Miracle
Tesla

 

Locale: faux-Uzbekistan

Rating: PG. Some four letter words.

Spoilers: None, but set way before the advent of Will

Keyword: MSR, spooning

Probability: Low

Archive: Anywhere, anytime

Disclaimer: Chris Carter and 1013 created Mulder and Scully. The characters seem to have some time on their hands, so I borrowed them.

Feedback: Cool.

 

 


In a break-away republic, early fall:

They were thousands of miles from home, in a far country, unable to speak the language, immersed in an unfamiliar culture, forced by the lack of transportation to ride for bone-jarring hours in a bus to the nearest airport.

They had to wear indigenous costumes; Scully's badge and passport were inside her long, layered robes. Her red hair was covered by a veil and her blue eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Mulder in American jeans and hiking boots, a local tunic, a parka of unknown provenance, and the ubiquitous layer of dust, looked like he had gone native; his identification and his PDA was tucked in his pants. Mulder had dropped the PDA and it didn't boot up, but he was grimly determined to take it back.

He had swapped their watches for bus tickets, but at least airline tickets awaited them at the bus hub. The CIA man had the only working cell phone; Mulder, in a reckless disregard for government property, had bartered theirs when he discovered that they didn't work here. It was a sign of how dire it was, in that, from first to last, Mulder had said nothing whatsoever about being around a real spook. Not a joke, not a pun, nothing.

They had to camp out at a dirty crossroads inn for the night. Mulder escorted Scully to a horrifying privy, and brought her the flat bread and weird, wizened oranges that he scrounged for her to eat. There was, thank God, bottled water, and Scully was relieved to see the men of the village all tramp down to a local cafe to watch satellite television. Two other Western women were virtually ignored, and had to haggle a long time for just a bottle of water and a flat loaf of bread; so she was glad to have Mulder.

Even though he was furious that he was there, instead of watching ESPN.

Even though the CIA agent traveling with them made sure she was accepted as Mulder's wife.

Even though she was going to have to sleep with Mulder on a platform bed in the wall of the inn.

Even though she smelled like a goat, and Mulder, of a smoky aroma that was suspiciously like hemp.

Because, this time, none of it was Mulder's fault.

It was hers.

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

Two weeks earlier, in Washington, D.C.

"Mulder, the CIA agent on the scene says he's never seen anything like this. He thinks it's worth investigating." Scully heard her voice rising in frustration, and took a deep breath.

Mulder looked up from the sports section of the newspaper. "Isn't that my line? Investigating miracles?" He flipped the paper closed, and set it down on the desk, waiting for more.

"The locals think the water is causing fertility in women who have been barren for years. The agent says the women are coming back with babies. He's been there for two years, and he says he's never seen so many pregnant women in his life." Scully felt perspiration prickle on her scalp when she said, "pregnant."

Mulder looked down at his blotter, his face dark. Scully knew that she was playing dirty to mention the pregnancy, but it worked with Skinner; it definitely worked with Mulder. He looked up finally. "Where's the X-File, Scully?"

Well, maybe it didn't work with Mulder when he knew she was trying to manipulate him. "There's a lot of odd activity near a closed nuclear plant. Tales of strange medical miracles, stories of theft of radioactive material."

"That's an Agency matter, Scully, not a Bureau matter," Mulder replied, picking up a paperclip and straightening it. He cast her a keen look. "Unless you've already gone to Skinner and he's approved the 302?"

"He suggested it, in fact."

Mulder threw down the paperclip. "Then why try to convince me?" he asked, with deceptive mildness. "I know why we're going. They want us to be the couriers to the agent on the job. Or the watch-dogs to see if his report is accurate." He tilted back his chair. "If you want to go drink the miracle water, Scully, just tell me. Don't give me a bunch of shit about investigating phenomena I know you don't give a rat's ass about. Has anyone seen the Virgin Mary thereabouts?"

"No, it's a Moslem country." Scully sat on the desk edge, and folded her arms. "I don't know why you dare to question my motives about any casefile when we both-when Skinner and Blevins and the universe knows what your hidden motive is, and always has been."

Mulder stood up, his chair crashing back. "Don't say her name, Scully. I'll follow you where ever you want to go, but don't belittle my---"

Scully felt her temper rising. "Your quest," she said, curling her lip.

Mulder picked up his empty coffee mug and, turning away from her, hurled it into the far corner. "Stop it," he said. "I'll go. Just tell me when. And by the way, you'd better wear your longjohns. It's already winter there." He scooped up his suit jacket from where it had fallen, and brushed past her.

"Mulder," she snapped. "Skinner's waiting for us." She knew, without turning around, that he stopped in the doorway. She heard a rustle, and looked around to see him putting on his jacket.

+++++++++

In the Assistant Director's office, Mulder was exhibiting what her father used to call "dumb insolence". He wasn't commenting, but he was bristling with negation of every word out of Skinner's mouth.

"Do you have a problem with this, Agent?" Skinner asked.

