torture. Word Count: 18,000

Summary: In the years after the events of "Requiem," Scully has had to adapt to a life without Mulder. Then one afternoon, a phone call changes everything.

Author's Notes: Thanks to Sara for the wonderful beta, and to Aruna7 for the amazing video trailer, which can be viewed here: http:// aruna7.livejournal.com/173031.html

Written for the XF Big Bang 2010.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings To start the rusted wheel of things, And brutes in field and brutes in pen Leap that the world goes round again. ~A.E. Housman, "March"


The morning was cool under the dappled shade of the cherry tree leaves, though humidity hung heavy in the air, promising another scorching day. She sat, gazing across the Tidal Basin as she'd done, once, with Mulder, what seemed too long ago. Another lifetime. Cherry blossoms were long shed for a delicate leafy canopy, and no early morning tourists disturbed her reverie. One hand rested low, on the imagined swell of her abdomen, as she watched the moon sinking low toward the horizon, a ghostly faint smile against the bright summer sky.

This child she had wanted with Mulder, a life created together. She did not want this for herself alone, and was unsure she could do it alone. Only half herself, she'd left the hospital, been across the country and into the dark wet forest after him before anyone could stop her, before anyone else understood what his loss truly meant.

Skinner had found her there, crouched on the damp earth, rending her clothes and crying like a wild thing caged, even before he gave her the word that Billy Miles' devastated body had been found three miles away. She'd caught the next flight home and spoke to no one for a week. No one else understood the decision she was being forced to make.

She didn't hear anyone approaching the bench, until Alex Krycek suddenly came to rest beside her. His dark silhouette looked out of place on the sunny morning, black leather jacket creaking in the humidity.

"I've got nothing to say to you."

"You haven't even heard what I've come to offer you, Agent Scully."

"There's no offer you could make me that I would possibly consider," she said, wrapping her arms across her chest with vehemence.

"Not even yourself for Mulder's safety?"

They knew, she realized, they had to know before he was sent on this fool's errand. "Myself?"

"That baby is not supposed to be. We'd like to know how it happened. A few tests are run, that situation is monitored until we see the outcome. Meanwhile, Mulder's safe at home, which would be a significant improvement over his current whereabouts."

"You're asking me to trade this child's life for Mulder's."

"On the contrary, there are interested parties who hold a great stake in seeing your offspring alive and healthy. The potential there is unimaginable."

She rose from the bench, looking across the dirty brown water to the shadowed figure of Thomas Jefferson as she spoke. "There's unimaginable potential in every child. And Mulder would never want to see such a deal made. He knew exactly what a deal like the one you're trying to broker cost his parents."

"You refuse this deal, no one can guarantee what condition he'll be returned in. Or if he is at all."

Scully didn't look back as she made her way back to the car. Once inside, she let her tears flow freely. The decision had been made for her.

Chapter 1

Scully scrawled her name across the box at the bottom of the form, tucked it into the drab folder, and set it in the outbox to her left. A glance at her watch told her it was 2:48 p.m.; her eyes traced the path between the four other folders in her inbox and the silver-framed photo where her daughter smiled at her with Mulder's sea-change eyes and breeze-tossed cinnabar curls. With a sigh, she decided there was time for just one more case review before she needed to beat the rush hour traffic back to DC in time for Hannah's big evening performance.

Halfway through the primary pathologist's notes, her BlackBerry chirped at her. She frowned at the device as the caller ID displayed Deputy Director Walter Skinner's information. "Scully."

"Scully, it's Skinner. You need to get to GW Medical Center immediately. I'm here now--"

"Oh, God. Is Hannah all right?" Reports forgotten, she was already gathering her keys and briefcase.

"It's not Hannah. It's Mulder."

The world's axis abruptly shifted, and she felt the ground spin beneath her feet. "Mulder?"

The drive from Quantico to Washington was tortuously long, giving her too much time to revisit wounds that she'd thought were finally starting to heal and fade. He'd been gone longer now than he'd been a part of her life. The arrival of their daughter had forced her to make a choice after months of headlong desperation. Knowing life could not continue as she had been living it, she'd made the difficult choice she knew in the very depth of her soul that Mulder would have wanted her to make.

It had not made the decision any less painful. Only their daughter kept her going for the first year, and even then, it had almost been more than she could bear. After maternity leave, she'd gone to Quantico, sublimated her grief and longing into her work and her daughter. Time and an official declaration of death had provided a semblance of closure, and she tried to find some solace in routine and normal life.

Marching down the corridor of the hospital, the fragile peace she had so carefully constructed was fracturing, cracks already threatening her stability. She could feel it in the slight wobble as her heels struck the tile. Skinner met her at the door to Mulder's room, one firm arm blocking her entrance.

"I want to see him." She couldn't keep a tremor out of her voice, "To see if it is him."

"It is. I only called you after I was sure."

"What?" Sudden indignation fired her, steadied her voice and raised her eyebrow. She stopped trying to glimpse past him, into the room, and met his irritatingly cool gaze. "How long was he here before you called me?"

"He was just...here...last night when they did the eight o'clock rounds. No one knew where he came from, or what was wrong with him, or who he was. This morning, someone from DC Police contacted the FBI. I was here at eleven. Fingerprints and dental records match, so far as we can ascertain."

"So far as...." Understanding widened her eyes and slumped her shoulders, left her feeling suddenly deflated. "How badly?"

"They're not sure. He's been in a coma since they found him. He's breathing unassisted. Nothing seems to be wrong presently, everything they've run has been pretty normal. But at some point.... He's been through a lot, Dana."

She met his eyes once more as his tone softened, saw the warning and concern there. Nodding, quietly she said, "I'd like to see him. And his chart."

Skinner dropped his arm, allowing her to push past into the room. Two steps inside and she paused, shaking. That profile, surrounded by wires and tubes, broken, gaunter, but one she would recognize anywhere. A choked sob escaped her as she clasped his skeletal hand, spiderwebbed with scars and broken capillaries, the last joint of his left ring finger gone. She sank into a bedside chair, for just a moment allowing the release of nearly eight years of uncertainty to flow out of her, to take in the face both so familiar and so ravaged.

Gradually, her doctor's eyes took over, cataloging the smooth healed burns; white network of scars; gnarled, poorly healed fractures; prominence of bone structure under dull, tight skin; thin, patchy, white hair. After a moment, she reached to the end of his bed for the chart, taking a deep breath before opening it. Anything she might have immediately requested had already been done. CTs, MRIs, and EEGs were normal, and a standard blood panel revealed only the obvious malnourishment, anemia and a mild electrolyte imbalance.

Steeling herself, she turned around to find Skinner still loitering in the doorway. "I'd like them to run a DNA test, to confirm his identity. And have them check his bone density while they're at it."

"You know it's him."

She shook her head. "After all this time, I can't go through this without being positive. I can't put Hannah through this without absolute certainty."

Skinner nodded and turned away, pulling the door closed behind him, leaving her alone with Mulder. She returned to the chair, took his hand again in her own. "Mulder, it's me," she said. "You're home, I'm here. I can't...I can't stay long now. Our daughter--we have a little girl, Mulder--she's in 'The Nutcracker' tonight, at the Kennedy Center. She was the youngest dancer selected to be in the children's ensemble. Hannah's nothing like I thought our child would be; of course she's bright and amazing, but she's such a girl, loves pink and ballet and slumber parties and dresses and 'The Wizard of Oz'. She's so much more than I ever dreamed of. My mother dotes on her, has her wanting a pony now after giving her a copy of 'Black Beauty' for her birthday. I'm half afraid one's going to show up under the Christmas tree with a big red bow around its neck, like the dog did last year."

She paused her babbling, taking a deep breath and gently pressing her lips to the back of his hand, gathering her thoughts, trying to control her rambling. "You'll love getting to know her. She'll think you're a better Christmas present than any pony. She--I--we--thought you were gone forever." Her voice broke, tears falling down her cheek and onto his dry, scarred hand.

For a long, quiet hour she sat at his side, marveling at his existence. He was not supposed to be, not after so much, not after so long. It was almost enough just to hold his hand, know he was here for a few moments again. Reluctantly, with a glance at her watch, she placed his hand back on the bed, slipping her fingers over his, kissed his forehead, and made her way to the door. At the door she paused for a lingering moment, her eyes roaming the man she still missed every day and never expected to see again.

When she opened the door, Skinner was waiting outside in a chair, one young woman with an earpiece and curls tamed into a sloppy French braid, standing by the doorframe.

"You're still going to her dance thing?"

"I can't miss it. I'll send Mom home with her after, and meet you back here. You're staying to keep an eye on him, not just posting someone?" She looked pointedly at the agent by the door; new recruits seemed younger with each passing year.

"I'm staying here, and Agent Vasquez will be on watch until midnight. I've made arrangements for someone to be here for the foreseeable future."

"Thank you." She nodded, awkwardly, unsure how to thank someone now officially her equal for something so personal. It had been a long time, but he was the only one besides her mother who knew how personal this really was.

The little girl giggled as Scully twirled her in her arms, half-a-dozen pink roses crinkling in cellophane between them. "You were wonderful, sweetheart!"

"It was so awesome! Did you see the present I got to carry across?"

Scully put her daughter back on solid ground, and gave her a smile that did not reach her eyes. "It was enormous! You did such a good job with it! In a few more years, you're going to be the Sugarplum Fairy, not a party guest. How would you like to celebrate your debut by spending the night with your grandma?"

Maggie Scully looked up at this, from where she was digging Hannah's winter coat off of the garment rack. "Yes, come celebrate with some cocoa, sweetie. I think I found a box of your mother's old Nancy Drews, too, for you to dig into."


Nodding at her mother, Scully said, "Yes, I think that sounds perfect. But if you two keep this up, we're going to have to find room for another bookcase."

She watched her mother help her daughter into her coat and wondered what she was about to put them all through. Test results had come through during the performance, and she'd been making avid use of her BlackBerry for most of the ballet. "You don't mind staying at our place for a little bit, and helping take care of things? The dog? I don't know how much I'm going to be home for a while." Her mother nodded, and Scully continued, "Can you bring Hannah to GW tomorrow? Give me a call when you get close, I'll meet you in the lobby. Let me explain things, though God knows what I'm going to tell her."