Mulder lifted his eyes. "Well, let me see. Neither Scully nor myself can speak any of the languages of this country. It is extremely unstable due to the Muslim fundamentalists infiltrating from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Neither one of us has any experience in reading and evaluating espionage e-traffic. Americans are at risk due to the anti-Western sentiments. The country is divided between former Soviets who are persecuting the Muslims, and Muslim fundamentalists who are persecuting Westerners. There is no paranormal activity. There is a nuclear power plant that is supposed to be closed. However, neither Scully nor myself has extensive experience in monitoring nuclear stockpiles. The only qualifications we have for this trip are that we're Feds, and all of our vaccinations are current." His voice grew even more cutting. "Unless, that's the idea? Send two lambs to excite the tiger?"

Skinner's calm voice belied the flush that went straight up his scalp. "Don't quote Kipling to me, Mulder. And don't make insinuations. Your partner has expressed interest in the assignment. If you don't wish to go, someone else can accompany her."

"You told her about the miracle spring," Mulder said. He was on his feet; he looked ready to jump across the desk and hit Skinner.

"That's enough, Mulder," Scully said, her face hot. "You don't want to go because it's not your idea."

"It's a bad idea," he shot back to her.

"Are you accepting the assignment?" Skinner asked, picking up the phone. "If not, let me call an agent who will."

"I'll go," Mulder said. "But on the record, it's a bad idea." He fooled her then, by lowering his angry gaze to his shoes, and waiting for Skinner to finish briefing them. He certainly was in a temper. But he said no more about the point he had unerringly hit.

She wanted to drink from the spring. Skinner wanted her to drink from the spring.

Skinner got the last shot in, saying to Mulder, "Your objections are duly noted for the record, Agent. Agent Scully can report to me."

Mulder said nothing in reply.

In fact, he said nothing at all, the rest of the afternoon. He calmly located his passport, called his credit card companies to check his balances, left a voice mail for John Byers, asking him to get his newspapers, mail, and to feed the fish; and balanced his checkbook before leaving.

"See you tomorrow," he said, in a perfectly level tone of voice. And he didn't slam the door.

That night, in her apartment, she sipped her iced tea and wondered about the whole thing. She could make Mulder's arguments for him. If Skinner suggested it, it meant that he felt guilty about her. Why would he feel guilty? Skinner, himself, had only said, "Well, Scully, you've only got hearsay from Mulder as to you being completely barren. Didn't the doctors say they couldn't prove conclusively that you were?"

"They said they would need to see if they could---the risks of damaging me further were not worth it."

Now, she flushed at even having this conversation with Skinner. But he had been as prosaic as if he were discussing carpal tunnel syndrome in the secretarial pool. And she could never forget how he had been at the hospital with her family, when the cancer went into remission. She could even see the approval in Bill's eyes----he recognized the Marine. This is more like it, Bill thought, and she could read the thought as easily as if it had appeared in a cartoon bubble over his head. Better than that droopy slacker with the long hair sitting out in the hall. Mulder must have been eating sunflower seeds, she thought at the time.

Scully wondered why Skinner had left Mulder sitting in the hall. When she had told Mulder that she was in remission, his hands shook. But her family and her priest all came in at that point, and he had slipped away. For such an aggressive man, Mulder was very non-confrontational at times.

Three days later, Mulder was still unreconciled to going, but met her at the airport wearing the same thick parka that he wore to Polar regions, and the bland expression that showed he was upset/annoyed/worried. His forehead was beaded with sweat.

"Mulder, that coat is smothering you," she said.

"I don't want to check it," he said. "I want to have it when we get there."

Scully felt a foreboding twinge. She had packed according to the briefing folder Skinner had given her, but she wondered if it was as accurate as it could have been. Mulder was usually right about arcane details.

Matters didn't improve when Mulder discovered that they were stuck in business class, with crying children. His expression grew even more unhappy as he stuffed the parka into the overhead compartment.

"It's going to be a long twelve hours," he said in Scully's ear.

She suddenly, desperately hoped she could cheer him up. When Mulder was in a good mood, he made any hideous trip better; he always managed, by charming male or female flight attendants, to get them better meals, refills on their Cokes, more peanuts, blankets, and pillows. When sunk in gloom, he withdrew into a catatonic state that seemed to sour everyone in a fifty-yard radius. Today, he didn't seem disposed to use the old charm. He still wasn't quite meeting her eyes; he was still angry.

She didn't realize she was looking imploringly at him, until his ears turned red. "Okay, Scully, lighten up. We'll get to the miracle spring." He climbed over her knees, and shooting the cuffs of his shirt under the military surplus sweater, wove up the aisle to talk to the attendants.

He came back, his face like a mask, and leaned down to whisper that he had got them the vacant seats in first class. He then had to hit the overhead with his fist to get the parka out.

Nevertheless, it was a long flight. Mulder played with, and finally began reading a fat paperback he had in his backpack. Scully tried to discuss the case, but he gave her such an indulgent look that she wanted to slap him. It was plain he regarded this as a junket, that he was just her escort so she could get water samples. He put his sunglasses on, leaned back, and went to sleep. Apparently, he could sleep anywhere, any time, except in a bed.

She wasn't comforted to see that he was reading Stephen King.

In some place very like Uzbekistan:

Scully hadn't realized how cold it would be.