With a sigh, Maggie nodded. "I'll bring her over around ten. This is a good thing, Dana. For both of you." She patted her daughter's shoulder, and Scully watched them move away through the crowded dressing room. She took a deep breath of chalk dust and makeup remover before making her own way through the clouds of tulle and organza, back towards the hospital.

This was not the first time he had been surrounded by nothing but chilled air and the white noise of machinery, a nothingness like the space between the stars. He'd lost count, as time had passed, though he could recall every respite as well as every slice and crack and sear. In these quiet times, he suspected They were probably listening to his thoughts the way he'd once been able to do, but he was long beyond caring.

He would allow himself to examine every memory of her like a precious stone, polished brilliant with every remembrance, each smile providing him a small moment of comfort. When he could feel Them inside his mind, he longed for the way it had felt to be inside her mind, crisp and bright as a spring morning, sparkling in counterpoint to the chaos of his own.

Every moment together, he could recall with unfading precision. He remembered that first knock on his basement door; her little slight-of-hand cricket- eating; the way she'd grinned and swung a baseball bat; her under and over and around him, panting and moaning his name in ecstasy. He wasn't sure if it soothed him or made him more aware of what was missed, but he knew it was the only thing that kept him alive.

The memory most cherished was nothing extraordinary in light of their experiences together, but in this cold void, it was the one that comforted him the most. They had just returned to the cold of March in Washington after the sunshine of a case in California, and the bitter night wind had frozen them as they traversed black ice on the short walk in to her apartment. But oh, how soft and warm her bed had been, with a down comforter and flannel sheets, and her in silk pajamas, curled toasty and contented in front of him, warming everywhere he wrapped around her. Her fingers had twined with his, and a serene sigh had escaped one of them before they drifted off to sleep.

If he really tried, he could almost feel her strong slim fingers tangling with his own, almost hear her gentle respirations, almost smell the sharp, clean scent of lemon verbena that he always associated with her presence.

Against the cacophony of machinery beeping and humming, she almost missed the quiet chirp of a text, Hannah using Maggie's phone, telling her "B there n 5!" Scully let go of Mulder's hand as she stood, rolling her eyes and wondering if her mother could teach the girl to use a computer keyboard as properly as she used a piano's.

"I'll be back, Mulder. There's someone I'm bringing to meet you." Only the steady rhythm of his breath answered her.

The hospital was quiet, the way she'd expect on a Saturday morning, more visitors milling down the corridors than incoming patients. As she stepped off the elevator, she saw her mother and daughter coming through the entry doors, and hurried across the lobby to meet them.

"Mom! Gramma gave me one of your books that was hiding at her house!" She dug a yellow-spined volume out of her bag. "Look! She said it was your favorite."

Forcing herself to smile, Scully looked down at the book in her daughter's hand. "'The Hidden Staircase'. Yes, that was always my favorite." For a fleeting second, the smile felt almost real. "But let's save that for later, okay?"

Hannah nodded, tucking the book back into her fuchsia bag, and looked expectantly between her mother and grandmother.

"Mom, thanks for taking care of her last night. Are you all right with the dog for a couple of days?"

"We're fine. You call me if you need anything else today, Dana."

Scully nodded, "Thanks. You know I will."

"You be good, Miss Hannah. I'll see you later." With a quick hug and kiss for both of them, Maggie departed. Scully stood alone with her daughter and suddenly had to find an explanation.

"Let's go for a little walk. There's someone here at the hospital I want you to meet." The girl took her proffered hand after a moment's hesitation.

"Who, Mom?"

As she pushed the call button for the elevator, she drew a deep breath. "Do you remember what I told you about your father?"

Curls bounced as the girl nodded. "Everything. That he loved baseball, so sometimes we go to Nationals games, and that my fish tank used to be--"

Gently, Scully cut her off as the elevator doors opened. "Yes, but I mean do you remember what I told you about why he's not here? About what happened to him?"

For a moment, the silence of the elevator hung heavy around them, before Hannah's soft soprano rang with the clear assurance of a child. "He was trying to make things safe for you and me, even though he didn't know about me yet. And the bad guys he was trying to stop took him away, like they took away the people he was trying to help out in Oregon. But even though you tried to find him, and prayed, the bad guys never let him go and he died. So we light candles on Sundays for him, to remember."

The account came out like an oft-told tale, and she wondered just how often this seemingly cheery child thought about her father. They spoke of him, and she'd asked questions as she had grown, but their discussions had always been about facts, not feelings.

Hannah looked up at her as they stood alone in the rising elevator, and she could see the same deductive leaps behind her daughter's eyes she'd been privy to in Mulder's. "But he didn't die?"

"No, sweetie, he didn't." In an instant, she was sobbing and hugging her daughter and the elevator doors were opening onto the sixth floor of the hospital. Somehow, she maneuvered them off the elevator and onto the ugly, overstuffed toile chairs in the family waiting area.

Hannah pulled away first, confused, but with bright hopeful eyes. "Do I get to meet him?"

"He's here," Scully said, hedging. "But he's not awake. Like in Sleeping Beauty. We're going to spend some time with him, and you can talk to him all you want. He can hear you, even though he can't answer. You can tell him anything you want."

Her daughter bounded off the chair with a healthy thunk of red patent clogs against the unpadded carpeting. "I want to tell him about Glinda. And how I'm dancing for a whole 'nother week, so when he wakes up, he can come see me."

Scully rose and took her little hand again, wavering between smiling and further tears. "I don't know if he'll be up to seeing you dance so soon. He's sick, like when you had the flu last year and had to have a whole week off school?" Hannah nodded, and she continued, "But I'm sure he'd love to hear all about it, and about Glinda. He'll just have to wait for your recital in the spring."

She smiled, and for a moment tried to believe in all of it. He would have believed it.

Chapter 2

Hannah walked half a step ahead of her, as Scully kept one hand on her tender shoulder. The girl, in her youth and curiosity, knew no apprehension, no fear, taking confident steps that kept her steadily ahead of her mother's worried tread. They stopped together outside the door, surely both forming some semblance of a smile, but it was the child's elated grin that Agent Lee chose to mirror, gracing them with a flash of white teeth and a pleasant good morning.

The door swung easily aside, and Hannah took a pair of assured steps before hesitating, turning back to look at her mother in the open doorway. Scully merely nodded and stepped up beside her daughter, letting the door fall closed until it was, for the first time, the three of them, still and silent but for the rhythmic beep of Mulder's heart.

Hand in hand, Scully and Hannah crossed to the bedside. Keeping one hand wrapped around the girl's smaller one, Scully took Mulder's in her other, fingers slipping together. "Hannah, this is your father, Fox Mulder."

She bit her lip as the girl soundlessly formed syllables, staring down at the man in front of her. Finally, she managed to say, "You can talk to him." ? With great formality, her daughter reached out and placed one hand around Mulder's thumb, as close an approximation of shaking his hand as was possible. "Hello. I'm Hannah Clare Mulder. I never thought I'd get to meet you, but I'm very happy to do so now."

Scully could only smile at the achingly proper sincerity; the alternative was tears, which wouldn't do, not today. Their circle of hands held for a moment, until she broke her grasp on Hannah's wrist. "Why don't we sit down? We'll stay as long as you want to."

"I want to stay until he wakes up," said Hannah, nodding authoritatively as she settled into one of the bedside chairs.

"We'll see, sweetheart. We'll see."

Most of his memories involved Scully. But occasionally, others came to him, unbidden, but just as vivid and real as those of her.

He sat in the library of his grandparents' Beacon Hill home, a volume of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle open in his lap. Years later, the first edition of Sherlock Holmes had been a high school graduation gift from his grandfather, traveling with him to Oxford and Alexandria. What had become of it now, he didn't want to contemplate.

Across the room, on the divan, Sam and their grandmother were bent over a book bound in bright morocco leather, reading aloud together. He could hear them, faintly, but voices didn't carry in this house. They sank into plush upholstery and hand-woven wool carpeting, the heavy damask draperies keeping secrets.

Now, though, he heard the clear soft soprano of a child, reading with occasional corrections and assistance of a warmer, gentle alto. He could have been seated with them, for as clearly as their voices carried to him.

"'Helen went on to say that Riverview Manor was a d--dup....'"


"'A duplicate of Twin Elms mansion. The brothers had been in...inse...in....'"


"Inseparable co...companions? Companions, but their sons....'"

It was nothing he could remember hearing before, nothing he could imagine being bound in red calfskin and carefully shelved by his grandfather.

He listened, letting their voices envelop him.

By Monday afternoon, Skinner had already started the process of returning Mulder from the lists of the dead, if only to provide some kind of accuracy to the official record of his life, and he was whispering furiously about it to Scully in the doorway of Mulder's room. Scully refused to step further away, dividing her attention between him and the room where Hannah was recounting the latest antics of their terrier to Mulder.

"I'm not worried about the complexities of it, if you can make it happen. I was the executor of his will to begin with, and most of his assets were just placed in trust for Hannah. The hospital costs, now, that's going to be--"

She was cut short by Hannah's escalating cries, and finally the clatter of her chair toppling over. Turning, they saw Mulder thrashing on the bed, pulling at the wires and tubes, as Hannah backed away, her back against the cold glass of the window, eyes wide and face pale. Skinner was at the bedside half a second before she was, holding Mulder's arms down as she placed her palms on both sides of his head and tried to steady him.

"Mulder, Mulder! Mulder, it's me, it's Scully. You're all right. It's okay. Hold still, relax. It's me, you're safe." She tilted his head up, tried to get him to look at her eyes. When he finally met her gaze, the taut muscles under her hands seemed to slacken. "Shh, you're here, you're back home, it's all right. You're safe."

He seemed to collapse against the mattress, the exertion leaving his faint musculature trembling, and his breaths coming in heaving pants. His eyes, though, were sharp, gaze flitting between Scully and Skinner and the little girl standing like a statue by the window. Ultimately, his eyes locked onto Scully's, full of confusion. When he tried to speak, only a choked rasp escaped his throat.

"Shh, Mulder," she said, putting a hand to his chest. "Don't try to talk right now. You're okay, you're safe, but you've been missing for... for a while."