She peered out the car window, putting her hand on the cold glass. An American who introduced himself, with a grim smile, as "Smith" had met them at the airport. Smith had a car and a driver. He was, she realized, after a long, jet- lagged moment, the CIA contact. Mulder was coughing loudly in the cold, thin sunlight.

Once in the car, Mulder had simply handed Smith his backpack and Palm Pilot. While keeping a running conversation about the weather, which was seasonably cold, their driver's English---very good, and the possible illegitimacy of Walter Skinner, Smith rooted around in the backpack. He found something---Scully couldn't quite see what, but it looked like the paperback. He put it inside his jacket, and then booted up Mulder's laptop to look for something.

Mulder hung between the front seats, watching Smith, as the car careened down a two-lane road. Scully forced herself not to look at the traffic. Smith handed him the backpack, and he sat back.

"Cold as hell, isn't it?" he commented to her, looking out. He zipped up his parka, and pulled out the old gloves he usually kept in the glove box of his car. Because it was a glove box, he had said, with an air of astonishment. She had the feeling that he had planned that joke when he was sixteen; but here they were, on his fists.

Mulder was right. It was jarringly cold, and the heater in the old Land Rover was giving off only faint wisps of heat. The windows were already clouding with condensation. She was tired, but her partner looked preternaturally alert. The car's engine and heater combined were so loud that Mulder had to lean forward to hear what Smith was saying. Six hours, is what Scully thought she heard.

Smith was talking to the driver, and Mulder yawned, stretched, and unfolded a car rug over his knees. The driver rolled up his window, and turned on the radio. Mulder's eyes shifted from the men in the front seat, to consider her, sitting beside him in the cramped back seat. Her yawn surprised her.

"Get some sleep, Scully, it'll be hours." He leaned back into his corner, and closed his own eyes. With a wary glance up at his face, Scully pulled her own parka around her throat and tucked her feet up, before laying her head on Mulder's thigh. He patted her shoulder in a brotherly way. Yeah, even though he didn't want to be there at all, he would still look after her in a such a way to totally infuriate her. Rubbing it in, she thought sleepily.

She woke slowly to the low sound of Mulder's voice. He was talking about psychic phenomena with Smith. The radio was off now, and the road was a little better. She had turned in her sleep, and Mulder was gently cradling her against his chest. She was clutching a handful of his sweater, she realized. But oddest of all, that Mulder was holding her, absent-mindedly stroking the back of her neck with a finger as he talked. It felt so good that she got a strange hurt in the back of her throat. She hadn't realized how much she missed him touching her, until he had stopped doing it.

Mulder was in the middle of one of his standard monologues, answering Smith's sardonic remarks with the ease of a teacher who had given the same lecture many times. Perhaps alerted by the change in her posture, he paused, and bent his head to listen to her breathing. Apparently reassured, he picked up his sentence and went on talking. One of his set pieces, trotted out to discuss the X-Files with fellow professionals.

Scully thought of how she only allowed herself to pet Mulder when he was lying in a hospital bed, and how odd it was that he had started kissing her on the cheek when he visited her at the oncology ward. How he had stopped that, too, when she was well. It was sad that it was a nice day when he touched her on the back or shoulder when they were walking somewhere. Or she had a chance to look at his bruise or cuts.

Scully went back to sleep without intending to, and dreamed that Mulder touched his warm fingers to her cheek, before going on to tell Smith about Miss Cleo, the television psychic. She dreamed that he was carrying her down a long corridor, following a woman with a kerosene lamp. In the dream, he put her down on a cot, and tucked her clutching hand under a blanket. But what an unsatisfying dream, he didn't even hold her hand. Not like some dreams she'd had before.

She came fully awake in the gray light before dawn, still fully dressed, covered with a thick, stiff quilt and lying on a low string cot. She propped herself on one elbow, and saw Mulder asleep on the floor beside her, wrapped in another quilt, with his huge feet still in his hiking boots sticking out of the bedroll. He had his head on a tiny brick-shaped pillow. The light was coming from a tiny, shuttered window and a kerosene lamp on a footstool.

He looked so much younger in sleep, with his generous mouth relaxed, and his extravagantly long eyelashes casting shadows on his cheeks. His eyelids moved, tracking a dream. His face was already stubbled with beard. She could see his breath in the cold air.

It was still very early; she couldn't hear any sounds outside.

She dropped her hand and touched him on the cheek. Mulder opened his eyes. "Wha?" he said thickly, blinking. He started to unwrap him self. "You okay?"

"Come up here, Mulder, there's room for two. It's silly for you to be on the floor. It's freezing."

Mulder obediently rolled over, and sat up. He unlaced his boots, kicked them off, and then rolled up on the cot with his quilt. He was asleep again, his breath puffing the top of her head, in seconds.

Scully lifted the edge of her quilt and slid it under Mulder's. She immediately felt his body heat. He was like a stove; always had been. When she was so sick, she had felt strength and warmth flowing from him when he held her hand. Now, she touched the hand that lay, palm up, between them.

Without opening his eyes, he said, "If you're cold, Scully, c'mere." And he lifted his other arm. She turned away from him and spooned back under his arm.

"Your fingers are freezing," he said, pulling the quilts around them. "Don't wake me up again with those fingers for a while, 'kay?" But then he squeezed her fingertips to show that he wasn't complaining. Incredibly, he seemed to go back to sleep. She started to sigh, caught herself, and let his heat soak into her skin as she went to sleep.

The next morning, she awoke, alone, in full sunlight. The lamp was gone. When she had pulled her shoes back on, she ventured outside. She needed a toilet. Three women in the regional dress were waiting for her. "Bath, then eat," said the tallest one. She took Scully by the wrist, and led her down the whitewashed corridor to a massive wooden door.

Inside was an entire brick and tile bathroom, with no toilet to be seen, but steam oozing out of a wall, and a tap running water into a barrel. On the other side of a steaming brick wall, she could hear muffled voices.

"I need a toilet," she said. One of the women opened a side door, and there was a beautifully tiled one-holer, with a dish of tissues folded beside it. When she came back out, convinced the cold tiles were imprinted on her butt, the women were waiting.

Scully didn't emit more than a single squeak when the three women managed to undress her, pour water over her, and start scrubbing her with a loofah and herbal-scented lumps of soap. One woman, taller than the others, pulled her hands forward and clipped off a nail.

"Hey," Scully said, trying to yank her hand away.

"You can't go around with a Western manicure," the woman said, in perfect American English. "Your fair skin is all right, even your red hair, but the hands will give you away."

"What are you talking about?"

The woman looked up, her eyes glinting under her head covering.

"Agent, don't patronize me. If you don't blend in, you could be tortured, raped and murdered. Please don't take this moment to strike a blow for independence. Think of it as deep cover." She flung Scully's right hand back in her lap, and reached for the left hand. "You have to pretend you're the other agent's woman. He said you wouldn't want to, but you must; it's not only your life but that of both those men."

"Don't patronize me," Scully returned. "If it has to be done, it has to be done. Are we in that much danger?"

"Danger....maybe not. But you're going deep in the country. Do you know that when the Communists sent emissaries to some parts of this country, to tell them that the Whites had been defeated, some villages weren't even aware that the Tsar was dead? That World War I was over? Now we have voting in these areas, but sometimes it is the next year before the ballots are brought to the capital. We have satellite dishes and open sewers in the same village. You cannot be an American woman on your own; you cannot." The woman finished her hand. "Besides," she said, smiling and showing what was also American orthodonture, "you may even get pregnant."

Scully had no desire to respond to that in any fashion.

Then they proceeded to wash her hair, throw handfuls of scented talcum powder on her, and vigorously towel-dry and brush her hair, seating her next to a roaring kerosene heater. Naturally, there was no conditioner, so the English speaker--- CIA spy? --- literally anointed her with oil. "There are redheads where you are going, but not too many blue eyes. Keep your gaze down, or better yet, wear tinted glasses." The tall woman wiped her hands on a towel and threw it aside. "I have a degree in cultural anthropology, from Yale, if that makes you feel better."

It made Scully feel infinitely worse.

Her clothes, except her underwear, were gone. She had to, perforce, adopt the shawhal kameez, which made her look like a sack of potatoes with feet. She told herself later that she had been suffering from a combination of culture shock and jet lag. How else to explain why she ate a bowl of porridge and tinned fruit and a big chunk of bread and cheese, all the while being toweled and dried? Like the harem slaves in those lurid paperbacks Mulder always found discarded in airports.

She found the door to their room to find Mulder, wearing only a towel, drying his hair with a square of linen. His back was to her, and she gaped at the strong lines of his back and shoulders and how muscular his arms were. This was so odd. They had been in many tight situations together, shared quarters, though rarely rooms, before, and she had seen him in various states of undress. Why here and now was she feeling so moved?

"Close the door," Mulder said, his back to her. "And turn your back."

She did both, closing her eyes for good measure. She heard him pull on jeans, and then the creak of the cot as he flung himself down on it. She turned back around, only to feel her mouth dry up at the sight of him, still shirtless, his six- pack all too evident. My lord, he must have been doing weight training.

He looked up, and a smile, for once devoid of irony or sarcasm, spread across his face. "You look like a little Indian girl," he said. "Wanna get a nose ring?"

Scully wished she had a coffee mug to throw at him. Instead, her stomach growled from its strange breakfast. Mulder laughed, then, finishing tying his shoes, pulled on a long sleeved tee, a sweater, and a tunic. "C'mere," he said, patting the quilts.

Warily, she walked to the bed. Mulder held out his hand, and she put her fingers on his palm. He pulled her down on to the cot, and then in a fluid motion, rolled on top of her.

Her heart almost stopped, and then she realized he was talking directly in her ear.

"I think we've stepped in a big pile of shit here, Scully," he said. His lips brushed her hair. "I don't know who's listening, or who's friendly. Don't talk about anything to me except eating, drinking, finding a latrine, and being cold. No names. We have to act like two pilgrims in search of a miracle. I have to order you around, and you have to not question me in public. You can kick my ass when we get home, but Skinner's got us in a bad place."

"You think-" she waited until he put his ear to her mouth. "The bald man sent something to Smith he didn't tell us about," she stated.