As he took a few more deep breaths, she turned to Skinner. "Could you go get Dr. Norris? And maybe...." She gestured with a faint shake of her head toward Hannah, who was now cautiously righting the chair in which she'd been sitting.

"Yeah, yeah." He stepped back from Mulder's bed, extending one hand to the little girl, who took it eagerly. "Why don't we go find the doctor, then see if there's some good hot chocolate somewhere in this building?"

Both of them looked back from the doorway, Hannah seeming to look right through Scully to Mulder's limp form, eyes still wide. Scully gave her a little wave, only to find that hand captured by Mulder's as she dropped it. Trying not to disturb the now-loose IV line, she squeezed it gently.

Only when she had a firm grip on his hand did she meet his gaze. There was pain in his face, certainly, but the anguish that struck deepest now was not the physical, but the wounded confusion in his eyes. It was the look of one betrayed, though uncertain how deep the perfidy ran. His lips formed questions that fell away, sotto voce, before she raised her free hand to press quieting fingers to his mouth.

"Seven years, six months, and twenty-three days, Mulder."

His eyes widened, and his lips ceased to form unasked questions against her fingers for a long moment. She had forgotten how exquisite it was to watch him think, and she indulged in a moment of study as he processed that bit of information.

Moving her fingers away to rest against his sharp zygoma, she asked, "Do you remember leaving for Oregon?"

She felt rather than saw him nod against her hand, saw from the clarity in his eyes that he remembered not just that, but everything that had come before and since. "And you remember me being sick?"

Again she felt him nod, and watched his brow crinkle with confusion and concern. "I wasn't sick. I was pregnant."

Instantly, she felt his jawbone drop and his gaze flickered over to the chair where Hannah had been sitting. "Our daughter turned seven last week. Hannah."

"Ours." His rasped whisper held her stiller than any embrace in which he'd ever enveloped her. She could only nod at him, trying not to weep at finally being able to share this news with him.

Dr. Norris' exit from the room readmitted Skinner, alone. Both their heads turned to watch him. Scully asked the question on both their minds, "Where's Hannah?"

"She's finishing up her hot chocolate with Agent Lee. I wasn't sure whether...." He shrugged and waved his hands.

"It's fine, I think Mulder would like to meet her."

Skinner nodded and disappeared out the door for a moment, before it opened and Hannah came in, clutching a styrofoam cup. The girl looked first to her mother, then watched Mulder as her steps slowed, halting a few feet from where Scully stood.

"Hannah, you met your father the other day, but he hasn't gotten the chance to meet you." Scully, focused on her daughter, missed the shocked realization that flickered across Mulder's face.

With a few more strides, Hannah stepped up to the bedside and once more put her hand on his. "Hi, Dad."

Chapter 3

"No, Mulder, you cannot go to the ballet! You can barely sit up in bed, and you don't have any clothing." Identical pairs of hazel eyes stared back at her, pleading.

Scully wasn't sure how this had happened. She'd only stepped out of the room two minutes ago, to chat with the physical therapist about Mulder's first session. He'd been sleeping, and Hannah had been quietly reading.

"Please, Mommy? I want him to come see!"

She looked back and forth between the two of them before answering. "I understand how much you both want this to happen. Don't think for a moment that I wouldn't love for you to be able to come watch, Mulder, but you can't just wheel a hospital bed into the Kennedy Center for an evening performance. You can't just leave the hospital for a couple of hours."

Pinching the bridge of her nose, she sighed in frustration at their twin looks of disappointment. If it had been possible, she would have happily taken him, sat beside him for every performance of the ballet, but he'd only been awake from his coma for two days and could barely shake hands without trembling from effort. "Let me make a few calls, okay? Maybe we can get permission to record a performance, just for him. Would that be all right?"

Hannah frowned, looking ready to complain further, but Mulder nodded slightly, as if aware that he really wasn't up to the task. Scully wondered how badly he must be feeling to acknowledge that. "At least then I'll have something to watch in here."

Then she did smile, and started to rummage in her bag for her BlackBerry. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Hannah, maybe you should put your book away and get ready for tonight's performance. You can at least show off your costume."

The girl bounced off the chair, never seeming to move without a spring in her step, scooping up her colorful duffle bag, and headed for the bathroom. Scully watched Mulder watch her, saw the awe and tears sparkling in his eyes. She'd find a way for him to see the ballet, even if she did have to sneak him out of the hospital for the night. A smile broke across her own face, realizing that this was what she'd been hoping to be witness to for these many years.

"I'll figure it out, Mulder," she said, slipping out the door.

In the week that he'd been conscious in the hospital, Scully and Hannah had visited every day. They came as the weak winter sun was setting, after work and school, before dance and dinner and homework, staying with him longer now that it was holiday break. Sometimes he and Scully helped with the homework, science questions so much simpler than the riddles imposed on his body. It would have felt normal, familial, if he had any expectation of a second- grader, if he weren't confined to a hospital bed from muscle atrophy, if he didn't spend all day waiting for them to arrive and touch his hand, kiss his cheek, stroke the shorn remnants of his hair. He'd always been tactile, but now he craved physical human contact, a warm connection with life and not the empty void that burned so cold in his mind.

But he wasn't sure what to expect from the day. It was Christmas, and they'd promised to be there. He had no idea when, had no idea what sort of holiday cheer he could be expected to share in this sterile white room. Two days prior, Hannah had brought him a tiny plastic tree, decorated with a carefully made paper-chain in red and gold, which sat on the bedside table as the lone splash of color and joy.

When the door opened, it was not his family, but the unlikeliest of elves. They came bearing not a red velvet sack of toys, but a tangle wires and cables and a plastic crate of electronic gadgetry. The only overt sign of the holiday was the ratty Santa hat whose worn tassel swung with Frohike's every step.

"Hey man, you sure took your time getting back to see us!" Langly waved a handful of wires at him, and upon closer inspection, Mulder noticed that his t-shirt featured a cartoon of a little old lady in a Cadillac running over a reindeer.

"Yeah, I hit a few unexpected delays. You know how those layovers in Chicago go."

"How are you doing? Scully told us you were chomping at the bit to be out of this hospital bed." Byers, wearing a subtle holly-print tie, rested the crate against the foot of the bed and mustered a smile.

"I've had enough laying around, being poked and prodded, for several lifetimes now."

An awkward silence descended, and Mulder looked down, noticing the disc in Frohike's gloved hand. "You know they frown on that kind of thing in hospitals," he said, attempting to lighten the abruptly somber atmosphere.

"If that's what you're expecting, you're in for a real disappointment, my friend," said Frohike. "Only for a kid of you and the delectable Dr. Scully would I have agreed to sit through this. Twice."

Suddenly they were a dervish of motion and wires, yanking and plugging and cursing. Finally, the awkwardly mounted room television sprung to life, as did the DVD player they'd balanced precariously on the rolling tray table, held slightly off-kilter by a too short cable.

"Aren't we supposed to wait for them?" Langly asked, looking between his companions and an increasingly curious Mulder.

"Right. She said ten, and it's..." Byers paused and consulted his watch. "Five after. We could--"

He was interrupted by the arrival of Scully and Hannah, toting several brightly-wrapped packages. The room instantly felt more festive as they settled a small mountain of boxes and bags at the foot of the bed, and Hannah bounced up onto the bed next to him.

"Is that my movie?" She asked, pointing at the DVD Frohike once more had in hand.

"Yes it is young lady! Would you like to do the honors?" He offered her the disc, then opened the tray on the DVD player. The girl slid off the bed and neatly inserted the disc before climbing back up at Mulder's side.

"Wait til you see! Mommy, turn off the lights, so it's like we're there!"

He didn't need any other gifts to celebrate, just this girl at his side and Scully, rolling her eyes but laughing as she switched off half the lights and came to sit on his other side.

"Now presenting the Washington Ballet's special holiday performance of 'The Nutcracker,' starring Miss Hannah Mulder," she whispered, taking his hand as the curtain went up.

Watching his daughter bound across the stage, bright green and gold gift in hand, was a marvel, even on the grainy old hospital television screen. He didn't want to cry in front of the guys, had done enough of that this week anyway, but it was difficult not to when it seemed as if he had more emotions than his body could contain. He'd spent so long wishing not to feel anything at all.

Hannah sat on the bed at his left, narrating half to Mulder, half to the Gunmen, who seemed to have a synchronized nod of politeness going on. They'd seen this once already, live, but Hannah didn't notice their distraction.

Scully noticed Mulder's, though, and tightened her grip on his right hand, meeting his eyes with barely contained tears of her own. She didn't say a word to him, merely nodded once and ran her thumb across the flesh of his palm. Things had changed, but some things had not. For the first time, together, they were watching their daughter dance, and knew just what the other was thinking.

The viewing was livened up a bit during the Sugarplum Fairy's dance, when Hannah took the opportunity to demonstrate a few of the maneuvers that the prima ballerina had taught the children's ensemble during a special class. She was met with as much applause from the hospital room audience as the ballerina on-screen met with from the live audience.

When the Gunmen departed after the ballet ended, with holiday wishes, they left behind their jury-rigged entertainment center as their Christmas present. The pile of bright paper and bags on the bed promised further gifts, and Hannah lost no time in presenting them to him.

"Open this one first! I picked out myself!" she said, placing on the bed a box wrapped in paper suspiciously similar to that she'd carried across the stage in her ballet.

"Should I guess?" He held up the shirt box sized parcel and shook it lightly, which took all the strength he could muster.

"No! Open it, open it!"

With Hannah's assistance, the present was quickly opened, revealing thick fleecy pajama bottoms, brightly printed with cartwheeling sock monkeys. For the first time in recent memory, he actually laughed. "These are great!"

Scully rarely came to visit Mulder alone. Logistics and necessity meant that she came in the evenings, after work, and brought Hannah with her. She told herself it was important that father and daughter got to know one another. If it provided a bit of a buffer for her tumultuous feelings, she preferred not to think about it. Today, however, she'd come alone, without mentioning to Mulder that she might be by. The quarterly meeting she'd had to attend at the Hoover building had finished earlier than anticipated, and she'd decided to stop.