Mulder nodded. He moved his head to speak, and his lips accidentally brushed her nose and cheek. "Smith said that a Russian woman was murdered two weeks ago, on a similar mission. Well, murdered---she disappeared. So rein in that independence for a while. When we get back you can do anything you like by yourself. But here, no."

Scully tugged at his collar, and he put his ear to her mouth again. "There's a woman here that's someone's agent. She dressed me like this," she told him.

He nodded, and whispered, "There's enough spying around here for six agencies. There's drugs going in one direction, guns in another, the government may be ignoring the sale of nuclear-grade plutonium from the old Soviet plant, the Muslim states are sending money to Kashmir. That's just what I heard in English. There are so many amputees here that Alex Krycek could be here and we'd never find him."

He was laughing. Damn him. She could feel him shaking with it. She put her hands on his chest and pushed, hard.

Mulder released her and sat up, looking down at her on the bed. "The bald man," he said, grinning. He took her face in both hands, smoothing her cheekbones with his thumbs. "You have to let me take care of you," he said, his voice unexpectedly gentle.

Then he bounced up, and started shoving items into his backpack, which included a knife and a huge flashlight he had evidently procured while she was sleeping.

Scully got up from the unmade bed, feeling as irrationally shaken as though Mulder had just made love to her.

+++++++++++++++++++

That day's travel was worse than the first. The road was so bad that Scully was thrown almost to the headliner on every rut they encountered. Smith had purchased crates of oranges and jugs of water, which threatened to hurtle onto her head from the back of their new vehicle, a battered Land Rover. A bus of other pilgrims shadowed them.

Mulder, his eyes bright as ever at the prospect of sudden, nasty death, did his best to brace Scully. He and Smith packed their bedrolls and backpacks around her, but it was still horrible. And she had to keep her head up and the window rolled down, to prevent carsickness. The cold made her ache from head to foot. Smith and Mulder were keeping an eye on the bus, far behind them on the turns of the road.

"Could be anybody on that thing," Mulder said, at one point. He was looking at Smith, who shrugged.

"Hard to say, really," Smith said. "Legitimate miracle seekers. Spies. Fundamentalists."

When they stopped, she practically fell out of the vehicle. Staggering into a mud hut with a corrugated metal front, on rubber legs, Scully unthinkingly accepted a canteen of water from a woman beside the fire. Mulder yanked it out of her hands, and pretended to drink, spilling it down his shirt.

"Bad water," he muttered.

She blushed to the roots of her hair. The woman laughed at her confusion.

They were at the neighborhood inn, a cafe/filling station at a fair-sized town. It was market day tomorrow, she understood, and they blended in with the rest of the travelers. People were there with trucks, carts, some new cars, all with merchandise. Yet another life lesson in not judging a country by its public restrooms.

Smith walked around, evaluating every corner, until he led them to sit in the angle a low wall made with the outside wall of the inn. There was a brazier already burning, and when they sat down on the long, low benches inside the angle, they were completely out of the wind, but still in the sun. Smith could stand up and look at the street traffic, which he did every few minutes.

This was the longest time she had gone without hearing her own voice, or Mulder's, in conversation. Mulder looked around with disinterest, and sat down to peel an orange. He offered Scully a quarter, balanced on the blade of the knife. She took it, swallowing it in two bites.

"So," he said to Smith, apropos of nothing, "you spend your time listening to holy men." Seeing that Scully had finished her segment of orange, he handed her another. "Not too bad a job for someone with a degree in Islamic culture."

Scully didn't realize her mouth was ajar, until Mulder popped an orange segment in it.

He looked up at Smith. "See, I recognized you. I have a good memory, Mr. Smith. For people I've seen at the Bodleian, and for people I've seen at the Folger Library." He surveyed the scene, his look of benign interest unchanged.

"I wondered why you were here," Smith said, standing up to look at a truck that was climbing up the hill.

"So do I. This looks like you're working on your doctoral thesis. Not like something our bald friend would be interested in. Just the researcher abroad, playing the great game."

"He said something about Kipling," Smith said. "But this isn't the place for sight-seeing."

"Not the place for peeping toms, either," Mulder replied, standing up, and gesturing to a man walking towards them with a tray of covered dishes. "Lunch," he said, looking down at Scully.

Their waiter, or host, or whoever, had a four-legged stand under his arm, and set the stand over the charcoal fire, and the battered tray on it. He handed Scully three aluminum bowls, and a plate of bread, and sauntered back around the corner.

"He speaks English," Mulder said, and taking a bowl, crouched by the brazier to fill it with a rice and beans mixture. "A lot of them do. They're watching ESPN on the satellite dish in the cafe." He tore a piece of the bread, and dipped an exploratory bite. "Not bad."

"You never cease to amaze me," Scully said, filling her own bowl. "So you don't need a degree in Islamic culture to survive out here, it seems." She glanced up at Smith.

"Hey, we're the real deal, living out here," Smith said. "Permanent residents. Out in the field. Not weekend tourists."

"And we're the not the real deal?" Scully whispered heatedly. She turned to Mulder, who was intent on eating, scooping all of his rice and beans out of the bowl with a wedge of bread.