He hadn't been in his room when she went up, and the duty nurse informed her that he was at physical therapy on the third floor. She knew he'd been going daily, sometimes twice daily, but he'd been reluctant to talk about it, saying little beyond "it's exhausting." So she stood on the other side of the door to the PT room, watching through the glass as Mulder trembled and sweated through stretches and weights.

Even from a hundred feet away, she could see the furrows of concentration on his brow as he painstakingly walked his way the length of the parallel bars. She slipped quietly in the door while he was focused on the task at hand, listening to the therapist's encouragement and Mulder's ragged breathing. Only when he reached the end of the bars and allowed himself to collapse into the waiting wheelchair did she cross the room, the staccato of her heels immediately drawing his attention.

"Scully! What are you doing here?"

"I had a meeting downtown, and decided to stop by early. I'm glad I did, it's wonderful to see you up and walking." She placed one hand on his shoulder, still rising and falling hard with his respirations, muscles still tremoring slightly.

He chuffed out a breath and shook his head, giving her no other answer.

"Mulder," she said, crouching down to eye level with him and putting a hand on his bony knee, "I know you hate hospitals. Especially now. But you're doing well for a month's recovery. You're starting to eat real food again, and for the time you've been without any kind of muscle use, you really are regaining function exceptionally quickly. And the sooner you build that strength up, the sooner you can come home, because you have to be able to manage a flight of stairs first, all right?"

He nodded, eyes brightening a bit at the suggestion of coming home. "Yeah, I think we're a ways from stairs yet."

"You'll be doing it before you know it. C'mon, let me buy you a smoothie." She knew he'd been delighted when the doctors had cleared him to start eating simple soft foods again. Hannah had been sneaking him in one Hershey's Kiss a day, in the leftover emerald and ruby of Christmas.

"Sounds like a plan, G-woman." He relaxed back into the wheelchair, smiling up at her. For a moment, she couldn't see the gauntness, the scars, or the grayed hair, just the old familiar smile and twinkling eyes. Deep in her soul, something that had been long-chilled glowed warm, and she met his smile with her own.

Chapter 4

Few words passed between them as she took his meagre bag of belongings and helped him into her car, allowing him to balance against her shoulder as he settled into the leather seat of the silver Audi station wagon. He didn't know exactly where they were going, but as long as he was with her, it would be all right.

Only after they'd hit 395 and started passing signs for the Alexandria exits did she glance away from the road to look at him askance, and break the silence. "I never asked...would you have rather gone somewhere yourself? Somewhere familiar? So much has changed, and it's been so long, and even before, we weren't...." She trailed off as she maneuvered around a slow- moving bus.

He watched her, waiting for her to look back over to him. When her focus remained on the highway as they passed Glebe Road and King Street, he answered her half-asked question. "I can't think of anywhere I would rather go than home with you. But if you don't want me there, just say the word, and I'll figure something out."

"No! No, Mulder, I want you home with us." She flicked her bright eyes from the road to his face before continuing, "But it's been a long time. I don't know what your perception of the passage of time was like, how long it feels to you. There's a child you knew nothing about. And as much as I've missed you, I don't think I can just...pick up where we left off."

Her voice was calm, controlled, the way she sounded when truly, deeply nervous. He'd felt adrift since the moment he woke up in the hospital, but he'd been so consumed with putting things right in his own mind that he hadn't considered how shaken up her life must feel. One hand slowly reached across the wide front seat to rest on her hand, where white knuckles belied her stoicism. "Scully, in the last few years, while I've been gone, it seems like you've gotten your heart's desire. A good life, with a daughter and a dog and a house. If I don't fit into that, it's okay. I never really expected to fit into that kind of life."

She shook her head, eyes still on the road as she maneuvered to the right lane approaching the exit. "Mulder, I wanted those things, but I didn't want them alone. I only have them because of you, and I wanted you to be a part of them. Having a daughter has been the most amazing experience of my life, but I didn't want to do it alone. Having a home is lovely, but I never wanted it because I sold two of your parents' houses after you were declared dead."

They were both silent as she waited to make a left from the exit ramp, watching the steady stream of foreign sedans and glossy SUVs pass by.

"Having anything at the expense of you being declared dead was a higher price than I wanted to pay. But having you living with us is going to be an adjustment for everyone, and it's going to take some time to figure things out." Her voice was quiet and steady, but he could see tears threatening to spill over.

"Only two of their houses?" he asked after a few beats, hoping to lighten the mood.

She nodded, a thin smile playing at her lips. "Mmmhmm. I kept the Chilmark house. We actually spend a lot of time up there, over school breaks. I thought that it was the one that was most meaningful to you. That Hannah should have to know you."

"That Hannah should have?"

"Everything of yours went into trust for her, except what I used to buy our house. She's your daughter, it was hers, not mine. If you want me to sign the house over to you, and change the accounts--"

"No! No, you don't need to do that. I never intended to touch any of that money anyway."

"I assumed as much, from talking with your accountant," she said wryly, tone lightening. "No wonder you were broke all the time, paying for upkeep and taxes on three houses without dipping into the money your father left you. Why, Mulder?"

"I didn't want anything to do with that money. I didn't do anything to earn it and didn't want to think about what he did for most it. But I just couldn't bring myself to sell the houses, even when they didn't have any meaning for me."

They were quiet as she turned off the main road and into an older community of modest traditional homes surrounded by lawns big enough for kids to play, shaded by mature trees.

"I'm glad you kept the house on the Vineyard. Hannah likes it there?"

"She loves the whales and the seals and the sea. I took her out sailing for the first time last summer. There are friends who live next door. But at her age, she's also happy to sit and dig holes on the beach with the dog. It's full of good memories for her, Mulder."

That sentiment floated in the warm air of the car as she turned a corner, then slowed, pulling into the driveway of a red-brick colonial. Trim boxwoods lined the short driveway, and a couple of old maples flanked the front lawn, just-budding branches reaching for the grey late-winter sky. It's exactly the house he would have imagined her choosing, understated and classic.

He was out of the car before she has the chance to step around and assist him, but he wordlessly grasped her offered arm as they made their way up the flagstone walk to the front door. As she fumbled with her keys, he stared at the gleaming brass knocker on the white wood door, no name engraved there, a plain black mat with no 'welcome' underfoot.

With a swing of the wide door, warmth and light rushed out to greet them, and all feelings of generic suburban sterility were erased as he stepped inside to be greeted by the patter of stockinged feet on hardwood and the clamor of tiny claws racing for purchase on the same.

"You're here!" A pair of arms surround his waist, then bounced away to scoop up a salt-and-pepper bundle of fur, trimmed in a sparkling pink rhinestone collar. "Glinda and I have been waiting for you to get home."

The dog, held up above Hannah's head so that it was nearly eye-level with him, waggled her tail and reached out a tongue to lick his nose. He couldn't help but grin then, apprehension and concerns at least momentarily abandoned. He had dreamed of a daughter and a dog and a house, too, once upon a time.

The magic spell was broken as the exuberant dog gave a full-body wag, releasing her from Hannah's grip, and, off-balance, the two tumbled to the floor together in a giggling heap. The dog bounced from side to side, trying to lick the girl's face between peals of laughter and half-hearted pleas to "Sit! Please sit!"

"Sit, Glinda."

Mulder was not at all surprised to find that the tone of Scully's that struck fear and instant response in law enforcement and lab techs for years was also highly effective on scruffy little dogs.

"You're just encouraging her, rolling around like that. Now, please get up and show your father around the house while I put his things away and see what your grandmother's made us for dinner." Her tone remained serious, but Mulder recognized the smile playing at the corners of her lips. Perhaps her years around him had better prepared her for motherhood than he realized.

Scully tucked coats into the closet and disappeared upstairs, the dog following on her heels with a firm "come". Mulder didn't have much chance to watch her go, before Hannah took his hand and pulled him left, into the dining room.

"We only eat here for special occasions. You're here now, so that's special, and I set the table myself. I got to help make dessert, too. Apple cobbler. Mom said it's your favorite."

He surveyed the table, large enough for a dozen Scullys clustered around it on Thanksgiving. Far too big for two; no wonder they rarely ate in the room. The place settings were painstakingly neat, even if the napkins and spoons were on the wrong sides of the plates. "My very favorite. I'm glad you know how to make it for me now."

She shook her head then, laughing. "No, I'm not allowed myself. You'll have to help, because Mommy yelled at me when I tried to use the stove myself to make pudding."

"If you do the mixing, I'll do the cooking, how 'bout that?"

With a nod, she grabbed his hand and drug him across the foyer. "Come see my piano now! I can play for you."

"I would like that very much. What do you want to play?"

Mulder recognized the sofa and chairs from the living room of Scully's apartment, though they now had matching throw pillows and a few juice stains. The upright piano stood against the wall, opposite a modest television in the corner.

"That's the little TV Mom watches news on in the morning. The good TV I get to watch Saturday morning cartoons on is downstairs. It's way better," declared Hannah, seating herself at the piano and opening the keyboard. "I like this one, because we get to sing it in French class at school sometimes."

For a few bars, he simply watched her play and listened to her singing "Frere Jacques," with a voice that was no better at carrying a tune than he or Scully, but had blissful childish enthusiasm working in its favor. After a moment, he couldn't help but inspect the collection of photos on the mantel. A few he recognized, of Scully's parent's wedding day, of all the Scullys the day Bill graduated the Naval Academy. There was one of the two of them, a candid one of the Gunmen must have snapped at some point, judging from the blur of wires and lights behind them, looking so young. Most of the pictures were of Hannah, and he couldn't breathe for a moment, staring at the baby picture of her, swaddled in pink and so tiny. Looking at her, a toddler on the beach, little girl in a ruffled tutu, sitting under a blossoming cherry tree holding her puppy, plunking carefully at the piano behind him as her fingers stretched for the chord, he realized how much he'd truly missed.

Without pausing, Hannah launched boisterously into "When The Saints Go Marching In." He watched for a minute, then crossed the room to join her on the piano bench. He fumbled for a moment, trying to finger chords with his missing fingertip, until giving up on his left hand and using his right to pick out a few deeper bass chords along with her irregular rhythm.

"You can play too?" she asked, abruptly stopping at the end of the verse.

"Not really," he said, shaking his head. "But my grandfather, your great- grandfather, he made pianos a long time ago, before he immigrated to America. When he moved here, he brought one along, but here he made furniture, not pianos. His piano used to be in the house where I grew up."

Hannah tapped middle C a few times, then asked, "Was his piano big, like the ones they use at concerts? But brown, not shiny black?"

Mulder nodded. "It was. Walnut, very dark, but not black like a concert grand. My father said it was a ridiculous thing to have hauled across the ocean, and complained about how much it cost to have brought to our house after Grandfather Kuipers died."

"It's still at your house. I get to play it when we go there. It's a lot louder than this one, which I like, but Mom says the neighbor's don't."

Laughter still caught him by surprise, but it felt so natural here and now. "My mom said the same thing about my playing it when I was your age."

"What's so funny?" asked Scully from the edge of the foyer, the dog sitting half a step behind her.

"Hannah tells me you're not a big fan of my grandather's old Bosdendorfer."

"I didn't know it was your grandfather's. How did they ever get it into the house? I kept it because no one could figure out how to get it out the doors. I told Hannah that if we kept it, she had to learn to play it."

"They had to tear out the French doors to the back deck. I remember the day they did it. It was like two men moving a midsize sedan into the living room."

"I didn't know you played. Mom's been giving Hannah lessons when she picks her up Wednesdays."

Mulder shook his head. "I never really learned. Mom played, and Sam. I don't think it was ever even tuned after.... I'm glad you enjoy it, Hannah," he said, turning back to her.

"Did your grandfather really make it? It must take a long time to make a piano."

"Not all by himself. It takes a lot of people working together a very long time to make something like that, and one of them messed up a little, so the very highest C has something wrong with it, it won't tune right. So it couldn't be sold, and my grandfather brought it home for his family."

"Dinner!" called Maggie Scully from the dining room, and the dog took off first, claws skittering across the wood as the rest of them followed the aroma of shepherd's pie.

Scully had gone upstairs to put Hannah to bed twenty minutes ago, and Maggie Scully had departed an hour before. He was left sitting alone in the living room, the idea of moving off the sofa too overwhelming to contemplate. The stairs were certainly beyond him at the moment. So he sat, alone, and realized he was staring down at a chessboard on the coffee table. The pieces were lined up neatly, ready for a game, and the longer he stared, the more familiar they looked. He picked up a rook and inspected it, so focused he startled when Scully sat down beside him.

"Up for a game? You look more like you're ready for bed," she said.

"I don't know where my bed is. But I know these. Where did you find them?"

"They were in a box at your father's. I tried to keep some things like this, from your family. I didn't know any of the stories, like with the piano, but..." she paused, searching. "I didn't think she'd ever have you in her life, but I wanted her to have something of you, something of your family."

Mulder sat the rook back down on its square, then turned one of the knights to face him. "My grandmother--my father's mother--came from the Vineyard originally, from a family who owned a whaling fleet. These are carved from whale teeth. I guess some were carved by family members, but most of them just by bored sailors looking to make a little extra money."

"I didn't know that. I didn't know much about your family at all to tell her. Or that I'd want to tell her." She picked up the white queen, examined it for a moment, then returned it to the board. "No wonder she likes the water so much, so many seafarers in the family tree."

He rose from the couch slowly, feeling the ache of half a day's use of muscles long dormant, joints popping in his shoulders and spine. He looked down at her, sheepish, before asking, "Will you help me upstairs? I can't...."

She didn't give him the chance to finish the thought before she was standing beside him, right arm strong around his waist. "I'm sorry. Come on, you've got to be exhausted."

With a nod, he draped his left arm across her shoulders, leaning into her more than he wished as they made their way up the stairs. She said nothing the two times he stopped, catching his breath and allowing his trembling legs to still. Her hand remained at his waist, arcing in a gentle caress that swept his new t-shirt and sweater across his skin. While the warmth of her hand felt just as electric as it once had, his skin, desensitized by scars, barely registered the scratch of the wool.

Only at the top of the stairs did she fuss over his breathing, turning to face him and press two fingers against his carotid. "Are you all right, Mulder?"

A nod of the head allowed him a moment to catch his breath before saying, "Yeah. We'd been working on stairs in PT, but I've been doing a lot more today than I'd been doing at therapy."

"This will be good for you then. You'll be back in shape in no time going up and down every day." She gave his shoulder a squeeze, then a gentle tug forward, and he followed her to a door, slightly ajar, framed by a nightlight's glow. "This is Hannah's room."

Even in the dim light, it glowed warmly pink, with ruffled curtains and a canopy bed. A miniature canopy rested on the floor, where the dog slept, a dark shadow in the pink froth. Low bookcases stretched along one wall, ending at a turreted Barbie mansion in the corner. Glinda raised briefly raised her head to look at them, then snuffled back into a smaller ball, rustling against her satin bed.

Scully drew him back into the hallway with a hand on his elbow. "The bathroom's here. Assume anything that isn't pink is for you to use." Two steps further, just where the hall turned, she stopped them in front of another doorway, open and dark. "This is the guest room. I...I thought at first you could stay here. For now."

Clearly nervous, she stiffly reached into the room, flicking on the lights to illuminated a pale blue room, with framed prints of lighthouses on the walls, navy and white striped coverlet on a bed he remembered from her bedroom, before. He walked in and sat on the edge of the bed with a sigh, closing his eyes and reaching a hand out for her. After a moment, he felt her cool hand in his, letting him draw her in to stand between his knees. "This is perfect, Scully." His thumb traced the arc of her wrist.

"Okay. Good." She heaved a sigh herself, seemed to grow a bit taller. "I picked up some things for you, they should be in the dresser. More t-shirts, and the like. We can go out this weekend and let you pick some other clothes out. I'm right down the hall." He wasn't expecting it when she tipped forward just a fraction and pressed her lips softly against his forehead, just at the long jagged scar that traced the edge of his hairline.

Before he could open his eyes again, she was retreating out the open door, disappearing down the hall. He fell back into the soft duvet and took a few steadying breaths before listing up off the bed, in search of pajamas.

Chapter 5

He was back There when his eyes snapped open, the only part of him that was able to move. Straps held his limbs down tightly, but even if he had been free to move them, he couldn't even wiggle a finger. No one was around, just him alone in the bright light, splayed like the Vitruvian man. The cold, metallic air felt just a little colder than normal, and a shiver reassured him that his muscles could in fact still move.

When he turned his eyes downward, however, he wished for total paralyzation. Or perhaps blindness. His chest was open, skinless, glistening in the bright light with each rise and fall of breath. He could see each breath expanding his lungs, ribs spreading slightly, blood thrumming through his arteries in time to an escalating, panicked heartbeat.

Crying out had done him little good in the past, but he couldn't help trying now. There was no ability to articulate, only groans that he could see rising from his diaphragm, lifting the muscles and lungs until a piteous sound escaped, until he had to close his eyes against the sight of his own bared chest cavity.

Almost as soon as his eyes closed, he felt something soothing, gentle, lapping at his face, at the tear tracks he was sure were there. He took a few deep, steadying breaths before opening his eyes again, unsure what reality he would behold. Nothing had prepared him for the sight that met him, a dark shadow in a darkened room, pink collar sparkling in the faint light, close at his side.

The door opened a moment later, and the dog retreated and lay down at the foot of the bed like some loyal medieval tomb effigy, as Scully settled at the bedside, fingers caressing where the dog had just licked.

"Mulder? Are you awake?"

He shrugged back deeper into the blankets and pillows. "I don't know, am I? Is this the dream or was that?"

Her fingers traced his face for a silent moment. "Why do you think this is a dream?"

Burrowing through the tangled covers, he snaked one arm out and around her, encouraging her down from where she'd sat against the headboard, until she lay facing him. He was so cold, and she was so warm and soft and smelled peaceful and safe. He took a deep breath, but his voice was barely a whisper, hesitant and hot against her ear, as he said, "I imagined myself right here, so many times."

Scully, ever literal, furrowed her brow. "But you didn't know--"

"No," he said, shaking his head into the pillow, not looking at her but pulling her as close as his trembling arms and the blankets between them would allow. "Right here, like this, curled up with you in these soft, warm sheets." Silence hung between them for a minute before he continued, barely letting the words escape with breath. "It was the place I felt safest. Happiest."

She wrapped her arms around him, squeezing him close. "Where were you tonight that you think you'd be dreaming this?"

He looked at her then, trying to read her eyes in the dark, uncertain whether she really needed to hear this. Whether he was ready to share it. In the hospital, Scully and the doctors had tried to get him to talk to a psychiatrist, but he'd adamantly refused with her old standby of 'I'm fine.' As if anyone could be, with evidence written on the body like his, knowing they'd cataloged every scar and wondered. What they imagined could not compare to what had been, though Scully, he thought, might understand, might after everything they'd seen, have dared to realize exactly what he'd gone through. The only person who would understand was Scully, and she deserved the truth, even if he wasn't sure he was ready to say it aloud.

She allowed him his silence, soothing her fingers through his already mussed hair as he considered his words. He drew a shuddering breath, and proceeded a whisper so softly he barely heard it himself. "Tonight wasn't even the most painful thing They did. But psychologically, visually...I could see myself, see what They were doing, but was paralyzed, restrained. I could only move my eyes, watch what was happening. And I couldn't look away."

Scully's hand kept on its gentle path through his hair, thumb occasionally grazing the flesh of his cheek. She remained silent, patient.

"My chest was open, the skin and some...most?...of my muscles were gone. I don't know." He shook his head into the pillow, her hand stilling, resting firm and real against his skull. "I could see my ribs, see my blood pumping, see my lungs expanding my chest with every breath I took. I don't know what the point was. I don't know what the point was."

When his voice broke and the gasping tears began again, her silence was broken by sweet soothing nothings as she shifted, drawing him closer. His arms around her tightened to a point that must have been painful, he knew, but he couldn't help himself and she didn't protest.

He sniffled against her shoulder, calming as he inhaled the scent of her, that clean bright smell he knew so well, would know in this world or any other. He wanted to stay right here, forever, wanted her here with him.

"Do you want me to stay?" she offered. He would not have asked, but agreed with a nod, no longer trusting his voice.