He looked up, aware of them glaring at each other. "What? Did you ask me something?"

Great. Here was Smith acting like an Alpha dog, and Mulder, for once, was flattening his ears and being placating.

"Smith here seems to think we're tourists."

Mulder raised his eyebrows. "No, we're not."

"How many times have you been shot?" she hissed at Mulder.

He sighed, setting his bowl down. "Not counting when you shot me? Hmm." He touched his leg, then his forehead. "Three in all, and I do count when you shot me. It seems like a lot more, though, for some reason. But being slashed stings like hell, too, and I get stabbed a lot. I hate knives," he added, oblivious that he was cutting his bread with a pig-sticker. He edged the slice into his mouth. "Seen what you need?" he asked Smith.

"Pretty much," Smith acknowledged. He spoke to Scully, who tried to return his look with one of utmost blandness.

"Mostow was from around here," Mulder said off-handedly to her, wiping his hands on his scarf and standing up.

That night, she had to share a room with both Mulder and Smith. She was too tired to eat, and her head still swam from the rough trip. She woke up in darkness, lit faintly by a kerosene lamp in the corner of the room. Mulder had put her against the wall, and Smith lay across the doorway. Mulder's broad back was between her and it. She was wrapped up like a mummy, her shoes still on. Mulder was snoring. Smith was not. She had to pee, desperately. She sat up, trying to disentangle herself from her robes and veil. Mulder rolled over to face her, putting his hand on her arm.

"What?" he whispered. "Toilet?"

"I hate you," she hissed. "How do you know?"

"I tried to wake you up to go, but you were out." He sat up, reached between them, and got his flashlight. They both stepped over Smith, who by the glitter of his eyes showed he was awake, and went outdoors.

Mulder took her twenty yards to an outdoor privy, open to the elements. There were only a few scraggly bushes, now mainly twigs, between it and the highway.

Scully stumbled over the hem of her robe. "What? This is it?" The smell was unbelievable, even with the cold.

Infuriatingly, Mulder reached in his jeans pocket and gave her a handful of Kleenex. "I know, Scully. And you're going to have to let me put you on it, if you don't wanna fall in."

"I'm not going to pee with you standing there!" she sputtered, her face hot.

"I'm not letting you fall in an outhouse," he said, equably. "If you don't want to pee all over your clothes, you better let me help you. It seems that during the day, kids hide out here to try to make women jump up and run. Didn't you ever put someone on a bedpan?" Mulder pointed the flashlight, and showed that the privy was, indeed, narrow beams of wood over a mud well of sorts. She could fall in. But her bladder was bursting.

"Is there anywhere else?"

"I don't think we should go piss in someone's yard," Mulder said. "Come on, it's not that bad. It's night." He put the flashlight under one arm. "I'll hold up the skirts while you pull your pants down. I won't see anything. I'll hold you by the collar so you don't fall back." If he had sounded anything but utterly practical, she would have killed him.

Once she was dangerously perched on the beam, she couldn't go. "Relax, Scully. It's just me. You saw me write my name in the snow in Alaska, remember? Yeah , I saw you watching." He had a firm grip on her tunic, and apparently had the tail of her robe with the other hand. "People here use their left hand to wipe, and have little cans of water to wash with. Must be rough to be left-handed in this culture."

"Don't make me laugh, or I'll never get my bladder to relax," Scully said.

"It's cold. I always want to pee in the cold. So I don't drink much. That's why I'm always dehydrated." The flashlight danced over her shoulder, and she hung on the edge of the privy with her left hand. "Think of mountain streams. Think of water pouring from a tap...."

That did it. She sounded like a firehose, and fully expected steam to arise. With difficulty, she finished up.

"Grab your drawers," Mulder said. "One, two, three..." and he heaved her off as she yanked up her pants. "Now, me," he said in a matter of fact tone. He handed her the flashlight. "Don't shine it on me unless you really want to be disappointed."

"I'll stand here," she said, and went to other side of the bushes. As she heard Mulder urinating, she saw two men emerge from another hut, walking towards them. They saw her, and called out something.

"Shit," Mulder said, and was in front of her, still zipping up. He took the flashlight from her hand, and dragged her, stumbling over the rocks in the path, past them. The two men called out something in good humor, and laughed heartily as they walked past them.

Smith was at the bend in the path. "They congratulated you at making your woman come out and hold the light for you," he said. "Okay. Now I'll go, and you two stay the hell inside."

"What, did you want her to pee in the room?" Mulder said, bristling. Smith ignored him, and Mulder pulled on Scully's elbow to show her where to wash her hands.

They silently returned to the room. This time, Scully pulled off her shoes, in the bone-chilling cold, before crawling under her blanket. Mulder lay beside her, his back to her. "Warm my back, Scully," he said, practically lying down on her lap.

She huddled against him, laying her face on his back. "Mulder," she breathed, "I'll never complain about your choice of motels again." He started shaking with laughter, and surprised her by rolling over and kissing her on the top of her head, before turning back to watch the door.

"Go the fuck to sleep, Scully," he said. But he sighed when she huddled against his back, and seemed to relax in an infinite degree.