He released her only long enough to allow her to join him under the covers, before once again drawing her close, breathing in her presence, the warm solid reality of her next to him. Sleep was slow in returning as he savored the feel of her beside him, ebbing and flowing with each breath.

The sun had already set when she pulled into the driveway, the late winter night settling in early, broken by the bright glow of the porch light shining against the white front door. Only a few twinkles of light broke through the windows, and she was instantly worried, wondering what could have happened on Mulder and Hannah's first afternoon home alone. Yanking the key from the ignition, she hopped out of the car, leaving her gloves and briefcase on the front passenger seat. From the front walk, she heard nothing, not even the usual clatter of claws and sharp welcoming yip of the dog.

A pink backpack lay abandoned at the foot of the stairs, a tiny wool coat slung on the newel post. The candy-striped scarf they'd crocheted together snaked across the bottom step and down the hall. She followed its path down the hallway to the kitchen, where a light was on but no one was home. Turning in the empty room, she saw the open door to the basement, faint laughter carrying up along with flickering light.

Her breath came easier then, and she left her coat on a chair at the breakfast bar before slipping quietly down the steps. At the foot of the staircase, she watched unobserved for a moment as father and daughter sat on the couch, singing "Oo-de-lally" along with the troubadour rooster on the television. Glinda spotted her first, hopping off her perch on the sofa to greet her. At the dog's movement, Mulder turned to grin at her. He looked happy, and years younger, despite his silvered hair.

She wanted to look stern, wanted to remind her daughter to put her things away properly when she got home, remind them both that there was to be no television and certainly no movies before homework was done. There should not be a box of Cheez-Its open on the couch between them an hour before dinner. She wanted to know where a box of Cheez-Its even came from. But she couldn't bring herself to do it, not when she'd just come home to a dream come true. She let herself smile, and settled into the recliner, letting the dog curl up on her lap. For the rest of the movie, she watched them, not the television screen.

The prattle of the television was barely audible from where she curled on the old leather sofa in her study, a cup of tea on the side-table and the latest copy of The Lancet opened on her lap. Hannah had been tucked into bed an hour ago, and Mulder had looked half-asleep in front of the TV. She sipped the still-steaming tea, testing the temperature, and skimmed the table of contents, noting a few articles that piqued her interest.

A squeak of floorboard and door captured her more immediate attention, as Mulder shuffled into the room that served as her home office.

"Hey, how're you doing? You were looking pretty tired over dinner."

He nodded as he crossed the room to sink onto the couch with her, settling at the opposite end and not meeting her probing gaze. "I forgot how much energy seven-year-olds have."

Scully smiled, and said, "Now you know why she goes to dance lessons two nights a week, and swim class on Mondays. That energy had to get channeled somewhere."

"She's an amazing kid, Scully. I knew you'd be a great mom, but seeing you with her is like watching a dream come true. And I didn't think I had any more good dreams," he finished softly.

"Mulder." She reached across the center cushion of the old couch, taking his hand and bridging the gap between them. "How are you, really?"

He heaved a sigh and shifted a bit closer to her, but didn't meet her eyes. Quietly, he said, "I feel lost. Everything has changed, you've changed, and I'm stuck eight years in the past."

"It's going to take time, Mulder. You're still not completely recovered physically, and as you feel better--"

"Getting winded going up the stairs is the least of my worries, Scully."

She twisted to face him, free hand brushing the side of his face, turning him to face her, forcing him to look at her. "Then tell me, partner."

"That's just it, I'm not your partner anymore. I'm not anything anymore. Legally, I barely exist. This--" he gestured between them, around the room, up toward Hannah's room above them, "this feels unexpected and astonishing, but it's something I'll figure out. But what am I supposed to do with myself? She's at school all day, so there's no justification for me being home, playing Mr. Mom. Going back to the FBI certainly isn't an option."

For a moment, Scully considered his words. She wished, not for the first time, that she possessed his profiling insight. Then, carefully, she asked, "Do you think they wouldn't take you back? Because I know we could always find you something at Quantico, even if Skinner couldn't arrange something at the Bureau proper. Or that you couldn't go?"

Mulder stared at her, measuring his words. "Even if they would, I couldn't. I could profile, but I can't. I can't."

Quiet reigned for a long moment before she said, "You don't have to do anything, you know. If you want to be Mr. Mom, I can't imagine anything better, whether Hannah's at school or not. Besides, I've always wanted a personal chef." Her smile was met by his.

He flopped back against his couch with a gentle creak of time-worn leather. "That much I think I can handle. Particularly if you've got a hankering for grilled cheese, spaghetti, or omelets."

"Think of this as a chance to expand your repertoire, then. Though I warn you, despite my best efforts, Hannah is a picky eater."

"Maybe it's time to introduce her to something other than your bland excuse for a healthy diet, then. It's been a while, but I still remember your idea of junk food leaves a lot to be desired."

She thought she remembered him better than that, knew he wouldn't be placated with something so simple. Watching his face grow somber, the little furrow in his brow returning, she knew it wasn't. "You know this isn't some fairytale, or X-file to be analyzed. This is, for better or worse, our life." He nodded, and she continued, "And you know there's no rush for you to get out and find a job. In case you hadn't noticed, we do pretty good, thanks to no mortgage. Take your time." Her fingers threaded through his, squeezing.

"Yeah," he said, his head falling forward in a nod that left his chin on his chest. A heavy sigh seemed to rattle through his entire body, and she waited for him to gather the pieces together again before twisting on the sofa so that she could draw him close. As his head dropped against her shoulder, she kissed his temple, and he sighed again, this time in contentment. "This is the only thing that makes sense."

Running her fingers down the his back, where the trapezius was taut, but still too slight along his spine, she considered that she'd asked too much right away. "Then why don't we take some time to figure out how to be a family first. It's almost Easter, we usually take some time and go up to the Vineyard then. Some time together, uninterrupted by department meetings and swim practices and car pools would be nice."

Mulder snuggled a bit closer to her, his breath warm on her neck, lips skimming her skin as he spoke, sending a shiver down her spine. "I'm not sure how I feel about 'family time' on the Vineyard. But I like the idea. I'd like to be one of those other, happy families who lived there."

"Oh, Mulder." Her lips brushed through his hair. "I don't think we'll ever be like other families, but we will be happy. Will you settle for that?"

"I'll settle for whatever you'll give me, Scully."

"Anything, Mulder. Anything." Twisting her neck like a swan, she caught his lips with hers. How long had it been, she wondered, too overwhelmed to calculate the years and days since she'd last truly kissed him. Instead, she let herself melt into him, his dry lips parting and inviting as he moved closer to her. His weight against her was less than she remembered, but no less welcome, as they fell back against the same couch cushions they'd curled upon together years prior.

Suddenly, Mulder broke the kiss, pulling back and looking down at her, gasping. "Scully."

Even through the thick sweater he wore, she could feel the xylophone of his ribs and she caressed a hand up and down his side. "What, Mulder?" She was having trouble catching her own breath, and the question was barely an exhalation.

He was shaking his head, breath coming heavy. "I...I can't...I want...I don't...." Unable to complete his thought, he sunk down against her, head buried in her shoulder. Her arms went around him and she closed her eyes, savoring the feel of him for a second before voicing her worry.

"Are you all right? What's wrong?"

For a long time, he didn't answer, merely shook his head against her shoulder. They remained quiet as she ran her hands up and down his back, waiting. Finally, after a small eternity, his whisper broke the silence, muffled against the thick cotton of her shirt. "I've missed you so much, missed this. I want you so badly, I want this. But...." The rest of his words were mumbled, lost in the warm flesh of her neck.

Her arms tightened around him, squeezed once. "I missed you too, Mulder, and have spent eight years wanting you." She whispered close enough to his ear that she could feel him shudder at her low words. "But I didn't hear that last bit."

"I don't know if I can." It came out in one quick breath, as if it were all one multi-syllabic word, the grotesque polar opposite of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. That immediate thought would have left her realizing she spent too much time watching Disney movies with seven-year- olds, had his words not driven a cold wedge of fear through her. She forced herself to breathe, to wait, to let him explain what was wrong.

A long sigh escaped him, fluttering the collar of her shirt. "Since I've been back, I haven't had an erection. Not sleeping in bed with you, not in the mornings. Yesterday in the shower, I tried, but I couldn't...." He sighed again, burying his face in her neck and she could feel him vibrating with tension.

It took little effort for her to roll them onto their sides, so he was between her and the back of the couch, using the time to think. She could not tell him it would be fine, or that it didn't matter, because neither were true. "Mulder," she began, brushing her fingers across the scar at his hairline, asking him to look at her. His eyes opened slowly, and she felt almost cross- eyed, meeting his gaze from so close. "Everything looked intact from the physical exam, and MRI. Yes, I was very thorough," she explained to his surprised expression. "But as I'm sure you noticed, there was some scarring, possibly enough to effect blood flow. Or your body could still just be recovering from everything its been through."

"It would be difficult to forget about the scarring," he said, so quietly she barely heard.

"Do you want to tell me about it?" She prayed, briefly, that he didn't. She wasn't sure she was up to hearing, not after what he'd told her the first night he'd been home. But she wondered, given the injury, if the problem wasn't as much psychological as physiological.

He fell back from her, his head coming to rest in the corner of the couch, eyes still closed. "Not really. Is it enough to know there were electrodes involved?" One eye opened halfway, peering at her face through his lashes.

"Knowing that is more than I ever wanted to know had happened to you." She closed the small distance between them and kissed him again, softly. "We can mention it at your appointment Friday, see what approach would be best, beyond giving things a little time to settle and be comfortable."

"I think more time spent like this might help." His arms tightened around her once more, pulling her close.

"It just might. I'll look at my schedule tomorrow, and see what I can do about getting a little more time off around Easter for us to spend a week up at the Vineyard."

Chapter 6

There had been a brief, but obviously long-standing tussle between Scully and Hannah over music for the road as they'd settled into the car. He remembered such heated discussions from years prior, and had wisely kept silent. A truce had been called with a stack of ballet CDs, four of which disappeared into the dash's player and had been accompanying the hum of their wheels up I-95. They'd made it through "Sleeping Beauty," "La Bayadere," and "Giselle" and were well into "Scheherazade" by the time they crossed the George Washington Bridge. He turned in his seat to point out the most important exit between Washington and Wood's Hole, the one for Yankee Stadium, to Hannah but she was asleep with a book half-open in her lap.