The last leg of the journey was accomplished in an old school bus. Apparently, their driver did not wish to proceed any further. Scully wondered why Smith was still with them. Nothing was happening; they were now with dozens of other women and men, all going to the shrine.

There were no children on the bus; everywhere else, there had been children.

Mulder had abandoned most of his clothes, wearing the flat cap of the men, his already dark complexion covered with stubble. His sunglasses hid his green eyes, red-rimmed with dust and lack of sleep. Scully was grateful that he treated her like a comrade, like a guy. He made no mention of their joint excursion to the privy the night before; except that, at each stop, he had Smith ask where the other women were going, and made her go with them. The privies were just as primitive, but more private than the night before. And although she couldn't understand what the women were telling her, they seem to regard her as one of the sisterhood: the sisterhood of the barren.

Scully overheard Smith telling Mulder, that morning, how a Muslim woman was identified by her motherhood. "You're called Oom Fatima or Oom Faisel; a woman is known by her children. It's a terrible disgrace not to have children; it's a terrible grief."

"Yes, I know," Mulder said shortly. He dropped his voice, but she could still hear him. "Scully had cancer treatment and can't have children, so she's legitimately seeking the holy water." He drank the bitter coffee Smith had brought to them, with a can of Pet condensed milk.

Smith now poked holes in the can with the point of his knife. When she came closer to them, she saw deep lines of sorrow in Mulder's down-turned face. Seeing her attention, he smoothed out his expression, and held out the pan of coffee.

"We better drink it, for the calories. We don't know what kind of food they have further up the road." So they all had milk-thickened coffee.

Mulder and Smith had exchanged expressions. While Mulder had become tense and alert, Smith looked almost relaxed. He had probably already accomplished whatever his mission had been. Cataloging who went to the miracle spring and why. Seeing what the locals were saying about it. Seeing if it was religious or political.

"Give me your watch," Mulder said, suddenly. "They don't take credit cards for the last leg of the trip. We may as well lose the cell phones, since they don't work here."

He already had his own watch off, and was putting it in his pocket.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

Near the border, at the well:

The holy well was like Lourdes, in a way. There were families encamped all around the tiny mud hut that enclosed the spring. No one sold bottles or cans of the water, but some women were filling plastic bottles full to take home. No one ran the spring; but there was some kind of rough organization to it. It looked like Scully was going to have to sit down in a line that stretched almost to the road, to await her turn. Mulder, with unusual docility, sat with her. Night fell before she could go in.

The three of them retreated to the shelter of the bus station. "Maybe we can go take our samples after everyone is asleep," Smith suggested.

Mulder looked deeply unhappy; it was the same expression he had when he had indigestion, or the Knicks were losing the season.

"This is the plan?" he muttered to her. "For this we need spooks?"

They lay on their bedrolls among the others, until deep into the night. Scully had actually fallen asleep, when Mulder shook her awake. No one spoke.

They picked their way over the sleeping bodies and the tiny, smoky fires lit in the field around the hut. Scully got out her sample case, which she had HAD strapped to her waist all this time, and Smith held the light on the tiny, bubbling spring.

There were more lights, shouts. Someone lunged at Scully, knocking her backwards, and Mulder was there, throwing himself on top of her, shouting. He was hauled off her, and she stayed on the dirt floor, waiting for a chance to help him. She couldn't see; the lights flashed wildly. There were four men there, men she had not seen in the tiny group at the spring. One was smashing her sample bottles with his boots.

Scully felt all the air leave her body as she realized the men had their knives at Mulder's and Smith's throats. The oil lamp flickered fitfully, casting shadows over the silent men, the Kalashnikov rifle held by the English speaker.

"Smith," Mulder said quietly. "Translate." Blood dripped from a puncture on his left hand. Someone had stabbed him.

"I translate, American!" said the man, waving the rifle for emphasis.

"We are not here for my government." Smith translated, and the armed man nodded.

"This woman is barren because of me."

Translation. Scully covered her face with shaking fingers.

Mulder's voice was utterly sincere. "Her child was killed because of me."

Translation. A question. "How was she made barren?"

"Doctors experimented on her."

Translation. Another question. "Why was she so cursed? Is she your woman?"

Without hesitation, Mulder replied, "She is my woman and I brought her here for," and his voice broke, "a miracle."

Smith translated.

Kalashnikov said something, very viciously, that Smith didn't need to translate. He raised his gun and pointed it at her, and Mulder yelled something incoherent.

There was an odd noise, and Scully felt nauseated. Dust fell on them.

"Earthquake," Smith said, his voice muffled by the hand on his throat. Mulder was beside Scully, and, helping her to her feet, ran with her outside with the others. Another jolt rocked them, just enough to make them sway, and the thunder-like noise came again. All around them, people were crying out. Not screaming; everyone was too frightened to scream.

There was a long moment of silence, broken only by the crackle of the fires, and Mulder's ragged breathing in her ear. Scully was suddenly aware that he had her hands in a numbing grip, and they were crouched in the dirt, surrounded by the armed men.

"Are you all right? They didn't hurt you?" he asked.

"No. Mulder, your hand..." he let her go, and stood up, holding his bleeding hand with the other one. He stood there, staring down the man with the Kalashnikov. She stood up, beside him.

Kalashnikov said something, and Smith cleared his throat, and translated. "Let her drink at the spring, and then leave this place." Smith shook his head, and motioned to the doorway.

Mulder pulled at her sleeve, and they went inside. "You'd better drink like a camel," he said, his tone at variance with his rigid expression.

She didn't need to be told twice. She knelt at the crack in the rock, and cupped her hands to drink. It was freezing cold. She felt as though all of her body was cramping, as if the icy water had penetrated her very veins.

When she finished, she realized that the tension had dropped radically. Kalashnikov had turned the muzzle of the gun to the ground, and looking at her, said something almost tenderly. She didn't need Smith to translate: "Drink your fill."

She lowered her head, and drank as much as she could, and then found Mulder beside her, cupping his good hand to drink. He scooped up some water and let it trickle over her head, as if in blessing. He looked into her eyes, his almost black, and guided her hands back into the water.

Then they left, under the gaze of the armed men, Mulder wrapping his wounded hand in his tunic shirttail. He and Smith went back to a fire. Scully felt vibrantly alive. Mulder let her wrap a scarf around his hand, and laid his head in her lap to sleep, while Smith sat beside them and tended the fire. Scully put her hand in Mulder's thick dusty hair, stroking it back from his forehead.

She hadn't dared to take a sample of the water, but she had soaked the ends of her scarf; maybe Danny could test it.

+++++++++++

"Scully!" Mulder said, in his sleep. His own voice woke him up. He opened his eyes, and seeing that she was all right, he smiled up at her in the firelight. "Wanna go to the bathroom?"

Her eyes welled up, and a large tear fell on Mulder's face. His expression didn't change, but he touched the wet spot on his cheek. "Cleanest I'll be for a while," he whispered.

++++++++++++

It was dawn, and they were back on the horrible old bus. Scully sat wedged in the seat-well, perched on the knapsacks on the floor, leaning against Mulder's knees. Smith sat sideways, his feet in the aisle. Kalashnikov had made Mulder swap his hiking boots for the man's worn Reeboks; Mulder's feet were the same large size.

They couldn't talk because they didn't want to draw any more attention to themselves. Smith said it would be two days riding. Mulder, with dried blood crusting on his left hand, stared out the grimy window at the sunrise, and didn't say a word for six hours. Every so often, at the edge of an uncomfortable sleep, Scully could feel Mulder's thumb stroking her wrist. She didn't want to sit where she could be seen out the window, so she stretched briefly in the aisle, before squeezing between the men.

That night, at the inn, Scully felt as though she was cramping in every muscle. Smith gave them his flashlight, and went to watch CNN on the satellite.

Mulder took the light, and he and Scully walked out along the road, hearing the strange mixture of sounds; a distant radio, tinny bells as cows at rest under the trees raised their heads; the sound of a stream tumbling over rocks, and overhead, the rustle of tree limbs.

"Look," Mulder said, turning off the flashlight. The sky was brilliant with stars. Mulder puffed his breaths out so he could see the vapor in the cold night air. "Let's go back before someone takes our bed." She couldn't read his face, but his tone was mild, as if they had crossed a continent to come out and look at these old stars. "The first astronomers were not far from here," he said, reading her mind. She could see the starlight reflected in his eyes.

When they went back to the little crossroads, it seemed a little less frightening and a little more like some of the rat-hole small towns they had visited in their own country. Scully wrapped herself in her cloak and veil and crawled back on the pallet next to the wall. Mulder lay down, facing the room, shielding her from the dim oil lights.

In the dead of night, Mulder rolled under their blanket and put a hand to her lips when she stirred. "We'll talk about this when we get back," he said in her ear. "I'm just being paranoid."

"I thought you were still angry," she said into his ear.

He shook his head, and then, suddenly, she felt his warm mouth on hers.

He was kissing her.

They were a day away from civilization, strange men had tried to kill them, her investigation had only uncovered a CIA surveillance of Islamic holy men, he had an untreated stab wound in his palm, and she had brought them there; and yet, Mulder was kissing her as if they had just gone to the beach for the weekend.

His mouth tasted of life, of hope, of the future.

A tear ran down her cheek into their joined mouths, and he immediately stopped, but only to gather her up against him and rub his unshaven face against her cheek. He smoothed the hair back from her face and laid his cheek against hers.

"You have three days to think up a report for Skinner," he said, again directly into her ear. "But I'm not testing the validity of the treatment until we're back in America."

Then he bit down, gently, on her earlobe.

The end


Notes: I don't want to hear anything about Uzbekistani Geography. This is just a New Year's confection. Melts in the mouth, not in the hand.
Thanks to MaybeAmanda, who made me write this and who beta'd it.
Also, thank you, Fran58, for hosting me and being such a cheerleader for me. This time, I want to acknowledge Gertie and Duchovny.net, for the scrumptious screen captures of Mulder.

The XFiles and all things X are the property of Chris Carter, 1013 Productions, and Fox Broadcasting.
Used without permission. No infringement intended.




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