He whispered Scully's name as he righted himself in the seat, and watched her glance back in the rearview mirror. "She's usually out somewhere around Newark," she muttered, then punched at a few buttons on the stereo. Instantly, Rimsky-Korsakov was replaced with what he recognized as the slow crescendo of "Where The Streets Have No Name," which meant her default favorite while driving hadn't changed in the years since he'd last shared a long car ride with her.

Taking the hand so recently stabbing at the stereo in his own, he gazed out the passenger window as the Bronx flew by, then turned to watch her at the wheel. "Hannah seems like a smart kid. Reads very well for her age, is pretty athletic, good at music."

"I've tried to give her as broad a range of experiences as I can, let her figure out what she enjoys, where her talents are." She glanced over from the road to meet his gaze, before returning her focus to the traffic around them. "But I have a feeling you're getting at something more, Mulder."

"Well," he said, glancing into the back seat once more, "she's an impressive kid, Scully. We saw a few impressive kids in our line of work. I'm just wondering, worried..." he trailed off, fumbling the honesty beyond naming the emotion.

With a glance at Hannah in the rearview, she sighed and said, "I worried the same thing. Especially at first, when I first found out I was pregnant and you'd just gone missing." She was quiet for a long time, and he let her have her silence, watching the thoughts gather behind her eyes as The Edge's guitar filled the car. "Alex Krycek came to see me one morning. He told me that my baby, our baby, wasn't supposed to be, and that parties were interested in its potential. He offered a trade, me and the baby for 'monitoring' in exchange for your return."


"No, Mulder, it never seriously crossed my mind to take him up on it. I wasn't sure I could forgive myself for giving up on you, but I knew you'd never forgive me that."

That bit of information rolled around in his head for a bit, as they traveled north from the city, silence swallowing up several miles. "I don't know if I could have."

She answered with a few jerky nods, knuckles white on the wheel and eyes straight ahead on the road.

"Was he right, though?"

"No," she said firmly, shaking her head slightly. "Hannah's smart for her age, but in a 'talented-and-gifted' kind of way, not in a 'child prodigy' kind of way. She was allowed in her grade even through her birthday's a week past the cut-off, based on her reading skills, but her math is average. She only wins at chess when I let her. If she could get things telekinetically rather than through whining and wheedling, I'm certain she'd have figured that out by now. One day, if she's lucky, she'll end up an English professor with season tickets to the ballet, and nothing would make me happier."

"Good. I like the idea of that, too." He nodded and fell back into the seat, the vibrations of the car and her nearby presence lulling him into sleep.

The car had been a comfortable bubble for her, reassured by the soft respiration of her passengers, the occasional canine snore, and low music as she steered them along the coast. Mulder and Hannah had slept on, through Connecticut and even across the ferry, lulled by the gentle waves and warmth of the car's efficient heater. Occasionally, the dog's claws scraped over the plastic carrier, but she never let up the whimper that signaled the need for a rest stop. For the ferry crossing, Scully settled deeper into the driver's seat, enjoying the undistracted opportunity to watch the two most important people in the world. Time to simply watch them was rare and precious, and she took it where she could.

For all his trouble sleeping, both in the past and since returning, Mulder had developed an astonishing capacity to slumber in her presence lately. After waking him nightly for a week straight only to crawl under the covers with him, the pretense of separate bedrooms had been abandoned, and he'd been peacefully sharing her bed. It seemed as if his body was trying to make up for years of exhaustion.

He'd always been tactile, but since his return, he'd craved physical contact of any kind, as if trying to make up for years of deprivation, even if it was with something as simple as a hand held. They would often wake tangled together in a snarl of flannel and silk, though since his revelation of erectile issues, she'd been very careful to let him set the boundaries. Yet she had felt the evidence that the situation was slowly resolving with his nutrition and health, and she was willing to give him whatever time he needed. They had time, now.

She was jarred from her reverie when she turned into the crushed-shell driveway and cut the engine, Hannah seeming to wake instantly. "Mommy?"

"We're here, Hannah. You want to get Glinda from the back?" She reached down and pulled the back hatch release while the girl fumbled with her seatbelt. "Mulder?" Scully squeezed his shoulder gently and his eyes flew open, casting wildly about before locking on hers.

"Scully? Where are we?"

"Home," she answered simply, nodding out the windshield at the weathered house in front of them.

He stared at it, unmoving for a long moment, then his brow furrowed slightly. "It looks different."

Shells crunched as Hannah skipped past his window, candy pink duffle slung over one shoulder and Glinda bounding four feet ahead of her at the very end of the leash, before pausing at the corner of the front porch to turn and stare back at the car with obvious impatience. Scully had to admit that the scowl and crossed arms were certainly a very good imitation of herself.

"It's been updated a little. C'mon, before she starts trying to pick the lock on the front door."

"What have you been teaching our daughter, Scully?"

She laughed, and led the way up to the front door, flipping through her key ring to find the correct door key. Unlocking the door, she stepped back to let Hannah and Glinda bound inside first, then held the door for Mulder, who moved much slower, taking in the recently painted white door, the bright blue rag rug in the entry. Only when he was a few steps inside did she follow, but allowed him to wander through the house, taking in the changes.

Over the years, after deciding to keep this house, she'd slowly improved the dated house, which had been frozen in time, reminiscent of childhood decor she'd rather forget. The wood paneling was now white, the shag carpet replaced with laminate, and most of the furniture had been reupholstered. She'd tried to keep things to a cool bright scheme of white and blue, with sunny yellow accents. Mulder's mouth hung slightly open as he took in the cheerful living room, with the old Bosendorfer lurking in a corner by the French doors like something from another darker life, suffering under the weight of a vase of cheery daffodils.

"If I didn't know, I wouldn't know it was the same house in here." He turned to her, smiling. "It looks so...happy."

"It is happy, Mulder. Hannah and I love the time we spend up here. She gets to stay in your old room, and I tried to tell her everything I could about you. This house really was a way to give her something of you. It let her think you had as charmed a life here as she does."

He snorted at that, and crossed the room to the French windows, with their view across the back deck and down the hill to the dock and pond. Hannah flew past and out the central door beside him, unleashed terrier following fast on her heels.

"Hannah. Where are you going? We just got here."

The girl stopped halfway across the deck, while the dog kept going, flying past the budding forsythias rimming the patio and towards the Canadian goose twenty yards away. "I wanted to see if Em and Cait are home, so we can take Glinda for a walk to the pond!"

"You need to ask first, not just run off without telling one of us. Did you get both your bags out of the car?"

A sigh and eyeroll were her response, though Hannah did come back inside, stomping her clogs along the deck planking.

"Get your things unpacked first, and if you can do that without any attitude, then you may go see if the Moores are home. Understood?"

"Yes, Mom." The heavy footsteps continued back out the front door, as the dog came back to sit at the edge of the deck, keeping watch for more geese.

"My mom would have been thrilled at me running off to spend every day at a neighbor's. But somehow I'm thinking she's still getting a better deal."

"I don't doubt it, even if she doesn't realize it now. But I'll let you be the one to shatter her illusions of your idyllic childhood here."

He returned to her side, pulling her loosely into his arms and resting his head on top of hers. "I have no plans to do anything of the kind. It looks like a new house to me, maybe it can be a new, idyllic house where everyone's happy."

"That's the best idea I've heard in ages." She kissed what she could reach without moving, the bit of exposed skin at the base of his throat, and felt him hum in contentment.

The front door slammed closed, heavy footsteps paused, and Scully could practically hear the eyeroll before they continued up the stairs.

Mulder shook his heat and muttered, "That one's all you, Scully." Both of them laughed then, and headed back out to the car for their own bags.

Fire crackled merrily in the grate of a fireplace he couldn't remember being lit in the last thirty years as he handed Scully a steaming mug of cocoa, hers with peppermint stick but without marshmallows, before sinking down beside her and taking a sip of his own frothy, mallow-topped beverage. Faint giggles echoed down from the floor above, interspersed with an occasional yip.

"Those girls seem to think you're pretty cool for a mom, Scully," he said, nudging her gently in the ribs.

"Yes, well, I may have won them over with some very scary campfire tales last summer." She grinned slyly at him as she raised her mug and took a tentative sip of the hot liquid. "God, Mulder, how much sugar did you put in here?"

"Twice what the tin of cocoa suggested, to balance out the fact you served fruit salad for dessert. What did you tell them?" He tried to do a quick mental inventory of cases that would be at all appropriate for young girls.

"They're going to be up all night, with all that sugar and chocolate! Liver- eating mutants are pretty terrifying, but Hannah really enjoyed the story about her brave father fighting the evil fluke-man."

He laughed loud enough to drown out the chorus of giggles from upstairs, and Scully joined him in laughter when, moments later, the dog appeared looking distinctly displeased with the plethora of ribbons adorning dozens of tiny braids in her fur. The dog stared plaintively at Scully for a moment before heaving herself down by the fire with a sigh, looking like a half-ruined rag- rug.

"You weren't kidding about her having a good time here."

"The twins from next door are only a year older, and they get into all kinds of trouble together. Nothing bad, just...." She gestured at the dog and smiled, before growing somber. "It's good, she has fun and never noticed how melancholy I felt when we came up here. I love it, but it made me think so much of you."

When he kissed her, he could taste the peppermint on her lips, tingling and bright as the smile she rewarded him with when they broke the kiss. "You never knew me here. You wouldn't have wanted to."

She shifted on the couch, swinging her legs up to lay across his lap, resting her mug on a kneecap. "You, anywhere, I want to know." Her fingers traced through his hair, and he leaned into the touch. "This house and Hannah were all I had. All I thought I ever would have."

His hand traced the length of her spine as he weighed her words. She'd rarely spoken of how his abduction had effected her. Oh, she'd told him all about Hannah, and her rise to Director of Pathology, even of the few uncomfortable attempts at dating she'd made in the last few years. But she'd offered up very little about how she felt, beyond the revelation on their drive up yesterday of her conversation with Krycek shortly after he'd been taken. Kissing her temple, just at the hairline, he whispered, "Do you want to talk about it?"

Immediately, she shook her head against his lips, her hair brushing against his neck. "No more than you want to." She turned to look him in the eye then, and kissed him once, firmly. "But I should."

His arm tightened around her, with what he hoped was reassurance. "I'd like to know," he whispered.

She rested her head against his chest and nodded. "I know you do. I just don't want you to feel like..."

"Like it's my fault?"

Pulling back just enough to look him in the eye, she graced him with a little smile and a raised eyebrow.

"You've listened to my horror stories in the small hours of the night, Scully. But I'm not the only one who went through something. You've got a story to share, too."

For a long moment, they were quiet, and she settled back against his chest. "It's not like I could really talk to anyone else. Mom understood, sort of, having raised four of us with Dad away at sea much of the time, but she was always reasonably certain he was coming home. And had some idea where he was, and that he was in good hands. That was what was hardest, I think. Doing things alone wasn't easy, but it gave me something to do, something to focus on. Not knowing what had happened to you, while knowing what had been done to others...." She broke off, shaking her head.

"I felt like I'd given up on you. We kept looking, to the extent we could, but I couldn't help feeling you wouldn't have given up on me so easily. For a long time, I fought having you declared dead. That really felt like giving up to me. I fought that for three years."

She wouldn't look at him then, though he could see tears threatening to spill from her eyes, so he took the mug from her trembling fingers, sitting both of them on the end table, before wrapping both his arms around her. It took no encouragement for her to lean against his chest, letting her respirations fall into sync with his. The moment was broken by the clambering of footsteps above them, heading for the stairs. Scully pulled away, turning to sit between him and the cocoa, handing him his cup just as four girls, all with hair in braids and bows terribly similar to the dog's stylings, marched into the living room, led by Hannah.

"Mommy, where's the Ouija board?"

Mulder did his best to stifle a laugh, unsure of whether he found their hair or the question funnier. But Scully refused to meet his eyes as she rose from the sofa and headed for the cabinets under the bookcases. Boxes of Scrabble and Monopoly, decks of cards and sets of dominoes were set aside before she extracted the board and planchette, and handed them over to the girls. They were halfway to the stairs again before she could admonish, "Only good spirits this time, okay?"

A mumbling of "yes, ma'ams" and giggles fell back to them as they disappeared upstairs, followed by Glinda, whose curiosity apparently overcame her indignation.


She sauntered back over to the couch, not quite meeting his eyes until she settled on his lap, giving him a wicked grin. "Impressed, huh?"

"Oh, Scully, you have no idea." His recent worry over performance seemed like less of a problem now, and he pulled her closer into him. While not at full arousal, it was the most erect he'd been since returning. It was somehow not surprising that all it took was the sight of Scully with a Ouija board.

"I think I'm getting it," she said, taking a second to rock slowly down against him. "But I also know that we've only got about ten minutes before they get tired of asking the 'spirits' which boys like them, and start scaring themselves by trying to summon the Salem witches."

He pulled her flush with his chest, meeting her smiling lips with his own as her thighs tightened against his. "I can't think of two parents in America better prepared for that scenario."

"Neither can I. Neither can I." She lay against him, laughing, until he joined her.

"This really is going to work out all right, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it is. In our own way, it is."

They held one another close in the warm firelight, until their peace was interrupted by shrieks from upstairs. As they disentangled and headed for the stairs, she took his hand and grinned.


When she emerged from the master bathroom, he was already in bed, leaning against the headboard with an enormous textbook propped open against his knees. Half-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses sat low on his nose, and she couldn't help the shiver that overtook her at the sight of him. Strenuous physical therapy and intense workouts had gotten him back in shape, and even the scarring couldn't mar the beauty of his bare chest in the lamplight as she made her way to him.

"Am I late for the first day of class, Professor Mulder?"

Blinking, he peered at her for a moment over the top edge of his glasses, and she felt herself go a bit weak in the knees just from the heat of his gaze. "Oh, no, Ms. Scully. Not at all. In fact, you're a bit early. And I do so appreciate eager pupils on the first day of class."

She smiled as she settled onto the bed beside him, glad he'd caught on and was willing to play along. They'd just gotten used to one another again, and had been sticking to the safe and known. But this was too good an opportunity to let pass by. "Oh, you'll find I'm very eager to learn anything you can teach me." For good measure, she batted her eyes in a way that would have felt ridiculous any other time.

Mulder, however, seemed to appreciate it. "You'll find I can teach you a lot, Miss Scully. Why don't you come up here and let me share?" He closed the tome in his lap and sat it on the nightstand with a thunk, and reached for his glasses before she stayed him with a light touch and shake of her head.

A predatory smile crossed her face as she crawled on all fours onto his lap. "What do you have to share with me today?" A lock of hair had fallen across his forehead the way it used to do when she first knew him, and she did what she always wanted to do then, and brushed it out of the way. That it was now white and not the dark brown of their youth didn't enter her mind.

His embrace pulled her flush with his bare chest, molding her body to his. As his hands slid down her back, cupping her bottom and pulling her closer, he said, "I can think of one thing in particular I'd like to share with you."

"Oh, Professor! That seems like an awfully large piece of information to share the first day. Do you think I can handle it?"

Teeth flashed in that vulpine smile he kept just for her, along with that low growl of his. "Oh, Miss Scully, you seem very capable of handling large pieces of information. I've heard you're quite clever."

"Should I handle it like this?" She reached between them to stroke him once, lightly, through his jersey boxers. "Or like this?" Fingers deftly slipped into his boxers, and surrounded him, stroking softly until she felt him begin to stiffen, and he sighed and closed his eyes. They'd found he needed a bit of extra stimulation, some encouragement from her, and she'd been more than happy to oblige. They might never have manic, unplanned sex against a filing cabinet as had happened in the old days, but it was a compromise they could work around.

"You are a clever girl." His hands slid up from her ass, under the hem of her silky camisole, drawing it up her back and over her head, until she was forced to move her hand to pull it off and let him toss it away.

"You must be awfully clever, too, Professor Mulder." Her index finger drug slowly down the length of his chest, following the jagged edge of a long pink scar to his navel, then teased her fingers along the waistband of his boxers.

"Mmm, yes, I think my vast intellect has allowed me to deduce what you'd like to do next."

"Oh?" One eyebrow raised as she ceased all movement.

He nodded and leaned forward, pressing his lips to hers, still puckered from her question. She met him, softly at first, then letting herself melt against him, until she wasn't sure where he ended and she began. Easing back to catch his breath, he whispered close to her ear, "I think we're both clever enough to note that there's still too much clothing involved here."

She fell away from him, laughing and tugging at the waistband of his boxers. He obligingly lifted his hips, even as he caught hold of the edge of her bikinis. It was awkward for her to shift and let him pull them down her legs, and the underwear ended up tangled around one ankle before she decided it wasn't worth it and settled back against him, returning his earlier kiss. At this late hour, his stubble was harsh against her lips, her cheek, but she appreciated the roughness, its reminder that even now, eight months on, he was still here, was real. Sometimes, she still had to remind herself. Sometimes she thought he still had to remind himself, pulling her close in the night, fingers tracing along her shoulder as he passed through the kitchen, the way his hands now skimmed down the length of her body, tracing the curve from her waist to hipbone.

Games fell by the wayside as words became unnecessary. They couldn't have spoken anyway, lips and tongues locked together for long languorous moments before she shifted against him, breasts brushing against his chest. His flesh was more sensitive than either would have thought, given the scarring there, as if it were new skin rather than the damaged that remained. He nodded a bit as her lips kissed his hairline.

When she settled down onto him, he let out a groan and his head lolled back, even as his arms tightened around her, crushing her against him so tightly that for a moment, she could barely move, barely breathe. Her arms wrapped around his neck, fingers threading through his hair and pulling his head up to look at her. Their eyes met as she began to rock against him, rolling her hips just a bit as he began to thrust in counterpoint.

For long moments, they undulated together, the pace slowly increasing. Then she closed her hip angle, leaning forward and brushing against the length of his body with each downward stroke until she could feel herself ready to fall over the edge. As his teeth sunk into the skin of her shoulder, just enough to leave a mark and muffle his shout, she let herself go, collapsing against him.

Mulder squeezed her tight, then reached over to put his glasses on the table and turn off the lamp. Half-awake, she asked, "Did you set the alarm?"

"Mmm-hmm." His answer hummed through her as he turned them both, and curled around her.

"You've got to be up and out early, right?"

"Yeah, the first class is at nine, so I'm leaving around seven. I can take Hannah, drop her off on my way so you can sleep in a little."

She nestled a little closer to him, burrowing her head into the scrunched pillows. "I like the sound of that. You ready for that big first day?" She felt him tense around her just a bit at the question, then a long quiet sigh tickled the hair by her ear.

"As ready as I'm going to be."

Scully's first impulse was to turn and look at him, but in the dark, she settled for squeezing the hand resting on her midriff. "That's not an answer, Mulder."

"I'm ready to be doing something again. Whether or not this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, I don't know, but I know I need to be out and working again. I need to do something productive. Having a summer vacation with Hannah for a while is a pretty great side-benefit, too."

"You two have a had a lot of fun without me this summer."

"I'm sorry--"

"No, Mulder, I'm glad. She needed some time with her father, though she could have done without the sprained wrist from that little bicycling debacle." She could feel him shaking his head behind her, ready with another unnecessary apology, so she cut him off, continuing, "And you needed time to recover, settle in, figure out a functional family dynamic."

A chuff preceded his response. "Yeah, well, until this year, I didn't have much experience with that."

"You're clever. You figured it out pretty quickly."

He did laugh then, softly, and kissed the hollow behind her ear. "Maybe. But I also appreciate what I've got now. I want you to know that, because I don't think I can ever bring myself to tell Hannah exactly how much."

"She knows, because you show her." She pulled his hand up to her lips, kissing the jagged scars that traced his metacarpals. "And I know, every time I look at you, knowing what you lived through for me."

"You were worth it."

His thumb pressed against her lips, silencing anything else she might have been tempted to say, and she kissed it. It remained for a moment, before his arm settled once more around her waist, settling her against him and letting his steady breathing lull her to sleep.


The End

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